Why Go SOBO: Perks to Going Against the Flow
Only 12 percent of all Appalachian Trail thru-hikers last year hiked southbound from Maine to Georgia, and roughly only 1,500 thru-hikers have ever completed a southbound hike in the entire history of the AT. This total is less than half of the hikers that attempted thru-hiking northbound in 2016. I guess you can’t blame the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for saying that “Maine has never been a popular place to start a thru-hike, and may never be”. While southbounders – commonly referred to as “SOBOs” – may be few and far between, there are plenty of reasons future thru-hikers should consider joining the ranks and hiking southbound towards Springer Mountain.
Benefits of a SOBO thru-hike
The Time of Year
Having a start date of June, July, or even August works perfectly for those who just graduated from high school or college/graduate school. The best news? You’ll be home in time for the holidays.
If we had a dollar for every time someone told us that we’d “have snow in the Smokies” we wouldn’t have had to pay for a single hostel the entire hike. While it obviously got chillier as the months went on, we only slept outside on two nights that had sub-freezing temperatures. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad (and no, we did not see snow in the Smokies). On the flip side, NOBOs can get swamped with cold, wet weather for the first third of their hike which can be a real downer and make hikers start visiting their “Why I’m thru-hiking” list earlier than anticipated.
One of our absolute FAVORITE perks of going SOBO was that we were literally hiking with autumn. We started to see the foliage change when we entered Connecticut, and we were still enjoying the amazing views of fall all the way through mid-Virginia.
Yes, tackling Maine and New Hampshire first is hard. But guess what? It’s going to be hard regardless of which direction you thru–hike. We were so happy to hike southern Maine and the Whites with fresh legs and a fresh hiker outlook. By the time we were in Tennessee, we were so physically and mentally exhausted at the end of each day that we frequently noted how happy we were to be on the soft, rolling terrain of the south instead of the opposite.
^^Maine vs. Tennessee vv
Lower mileage days were our norm for the first part of our hike and it didn’t bother us at all, since it was all we knew. However, we chatted with plenty of NOBOs who couldn’t believe the drop in their average mileage once they reached the northern states and were struggling with this mental roadblock. In addition to bypassing this obstacle, once we hit the mid/southern states we had our hiking legs and could really start cranking out enjoyable higher mileage days on the nice terrain.
In the beginning of a southbound thru-hike, there is infinitely less on or near trail support. Up north, we would typically spend a week or so between towns and resupplies, which was fine because we were happy to be spending most of our time outdoors while we still had good weather. But the further south we got, the more exhausted we were and the colder the nights were getting. Luckily, we were able to stop in towns and hostels much more frequently to sleep and resupply, which enabled us to carry lighter packs and stay warm. The benefit of being closer to towns and hostels towards the end of our thru-hike was a huge lifesaver for both our physical and mental well being.
It’s not crowded, but it’s not lonely either
We rarely had to worry about space to sleep at night, and if we did it was only during the summer when there were local groups on weekend trips. At the same time, I don’t think we pitched our tent alone at all the first two months (even when we stealthed). My favorite example of the lack of SOBO loneliness was on our second to last night in the Smokies (pictured below). We stayed in a shelter with 14 other SOBOs, which doesn’t sound like a lonely number to me.
There is still trail magic
Albeit, there isn’t going to be as much as you would have as a NOBO. But you know what? SOBOs appreciate every bit of trail magic that much more. As a SOBO, just a small cooler full of soda or a gallon of filtered water waiting at a road crossing is exciting and genuinely appreciated.
Take as long as you’d like
There’s no constant little voice in the back of your head telling you to hurry up and finish your thru-hike before the terminus closes for the season.
Mentally, you don’t have to keep reminding yourself that the “worst is yet to come” because, guess what? You’re a total rockstar and you’ve already done it.
So, when you start to daydream about your future thru-hike, remember that you don’t have to start at Springer. And to all you SOBOs out there getting ready to head to Katahdin — GOOD LUCK!
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