Hillsborough hiker shares deep appreciation for nature, how he heard the great outdoors calling, and a list of essential trekking provisions

Lenny Chew was born in Gainesville, but luckily for him, he's lived in Hillsborough County for the last 35 years. Residing on the west coast of Florida has enabled him to trek countless miles in his favorite local area, the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. After 30 years as an insurance consultant, Chew is now retried and has more time to do what he loves most - hiking and sharing his passion for the outdoors with other nature enthusiasts.

Hiking and biking

Chew regularly took his family hiking and biking when his three daughters were young. The 7-mile paved loop in Flatwoods Conservation Park was always a favorite for cycling - it's flat, smooth, and partially shaded. The path is one of the more popular portions of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve (LHWP).

The LHWP is the largest contiguous recreation area in Hillsborough County. The primary purpose behind its creation is water storage and flood detention. However, the benefits to residents have vast recreational and environmental advantages.

Within the LHWP are park sites managed by Hillsborough County's Conservation & Environmental Lands Management Department: Flatwoods Conservation Park, Dead River Conservation Park, John B. Sargeant Park, Morris Bridge Conservation Park, and Trout Creek Conservation Park.

Though Chew doesn't bike as often as he used to, he still spends as much time as possible in nature. Solo hiking is his preferred way to enjoy the outdoors and hit the trails. Ideally, Chew tackles 10 to 15 miles at a time. He discovered his deep appreciation for Hillsborough's scenic parks and preserves - and the peace and contentment they provide -- during his professional years.

"I noticed years ago when I was working fulltime that after a stressful day, I could come out here and it would pull the plug on the stress," Chew said. "I think it's proven that nature is a wonderful therapy for stress and physical fitness."

Nature: Healthy for the mind, body, and spirit

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that Chew recognized how vital hiking and being outdoors were to his mental and physical wellbeing. After feeling the effects of the lockdown, Chew made a conscious effort to get himself and his hiking friends out of the house and into the wilds as often as possible.

Simply put, time spent exploring trails and basking in the serene woods made Chew feel better. The profoundly positive effects hiking had on him inspired him to share his hobby with others. He became more involved with a local hiking group and stepped up his commitment to the Hillsborough County Hiking Spree. Chew hasn't missed the annual spree's kick-off hike since it was launched in 2016. In fact, he helped organize the first Hiking Spree and continues to enthusiastically promote it.

Chew's love of hiking is proving to be contagious. Many newbie hikers who were introduced to the great outdoors through the Hiking Spree have progressed to become avid trekkers.

"We have a lot of people in our group that came from the Hiking Spree that have graduated and developed into longer distance hikers, which brings great personal satisfaction. You know, take someone who is scared to go off into the woods, next thing you know, we're going 10 miles with them in dense forest," Chew said. After a moment of reflection, he smiled and followed with, "Well not 'next thing,' but over time."

Trekking essentials

When Chew sets out on a longer hike, he always does so with safety and preparedness in mind. He makes sure he lets someone know where he is headed and when he anticipates returning. He also packs essential items that may be needed on his adventure.

Number one on his supplies list is plenty of water. Because Florida's high humidity and boiling temperatures can quickly dehydrate a person, having sufficient water is crucial. Being prepared can mean the difference between a happy hike and heat exhaustion, or worse - heat stroke or even death.

Other items that may come in handy include emergency matches, compass, pocketknife, cellphone battery charger, rain gear or poncho, first aid kit, toilet paper, snacks, and a whistle. Chew also takes a head lamp if there's a chance he may be out toward dusk. Once the sun sets, the thick woods can get dark quicker than one realizes.

For shorter walks, the above items are not always necessary. However, bringing plenty of water is a must. In addition to stressing the need for adequate hydration, Chew also advises beginner hikers to focus on enjoying nature and the journey. For Chew, it's simple: "Get outside, take it one step at a time."

If you're up for a challenge, the 2023-2024 Hiking Spree runs through March 31, 2024. This year's Hiking Spree features new trails, new merchandise, and limited-edition rewards. Two trails in Flatwoods Conservation Park are featured in this year's spree. Visit Hillsborough Hiking Spree to see the trail list and discover a new path.

Photo Information: Chew discovered his deep appreciation for Hillsborough's scenic parks and preserves during his professional years.