My Plan to Flip-Flop Hike the AT

Soon, I will begin my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. I decided to hike the AT for a few reasons. The biggest reason is the community. There are so many individuals and organizations that maintain the trail and support the hikers. The AT is heavily trafficked and everyone looks out for each other. I am less intimidated about embarking on my first long-distance hike knowing that I am likely to encounter more experienced hikers and other supporters as I make my way down the trail. I refer to my backcountry excursions as episodes of “Idiot vs. Wild” because I always seem to make some silly mistake while I’m developing my backpacking skills. So far my mistakes include:

  • Injuring myself after doing 15 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain in a single day on my first backpacking trip
  • Hiking a 4,000 footer in the White Mountains dehydrated because I was nervous about drinking brown water (I later learned that the tannins in the water are completely safe)
  • Nearly getting lost in the Adirondacks after realizing too late that there were no trail markers above treeline on the small mountain I had hiked
  • Freezing my water filter after carelessly leaving it out in 26-degree weather – freezing introduces holes that render the filter ineffective
Elevation profile of a steep 4,000-foot mountain.

Maybe don’t do this hike on a humid August afternoon while you’re dehydrated.

I think it’s helpful to be forthcoming about the mistakes we make since they are a natural part of the learning process. While these mistakes didn’t put me in serious danger, I’m not trying to go out of my way to put my wilderness survival skills to the ultimate test. Beginner mistakes are typically benign on a trail like the AT, where help is never very far away.

A mountain landscape on a sunny late summer day.

My view from Grass Pond Mountain while I thought about panicking that I was lost. I knew I was fine since I was carrying a satellite device that would send my location to search and rescue if needed. Later, after hearing my story, the park ranger assured me he would have been happy to come get me if I had been in trouble. I told him I was glad it didn’t come to that.

Besides the community aspect, the AT is close to home. It is the trail in my backyard. I’ve spent most of my life on the East Coast and have family and friends in Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine. The AT is where I got my initial backcountry camping experience and where I discovered my love of backpacking. I have had the privilege of visiting many interesting places including Tunisia, Japan, and Greenland. I have absolutely loved my travel experiences, but lately I have mixed feelings about travel and the ethics of tourism. I love adventuring and learning about new places, and recently I’ve come to appreciate the fact that there is so much to explore right where I am. I feel that the AT will be an incredible place to have an epic adventure close to home.

View from the summit of Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park.

I will begin my hike going northbound from Harpers Ferry, WV. After reaching the northern terminus in Maine, I will return by car or train to Harpers Ferry and hike southbound to complete the trail at the southern terminus. This style of hike, called a “flip-flop,” is increasing in popularity but still less common than a traditional northbound (“NOBO”) hike from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. This structure gives me more time to finish the trail within one calendar year (which is the definition of a “thru hike”). The northern terminus at Mount Katahdin closes for the winter season around mid-October, and most hikers start their NOBO hikes in April or May to avoid wintry conditions at the start of their hike. I was eyeing a May start date due to prior commitments in April, and since a thru hike of the AT takes 5-7 months, I didn’t want to feel rushed by giving myself only 5 months. I want the flexibility to take 7 months for my trek if I so desire, and with a flip-flop that is easy. An added bonus of the flip-flop hike is more mild weather throughout the hike compared to a NOBO which includes a lot of hot, humid weather during summer months in the southern states. In addition, due to the increasing popularity of thru hiking, a flip flop helps conserve resources on the trail and in surrounding communities, while providing a balance of social opportunities and solitude. For all of these reasons, I was sold on a flip flop the moment I learned about it. 

For some people, hiking a continuous footpath is meaningful, and for others, crushing miles and completing their hikes in a short span of time is satisfying. Those things aren’t really important to me. I’m more focused on taking my time and learning something about the new places I get to visit. There’s a saying in the hiking community: “hike your own hike” (HYOH). This is a rare moment in life where there are no rules. I can’t wait to get out there and hike on my own terms. The increasing popularity of flip-flop hikes has helped me focus on what is most important to me rather than what is conventional. 

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Comments 4

  • Bluewhale : May 2nd

    I’m looking forward to your posts. Should I ever hike the AT, it’ll be your hike profile and hopefully your attitude. Go for it!

  • Peter : May 3rd

    Well written, and totally agree about being open regarding our own errors! Good luck, and have a great adventure!

  • Cindy : May 4th

    I’m so excited for you. This will be such a great adventure. 🙂

  • Roz : May 8th

    God willing I ever get the time off for a thru, I have decided on a flip-flop as well. I enjoy your writing style and your sense of balance. I am looking forward to following along!


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