What It’s Really Like To Flip-Flop the Appalachian Trail

In 2016 I fell in love with backpacking and decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. This decision triggered 18 months of obsessive planning, during which I thought and spoke of nothing but white blazes and was insufferable to everyone around me.

Because quitting my job and wandering off to live in the forest for six months was still a bit too conventional for me, I decided I would not merely thru-hike the AT: I would flip-flop it.

Flip-floppers walk all the miles of a long trail, like traditional thru-hikers, but not in order. In my case, I started hiking the AT northbound from southern Virginia. When I reached Maine 1500 miles later I “flipped” back down to my original starting point near McAfee Knob and hiked the remaining 700 miles to Springer southbound.

But Why Though

Flip-flopping the Appalachian Trail is actually fairly common. In 2023, the ATC registered 405 flip-floppers, compared to 2,956 northbounders and 248 southbounders. The Conservancy encourages flip-flop hikes, as starting someplace other than Georgia helps to reduce the environmental pressure of thousands of northbounders all starting the trail in the same place at roughly the same time.

Flip-flopping also gives you more flexibility in terms of when and where you start your hike. This can make things physically and logistically easier. Unlike traditional end-to-end hikers, flip-floppers are free to start during an optimal weather window and in less challenging terrain for a gentler introduction.

I started in early April, missing the worst of winter. The section I started in on wasn’t particularly easy, but many flip-floppers begin from the trail’s symbolic halfway point at Harpers Ferry, which is relatively flat.

I Regretted Flip-Flopping the Appalachian Trail: Here’s What It’s Really Like

flip-flopping the appalachian trail a black and white shot of a hiker walking through a stone archway

But while the decision to flip-flop the AT made sense to me at the time — I was very concerned about the impact my hike would have on the trail environment and didn’t want to contribute to the destruction of a trail I had come to love — the hike wasn’t what I expected.

Many things about flip-flopping caught me by surprise. It was easier in some ways than northbounding would have been, but I also faced challenges that end-to-end thru-hikers didn’t. For a long time, I actually regretted flip-flopping the AT. Looking back now, I’m happy with my hike, but that wasn’t the case for several years after it was over.

Flip-flopping the AT is a great choice, but it isn’t for everyone. Hiking the AT will be a lifetime memory whether you’re happy with the experience or not, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Here’s what it’s really like to flip-flop the AT: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Mind Games

I was in shape when I started the AT, but nothing prepares the body to hike 15-20 miles per day except actually doing it. All aspiring thru-hikers are told to ease into the big miles.

I knew this, but I didn’t anticipate how psychologically hard it would be. By the time I started, northbounders were zooming by me, their well-developed trail legs allowing them to pull almost double the miles I was doing. I was lonely and competitive and eager to start pulling 20s so I could keep up with them.

a group of hikers flip-flopping and northbounding the appalachian trail pose outside a building that says "Village Farmer"

Can you spot the three flip-floppers in this photo? (Of course not.)

It went deeper than just wanting friends: I had a healthy dose of imposter syndrome going into the trail. I wanted to feel more thru-hikerly, and nothing rankled me more than not being able to pace with other thru-hikers. How could I call myself one of them when I was so clearly not their equal?

I jumped from 10 miles per day to 15 within the first week and pulled my first 20 on day 14. It was a bit too much for me, and I was lucky to avoid injury. Not sure if it’s related, but I did proceed to spend 90 percent of the hike in significant pain from plantar fasciitis.

Spoiler: even after I started pulling consistent 20s, I never lost that imposter syndrome. It stayed with me throughout the hike and for years after.

If you’re overly concerned about what others think, you should consider whether a flip-flop is for you. I’m glad I did it, as it was a multi-year exercise in letting go of other people’s expectations. Just saying, flip-flopping the Appalachian Trail will put you at a high risk of imposter syndrome if you’re already prone to it.

Katahdin Is an Acid Trip for a Flip-Flopper and not Necessarily the Fun Kind

Smiling on the outside, screaming in panic on the inside as Katahdin loomed.

