What is a Thru-Hike?
A few months ago saying, “I’m going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail,” sounded like a pretty straightforward statement. Now it’s suddenly gotten a little more complicated.
For all the years I fantasized about hiking the trail one day, there was only one way. In my mind, thru-hiking has always been starting at Springer Mountain and heading north, one foot in front of the other, all the way to Maine. I never contemplated going south and was actually surprised when I discovered people START in Maine.
You mean I could go to Katahdin first and walk home? Hmmmm.
The Flip Flop: a Route, Not a Camp Shoe
Then there’s flip-flopping. No, that’s not what I do at night when I can’t sleep. It’s starting in the middle, hiking one way and then flipping back to your starting point (or the other end) and continuing on to finish your hike. The Appalachian Trail Conversancy (ATC) has been encouraging more flip-flopping to reduce the stress on the trail created by the springtime bubble of northbound hikers.
Harper’s Ferry, VA, the traditional mid-point of the trail – and also the headquarters location of the ATC – is a common starting point for flip-floppers. I think it’s an interesting idea. According to many trail journals I’ve read and members of my hiking Facebook groups, flip-flopping is an excellent option for slower hikers who worry about reaching Katahdin by early October or those who can’t start in the springtime.
Flip-floppers can hike with the seasons, starting where they choose and flipping to the next ideal point to continue their hike. Sounds like a pretty flexible approach, which is probably why more and more hikers are choosing this route. I met two 2017 flip-floppers on one of my training hikes, Luna and Spice, who were thrilled with their choice. They each included a short trip home for a break with their families between the two segments of their journey.
The ATC categorizes flip-flopping under “Alternative” hiking strategies on their website saying, “There are almost an infinite number of ways to construct a flip flop thru-hike, and each has different advantages.”
So much for my naïve assumption that NOBO (NOrthBOund) is the only way!
The Thru-Hiker Menu: a flavor for everyone
I started reading more about the different ways to thru-hike and I was intrigued to discover the options read like an IHOP menu. As the official authority on defining a thru-hike, the ATC offers several variations, providing unique flavors of hiking to suit a variety of tastes. In addition to NOBO, SOBO, and Flip-Flop, there are:
- A “Leapfrog” hike – jumping ahead to New England at the halfway point, hiking NOBO to Katahdin, then hopping back to hike south for the final leg. This gives hikers the opportunity to join the bubble of NOBO hikers and also experience the very different vibe of a SOBO hike.
- “Modified Cool Breeze” – an odd name for hiking the trail in thirds. The ATC defines it as starting SOBO on the middle third of the Trail, then going NOBO for the northern third, and finally finishing SOBO for the last third. Apparently, this is a good option for hikers who enjoy solitude and don’t want to see many crowds – or bugs.
- A “Wraparound” hike or southbound circuit – this sounds like a flip-flop to me but somehow merits its own name. Hikers start at Harpers Ferry and head south to Springer, then bounce up to Katahdin and hike back down to Harpers Ferry. This route has benefits like passing the bubble while you head the other way, and (hopefully) enjoying the more mild weather.
One Thing in Common
Debunking another misconception, I learned early on in my planning that thru-hiking doesn’t require trekking straight through without breaks. I knew hikers took zero days and sometimes got off trail for a week or two to attend of personal commitments. What I didn’t know is that as long as you hike the whole trail in a 12-month period (not a calendar year), you’re considered a thru-hiker.
That makes all those “alternative” approaches to thru-hiking even more interesting. You could hike for two months, take a month off, and then pick up again wherever you want, as long as you cover the whole trail. In fact, a prospective thru-hiker could develop any kind of strategy that works for them, provided they hit the common objective of hiking the entire 2190 miles in one year.
Where Does that Leave Me?
My vision of a traditional NOBO hike is starting to look a little murky. I still plan on heading NOBO, and the idea of finishing by climbing the sign at Katahdin for that triumphant photo opp is a big part of my motivation. I want to feel every bit of the emotion of conquering one of the biggest challenges of my life.
The end is clear to me. But where do I start?
My home near Atlanta gives me easy access to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. Mentally, my thru-hike clock started ticking in early October and I’ve been knocking out sections of the trail Georgia as training hikes and shakedown trips. I only need to complete the 31 miles from Springer to Neel Gap to finish my home state, and I’m counting those Georgia miles as part of my trek.
It shouldn’t be too hard for me to cover those 31 miles well before my “official” start date in April, allowing me to do what I call a “Jumpstart” hike.
To Jumpstart…or Not?
There’s certainly an appeal to jumping ahead to North Carolina to begin my hike in earnest. Lots of hikers drop out before the state line (I hear 1/3 quit in Georgia), so the bubble will shrink a bit. That’s good for the introvert in me that cringes thinking about the crowds and noise that accompany a Springer Mountain start.
On the downside, by the time the hikers who started at Springer reach NC, they will already be forming friendships and trail families. I’ll be late to the party. Will that make it more difficult for me to find my peeps? I don’t know.
My hiker buddy Nikon has already done Georgia. She’s starting at Springer anyway, hiking those miles again for the full thru-hiker experience. Talking with her, I wonder if my jumpstart strategy means I’ll miss out on a powerful bonding opportunity, sharing the nerves and anticipation that every thru-hiker feels on day one.
In spite of the “hike your own hike” mantra, I also worry about other thru-hikers’ perceptions. (Silly, I know.) Will I look like a faker if I stop at the Amicalola arch for a photo, then drive up to NC to hit the trail? What if I trek the mile to Springer to sign the register, and then jump ahead?
I don’t plan to yellow blaze and I probably won’t blue blaze. I want to put my feet on every inch of the trail. A big reason I’m hiking is to soak up the experience, to meet other hikers and to see all the trail has to offer. So my internal debate about where to start continues.
What would you (or did you) do?
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