10 Reasons You’ll Love a Flip Flop Thru Hike

There are three types of thru hike routes on the AT– NOBO: Starting in Georgia and heading northbound to Maine, SOBO: starting in Maine and heading southbound to Georgia, and Flip-flopping: starting somewhere in the middle and heading one way then the next.

I’m a flip-flopper. I started in central Virginia in early May, hiked north to Katahdin, flipped back to Virginia and hiked south to Georgia. Looking back, this was instrumental to my completing the trail.

Here are ten reasons to consider the route less traveled.

1. You’ll reduce your impact. Thousands of hikers gather at Springer Mountain every March. By the sea of tents, you’d think it were Everest Base Camp. There’s a reason most backcountry trails limit groups to less than ten people- it’s hard on the landscape. Having so many hikers beginning at once leads to trampling of vegetation and erosion from overuse, even when people are doing their best to leave no trace. The ATC Conservancy is working on several strategies to spread out hiker impact – flip-flopping is one excellent option. Me? I arrived at Springer Mountain on a drizzly November night, had the shelter to myself and a solo summit the next day.

Appalachian Trail Springer Mountain
2. You’ll skip the bear drama.
 When you experience the southernmost part of the AT in the fall, you’re less likely to have bear trouble. The bears seem to know it’s hunting season. I saw plenty of hunters with dogs, each straining on their leashes to chase bears, and I saw lost bear dogs in the woods, but I didn’t need to worry about hungry bears attempting to grab my food bag. I only saw one bear in Georgia, and he ran away as soon as he saw me. Note: I still used all available bear cables and took precautions to secure my food and keep it safe each night.

Hunter with bear dogs

Excited bear dogs ready for hunting.

3. You’ll easily hike your own hike. If you go into the trail thinking you need to perform at a certain pace, then flip-flopping will help you let go of that. By taking the route less traveled, you can build your trail legs without trying to keep up with the pack. Simply let the hikers you meet continue by, while you figure out your own way.

4. You’ll meet more people. Flip-flopping enabled me to meet about half of my thru hiker class: NOBOS,  SOBOS, and fellow flip-floppers. In the beginning, I met a different group in camp each night. Somewhere in Northern Virginia, I began to keep pace with the bubble, getting to know a core group. I met an entirely new group when I took a week off the trail with my husband. I loved the variety of hikers at shelters and camping sites. Once I got to the quieter southbound section in the fall, I was happy to travel with two other hikers and we became a hiking family for a few weeks.  Many options abound for the flip flopper.

5. You’ll be surrounded by serious hikers. Quality over quantity. You might not meet the hordes who began in March, but the people you do meet are in it for the long haul. They’ve already got 500-1000 miles under their belts, and plenty of great stories to share.

6. You’ll savor beautiful weather. If you’re NOBO in early spring, then you could be hiking through severe weather in Georgia and the Smokies, with temps dipping into the single digits. However if you start in true spring a month or two later, you’ll be fresh on the trail just as the green leaves and pink flowers begin to burst forth. Excuse me while I dream of blooming azaleas and lady slippers…

Spring on the AT

7. You’ll enjoy an easier start, and be able to take your time. When you start mid-trail, you start on easier terrain. The days will be longer and the trail will be smoother. You can either spend more time hiking or more time resting in camp. On short mile days, you’ll arrive at camp in balmy spring weather rather than huddled in your sleeping bag trying not to freeze to death. If you’re a hiker like me who likes to stop to smell the roses, a flip flop will allow you to time to stretch out your journey to soak in the trail towns and go slowly enough to fully experience the beauty of the trail, rather than putting your head down and slogging through to reach Maine before the weather turns. 

8. You’ll avoid disease. You’ve heard the horror stories, right? Norovirus outbreaks, projectile vomiting, explosive diarrhea. I didn’t have any of that. Flip flopping spared me from being packed with the masses into close quarters at shelters and hostels in Georgia and North Carolina. Imagine your hike right now without ever getting sick.

