Why I’m Not Hiking the Appalachian Trail Northbound

Upon learning of my plans to attempt the AT, my friends and family who know a little bit about the trail often ask about my direction of travel. And, they are often a little confused by my answer. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, so I’m hoping this post clears up my reasoning for the manner in which I will hike the Appalachian Trail.

So you’re hiking north, right?

Well, no. The content surrounding thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is very NOBO-centric. Well, duh, that’s because most people hike the AT from Georgia to Maine. It’s the canonical thru-hiking experience! Well, I might add, the average prospective 2000-miler also quits the trail, so perhaps its best not to look at the averages.

I began my preparations for the trail a bit over a year ago with no doubt that I would begin my hike at Springer Mountain. It was easy to imagine because that’s how everybody does it, and the vast majority of online vlogs, documentaries, and journals about thru-hikers’s experiences on the trail are from NOBOs. While I’m sure I would enjoy a south-to-north hike, given my time constraints this year, I determined that my original plan to NOBO was going to be a no-go.

There’s just one problem…

According to the ATC, most AT thru-hikers begin in March or early April in Georgia. This gives them the longest window of okay-ish weather and allows hikers to reach Katahdin before it closes for the season around mid-October. This leads to a bubble of thru-hikers as they make their way north, contributing to the social aspect of the trail that attracts many folks.

However, I am operating under some limiting factors, time-wise. I am currently a senior in college and will not graduate for another month. Thankfully, I was able to request a later-than-usual start date for my full-time return to the company for which I interned last summer, allowing me to attempt the AT in the window between. However, I must be in New York City by early October for my first day of work as a software engineer. This gives me just under five untethered months, some of which I must set aside for the logistics of moving on both ends.

Realistically, I have about four months from mid-May to mid-September during which I can hike. While walking northbound would certainly be feasible during this time frame, when considering my other goals and wishes for the hike, it just doesn’t make as much sense. The idea of a NOBO hike was so enmeshed in my mind with all that comes with hiking in the bubble—instant tramilies, copious amounts of trail magic, the whole social aspect—and these would not as much be the case if I started in Georgia in May.

Starting from ahead

I’ve never liked the feeling of being behind, and I realized that if I started NOBO on my timeline, that’s exactly what I would be doing. I’d be so focused on “catching up” to the people ahead of me that I might forget to enjoy all the amazing stuff that’s all around—or at least that’s my prediction. Plus, I’d be hard-pressed to reach Katahdin before I have to get off-trail, and I worry I could push things too fast, potentially leading to injury.

SOBO was never really an option for me, as starting in June—when the northern end of the trail opens up—would not leave me enough time to reach Georgia before I have to start working. When I really thought about it, a Flip-Flop just made more sense. Still, it was super hard to get over the mental hurdle of doing a “non-traditional” thru-hike. The NOBO experience looms so largely in the minds of prospective thru-hikers that I wonder if the desire for that particular type of experience usurps the desire to thru-hike in general.

Instead, I am doing the “inside out” Flip-Flop, starting at Harper’s Ferry, going NOBO and flipping back to WV to hike the southern part of the trail SOBO. It’s one of the closer parts of the trail to my mom’s house, and should I not be able to quite complete the full AT before my job starts, it would be a lot easier for me to return to the Southern part of the trail to complete the remaining section later on. I’ll get into some of the other pros below.

My upcoming start point!

Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I?

I go to a college where it feels like you only have six career options: medicine, law, engineering, consulting, finance, or academia. This has shown me firsthand the dangers of believing that doing what everyone else seemingly wants will always lead to personal satisfaction. Yes, I’m going to be a software engineer—and it’s a choice I’m very happy with—but I know a lot of people who aren’t quite so thrilled with following the established paths. Picking a direction in which to hike surely can’t be as serious as deciding on a career, though, right? Well, maybe not, but it’s a choice you have to live with day in and day out for more than a third of a year, so maybe everyone should put a little more weight onto the decision.

Last year, the completion rates for NOBO and SOBO hikes were 28% and 26%, respectively, whereas about 36% of Flip-Floppers hiked 2000+ miles. While I’m not sure if this data is large enough to be statistically significant, it certainly seems like a substantial difference. I bet there are a lot of reasons for this increase in completion, but I think one big one has to be that deciding to hike not NOBO means you’re putting more thought into the hike on the front end and thus better preparing yourself for all that it entails—knock on wood.

