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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Comments 7

  • Julie Wilson-Freeman : Dec 10th

    I’m doing the “leap-frog” I guess, as you described it. I’m a college prof and cannot start until around May 15thish. I will start at Harpers around that time, hike north to Katahdin, then go back to Harpers and finish at Springer. I only have about 30-40 miles in the northern half to actually complete the AT, but I’m in a position to complete a thru. My hiking partner is graduating from college on May 11th and lives in Pensacola, FL, so ending south just makes more sense for us. Plus, we could possibly have more time to finish without the weather getting ugly. As of right now, we have a tentative schedule to hike May 15th and finishing by Nov 15th. I have no desire to start much sooner than that because of the cold weather and bugs; hopefully, by doing the hike this way we’ll avoid both.

    • David Miller : Dec 11th

      I’m in the early planning of a 2019 thru-hike and have been toying with different ideas of which way to go. One of the things that I am pretty set on is finishing at Katahdin. So I keep coming back to the idea of starting in Harper’s Ferry some time in mid March, going SOBO to Springer, then flipping back to Harper’s Ferry and going NOBO to Maine.
      This would also allow me to knock out my home state of Virginia (which is not flat) early on while being able to stay fairly close with family and friends for some early logistical and emotional support.
      I’m sure whatever way you pick will be an amazing experience!

    • Dabney : Dec 14th

      This is my exact plan 2020!

  • Crocamole : Dec 11th

    Speaking as someone who did a unconventional flip-flop a couple years ago, I think your idea of a “jumpstart” hike is great and your list of pros is spot on. Re your concerns about missing a powerful bonding opportunity by not starting at Springer, I was welcomed and accepted by other thru-hikers immediately, despite joining the trail 500 miles north of Springer. I found thru-hikers to be some of the most open and supportive people I have ever met. Like most NoBos,, the group I was around was constantly shifting, and I was making new close friends the entire length of the trail. As your intent is to hike the entire trail, you are not a faker. Since your hike has already started, take your picture at the arch when you hike approach trail and/or Springer. And I heartily recommend the approach trail: its pretty beautiful; it’s a 2200 mile hike, what’s another 7?; and the dirt road up to near the summit is seeing more traffic than it was built for.

    • Joellyn Sargent : Dec 20th

      Thanks so much, Crocamole. I’ve decided to go with the jumpstart. I’ve completed Georgia and just need to re-hike a short stretch near Springer, then I’ll start the long hike in NC.

  • Dabney : Dec 14th

    I’m planning Harpers Ferry to Katahdin then HF to Springer in 2020. Start mid-end April ?


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