9. You’ll hike through fall in southern Virginia and the Smokies. The beautifully remote Smokies are spectacular in October. And you’ll be in fantastic condition to enjoy them fully. While you may have some freezing nights and snow, early fall is generally milder than early spring and you’ll be more likely to enjoy some gorgeous warm afternoons. And if the weather is cold or challenging, you’ll have much more ability to go quickly with 20 mile days, hiking either to stay warm or to outrun the storms.

Fall on the Appalachian Trail

10. You’ll celebrate your own milestones. I understand the desire to have the last thing you see be that big sign atop Katahdin. I wondered about this myself.  But I found that even if the mile markers I passed were not equivalent to my accumulated mileage at the time, they offered the same thrill. No matter when you reach it, Katahdin is a tremendous accomplishment and you’ll treasure your Katahdin pic and share it with everyone you know. Each state crossing was just as important to me even if it didn’t occur in the same order as most hikers.  And you can always create your own milestone pics as needed, like we did at our 2000 mile mark on our way out of the Smokies.

2000 miles

How you choose to plan your hike is entirely up to you, of course. All the choices are great ones. However, if you have an independent spirit, don’t care much for freezing weather, and prefer to take your time and not rush, consider the flip-flop – it’s a fantastic option both for your success and for the health of the Appalachian Trail.


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Comments 32

  • George Turner : Sep 25th

    I’m planning to flip flop too. Marion, Va to Katahdin; then Marion to Springer. I read that an astounding 57% of flip flippers finish. I should be able to get to Katahdin with the faster north bounders and Springer with the faster southbounders!

    • Carla Robertson : Sep 25th

      This is really similar to my hike, George. I started just a bit north of Marion – McAfee Knob which is near Roanoke. My thinking was that I would have an iconic photo – on McAfee Knob – for my first day, since I wasn’t beginning at Springer or Katahdin. I think flip-flopping is a marvelous way to hike the AT and wish you the best of luck!

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 27th

      And the beauty of a flip flop is that if you don’t want to go fast, you don’t have to!

    • Gary Stell : Dec 31st

      I’m also planning a flip flop. Starting NoBo from Harpers Ferry. Looking forward to the area north of there in the spring. And while I’d love to be in Vermont and New Hampshire in the fall, I’ll settle gladly for The Smokies and the southland mountains for my fall trek!

      • Carla Robertson : Jan 2nd

        Cool, Gary! The AT is beautiful in most sections in most seasons so I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Best wishes as you plan your hike!

  • Laurie Potteiger : Sep 30th

    This is a terrific article, Carla, with great photos to illustrate! I hope a lot of future thru-hikers will read it.

    George, wonderful to hear that you are planning a flip-flop!

    A flip-flop can offer a number of advantages, some of which become even more compelling as the number of northbound thru-hikers increases.

    However, that statistic you are quoting, George, about the success rate somewhere along the way got misrepresented. The 57% is the number photographed in Harpers Ferry that reported finishing one year, not the number of starters who finished. Prior to 2015, most flip-floppers photographed in Harpers Ferry were flip-floppers who started in Georgia and flipped from Harpers Ferry. Quite a few presumably dropped out between Georgia and Harpers Ferry; most probably started out as northbounders.

    Flip-floppers are very difficult to track, for a variety of reasons. We’ll know more about the Class of 2015, but we won’t know their success rate until the middle of next year.

    We look forward to meeting you at ATC in Harpers Ferry next year, if not before!

    Laurie Potteiger
    Appalachian Trail Conservancy

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 4th

      Thanks for this insight, Laurie!

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 27th

      Thanks so much, Laurie, and thanks for all you do at the ATC!

  • Victoria Rogers Elliott : Oct 2nd


    Love your article! Unwittingly, you answered many of my questions about doing a flip flop. I had been wanting to connect to talk to you about your journey and, in perfect timing, you publish your article! Thank you!

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 4th

      So glad you enjoyed, Victoria! And happy to talk further about it!

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 27th

      So glad you enjoyed, Victoria – and looking forward to continuing the conversation at Wild and White Blazing!

  • Roger Edington : Oct 7th

    This makes a lot of sense to me!

    • Carla Robertson : Oct 27th

      So glad this was helpful, Roger!

