601 Miles of Lessons For a Harpers Ferry Northbound Flip Flopper
I started my Appalachian Trail adventure from Harpers Ferry on May 13, 2022. It is July 7, 2022 and I am 600 miles more educated as I sit reminding myself of things I thought I knew, but have learned now in more detail. Much of the planning info I found was based on the overwhelming numbers of Georgia start NOBOs. A lot of it is valid, but flip floppers might have a few other items to be aware of to come in handy. From what the Georgia start NOBOs tell me, the southern end of the trail is more set up for the NOBO bubble. The WV to CT portion of the trail has less obvious resources than the GA to WV portion. I will find out for myself in the fall.
When Exactly Do You Know You Have Your Trail Legs ?
For HF flip floppers, the question is not as easy as for Georgia start NOBOs. Most GA start NOBOs tell me that Damascus, VA is where they felt they had their trail legs. I left California weighing 180 lbs. Fully loaded with water and resupply day food, my pack comes in at 30 lbs. I have been lifting 210 pounds constantly either up slopes or up steps for about 500 miles from Harpers Ferry. I have also been taking the downward force on my legs of that same weight on the other sides of the climbs. Until Massachusetts’ Mount Everett, I felt that I needed come sort of leg muscular assist in either direction. I do not hike with trekking poles as I like to play my guitar many times when I walk. So the up steps have had my arm lever off my knee, or I grab a third hold to give an assist with the mass against the 32.2 ft/sec/sec force of gravity up or down the slopes. Well, Mount Everett is steep, long and tough. Many Georgia start NOBOs mentioned that it’s the first climb since Virginia that is like the southern mountains on the trail. On Mount Everett, I think I now have my trail legs. 500 miles. I was able to balance on one leg up climb and down climb. The balance was strong and the confidence in the placement of the next step did not need a stabilizing third hold point using my hand. I think this gives the Harpers Ferry flip floppers a great advantage because for 500 miles we can build up to this strength. After coming off the Jug End, the very steep down climb into Great Barrington, MA, I was flying down the trail. I felt like a Georgia start NOBO and I think I clocked the flats into town near 4 miles per hour sustained for the last four miles. Just in time as Mt Greylock and then the Green Mountains are just ahead. Then of course, the Whites, but I think this build of strength will serve me well. May 13 to June 26; 500 miles to get trail legs and feel like I actually have them.
The New Kid In Town
The majority of flip floppers are like the new kid in school who joins in the middle of the school year. Since I did this six times growing up, I am well versed in the nuances. You get introduced, and people are friendly, but you can not relate to the relationships that have formed from GA among the group. Make sure if you are flip flopping that you are very confident, outgoing and able to stand on your own. In some instances, there will be “tramilies” that pass by you that you wont understand. They might appear to be maybe a little cliquish and to themselves. They even might swarm a shelter as you are sitting there trying to make conversation with the group you have just met. This should not discourage you, but make sure you can brush off the percieved brush off. Most likely the swarm will be gone at 5 am the next morning and they will be 20 miles up the trail the next night where you will be happy with a 10 or 12 mile day. The nice part about being the “new kid” is that there are plenty of other “new kids” and plenty of other folks whose tramilies have left trail or have mixed around. If you are confident in your ability to make friends, then you will be a shot in the arm to folks who might be getting weary from the trail and have lost their previous camaraderie connections. You are never alone on the trail but if you do not like to feel alone at times even around people, or if you do not have the confidence in your outgoing nature to jump right into an established group, then you might want to consider other mental strategies for your trek. Hiking the AT requires a significant personal mental game strength.
Maryland Spoils Harpers Ferry Northbound Flip Floppers
A start in Harpers Ferry is great as I have said in previous posts. I have not had any of the snow, cold nor other brutal weather that many Georgia start NOBOs have described. However, it makes a flip flopper spoiled. Maryland is fabulous and sets a high bar of expectations. In comparison with the other states I have hiked through, Maryland is the Ritz Carlton of the trail. Be aware that this might not be the case as you go further north.