Despite my self-consciousness, I did integrate with the community of northbounders once I started pacing with them. By the time I reached Katahdin, I was 1500 miles in. Although I struggled with the fact that I’d “only” walked there from Virginia, when I was with my hiker friends I mostly felt like one of them.

So it was a real mindfuck when I summited Baxter Peak, northbounders cheering and celebrating around me, and finally faced up to the fact that I still had to go back to Virginia and wrap up 700 more miles. Alone.

I’ll never forget walking back down the Hunt Trail with day hikers cheering us on as we passed. It was fun but also soul-crushing. For everyone else, this was the ultimate victory lap. For me, the high-fives rang hollow. After 1500 miles, I was tired. But I still had work to do, and I would be doing it without these companions. It felt daunting, like starting over in many ways.

Flipping South Was Incredibly Jarring

three hikers who are flip-flopping the appalachian trail take a selfie on trail with rhododendrons and down leaves

I was so relieved when I finally fell into a small crowd of fellow flip-floppers down south. After hiking mostly with NOBOs and then mostly alone, it was refreshing to be with some likeminded hikers who were doing basically the same thing I was. It took me almost 2000 miles to have that experience but whatever.

When I flipped down south it was indeed rather lonely. Most of the flip-floppers I knew were starting their southern leg from Harpers Ferry, whereas I was starting it several hundred miles further south in Virginia. The trail was quiet. There weren’t many southbounders afoot, and even day hikers and weekenders seemed thin on the ground.

I’d gone from a buzzing social scene on my northbound leg to near-complete solitude. Each was nice in its own way, but the sudden transition was jarring.

As was the physical change in environment from the moderate conditions of New England to the blistering hellscape of southern Virginia in late summer.

In some ways, it was glorious to transition from rugged Maine to rolling Virginia — everything felt so much easier! Yet it was also oppressively hot and there were godawful spiders spinning their webs across the trail everywhere. Water, despite falling out of the sky and soaking me and all my possessions on a daily basis, was less available in the streams than I’d grown used to.

It was also hurricane season. Between Florence and Michael, just staying on the trail at all became a challenge as autumn wore on.

How the Heck Do You Count Miles When Flip-Flopping the Appalachian Trail?

"1000" spelled out in small rocks in the dirt

Takin’ pics of the northbound 1000-mile marker even though I was still less than 300 miles in.

When you start at a random location partway up the trail and change directions at least once, counting miles becomes tricky. For pure northbounders and southbounders, this is a lot easier. You start at mile 0 and end at mile 2193 (the length of the trail in my year) and the guidebook always tells you exactly how far you’ve come at any given point.

Flip-floppers quickly become mental arithmetic champions. I kept myself occupied on long slogs by tallying my personal mileage. Translating my flip-flop miles into northbound or southbound miles became a game. I liked figuring out where I would be at that moment if I had started the trail at either end.

At significant milestones — the 100-mile mark, the 500-mile mark, etc. — it’s traditional for thru-hikers to make signs out of natural materials (rocks, leaves, etc.). I always had to make my own signs on the northern leg, as my personal mileage aligned with literally no one else on the trail. I was careful to take the sign apart after I left lest it cause confusion.

It was a bit lonely to never share that celebration with anyon. Still, my northbound companions were always happy to celebrate my personal milestones, just as I was happy to cheer them on at theirs.

And when I flipped south, I was finally able to enjoy the sense of having completed the same number of miles as everyone else. When I came across the 2,000-mile southbound sign,  it really did mark 2,000 miles for me. I was surprised by how satisfying this felt.

Flip-Floppers as a Group Are a Little More Mellow

ugly selfie in a field of flowers by three people flip-flopping the appalachian trail

Bunch of god damn nerds

On my northern leg, I mostly hiked with northbounders. When I flipped south and the NOBOs were all gone, I started meeting more of my fellow flip-floppers (as well as true southbounders).

