Take a hike for fitness, fun

Hikers explore the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Hikers explore the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Published Jan. 22, 2015

It took a backpacking trip to get Jim Burgasser back into running.

The 45-year-old St. Petersburg man had been a serious road racer but drifted away from the sport he loved after he started a family.

"You know how it goes … kids, work … they take up time," said Burgasser, a member of the Forerunners Track Club. "Next thing I knew I had been away from it for years."

Then Burgasser's father-in-law suggested the two of them do a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The historic footpath runs from Georgia to Maine through mountainous terrain, making it a challenge for flatlanders from Florida.

"It tests your strength and endurance," Burgasser said. "Carrying a heavy pack up and down the hills will work muscles you didn't know you have."

Burgasser came back from his first backpacking trip feeling fit and ready to tackle a new challenge. "That's when my wife suggested that I start running again," he recalled. "I followed her advice and haven't stopped since."

That was five years ago. Burgasser, son of legendary running coach Joe Burgasser, ran a 50K race in Clearwater last weekend.

"Running will get you in shape for backpacking," he said. "If you are a backpacker, you might consider starting on a running program because it will help you on the trail."

Most people in reasonable shape can power through one day on the trail. But the second and third days are hard if you haven't prepared.

"If you are hiking 10 miles a day with a full pack, it is like running 10 miles," he said. "So just look at it as part of your workout. You might be walking, and not running, but you are still burning the calories."

January is a great month for backpacking in Florida's state parks and forests. The nights are cool. The skies are clear, and you don't have to worry about mosquitoes or no-see-ums. It doesn't take much to get going. All you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. People hike in everything from lightweight, high-tech boots to old sneakers. Lightweight wool socks are worth the investment because they will help prevent blisters and last a long time. If you plan to do a multiday backpacking trip, spend the extra money for a pair of boots with a steel shank. The boots might feel heavy at first, but in the long run they are better for your feet.

The bay area and Florida boast lots of great places for day hikes you can customize to your own fitness level. Some favorites:

Warming up

Boyd Hill Nature Park is one of the true gems of St. Petersburg. The 2.1-mile trail traverses a variety of habitat, including floodplain forest, freshwater marsh and pine flatwoods. Boyd Hill has an educational nature center, so leave a half-hour for a self-guided tour.

Fort De Soto Park was voted "Best Beach" in the nation in 2005. But while this Pinellas County park has lots of blue water and sugar sand, don't miss the four hiking trails. Arrowhead Nature Trail, at the north end of the park, is a must. Pick up a free map at the ranger station to guide you through the natural communities.

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Explore all your options

Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin has a 2.5-mile nature trail that offers the best chance to see osprey nesting. The raptors love the 80-acre slash pine forest, a reminder of what the county must have looked like at the turn of the century.

Hillsborough River State Park, a half-hour north of Tampa, has one of the finest hiking trails in the state. Look for red-shouldered hawks in the sky above and otters in the river below as you hike along the banks of the Hillsborough. Be sure to take the "rapids" trail, a rare treat in a state that is as flat as a pancake.

J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco County has great mountain biking, horseback riding and camping in addition to 13 miles of hiking trails that traverse a variety of habitat. If time is an issue, walk the 1.6-mile nature trail, one of the best in our area.

Longer treks

The Florida Trail: More than 40 years ago, Miami resident Jim Kern returned from a trip on the Appalachian Trail and wondered why the Sunshine State didn't have its own long-distance hiking trail. Kern and some friends subsequently formed the Florida Trail Association and then set out to hike from Big Cypress National Preserve to Highland Hammock State Park. In 1966, volunteers from the new organization painted the first blaze on a tree at Clearwater Lake in Ocala National Forest. Eventually, the trail would stretch 1,400 miles. The path is well marked with orange blazes and signs. Side trails have blue blazes, and turns are marked with two blazes. Boardwalks guide backpackers through wet portions, and campsites are within easy walking distance of each other. In some areas, the trail is flat, but in others, it can be downright challenging.

• In northwest Florida, backpackers can work their legs, as the terrain is hilly. Check out hikes in Torreya State Park, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and the eastern and western sections of Apalachicola National Forest.

• Closer to home, the trail segments that run through the Richloam, Croom and Citrus tracts of Withlacoochee State Forest can keep an intrepid trail walker busy for years. With nearly 160,000 acres of wilderness to explore, Withlacoochee has hiking and backpacking trails that will challenge beginners as well as experts.

• In South Florida, Big Cypress National Preserve has one of the state's most challenging hikes. Encompassing more than 900 square miles of subtropical wilderness, Big Cypress is home to deer, black bear and the endangered Florida panther. The southernmost terminus of the Florida Trail, Big Cypress can be divided into three sections for backpackers and hikers.

For the really ambitious

Known as the "A.T." in hiking circles, the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail runs through 14 states. Completed in 1937, the A.T. is one of the most traveled walking routes in the country. In a typical year, 2,200 to 2,600 people try to hike the entire route and roughly half finish. Folks who go all the way are called "thru hikers," and it can take anywhere from five to six months to complete.

Be prepared

Check the weather report before you head out. Shorts and a T-shirt will be just fine on most Florida hikes, but carry a sweat shirt and poncho in your pack just in case the weather takes a turn.

Always tell a friend or relative where you're going and when you plan to be back. Check in at the ranger station or park office. Ask about trail conditions and any potential hazards. Do your research. Get a trail map and study your route before you set out.

Carry plenty of drinking water. Count on at least a gallon a day, and more in extreme heat.

Use common sense. Don't tease alligators. Don't pick up snakes. Don't feed raccoons.

Pack out what you pack in. As the saying goes, "Take only photographs, leave only footprints."

Contact Terry Tomalin at