6 Reasons a Flip-Flop Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail Is the Right Way To Go

This is a guest post by Richard “Crossword” Guenther.

Let me start with a little background. I retired in February 2020 with the intention of doing a thru-hike that year, but we all know what happened in 2020! My career spanned more than 30 years, starting in banking and spending the last 22 years in corporate finance and operations. When I got back from a hiking vacation in January 2020 feeling no more relaxed than when I left, I thought it was time.

I completed a flip-flop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2022.

I started on April 9 at Rockfish Gap, which I think is the 2nd most popular starting point after Harpers Ferry and is at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park, and summitted Katahdin on August 14.

I then took two weeks off at home (I live in Maryland, just north of Washington, DC) before starting south from Rockfish Gap on August 31. I summitted Springer Mountain on October 29, though I had to make up a 65-mile stretch I skipped in September when I got sick and went home for a week because I wanted to join a friend who was getting off trail a week later. I finished my final miles on November 6.

So why did I choose to do a flip-flop?

6 Reasons a Flip-Flop AT Thru-Hike Is the Way To Go

richard guenther atop Baxter Peak Katahdin sign during AT flip-flop thru-hike

1. Fewer Crowds

I’ll be honest: the number one reason was avoiding the crowds! I couldn’t imagine what it would be like trying to find a campsite or room in a shelter if I had to compete with 50 other people for space. “Enjoyable” is not a word that comes to mind with that scenario, and I wanted to enjoy my hike. If I was going to spend six months on the trail, I would be more likely to successfully thru-hike if I wasn’t competing against a crowd of people. And fewer people means a lower risk of things like norovirus!

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2. Less Impact on the Trail

view of green ridgeline from rocky summit of Saddleback Mountain

A related reason to the first one, and one I became aware of within the past couple years, is that a flip-flop hike reduces the impact on the trail and the surrounding communities. I had read an article from the ATC about reasons for flip-flopping, and this made a lot of sense to me. The number of people hiking the AT has increased significantly, including day hikers, sections hikers and thru-hikers, and by doing a flip-flop, I was choosing to hike where there were fewer people at the same time.

We are all familiar with the principles of Leave No Trace, but all of us leave some kind of trace just by hiking the trail. So this is a way to leave less trace than you would otherwise.

3. Better Weather

Another big reason to choose a flip-flop is the weather. I thought about this to some degree when I chose my start date. But I didn’t realize how much this would be a factor on my thru-hike. By starting in April I intended to avoid as much of the winter weather as possible.

I grew up in Buffalo, NY so I know snow. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy it when I am backpacking. I didn’t escape the snow entirely: it snowed on April 18, which was my last day in Shenandoah. They ended up closing Skyline Drive due to the snow because they got 10 inches at the highest elevations! But other than that, I hiked in the spring for an extended period as I went north. It was great to see flowers blooming for at least three months. I was also able to avoid the hottest part of the summer in the Mid-Atlantic states. We had a few 90-degree days, even in Maine, but nowhere near as many as other hikers further south.

The great weather extended down to the southern portion of my flip-flop. I originally didn’t think I would start my southern section until September 15, as I was expecting Virginia to be in the 90s until then. But when I checked the weather at the end of August it was a doable low-to-mid 80s at altitude. And the timing worked out so that I was able to hike the Smokies at the peak of fall foliage! I did experience a few nights in the 20s near the end, but generally speaking, the temps were great throughout my hike.

And did I mention that I hiked in the rain fewer than 15 days total? This was more a matter of luck and probably connected to the drought, which isn’t a good thing. But I’ll take it!

READ NEXT – Is a Winter AT Thru-Hike Right for You?

4. Older Crowd

fall foliage in appalachian mountains at twilight

An unexpected reason that a flip-flop was right for me is that most of the other flip-floppers were at a similar stage in their lives as me, i.e., they were retired. Not everyone was retired, and I have no problem hiking with all kinds of people. But having people that have had similar experiences was an added bonus as we talked about things when we finished for the day. There were many older hikers that provided inspiration because they were doing a thru-hike in their late 60s and early 70s. I can only hope to be able to do that at their age!