This is an overgeneralization, but overall I found flip-floppers to be a mellower bunch than NOBOs, who could be rather intense about everything. NOBOs overall seemed more likely to have a send it! mentality. They weren’t merely hiking the trail. They were crushing miles.

Flip-floppers, in contrast, seemed to place more emphasis on the savor of the hike. They were more apt to explore side trails, trade big miles for long breaks, and indulge in the occasional slackpack.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of crush-it flip-floppers and smell-the-roses northbounders. Heck, the same person could embody both of those stereotypes depending on the day.

But if I had to broadly characterize each group (sweeping generalizations, what could go wrong!), I would say northbounders seemed more motivated by achievement whereas flip-floppers were driven by experience and enjoyment.

That being said, I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to approach hiking the AT. Spending more time with flip-floppers taught me a lot about slowing down and letting go of my ego.

Related? Flip-Floppers Seem To Be an Older Crowd

I knew a handful of other flip-floppers around my age (I was 24 when I thru-hiked), but the majority were older. In contrast, older hikers were well represented in the northbound crowd but definitely outnumbered by 20-somethings. This wasn’t a good or bad thing, just something I noticed.

One of my favorite things about the AT was the way thru-hiking broke down barriers between people, and I enjoyed making friends with people of different ages.

Flip-Floppers Get Looked Down On

LOSER!

Man: “When did you start the AT?”
Me: April 9th but I’m flip-flopping, I started in Virginia.”
Man: *literally puts his hand IN MY FACE as he turns away* “Oh. I don’t talk to flip-floppers.”

Admittedly this guy was an extreme outlier. Most people have a filter and are able to keep their douchiest thoughts on the inside. But there’s no denying that flip-flopping is looked down upon in the community.

A Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike (or vice versa) is unassailable. You started at Point A, you walked all the way to Point B, you’re obviously a badass. Flip-flops muddy the waters. Did I work as hard as someone who started in Georgia and went all the way north? Is my hike as pure, as meaningful? Should I even be allowed to call myself a thru-hiker?

My unconventional itinerary called my whole identity as a thru-hiker into question, and not just in my own head. Lots of people feel flip-flops should be considered their own class of hike, separate from and lesser in glory than a traditional thru-hike. Some people might get in your face about this, in person but especially online.

This is where, once again, having a high degree of innate I-don’t-give-a-fuck would be really helpful to your success and happiness as a flip-flopper.

Flip-Flopping the Appalachian Trail Is Still Damn Hard

A typical day in southern Maine. The terrain wasn’t any less steep just because I was a flip-flopper.

Never mind what the haters say: walking 2,200 miles in a single hiking season is hard no matter what order you do it in.

One benefit of flip-flopping is the flexibility to start your hike on easier terrain in the middle of the trail instead of in the steeper mountains at either end. Flip-floppers also start later in the spring, avoiding the winter weather that culls the ranks of northbounders.

Indeed, the reported success rate for AT flip-floppers in 2023 was around 36 percent, according to the ATC, compared to 28 percent for NOBOs and 31 percent for SOBOs.

My feeling is that flip-flopping can make your first 100 or 200 miles easier. That’s crucial because so many would-be thru-hikers drop out in the early days due to injury or the realization that the sufferfest of thru-hiking isn’t for them.

READ NEXT – Why 75% of Thru-Hikers Won’t Make It (Spoiler: It’s Complicated)

Yet once you’ve gotten that far, the difference in difficulty level for a flip-flopper or a traditional end-to-end hiker starts to smooth out. At some point, everyone gets their trail legs and dials in their base weights. After that, you’re all facing the same climbs and crappy weather and hiker hunger. When all’s said and done, you’ll all have hiked the same miles.

Flip-flopping the Appalachian Trail gives you some control over the weather window. But you don’t walk 2,200 miles in one go and get perfect conditions for all of it. Whether you start at Springer, Katahdin, or somewhere in between, difficult terrain and weather will be part of your journey.

So, Is Flip-Flopping the Appalachian Trail Right for You?

