What exactly is a ‘flip-flop,’ anyway?
My dad and I are starting a flip-flop thru-hike on May 1. (Yes, that’s only 47 days away!) I’ve gotten quite a few questions about what exactly a flip-flop is and why it’s appealing to me, so I’ve addressed the most common inquiries, below. My hope is to spread the word about a flip-flop and why it is a viable way to hike the Appalachian Trail (and no, it doesn’t mean you actually hike in flip flops, although if that’s your thing, go for it, I guess). Enjoy!
Logistically, how does a flip-flop thru-hike work?
Think of a flip-flop thru-hike as an alternative way to tackle the Appalachian Trail. Instead of starting at the southern terminus of Springer Mountain, Georgia (which is by far the most popular choice) or at the northern terminus of Katahdin, Maine, more and more hikers are choosing to begin somewhere in the middle. For me and my dad, who is thru-hiking with me, that means starting our journey at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia! Our plan is to leave Harpers Ferry on May 1, hike to Katahdin, return to Harpers Ferry by vehicle, and then hike to Springer for the finish (likely in late October).
The ATC has a great explanation of the more popular flip-flop thru-hike options here. There are so many ways to construct your flip-flop hike—you don’t have to leave from Harpers Ferry!
You’re not starting at Springer Mountain? Does this mean you are a real thru-hiker?
The ATC defines a thru-hiker as someone who completes the entire A.T. in 12 months or less. I personally love that definition because it’s short and simple! One of the beautiful things about hiking the A.T. is that you have the chance to make this journey your own, and to me, part of that opportunity means figuring out what works best on a personal level. Please do not feel like you HAVE to start at a certain part of the Trail just because that is what you’ve seen everyone else do. For me, a flip-flop thru-hike makes the most sense logistically—and, because I’m a former ATC volunteer and employee, I like the idea that a flip-flop thru-hike disperses the flow of hikers and helps preserve the natural environment of the A.T. (more about that below!)
But do you believe you will feel like a real thru-hiker?
Absolutely! Just like anyone else who hikes the A.T., I will get blisters; I will consume copious amounts of food; I will smell bad; and I will become concerned if I stop seeing white blazes, among other things. But more importantly, I will put one foot in front of the other until I (hopefully) see all 2,189 miles of the Trail.
What if you lose motivation after you finish the first half of the Trail?
That’s a valid concern. I’ll likely take a few days after I reach Maine to see my family and my boyfriend and our dogs. There is a chance I might come home and stay home. But from my perspective now, I don’t really anticipate that happening. I’ve made a commitment, and I am dedicated to the idea of thru-hiking. I want to believe my motivation to finish is as high as any other thru-hiker’s.
How many people have tried a flip-flop thru-hike and actually succeeded? It seems like a new thing.
It is! And I believe that is one reason why people might be a bit apprehensive to embrace a flip-flop hike. According to the ATC, 485 people registered a flip-flop thru-hike in 2016 (although there isn’t a way to know exactly how many of those people actually started). The cool thing about that number? A flip-flop thru-hiker has the opportunity to be part of a small group of hikers who have sought out a nontraditional way to pursue an A.T. experience. Think of it as a fun way to challenge the status quo!
Speaking of the ATC, what do they think about this, anyway?
The ATC is actively promoting flip-flop thru-hiking as a new, sustainable way to hike the Trail. Most of us have likely heard of the large crowds that begin the A.T. in Georgia—and those crowds not only mean more people, but more damage done to the Trail and its surrounding corridor, too. If you have the flexibility, a flip-flop thru-hike is a way to alleviate a bit of the pressure on the Trail’s southern end.
By the way, this doesn’t mean you’re “unsustainable” if you decide to pursue a more traditional northbound thru-hike. No matter where you start, you will make a big impact on the health of the A.T. if you Leave No Trace.
So what exactly are the pros of this way of thru-hiking?
There are a lot, actually! Besides the sustainability factor, a flip-flop thru-hike can reduce your exposure to extreme weather. Yes, you might run into a few cool mornings and evenings if you start in April, but you likely won’t experience any snow if you start in the middle of that month. You’ll also experience the mid-Atlantic before it gets TOO hot and humid, make it through New Hampshire’s White Mountains before peak tourist season, and miss the black fly season in Maine. Speaking of Maine, you can also rest assured you will summit Katahdin before the trails close due to snow, which can be big concern for some northbound hikers.
What are you NOT looking forward to?
Encountering the dreaded Pennsylvania rocks not all that long after leaving Harpers Ferry. There will be some pretty intense rock scrambles about 200 miles into the hike, and I’m nervous that I won’t quite have my Trail legs yet.
I’m also trying to be conscious of the fact that I could be a slow hiker, and that means the second part of my flip-flop could lend itself to winter weather. The Southern Appalachians can see snow or ice at the end of October, so I need to keep that in mind if I’m running behind my self-imposed schedule.
In addition, I would likely have some major anxiety about logistics if it weren’t for my family. My dad and I are lucky because my mom has agreed to pick us up and shuttle us all the way back to the mid-Atlantic after we finish the first leg in Maine (thanks, mom!) Not everyone has someone in their life who can do that for them, though. Make sure you have a plan in place for getting back to your original start location so you can complete your hike.
Does a flip-flop hike mean you won’t get the social experience that some people love about the A.T.?
It does mean I won’t be in the “bubble,” so to speak, but I’m fine with that. I’m expecting to encounter early northbound hikers as I leave Harpers Ferry and make my way to Maine, and then finishing the second half of my journey with those who have hiked the Trail southbound from Katahdin. It will be great to hear about the different perspectives that come from hiking the Trail north versus south!
Aren’t you sad you won’t have that epic finish at Katahdin?
I get it—there’s something amazing about finishing a northbound thru-hike at Maine’s highest peak. To be 100 percent honest, when I began dreaming of my thru-hike, I definitely pictured myself ending at Katahdin, standing behind that iconic sign. But now, I love the idea of a flip-flop and have fully embraced that this is the best way for me to hike the A.T. My journey is about more than the end point, and I will still summit Katahdin—just not in the order as most.
Curious about flip-flopping and want to learn more? Come to the third annual Flip Flop Festival in Harpers Ferry, WV during Earth Day weekend, April 22 to 23, 2017. There will be workshops, games, entertainment, vendors and more!
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