5. More Relaxed Schedule

Another bonus from a flip-flop is that you don’t have the time pressures of NOBO and SOBO hikers. If you are going NOBO, you need to get to Katahdin before the first snow flies, as periodic trail closures due to winter weather can thwart hikers.  This typically means reaching Katahdin by October 15.

Likewise, most SOBO hikers want to finish before it gets too cold and the snow starts to fly down south. This can be a challenge as snow in the mountains of Tennessee and Georgia typically starts after November 15. Of course, having the right gear means you can hike through this. But that typically means a heavier pack and slower hiking due to having to get through the snow.

Because I started at mile 864, I was able to summit Katahdin on August 14. And this was after getting off for five days for a wedding, quarantining in town for four days when I got Covid, and going hut-to-hut in the Whites because this is tough hiking.

6. Option for a Gentler Start

And the final reason a flip-flop worked great for me is that I was able to start in easier terrain. Shenandoah, where I started, is some of the easiest hiking on the trail and the food options at camp stores and waysides through the park allow you to carry less weight. And even though there are more rocks in Maryland and Pennsylvania, starting in Harpers Ferry also gives you some easier hiking than starting in Georgia or Maine.

I had done some backpacking prior to my thru-hike, but nothing more than 80 miles or so at one time. So I had to get my body in shape, and this was a pleasant way to do so. Hikers going NOBO and SOBO obviously need to also get in shape, but they tend to be younger hikers and can more easily handle the big climbs encountered at either end.

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Of course, there are downsides to this choice as well. You don’t get to finish on Katahdin (though I finished at the Arch at the end of the approach trail!). It gets a bit lonely down south when there are far fewer hikers. And some of the hostels start to close at the end of October. But I could not be happier with my choice, and I am not sure I would have completed my thru-hike if I had started NOBO or SOBO. At the end of the day, I hiked every mile of the trail, and that is what constitutes a thru-hike. So if you are considering your options, I highly recommend giving some thought to a flip-flop!

About the Author

richard guenther at Amicalola Falls Arch during flip-flop AT thru-hike

Richard “Crossword” Guenther lives in Kensington, MD and has been married for 32 years to his lovely wife Diana. He has three wonderful children and was involved in Scouting for over a decade, including as the Scoutmaster of Troop 439. He worked in the banking industry and then in corporate finance and operations, retiring in early 2020. He started backpacking in 2010 and has hiked all over the US, as well as treks in Iceland and Patagonia. He summited Mount Kilimanjaro in 2019 and has a bucket list of 75 hikes to do in the future!

All images courtesy of Richard “Crossword” Guenther.

Featured image: Photo courtesy of Richard “Crossword” Guenther. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 4

  • Spike : Dec 16th

    Ditto on #4! I did my annual section hike in May (Duncannon to DWG) and ran into quite a number of aspiring Flip Floppers who’d started at Harpers Ferry. I’m 63 and fit right in with the gang.

    A congenial bunch and all were well-prepared for the hike. While I’ve enjoyed the company of all ages on the AT over the years, it was a nice change of pace from the usual thruhiker demographic.


  • William K Paynter : Dec 16th

    You can still finish on Katahdin. do the first part SB then flip to do the 2nd half NB.

  • Joanne Gigliotti (BamBam) : Dec 19th

    Great post Crossword! I’m starting my Flip Flop in March and hoping to finish NOBO to Katahdin by mid July to be home for my parents surprise 50th anniversary celebration. Then I’ll hop back on 512 closer to home for a finish in Springer. Though I originally planned to only hike NOBO to Katahdin picking up from where I completed the past 4 previous years of section hikes, I decided to do a flip flop and complete the entire trail in 2023 to be considered a “thru-hiker.” I am looking forward to the perk of less crowds, better weather, and more subdued company at shelters; but I’m also keeping my mind open to the fact that I will still experience some below freezing nights and snow in Mar/Apr. I too, grew up in the snow belt (Northeast Ohio), but flew the coop well over 2 decades ago for milder Carolina weather. Anyways… good read, and congratulations! My father was a Scout Master for 25 years – he has always been my inspiration for long distance hiking – hope I can make him proud with a 2023 completion of the AT!


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