Why Flip-Flopping Will Increase Your Chances for a Successful Thru-Hike
First of all, what the hell is a flip-flop besides a potentially good option for a camp shoe? A flip-flop is a type of hike that gives you an edge and makes finishing the trail more likely. Successfully beating the odds and hiking from Georgia to Maine is what every prospective thru-hiker wants, right? By definition, a flip-flop is a type of thru-hike where a hiker starts her journey in a less conventional spot on the trail, usually somewhere near the middle. Your journey will take you northbound (NOBO) part of the way and southbound (SOBO) for the rest of the trail. Though the options for where to start and end are nearly infinite, this article will focus on the benefits that come with starting a flip-flop thru-hike in the most common location at the A.T.’s informal halfway point, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Why makes flip-flopping so great?
You set yourself up for success!
Look at the numbers by clicking here: Appalachian Trail Conservancy thru-hike statistics. For various speculated reasons delved into below, the percentage rate of flip-floppers who finish the trail successfully is 57%. Compare that to the 26.12% success rate of NOBO hikers and the 31% success rate of those who start in Maine and journey south. Hindsight, as a flip-flopper myself, never once have I regretted having a part 1 and a part 2 to my six month journey. I was successful as a thru-hiker ONLY because I chose this alternative method of enjoying the trail. The statistics from the ATC back up that opinion.
Less-crowded trail is in better shape
Quoting one of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy employees here, “We love our flip-floppers!” Why? The linear approach to hiking the A.T., more commonly starting in GA and hiking north, is egregiously destructive for the trail. It creates traffic jams and large crowds stomping around the same place at the same time. Sadly, more humans equals more damage to the trail. Doing your part to leave no trace is of titanic importance, although trail erosion and impact will happen in high-traffic areas no matter how hard we try to take care of it. Since most of us get out in nature to avoid traffic jams and crowds, it makes sense to plan a bit around it. That said, flip-flopping allows you to meet more people overall but offers a much less crowded experience for you and for the trail. The first time you visit an overflowing privy or land at a campsite for the night only to find it’s full, you’ll know the meaning of a trail that’s “too crowded”. Flip-flopping helps you avoid these discomforts.
You get the best of both worlds: solitude and socialization
Are you looking for a social experience? Solitude? Or would you enjoy the best of both? Starting from Harpers Ferry any time between late April and late July puts you in the middle of the “bubble” of thru-hikers heading north. Though you won’t be able to keep up with those who have been hiking from Georgia at first, rest assured, there are myriad of others just behind you, and our beloved trail has a way of putting you with the exact people with whom you are supposed to be.:) Somehow it just knows. The trail is magical!
Flip-flopping provides a longer hiking season
One of the speculations around the large success rate of flip-floppers is the hiking season is lengthened for you, so you have a longer window of available start and end times. The big rush for NOBO hikers is that Baxter State Park, the keeper of Katahdin, closes in mid-October or earlier depending on weather conditions. Flip-flopping allows you to make it to Katahdin in plenty of time and of utmost importance, you avoid Maine’s horribly uncomfortable black fly season.
You build your trail legs gradually
Another incredible benefit, particularly if you’re not in the best hiking shape, is that you start your hike on the easiest miles of terrain. That is NOT to say it’s easy, but the boulders, rock climbing, and elevation gains are not as frequent through West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Slowly you learn how to maneuver increasingly complex terrain as you hit New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, but still, it is gradual. You build your trail legs and gain endurance well before hitting the White Mountains and good old southern Maine! Check out the captions in these pictures to see how the trail increases in complexity as you hike north.
The weather’s in your favor
In the spirit of saving the best for last, guess what? With a flip-flop hike, the weather, a hiker’s best friend or biggest enemy, is in your favor too! When it’s the hottest time of year, you are in the north. In the delightful cool of autumn, you’re heading south and probably traveling through Virginia in the fall. That in itself provides daily breathtaking, awe-inspiring views everywhere. Virginia in the spring is green, only green. In the fall? It’s the woods of many colors. Walking through a rainbow and finding that pot of gold every day, every step is like walking through a postcard.
In summary, hike your own hike! Set yourself up to succeed and get the most enjoyment from your journey and flip-flop away! The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is promoting the benefits of flip-flopping and alternative hikes. Click here to read more. There’s also an annual flip-flop party to kick off your journey on April 16 and 17 this year. Info on the fun can be found by clicking here: Flip-flop kick off
“You know the nearer your destination the more you’re flip-flopping away.” Succeed your own way. You’ve got this!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
I’m flip flopping too, but take the numbers with a grain of salt. They really don’t have a system to track flip flippers. If they are collecting data at the ends and Harper’s Ferry, they might not get accurate numbers on people attempting flip flops until registration become universal. Say I start at Demascus and ditch at Front Royal, the would never know I was attempting a thru hike
Fantastic article Clarity! Do you happen to have a Trailjournal that you kept in addition to the Youtube videos? My wife and I intend on flip flopping in 2017 and are gathering as many resources as possible.
I did a flip-flop in 2014 from Pearisburg, VA to Katahdin and then from Pearisburg to Springer. Started April 5 (my 69th birthday). With some time off the trail for other obligations and healing from a minor injury, I finished at Springer December 15. I kept a journal at http://www.trailjournals.com/nubbins. I still need to fill in some gaps, but most of it is there. Feel free to contact me with questions.
I am considering a flip fop. I would like to leave Harper’s Ferry in April to Georgia. Then Harper’s Ferry to Maine. I have not seen anyone mention this option.
I found myself taking the flip flop route for somewhat ‘different’ reasons to many hikers…..simply because Iam not a citizen of the USA, and only allowed into your country for more than 3 months at a time, under the visa waiver programme.
So it was a hiked from Springer to Woods Hole Hostel, (April24/6July 2012) where by chance I met a German hiker named ”Uhaul’ who quite understood my situation, and very kindly gave me a ride to New York, from where I made my way to Canada.
Eventually I was able to re enter the USA at Fort Kent Me. on 1st August 2012; on 3rd August I summited Kathadin, and by 9 Sept. reached Rattle River Shelter 300 miles down the AT. During the following 2 years I completed the AT, hiking NoBo, with visits to Canada in 2013.
But for those of us foreigners (on the visa waiver programme) the flip flop route is definitly worth considering, though it does help to have friends in Ontario/Quebec. And ‘yes’, I was allowed to leave the USA, visit Canada, and return although the amount of time I was meant to be away before being allowed to re enter the USA was never precisely determined. …..’Nevis Beeman’
Excellently written article. I am a stats junky and the pictures and videos are a great addition. I wish i could have followed your hike but i only started following these blogs last summer. I am a future hiker, still not sure on departure date as my kids are still in college and i can’t bale on life just yet, and i appreciate the amount of info on yout blog.