  • Anne "Nubbins" Brown : Dec 11th

    Great article, Zipper. I did a flip-flop in 2014: Pearisburg, VA, to Katahdin, and Pearisburg to Springer. It turned out to be just the right plan for all the reasons you cite. I began on my 69th birthday (April 5) to celebrate my 70th year, and I wanted the flexibility to take a bit longer if necessary. I never had to contend with overcrowded campsites, met many wonderful people (I recorded some 450 trail names in my journal), missed the worst of the bugs, had less of the “green tunnel” (no leaves in April and Oct-Nov), and had one of the best experiences of my life. A post-hike highlight was speaking at last year’s ATC Flip-Flop Kick-Off.

    • Bob : Dec 17th

      If I had my druthers to flip-flop in my later years, and that would be at the age of 72 and class of 2032 I’d probably use McAfee Knob as my starting point to go north, and either come back to McAfee to go southbound, or start at Springer and end at McAfee to keep pointing north in the walk. Be interesting to see if anyone else has done this as a kickoff spot. I ended my summer hike of ’77 there, and continued north in ’78.

      • Carla Robertson : Dec 18th

        Bob! McAfee Knob was my start spot! It even says so on my 2000 miler certificate! So my first day of my thru included a gorgeous pic on McAfee Knob, and then when I flipped back at the end of September, my first day back in Virginia was the Dragon’s Tooth. And having come from Katahdin just days before, Dragon’s tooth was no big deal at all. As Buffalo, a SOBO I met and hiked with for a few days said, I still had my “Maine legs”.

    • Carla Robertson : Dec 18th

      Awesome, Anne! I hope to make it to an AT flip flop kickoff one of these days. Sounds like you had a fabulous hike!

    • Karen : Jan 9th

      You are an inspiration….all of you who take on this adventure. I’ve wanted to do the AT for a long time but the years are passing and I haven’t made it happen yet. Now I’m almost 64 and feel like the window of opportunity is slowly closing. My husband won’t be able to do the hike with me and I hesitate to do it alone and leave him alone. I was considering me hiking and him taking our camper along so that in a way we could do it together. Wondering if there is anyone who has done something similar to that. Would appreciate any feedback on this idea. Thank you.

      • Carla Robertson : Jan 9th

        There are so many ways to do this and having a support person with a camper is certainly one of them! Take your time and go out and do even small hikes – it is worth it. There are 80 year old twin women who just completed the trail so it is never too late! The nice thing about the AT is that you can adjust your logistics as you go as you’re never too far from a road or town, so you can regroup and make fresh plans as needed. Wishing you the best!

      • Becky K : Dec 20th

        This is my plan! Start at Harper’s Ferry and go north then back to HF and go south. Or MAYBE go from Mane to Georgia and end at HF. Haven’t found anyone that’s done this. I want to avoid snow and cold at all costs. Haha!

        came to say, we have a Skoolie we live in and my husband and son will be driving and going to each town. Helps me avoid the costs of hotels or hostels and cost of showers and also avoids me being away from them for 5-6 months!

  • Ruth Morley : Aug 19th

    Carla, your article made me completely change my mind about how to do the AT. I’m planning way ahead to 2018, since I’ve spent 2016 healing up a sports injury and getting healthy again, and will do some other family travels planned for 2017. Part of my emotional healing has been exploring the AT via internet, books and speaking with through-hikers I know. I had been sure that only a NOBO route would do for me, probably because of all the exciting finish photos in Maine that I had seen. But your ideas are very convincing. One reason I’m going to do the AT is because of my love of being in nature on my own. It sounds like NOBO is the complete opposite of this. I also like the idea that I can get my trail legs up and “running” in less rugged conditions, and can experience the Smokies in the fall.

    In fact, I now realize that I have already done something similar in the past. Over the course of 3 summers while we lived in France, I solo hiked the entire GR5 trail, which runs from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, 1500 miles through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France. I actually did the hardest part first, SOBO in the Alps, in southern France, the first summer; then the medium hard portion SOBO in northern France; and finished the third year NOBO from Luxembourg up to Holland. I HEARTILY recommend this trail, but I’d suggest doing it all SOBO. This leapfrog version worked for me because I thought I’d only do the lower third (the most beautiful), but then kept adding on more portions as time allowed.

