5 Reasons Why I Chose to Flip-Flop the Appalachian Trail

Most of my fellow Trek bloggers have either begun their NOBOs or are fixing to start soon. Meanwhile, I’m still at home, months away from my start date. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed about not being out there with everyone else, but I’m certain of my current course of action. NOBO and SOBO are cool and all, but the flip flop has always been my Plan A.

I have had to explain what the hell a flip flop (FF) hike is dozens of times now, so I might as well explain it one more time. FF hikes are no different in end product from traditional thru-hikes: you’re completing all 2,000 miles within a single year. All that’s different is the order of operations. The flip-flopper will begin their hike somewhere in the middle and head to Katahdin or Springer. After reaching one endpoint, they will return to the midpoint and finish the trail in the other direction. The most common variation of this (which is also the route I’m taking) starts at Harper’s Ferry, hikes north to Katahdin, returns to Harper’s Ferry, and finishes by hiking south to Springer.

I know it sounds weird, but trust me, I chose the flip flop for a number of reasons. It’s a time-honored tradition that there has to be a new “Why Chose The Flip Flop?” article every year, and I am proud to carry the torch for 2021. So while my reasoning isn’t new, per se, here are the five reasons why I’ll be flip-flopping in 2021. I’ll try to keep it brief.

1. Smaller Crowds

This is probably the most-cited reason for flip-flopping. You’re beating the NOBO bubble for the first half, and the second half will be sparse anyway. Two graphs, courtesy of the ATC, tell all the difference.

Here are all the current NOBO registrations at peak season:

The red line represents critical capacity of AT campsites.

And here’s all the FF registrations at their peak:

I don’t know how much of a party the NOBO bubble actually is, but either way, I want to have some space. My personal relationship with the outdoors has always been built on opportunities for introspection; avoiding the crowds always helps with this. Fortunately, there will be enough people on trail that I won’t feel completely alone.

2. Less Environmental Impact

The graphs, once again, tell the story here. The NOBO bubble gets bigger every year and the trail is feeling it. Campsites are overcrowded, the ground is getting eroded faster, and litter is being left behind. Flip-flopping mitigates the strain by thinning out the crowd impact. The ATC even points out that thinning the crowds is better for trail towns:

In addition to overcrowded shelters, congested privies, and a taxed footpath, the hiker “bubble” also can strain the resources in local communities.

Jeff Taussig, owner of the Green Mountain Hiker Hostel in Manchester, VT, and creator of the A.T. Passport, said the summers in New England can be very busy, causing his and other businesses to have to turn hikers away because they reach maximum capacity.

“But flip-flop hikers reach us earlier in the season, and that’s a great situation as a business owner. When you catch a service provider fresh, we tend to go the extra mile,” Taussig said with a laugh.

3. No Rush to Start (or Finish)

This one was a huge reason for me. I still suffer from intermittent pain and limping since my ankle injury in November and I have no idea how my body will handle the trail. The flip flop allows me to delay my start to May to give myself more time to recover. Nevertheless, no amount of planning or training can 

On the flip side, this means I can slow down and appreciate my surroundings if I want to! Even at an extraordinarily slower-than-average pace, I’ll have plenty of time to reach Katahdin before the October 15th deadline, and I can mosey down the southern half at my leisure. I can even take a break between the two legs if my body needs it. Who needs pressure to finish when you already have 20+ literal pounds of force on your shoulders.

4. Better weather!

It’s hard to argue with the timing a flip flop will give you with this one. I’ll start in the Mid-Atlantic while it’s warm but not too hot, reach New England as it’s warming up, and hit the southern Appalachians as the temperature drops and leaves turn. Hard to argue with a good autumn view in the hills.

This has the added bonus of less weight on the pack. No need for winter gear or thick clothes! Virginia in the summer will suck, but as a lifelong southerner, hot and humid isn’t anything I can’t handle. Pleasant weather is really good on the brain, too, and I’ll need all the mental willpower I can get to walk every damn day. 

5. Why not go against tradition?

Primus said it best. To defy the laws of tradition is a crusade only of the brave. There’s value in being different for the sake of being different. I think the number of purists who don’t recognize flip flops as true thru-hikes is small and dwindling, but even if they weren’t, who cares? I wanna go against the grain.

Anyway, if you’re mulling a thru-hike of the AT, I think flip-flopping is worthy of your consideration. The ATC is all for it, lots of people have done it, and, most importantly, it has my endorsement.

Other than that, if you’re already on trail or about to start at Springer, perhaps we will cross paths somewhere between Maryland and Maine. Otherwise, I hope you’ll keep following me as I prepare for and eventually begin my 2021 Flip Flop of the Appalachian Trail.

Cover Photo: Pete unseth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Graphs courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Other photos by me.

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Comments 9

  • Avatar
    Tricia : Mar 12th

    I’m doing a flip flop because I wanted to avoid the crowds too. Not too far in though, hopefully I miss most people. It was a tough decision. Missing the MC shakedown tradition is something I probably could have used. I’m too excited to wait to start so weather be damned I’m leaving today. Good luck!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Austin Hays : Mar 12th

      Likewise!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Nathan Hall : Mar 12th

    The flip-flop also gives you a nice break to resupply. And who doesn’t like visiting Harper’s Ferry?

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Lyla H : Mar 12th

    These are all great reasons! Really smart to give yourself extra time to heal first too!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    pearwood : Mar 12th

    Thanks, Austin.
    I’ve been planning starting February 2022 NOBO to get ahead of the bubble (and letting it pass me as I mosey along). I chose that _because_ of the tradition. But, for the rest, you make a lot of good points. I’ll have to think more about this.
    Blessings,
    Steve / pearwood

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Shannon : Mar 13th

    Great post! I admire how thoughtful you are with your reasons for doing a flip-flop. You’re definitely doing the trail a service by “going against the grain” and I think you will benefit as well from that added peace and solace especially with the AT getting more and more popular each year! I had always considered doing the traditional NOBO but have recently given serious consideration to a flip-flop especially since I don’t live far from the trail in Maryland. I really have no excuse to you and all your reasons are very appealing to me and make a ton of sense. I look forward to following your journey and will try to leave you some trail magic when you pass through my neck of the woods. Happy trails! 🙂

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Harold A Reynolds : Mar 13th

    I too have chosen the same flip/flop for same reasons . Also my age and med/phys issues. I plan to start April 25.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Stoic : Mar 15th

    Great post! I also plan on flipping but not flopping (or is it flopping and not flipping?). I want to do Harper’s Ferry to Maine and then Georgia to Harper’s Ferry (so always NOBO). I think another advantage of a flip/flop hike may be a fresher body and enthusiasm when in the Whites and Maine. Time will tell.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    TBR : Mar 19th

    Flip-flop, it just makes sense, and it is the responsible thing to do.

    I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the impact of heavy crowds, moving together, along the trail, and the stories I read here of trash left along the trail and of irresponsible, uh, personal hygiene give encouragement to Plan B — start somewhere else and avoid the messy herd.

    Reply

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