Joys of Dollar General
Shop at Dollar General in your home town to figure out resupply. REI and the other big box outfitters do not exist near the trail north of Harpers Ferry. There are a few, but they need shuttles and shuttles and other motorized transport sounds simple, but I will explain down below. Anyway, shop at Dollar General and figure out trail food recipes from the ingredients you can find at Dollar General. Yes, there are Walmarts, but if its at Dollar General, it’s at a Walmart. Don’t assume if you see something at Walmart then it will be at Dollar General. Do not count on outfitters. Outfitters are wonderful, but maybe just not as prevalent as you’d think near the trail. There is an REI down the road from where the AT crosses the main road in Carlisle, PA, but it’s a shuttle ride. Yes, there is a Cabella’s in Hamburg, PA, but Cabellas is a “fishing, hunting and car camping store” not really a backpacking store. You will find the difference quickly. They have backpacking stuff, but that is not thier focus. Hamburg is a little ways down from the trail at Port Clinton. Walmart does have Mountain House freeze dried meals. Maybe the same eight choices everywhere. Don’t count on them. There are other outfitters within a shuttle ride distance in some of the larger towns, but not necessarily near the trail. Near is also relative. I have heard of some significantly long shuttle rides to get to certain places. Now, I will say that one of the best outfitters is the little outfitter in Harpers Ferry. If you forget something in the hustle and bustle of plane, train and travel, the outfitter right on the trail in Harpers Ferry probably has you covered. This is definitely where to buy your initial fuel cans since they can not be brought on an airplane.
Bomb Proof Equipment
Make sure your equipment is bomb proof before you leave your hometown. Many people figure, oh I can always pick something up on the trail. Nope, not reality. Oh, I’ll just have stuff mailed to me. Nope, not so simple either. Make sure you sleep in your tent, in a downpour, in the cold many times before you start the AT. My water filters have clogged after 600 miles. Even with the plunger backflush. My stove ignighter has failed in the damp morning after a rain. My back up matches were no use in the damp morning after rain. My tent has been solid so far. Do not underestimate how cold it will be in the morning after a storm up on the ridges and at the tops of mountains. Your clothes may need sizing adjustment. I have had to sew out one inch from my pants waistline to avoid looking like my shorts are down by my knees. My backpack has to be replaced and luckily there is an outfitter north of me in a town near the trail where I can swap it out. However, that required the Return Material Authorization process, which luckily this manufacturer will stand behind, but it still required internet calisthenics. Buy socks made in Vermont. Others are good too, but the AT will teach you how to appreciate a well knitted pair of socks.
Footwear is Everything – Footwear Means Shoes and Socks
Make absolutely sure your footwear is worked out for your feet down to the very details. Any little annoyance in the shoe store will become a big annoyance on the trail. Make sure it has been well tested before even thinking about setting foot on the trail. Foot wear means socks too. Do not buy shoes with socks that you are not going to use on the trail. Trail runners are great from Harpers Ferry to Duncannon, PA. Once you cross the Susquehanna River and climb up the hill, you need indestructible footware until you come off the brutal rocks at Unionville, NY. Pennsylvania has the worst rocks, but they do not end at the Delaware Water Gap. My trail runners were destroyed by the time I switched them out in New York. You need to have stubbed toe and side wall protection through those 250 miles. I can not tell you how frustrated I was continually as my footwear sole would slip and a sharp edge rock would hit my instep. As the day wore me down, I would stub my toe continually as the rocks of Pennsylvania. Those rocks are alive and for some reason very angry, and they jump up from the trail. At the end of the day, the fun of the video game like challenge of foot placement becomes less fun. If I did that section again, I would make sure I have bomber hiking boots with plenty of room in the toe box ready to go at Duncannon, PA. Send them home when you can switch back to trail runners in New York.
Now as far as mailing stuff and Amazon deliveries, yes, it all sounds nice. Many people do that method. What folks don’t talk about is the low reliability of delivery schedules that currently exist in the USA supply chain system. I can not tell you how many people I have caught up with while they are stuck in some town waiting on a post office delivery or on an Amazon order to show up at a hostel. Yes, you can send early. Post offices may not accept Amazon unless it comes using USPS which is not always available from Amazon. I have also witnessed many people on the trail stressing out in the woods on how they were going to make their plans to meet up with their stuff at the next town. It sounds nice, and hundreds of people will make like it is not that big of a deal, but it can be a big deal. Your support system has to be tuned into your needs or you are going to be spending more time on your device dealing with deliveries and all manner of internet complexities instead of enjoying the hike. Once it becomes a logistical exercise like many of us may have to do in our professional careers, the joy of being on the trail does get a little tarnished.