    You’ve convinced me. Flip flop it will be for me. Watch for me on Appalachiantrials.com in 2018. Unless our son and his new wife have a new life to welcome to the world at that time. In that case, all bets are off.

    • Carla Robertson : Aug 21st

      Hi Ruth!
      I’m so glad this article resonated for you – I believe that more flip flopping will really help with impact on the trail and I loved my flip flop thru so much! The GR5 trail sounds incredible and I wish you all the best as you prepare for your upcoming AT hike!

  • Laurel : Oct 25th

    I am very interested in doing a flip flop next year starting in Harpers Ferry. What mode of transportation do most people use to get from Katahdin back to their starting point? I would like to conserve money but also not waste much time. Thank you for your insight!

    • Carla Robertson : Dec 12th

      Hi Laurel! Sorry for the delay! I got a plane ticket and flew back to the town where I have friends (Charlottesville, VA) near my starting point. I didn’t buy the ticket ahead of time because I didn’t want to worry about making any kind of deadline in Maine, so I bought it the day before I left, on the morning after I finished my thru. So I summited Katahdin, got picked up by the amazing folks at the Millinocket AT hostel that afternoon, and the next day at breakfast I used their computers to get a plane ticket for the following day. After breakfast I caught the bus to Portland and stayed overnight at a hotel there, then flew out the following day. There are many ways to do this though – you can take a bus, rent a car, get a ride from family or friends, or whatever you like. Flying wasn’t the cheapest but it was what worked best for me at the time. Then after a few days with my friends regrouping and adding some cold weather gear, I took a bus from Charlottesville to Roanoke, and a taxi back to the trail.

  • Rachel Hensley : Jun 28th

    I’m heading out with a few friends on the AT for 3 days of hiking it’s a first for all of us. We will be starting at Harpers ferry what is the best route to go for only a 3 day hike. Any suggestions for us first timers?

    • Carla Robertson : Jun 28th

      Hi Rachel – there’s pretty trail both north and south of Harper’s Ferry. If you go north you’ll be in Maryland and I think the trail in MD is lovely and sometimes it’s wide enough for two to walk side by side along old roads. If you go southbound, there’s the Blackburn Trail Center and a great hostel called the Bear’s Den – about 10 and 20 miles south of Harper’s Ferry if I remember correctly. One thing I would encourage you to do is plan for fewer miles than you think you can do, especially if you haven’t backpacked much – so Bear’s Den might be too far for three days depending on your fitness and comfort level, or it may be perfect if you’re in great shape and really want to move. Backpacking is way slower than walking or day hiking on flat land, so consider shorter mile days if you or anyone in your group might benefit from a slower pace. There are maps and guidebooks and apps you can use to get a better sense of where to stop and camp and what the elevation profile looks like. Have fun and enjoy!

  • Clark : Apr 1st

    Hi Carla, I have heard that the southbound part of the flip flop can be lonely. Did you experience that?

    • Carla Robertson : Jun 3rd

      Hi Clark,
      The southbound section was definitely much quieter. I hiked 1/3 of the trail SOBO and once I was on that part of my hike I was much more willing to hang out with any other SOBO hiker I met because it was so much quieter. I ended up hiking a few weeks with two SOBO guys – the first time I really experienced the Trail Family effect, and I was very grateful for that during this portion of my hike. I hiked from Franklin south completely alone and didn’t see another thru hiker for that whole section as they were behind me. I camped alone a lot and occasionally there were folks out for a section or a weekend. I was at Neels Gap hostel alone, at Gooch Gap alone, and I spent the night at Springer Mountain Shelter alone, and summited alone the next day. For me, it was all ok doing it this way and it gave me extra contemplative time in the final days of my hike.

  • gary parady : Jul 18th

    I was planning on a three section hike of the A T starting this May 2019. I want to finish in Maine and probably make that section a little shorter mileage wise because of my age (70 now). Any suggestions are most welcome!


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