This is a time of the year where we at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) celebrate what makes flip flop thru-hiking a great alternative to traditional northbound/southbound (NOBO/SOBO) thru-hikes. The ATC began heavily promoting flip flop thru-hikes three years ago in response to the increase of NOBO thru-hikers beginning on Springer Mountain in Georgia to help reduce the impacts that large crowds of thru-hikers have on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Since then, the number of flip flop thru-hikers have grown, leading to the popularity of different flip flop routes.
Flip flop thru-hikers have the opportunity to create unique, individualized routes while also providing an immense benefit to the A.T. by spreading out thru-hikers along the Trail to minimize environmental impacts. A flip flop thru-hiker can choose a route depending on many factors: the seasons they would like to experience along the Trail, the opportunity to begin on easier terrain and establish “Trail legs” before facing the harder climbs and, of course, plenty of time to complete their thru-hike at their own pace.
To get first-hand accounts and feedback on flip flop thru-hikes, we asked a group of 2016 flip floppers to tell us more about their experiences on the Trail and report the advantages and disadvantages of their flip flop thru-hikes.
Missing the "Bubble"
The “bubble” refers to the influx of NOBO thru-hikers that begin on Springer Mountain in Georgia who move along the Trail in a mass. Many flip floppers reported that missing the bubble of NOBOs was a great way to seek solitude and get away from crowded shelters.
“My very brief experience with over-crowded shelters — think of tent cities — when I passed through the northbound bubble was enough to convince me that being a part of that bubble would have been a major spoiler for me,” said “Homeward,” who began his flip flop thru-hike in Duncannon, Pennsylvania heading south to Springer Mountain on February 29 of last year.
While flip floppers reported that they appreciated the solitude on the A.T., they still had the chance to interact with NOBOs and SOBOs along the Trail and had the unique opportunity to experience hiking both north and south.
“I got to see some SOBOs twice, once when I was going north and then again in the south,” said “Last Chance.” “That was pretty cool.”
“I got to experience both the NOBO and SOBO trail culture, but also had time out of both bubbles,” “Fire” said. “Having relatively shorter distance goals was less overbearing and gave me more confidence that I could actually complete the thru-hike.”
Flip Floppers are True Thru-Hikers
One disadvantage that flip floppers frequently encountered along the Trail were NOBO/SOBO speculations of whether alternative thru-hikes were “true” thru-hikes. However, the ATC and flip floppers know that alternative thru-hikers are accomplished 2,000 milers and flip floppers were passionate about their justifications.
“People will say it's not a real thru-hike,” said “2Taps.” “If you walk the whole length of the Trail in one season, you are a thru-hiker. There is nothing wrong with breaking from the ‘traditional’ way to hike the Trail.”
The flip floppers we surveyed understood the importance of preserving the A.T. to share with everyone and appreciated their thru-hike routes and what a flip flop did for them.
“You are stepping out and hiking your own hike in a positive way,” said Jessica “Skootch” Eshleman. “If flip flopping helps you to continue your journey, then it is a viable option … with its own set of adventures.”
Go Your Own Pace
Many NOBO thru-hikers worry about finishing the A.T. before winter weather approaches. Flip flopping allows thru-hikers plenty of time to summit Katahdin before it closes on October 15 and obtain the required Baxter State Park A.T. Hiker Permit Card.
The majority of flip flop hikers said that their routes resulted in favorable weather conditions, with one stand-out being hiking under the autumn colors.
“[I] highly recommend [a flip flop] for the better weather, less crowds and fall colors,” Joe “Grey Blaze” Stidham said. “Also, there is no deadline for getting to Katahdin on time. You can go at your own pace.”
Flexibility was definitely an advantage that flip floppers pointed out regarding their routes. Charles “Bald Whistler” Shimer took a unique flip flop route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Damascus, VA; Pawling, NY to Katahdin, ME; Pawling, NY to Harpers Ferry, WV; Damascus, VA to Springer Mt., GA. His route allowed him to have a wide range of experiences.
“You can plan your hike to fit your schedule, desires and trail logistics,” he said. “Time hitting Damascus for Trail Days but hiking south, not north in the bubble; taking trains to or from the Trail at Harpers Ferry and Pawling; time being in New England for a family vacation!”
One flip flopper, “Sourpatch” even had the chance to do “side adventures” along her route. She participated in a “sasquatch hunt” in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, which may not have been possible on a one-way north to south thru-hike.
The One Thing Flip Floppers Missed
A great deal of flip floppers reported that they felt like they had missed out on the climactic finish atop Katahdin.
“I'm sorry that I didn't finish on Katahdin,” said “Pony.” “The day I was up there, I really saw what a unique, powerful and moving finish it really is.”
However, flip floppers also felt that the many benefits of their routes made their journeys just as special and wouldn’t have completed their thru-hike any other way.
“Sin Nombre” recognized the sentiment of finishing on Katahdin yet preferred his experience, completing his journey on Springer Mountain.
“The comparative quiet and solitude of the whole southbound half of my hike made it feel right and [that feeling is] still culminating,” he said. “Many NOBOs voiced that it would have been a disappointment to them, but it ended up being a great experience, a different kind of ending but certainly not disappointing.”