Internet access is pretty good up on the ridges. I have had four bars of 5G for many many miles. Some of the service is lightning fast and is actually faster than some of my connections at fixed locations. You can see the massive cell towers up on the ridges from the trail, so for all the pain and agony of the rocks, you can carry on conversations for hours or stream podcasts until your battery runs out. I’ve had the worse service at the small towns that are in the gaps.
Which brings me to shuttles. Shuttle drivers are fantastic. They know the area. Most are hikers. They are friendly and many do shuttling for their love of being a part of the community helping hikers. The trick is communication connections. The second trick is availability. Roads run in the gaps and valleys. The cell signals are best up on the ridges. Anticipatory timing and knowing the pick up points and communication clarity is the key to working with shuttles. There are not as many shuttles as you might think in many areas of the mid-Atlantic part of the trail and when it’s about to rain, or when there is a mini bubble coming through, shuttles can become very complex to line up. Many shuttles are booked days in advance. This kind of ruins the freedom of your hike as you then have to target being at a certain place at a certain time. It adds stress. My lesson learned is plan on hiking as much as you can in and out of town. If you happen to be able to line up a ride to avoid a four mile road walk, great, but don’t count on it.
100 Gram Fuel Cans (The Common Smaller One)
This item can be the toughest item to find on the trail and in trail towns where you’d think they would be available. Luckily, many shuttle drivers carry cans for sale. Many of the tuned in convenience stores might also carry them. I have been surprised who had them and who did not. Also, many larger cans are left with fuel in them at hiker boxes. If you have a transfer valve, it might be good tool to carry. Many times Walmart only has the larger cans, not the preferred 100 gram cans. And as I said above, your initial fuel can load is easily purchased at the outfitter in Harpers Ferry. Maybe call ahead to make sure a bubble did not buy them out temporarily.
Trail Magic and Water
Trail magic is a gift. Water is survival. I have had two trail magic trail angels save me on the two hottest days I have hiked. I was out of water. The AWOL and Far Out guides and the recent comments had conflicting or maybe some misleading information relative to where I thought I could get water. The locations are very accurate, but the quality and the ease of getting water from those sources might not be current or as accurate as some of the comments or write ups give the impressions. Watch the dates on the comments. Be very careful if it is a surface water source. Pay very close attention if Far Out or AWOL says it is unreliable or intermittent. It could be most likely is unusable. Many of the water sources in NY and CT are surface water versus springs. Southern PA is also tough with water. Water on the north side of Lehigh Gap is also an issue. That was a hot day and a big water carry. Your capture method will also disqualify some sources as many times the needed fall or current to fill a bag does not exist. Many times there might not be enough depth in a pool to fill a bottle. In a couple of instances, I had run out and low and behold, a trail angel just happened to be there with water right when I needed it most. Another in my series of events that proves the existence of God. My California hiking experience is carry no less than three liters of water everywhere. Of course that is six pounds. When I got to Harpers Ferry and was listening to some of the GA start NOBOs they said that’s way to much water, which I agree now that I have trail experience. However, I whittled down to one liter, but did not consider flexing the load in the heat or up climbs. I am still working on getting the right balance. But, thank God for those trail angels and for that trail magic. In both cases I was still a few miles from town and I needed water. Word of mouth from opposite direction hikers has been the most reliable source of up to date water source information.
Now let’s talk budgets. Yes, you can do this on a tight budget. However it is very tough when a group of trail buddies want to hit a town to have a pizza joint meal and maybe a bed for the night and you don’t have the funds to participate. There are few hostels in NJ, NY, CT and MA. The motels are not cheap. Resupply food is expensive even at Dollar General. Restaurant meal costs add up. The delis and convenience stores are not cheap either. I am taking it easy on spending but am heading into town and zeroing about once a week. I am stopping at delis and pizza joints. I am resupplying as I can. I am spending about 25% more than I thought I would be at this point. I figured $10000 would get it done. I don’t think so after being on the trail for six weeks. Food cost alone is significant as I rack it up on my credit card. Motels are not less than $120 a night and that’s on the weekdays. I am donating to the trail angels and trail magic folks. I am also donating to the church hostels and the collection plate when I attend church on Sundays. These donations also add up but I feel it is for a good cause. There are less expensive ways to do things, but this is how I am doing it. There might be less expensive options on my southern flop. I will find out in a few months but right now New England appears expensive the way I am doing it. And this coming from a guy who lives part of the year in California.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.