Sure, I could have waited a few years until I had the chance to have the canonical March-April start NOBO thru-hike, but even if that time frame were feasible, I don’t know that it would be the best experience for me. For one, I really hate sleeping with a bunch of other people around me. Hearing about how crowded some of the Southern hostels and shelters are at this time of year—along with the Norovirus outbreak—makes me glad that I’ll likely be hiking without many people around me come my Southern segment. Also, as I live in North Carolina right now, I could not imagine hiking in this level of pollen and spring showers without an indoor place to come home to every day.

If I find people of a similar speed to hike with during parts of my journey, I’ll be happy, but I won’t count on it. Sometimes, I like hiking or running with friends, but honestly, it’s usually a frustrating experience for everyone involved. Someone is faster than the other person; they’re mad they have to wait for the slower party; the slower person is constantly being two-stepped by their partner and feels bad about themselves. As there will be fewer people around me for most of my hike, I’m hoping there’s less pressure to keep a particular pace, allowing me to better hike my own hike.

Having my cake and eating it too

Having a less crowded thru-hike is not only good for introspection and physical challenge, but also for the trail itself. The ATC recommends Flip-Flop hikes because they help reduce the impact on the trail due to overcrowding—and also support small businesses in a less bursty manner. Plus, I will not have to deal with cold weather at all, really.

Looking at the weather in the states I’ll cross during the summer, I don’t expect temperatures to go below 40 degrees. This means I can carry a lighter sleeping quilt and pad and bring along fewer layers of clothing. I’ve tested the lower limits of my gear and will keep a weather eye out for exceptional extremes, in which case I’d go into town.

Additionally, I’ll be starting on one of the less physically challenging parts of the trail, and while I’d like to think myself in good shape, hiking an average of 18 miles a day, every day with a huge pack on my back is something I’m definitely going to need time to ramp up to.

Lately, I’ve been hiking a lot in North Carolina, putting in some miles at Linville Gorge, the Mountains to Sea Trail, Eno River, and beyond. Living in this state for the better part of four years—while only having a car and being able to go farther afield than the Triangle for one of those—makes me really excited to hike through the southern states.

While I know Katahdin looms large in everyone’s imagination, looking at places like the Roan Highlands, the Smoky Mountains, and the Blue Ridge Parkway makes me unsure which half I’m more looking forward to. In a sense, ending—assuming everything goes to plan—in Georgia after being a temporary Southerner feels more meaningful, as though I’m saying goodbye to this chapter in my life before moving on to perhaps the most different place in the world from the AT: New York City.

Not convinced yet? Well, hopefully, my forthcoming blogs will give a sense of what it’s like to do a slightly less common sort of thru-hike on the AT. At the very least, I’ve convinced myself that this is the right way to go, and that’s the opinion that matters most when planning out my dream hike!


A recent day hike at Pilot Mountain

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Comments 9

  • Sasamon : Apr 15th

    Mother mothered yet again

    • Heidi Smith : Apr 16th

      It’s what I do

  • Don K : Apr 15th

    I look forward to your future post. I will retire in a few years and am planning on doing the AT. I had also looked at doing the flip-flop like your doing so it will be refreshing to read your blogs. I wish you the best and have a safe hike.

    • Heidi Smith : Apr 16th

      Thank you, Don! I hope you enjoy following my hike

  • jen l : Apr 15th

    Hi Heidi! Im excited for you! I think you have a sound sensible plan. I look forward to following. God speed 🙏

    • Heidi Smith : Apr 16th

      Thanks, Jen!

  • Tractor : Apr 16th

    The only person you have to convince is yourself, I went NOBO and if I did it again I would flip-flop, HIKR YOUR HIKE.

    • Heidi Smith : Apr 17th

      Interesting perspective—thanks for the support!

  • Tromper : Apr 26th

    You’ve “engineered” this plan well on the tabletop.. keep in mind that your actual mileage/time ratio can vary widely due to weather, trail conditions and your health. A little Plan B leeway for yourself in there somewhere just in case.


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