Flip Flopper Favorites
We asked flip flop thru-hikers about their favorite experiences along the A.T. and, unsurprisingly, many reported that Maine was their favorite section, specifically the 100 Mile Wilderness area.
The White Mountains in New Hampshire also held special memories for some flip floppers, especially when experienced with new Trail companions.
“The relationships that were built and maintained on the northbound leg were memorable,” said James “Gourmet” Myers. “The experience of conquering the Whites with several dozen of my best friends that I had only recently met was something I will always cherish.”
Besides the friendships built, flip floppers enjoyed the beauty of the Trail in a variety of ways, whether it was in Maine, the numerous lookouts along the A.T. where one could see for miles or the best spots for a sunrise or sunset.
“I got work for stay at Lakes of the Clouds [in New Hampshire] in July, and watched an incredible sunset with my Trail family from behind the Hut,” said Joe “Guru” Reynolds. “The weather was perfect and I took some of my favorite pictures on the whole Trail that evening.”
Benefitting the Trail and the Thru-Hiker
Whether it’s the schedule flexibility, minimizing Trail impact by avoiding crowds or creating a route on your own terms, a thru-hiker and the A.T. can greatly benefit from a flip flop thru-hike.
More and more thru-hikers are hiking the Trail each year: the ATC estimates that there will be around a 20 percent increase in the number of attempted thru-hikes in 2017 over 2016. While we celebrate more people getting outside and experiencing the beauty of the Trail, we also encourage flip flop thru-hikes as a great way to reduce the impact on the Trail and ensure a high-quality hiking experience.
“I absolutely recommend flip flop hiking,” said “Sin Nombre.” “After hearing stories from NOBOs who started in March, I can't imagine dealing with the crowds and related issues common at that end of the Trail in spring. And having seen how brutal Maine is, I seriously question if I would have made it as a SOBO thru-hiker. Flip flop hiking provided the traditions and camaraderie of a NOBO hike with the quiet solitude hikers of yesteryear reminisce about. While I did have to hike northern Virginia in the heat of August, I also dodged the cold of spring and early winter that non-flip floppers must face. I got my Trail legs in the mild mid-Atlantic, built experience and confidence in New England and then reunited in the south with an unlikely Trail family of flip floppers, finally experiencing all the places our NOBO friends had told us about with the confidence that we could handle whatever got thrown at us. It was a perfect mixture of experiences. I can't imagine doing my thru-hike any other way.”
If you would like to learn more about flip flop thru-hiking and thru-hiker basics, the Flip Flop Festival this weekend — April 22-23 — in Harpers Ferry, WV will have hiker workshops, expert advice, activities and more! Celebrate the Trail with A.T. Communities™ Harpers Ferry and Bolivar! Check out www.appalachiantrail.org/FlipFlop for a full schedule of events.
Special thanks to all the 2016 flip floppers that contributed feedback to the ATC!
Flip floppers mentioned in the article:
- “Homeward,” Route: Duncannon, PA to Springer Mt., GA/Duncannon, PA to Katahdin, ME. Start: 2/29/16, End: 8/30/16
- Charles “Bald Whistler” Shimer, Route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Damascus, VA/Pawling, NY to Katahdin, ME/Pawling, NY to Harpers Ferry, WV/Damascus, VA to Springer Mt., GA. Start: 3/26/16, End: 11/18/16
- “Sin Nombre,” Route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Katahdin, ME/Harpers Ferry, WV to Springer Mt., GA. Start: 5/8/16, End: 10/25/16
- “Last Chance,” Route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Katahdin, ME/Hampton, TN to Springer Mt., GA/Hampton, TN to Harpers Ferry, WV. Start: 5/26/15, End: 5/3/16
- Joe “Guru” Reynolds, Route: Springer Mt., GA to Harpers Ferry, WV/Katahdin, ME to Harpers Ferry, WV. Start: 5/3/16, End: 10/1/16
- Joe “Grey Blaze” Stidham, Route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Katahdin, ME/Harpers Ferry, WV to Springer Mt., GA. Start: 4/24/16, End: 10/27/16
- “Sourpatch,” Route: Harpers Ferry, WV to Springer Mt., GA/Katahdin, ME to Harpers Ferry, WV. Start: 6/12/16, End: 11/19/16
- “Fire,” Route: Duncannon, PA to Katahdin, ME/Duncannon, PA to Springer Mt., GA. Start: 6/1/16, End: 11/8/16
- “Pony,” Route: Springer Mt, GA to Killington, VT/Katahdin, ME to Killington, VT. Start: 3/13/16, End: 9/22/16
- Jessica “Skootch” Eshleman, Route: Springer Mt., GA to Apple Orchard Falls Trail crossing, VA/Katahdin to Apple Orchard Falls Trail crossing, VA. Start: 3/20/16, End: 12/11/16
- “2Taps,” Route: Springer Mt., GA to Buena Vista VA/Katahdin to Buena Vista, VA. Start: 6/5/16, End: 10/30/16