Flip-flopping the Appalachian Trail is a great choice for a lot of reasons. You get more control over conditions early on, which can make for an easier start and improved odds of success.

And truly, the AT is an overutilized trail. Changing up your itinerary so that you’re not walking with the crowds can make a difference, not just in the way you feel about your hike but also in your personal impact on the trail. The white blazes are in danger of being loved to death. Flip-flopping is one small way to address that risk.

Yet flip-flopping isn’t for everyone. It’s unconventional, so you need to be OK with feeling singled out sometimes. It can be psychologically challenging. And flip-flopping is by no means easy. Although you can improve your odds of success by flip-flopping, it’s still going to be really damn hard.

Check in with yourself. If you really value the traditional thru-hiking experience, flip-flopping might not be for you. Maybe you should think about starting the trail earlier or later in the season or hiking southbound instead if lessening your impact on the trail is important to you.

It took me years to truly appreciate my flip-flop hike and stop wishing I’d done it northbound instead. I got there in the end: I look back on my hike fondly, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But I can’t deny that initially, I had some regrets about the way I chose to structure my hike.

No matter where you start the trail, you will make lifelong memories and friendships and be challenged to grow or get off the trail. Not to be all cliché, but there isn’t a right or a wrong answer here: only what feels right for you. Most people don’t get a chance to thru-hike the AT more than once, so make it the hike you want.

Featured image: Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 14

  • Will T. : Jun 14th

    Well, it’s a well written article and completely authentic, I believe. My only issue us with the perspective that thru-hikers are supposed to do 15-20 miles a day. This not thru-hiking, bcuz it’s unhealthy. To maintain that pace over the entire AT means a loss of upto 20% of your body weight in the months your on the trail. To carry the enough calories in food and reach water sources you need each day is often impossible. Lean calorie intake while hiking 20 miles a day are extremely depleting. But there’s this whole hipster generation that thinks that joint and bone issues you suffer from 20 years later is worth the bragging rights of blowing out the AT in one haul. And what about enjoying the landscapes? It’s not a race. It’s nature, Creation in all it’s changing majesty. So, don’t let someone else’s detrimental obsessions define what hiking or the AT is. Flip-flopping isn’t the exception, but the rule. Most folks have jobs, responsibilities, etc… Honor your accompishment as the wiser of the choices between, all at once, in healthier bites. And if you do through hike the AT, give yourself more time and enjoy the “hike” rather than turning bit into a grueling marathon. Do half one year and the other half the next. Trust that your appreciation will be greater and you’re no less the athlete. Your just a wiser and healthier one.

    Reply
    • Dan C : Jun 17th

      Just like flip-flopping and section hiking the trail, hiking big mile days is also awesome! In my opinion, the point of this article is less about arguing that one method is better than the other and instead about doing what makes the most sense for each individual person. Some people like slowing down and enjoying views/scenery, and some feel joy in hiking 20 miles in a day. No one way of hiking the trail is better than another.

      Reply
  • John Tercius Rutkowski : Jun 14th

    You walk your own walk and set your own goals. Yes, there is a different social vibe. I’ve been flip flopping since 1967. I’ve completed other travels since then, I’m happy with that.

    Reply
  • Rick "Quiet Man" : Jun 14th

    I was surprised by the characterization by thru hikers that flip floppers are a lesser form of hiker. I thought that ignominy was reserved for we section hikers. 🤔 😆 HYOH as always.

    Reply
  • Little Bear : Jun 17th

    I loved this post!! I did a long section in 2021 from PA to Maine. Because of that, I was hiking at the pace of a lot of flip-floppers at the beginning, and completely experienced the vibes you’re talking about. It was like being the new kid in town (despite having completed most of the southern AT already) and it was something I hadn’t mentally expected at all. The unique social experience is real for flip floppers and is definitely something to be considered when deciding to do the hike this way, so thanks for writing this!

    Reply
  • Nature Boy : Jun 17th

    Hike to the beat of you own drummer, my friends – don’t hurt/be hurt/get hurt during such a quixotic quest, keep that uppermost in your mind if you can….

