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Thru-hiking: Become a trekkie

By TERRY TOMALIN

Times Outdoors/Fitness Editor

In 1988, I quit my job as a reporter and set off to hike across New Zealand and Australia. After a week on the trail with a 50-pound pack, I stopped at a post office and mailed home some of my gear.

A couple of weeks later, my back still hurt, so I dumped another 5 pounds of equipment at a backpacker's hostel. It would take me two or three more weeks to finally whittle my sack down to a manageable 34 pounds.

"I wish somebody had told me," I remember thinking. "I would have saved myself pain and money."

February is traditionally the month when Florida hikers make their summer travel plans. While the Sunshine State has its share of good trails, many Floridians head for Georgia or the Carolinas to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Richard Smith, a local long-distance hiking guru, has coached his share of backpackers looking to log mileage on the nation's wilderness trails.

The most common mistake first-time hikers make on the Appalachian Trail or the closer-to-home Florida hikes, is that they carry too much gear, Smith said.

"It is something you can't teach — how much stuff you really don't need," he said. "The lighter your pack, the better off you will be."

If you travel light, you are a happy hiker. If you travel heavy, you are a happy camper.

The A.T.

The Appalachian Trail, commonly known as the "A.T." in hiking circles, is a 2,181-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. This trail, which runs through 14 eastern states, was completed in 1937 and became America's first National Scenic Trail.

Roughly 2,500 people start the hike each year, making it one of the most well-traveled trails in the country, but only half actually finish its full length from Maine's Mount Katahdin to Georgia's Springer Mountain. Folks who go all the way are called "thru hikers."

If you are thinking about putting this on your bucket list, set aside five to six months to complete it.

Once you have knocked off the A.T., try the Continental Divide Trail, 3,100 miles along the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada, and the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,663 miles from Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington to Canada.

Finish all three treks and you will earn the coveted Triple Crown of long-distance hiking.

Getting started

Before you set off on your 1,000-mile journey, start with a day hike on one of our local trails. Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, one of the true gems of the city of St. Petersburg, has a 2.1-mile trail that covers a variety of habitat, including floodplain forest, freshwater marsh and pine flatwoods.

If you are looking for an ocean walk, check out Fort De Soto Park. This Pinellas County park has lots of blue water and sugar sand, of course, but don't miss the four trails.

On the east side of the bay, Hillsborough River State Park, just a half-hour north of Tampa, has one of the finest trails in the state. Look for red-shouldered hawks in the sky and otters in the river as you hike along the banks of the Hillsborough. Take the "rapids" trail, a rare treat in a state that is flat as a pancake.

Treat your feet right

A good pair of light hiking boots are worth the investment. Boots made of nylon are lighter than those made of leather. But leather is more durable and actually cooler because it breathes and allows perspiration and heat to escape. Expect to pay at least $150. This may sound pricey, but a good pair of boots can last for years.

So what do you wear underneath your boots? Anything but cotton socks, which soak up perspiration and lead to blisters. Socks made of wool or synthetic materials help transfer moisture and keep your feet dry and blister-free. Quality socks cost $17 to $22 a pair, but again, they will last several hiking seasons.

Before you hit the trail, wear your new boots around town for a few days. You might look like a kook, but it beats getting a blister.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at ttomalin@tampabay.com

. Fast facts

Hiking clinics

Richard Smith, a Seminole resident who has hiked the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, will offer thru-hiker clinics at the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park this weekend and next. From 6:30 to 8:30 tonight and Feb. 17, the clinic will focus on hiking. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 18, the focus will be on gear. Tonight's clinic is at capacity. RSVP for the other clinics at (727) 576-4169.

Local starter trails

• Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, St. Petersburg, 2.1 miles

• Fort De Soto Park, Tierra Verde, more than 8 miles total

• Hillsborough River State Park, Thonotasassa, 7.3 miles

• Brooker Creek Preserve, Tarpon Springs, 5 miles total

Moving up in mileage

The Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts in the Withlacoochee State Forest have longer trails that are part of the Florida Trail system. Visit floridatrail.org.

Thru-hiking: Become a trekkie 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 5:34pm]
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