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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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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