    Reply
  • TripleM : Jun 18th

    {shrug} Yeah, life in general is tougher if you’re the sort of person who seeks validation in others’ opinions of you, who judges your own goals and accomplishments against the yardstick of WHAT ARE THOSE OTHER PEOPLE DOING???, and who is scared/stressed/unhappy about keeping your own self company through a major endeavor.

    But it’s all good. Now you have a better idea of what you need and like, and hopefully you won’t again need years to get over your regret of any future long hikes.

    Reply
  • NoBad Days : Jun 21st

    Wow. You wrote about everything I thought and felt during my 2021 flipflop. The trail infrastructure is optimized for GA to ME. Services, space between campground and shelters. I was about two weeks ahead of the NOOBO and SOBO bubbles. NOBO, many hostels were not yet open and SOBO, they were closed for the season. I’d add to keeping up with the NOBOs; flip floppers also lose out on the relatively “easy” miles in the south to train the legs and feet for the brutal terrain of the north. Also, don’t forget when you flop south, you immediately lose almost 2 hours of daylight right when you are easily able to crush 20 miles + per day. I tell potential flip floppers, that after 2193 miles, you DESERVE to finish on Katahdin; Springer Mountain is sooo anticlimactic.

    Reply
  • michael workman : Jun 23rd

    I’m planning on 2025 as my year to do the AT been wanting to do for 15 years like alot of folks something always happens I’ll be 78 after October this year so i don’t want to put off any longer I’ve been thinking about a flip flop i think it would be great if all that flip flop started at the same place like harpers ferry around the same time of the year that way you could finish at the same time and can celebrate with those that you started with i think i will suggest this to the AT conservancy and it would be nice if other like minded hikers do the same oh i by the way is their a site i can go to to see if any one is interested in doing a flip flop this coming year 2025 Mike

    Reply
    • Kelly Floro : Jun 26th

      Hey Mike! You can register as a flip-flopper on ATCamp.org and see who else has registered for next year. Also there are AT Facebook groups where you could ask who else is planning a 2025 hike, including a flip-flopping group. There’s an annual Flip-Flop Kickoff festival in Harpers during the last week of April, many people attend that and start their hikes right after: https://www.flipflopkickoff.org/

      Reply
  • Marion McKibbin... Charlie Horse 2018 : Jun 25th

    Couldn’t pick out the 3 flipflopers in the picture but I did recognize you and 8 others including Ben and Rose Lotus Honey and Moon Traveler Candy and another who’s name I will spend the next couple hours trying to remember.

    Reply
    • Kelly Floro : Jun 26th

      Charlie Horse! It’s so great to hear from you, how have you been?

      The only other nobos whose names I know in this picture are Cheddar, Animal, and Hungry Cat. The other flip-floppers besides me are called Kidska and Baby Bird.

      Reply
      • Marion McKibbin... Charlie Horse 2018 : Jun 26th

        Thought of Hungry Cat few minutes later, didn’t notice Cheddar till your mention
        Been doing fine, finished 2300 fire abbreviated miles on the PCT in 2022, met Candy going sobo in WA.

        Reply
  • Sally Forth : Jun 28th

    Hey Ibex – loved this article and hearing your experience/perspective. Also, thanks for validating mine and No Doubt’s complete nerd status 🙂
    When I summited Katahdin with the NOBOs, I had a different experience. Hiking down the Hunt trail, I knew that I would be sad that my NOBO friends were leaving the trail. But as we hiked down, the reality was hitting them that they were leaving the trail for good. I knew that tomorrow morning I would be getting up to start the journey back to the trailhead (admittedly all the way in VA), but many of them were really feeling the loss of the thru-hiking experience.
    I believe that is part of the reason so many flip-floppers seemed of a different mindset. We had decided to try to get ahead of that end of trail “grief” and really really enjoy the last part of the journey.
    So glad we met and I hope we meet again one day!

    Reply

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