The Path Less Traveled

Thru hiking the Appalachian Trail in a non-traditional way has been picking up in the past few years.

An alternative thru hike is both similar and different to a northbound or southbound (NOBO/SOBO) hike in a couple key ways. How you make your choice between these is a deeply personal matter, similar to deciding what flavor of Pop-Tarts to bring with you.

There are a few varieties of alternative hikes that can be taken, and this link will break them down for you. I can’t do it better than the Appalachian Trail Conservatory, so I’ll just tell you about the usual ones.

The most common method is starting at or near the halfway point, hiking north to Maine, coming back where you started, and hiking south to Georgia. Another well known alternative is hiking from Springer to Harper’s Ferry, skipping ahead to Kahtadin, and hiking back to Virginia.

Although I originally had defined the terms “flip-flop” and “leapfrog” based on these two different methods, it was pointed out to me that what I had written seemed inaccurate. So I rechecked and found that the ATC website doesn’t define them separately. On another site I read that a flip-flop means the same essential thing as a leapfrog. They both can refer to any sort of discontinuous thru hike within a single season.

What’s the Difference?

Depending on your method of hiking, you can either make things a little easier or a little harder on yourself. Factors to the decision include personal level of masochism, desire for bragging rights, and time available, among others. Give yourself a handicap or an extra challenge, basically.

Reasons to take an alternative hike include cutting costs, experiencing better weather, starting off with easier terrain to hike on, and avoiding crowds and Lyme disease, among other incentives. The very few downsides, in comparison, include psychological factors and the logistics of planning.

By far, the psychological factors are the most intimidating for me. It is an adjustment to think of using starting and ending points other than Springer and Kahtadin. Also, the fear that I may bomb terribly and end up lost in the woods somewhere.

The solitude I will encounter on an alternative hike is something I have thought about as well. But I think I have always been a sort of an independent person, who makes friends easily along the way, but does my own thing primarily. One of my goals for this hike is to get to know myself a lot better during the extended time alone.

Frankly, though, the most crucial reason for my final decision to take an alternative route is for environmental reasons. People have been talking a lot about the “hiker bubble” that begins between March and April, which really messes with the area’s ecosystem.

And I mean, I’m nothing if not a sucker for nature, obviously. I also love the idea of getting to hike during the best times of the year in each area. Cheaper and lighter gear and as much time to get in shape as I’ll need, it seems like a win-win.

Of course, I also have the added ability of not having a set schedule that needs to be followed. I have as much time as I need, and I can vary my course any way I wish. I know some people don’t have that option.

There are certainly those hikers who will feel that the way I am going to hike is not the Right Way to do it. I am not worried about that. I already am going to be hiking as a (hopefully raw) vegan, so I am already prepared to be different. I enjoy doing things that are alternative. At the end of the day, we’re all crazy enough to want to live in the woods for months on end, so our similarities are, to me, much more significant than our differences.

Decision Made

I am thinking right now that I am going to try to begin my hike in Virginia in May. It’ll be quiet and beautiful I’m sure. This gives me a whole extra two months to prepare and train. It also means I could be hiking into December, which will be quite interesting.

Although I will absolutely admit that missing out on the “normal” hiking experience will be difficult on me in some ways, I think that the overall the effect is going to be positive. I would rather encounter all the advantages of hiking in a non-alternative way every day, than to compromise for the end of the hike and not end up making it.

I would love to hear from anyone else who is planning on flip-flopping, leapfrogging, or any other non-traditional hiking method. Or just going SOBO. Or even people who are going NOBO. Whatever you’re doing, I wanna hear about it!

Happy Trails

Photo courtesy of Flikr

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Comments 9

  • Laurie Potteiger : Jan 22nd

    Wonderful article by Liz Kibby. What a perfect title. I wish I had thought of that! Great to read all these comments – the 2015 Flip-Flop Class is going to be so awesome!

    This bunch is smart, brave, and more than a little bit altruistic.

    I want to support you in any way I can in my position here at ATC Headquarters in Harpers Ferry.

    Do you all know about the Flip-Flop Kick Off in Harpers Ferry May 2? It’s intended to promote flip-flopping. We will be providing information, support and encouragement to current and future flip-floppers. We’ll also be kicking off the first ever “group” of flip-floppers who will start from Harpers Ferry on May 3. More information is at

    Soon we are going to be posting an online voluntary registration for thru-hikers. The main focus is on northbounders, because that’s where the bubbles form that we are trying to spread out. We plan to have a registration for flip-floppers too. The goal for flip-floppers is more in the direction of clustering people to help create community because there are so few of you. 2015 will be a trial year to test the system to help us get ready for a much bigger year in 2016 and beyond after Walk in the Woods comes out.

    • Liz Kibby : Jan 25th

      Hello again Laurie, and thank you so much for your support and encouragement from Harper’s Ferry! 🙂 I had no idea about the Kick Off on May 2 and 3, that sounds like a lot of fun! I think it is an amazing idea to keep the community going with us less traditional hikers, and it makes me feel like I will be safer while I am out there too.

      I definitely can only expect that hiking the AT is bound to keep growing in popularity, as people begin to realize on a large scale just how important the experience can be. I appreciate everything you and your fellow ATC members are doing to ensure the trail lasts for generations to come, and I can’t wait to meet you in VA! 🙂

  • CodeWalker : Jan 23rd

    I too am planning an alternate hike. I’m starting at Harpers Ferry towards the end of April and hiking to Maine and then returning to Harpers Ferry to finish my hike south towards Springer

    • Liz Kibby : Jan 25th

      That’s wonderful! Thanks for sharing, and hopefully we’ll see each other out there!

  • Ryan McKenzie : Jan 25th

    Looking to flip flop in May as well. Already live in Virginia and do to some things that came up I can’t leave til May as I was planning on March. Do not really want to worry about the crowds/time constraint so a flip-flop seems perfect. Most likely starting in Harpers Ferry. Seems most appropriate.

  • Chris Sanders : Feb 28th

    Hi Liz, hope you can help. I am planning to attack the Appalachian Trail in May 2022. I live in England. I am intending to start at Harpers Ferry and go north. I know I can get a train from Washington to Harpers Ferry, but can you suggest how I would get back to Harpers Ferry from Katahdin. And then from Springer Mountain to Washington. Any suggestions would be welcome.


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