SoBo Vs. NoBo Thru Hikers: The Tiny Differences and The Immense Similarities

Fake it ‘til you make it but if they ask, just be honest.

I’ll admit it. I don’t have a journalism degree. Years ago, I briefly wrote for a small magazine distributed around my college campus but other than that I am wholly untrained. I don’t know how to properly interview someone, much less how to tie the results up into a nicely presented package that I had long before set out to create from the very beginning.

That being said, until this very moment (the moment of having to finally write down words), I was very excited to take on an assignment Zach gave me on the topic of the differences between South Bound and North Bound thru hikers. Back in November, one of the most prolific Trail Angels of the 2013 North Bound season was set up at Woody Gap for a South Bound hiker feed to help send them out with a bang. So naturally, I joined in on the celebration and the awesome South Bounders I met while there were the inspiration that psyched me up to write on this topic. I was fascinated that all of the South Bounders I met were telling the same stories my North Bound hiking partners and I used to tell. The rocks were still in Pennsylvania, they also had too much rain up north, and Virginia seemed to take forever to them as well.

To start the ball rolling on this article, Zach and I combined forces and reached out to several South Bound friends of ours for some first hand information. I wrote the questions and they wrote the answers. It seemed as if they loved giving the answers almost as much as I loved reading them all. I compiled them all together and took notes of the general trends as well as the outliers of each question and topic covered in the interview. To the best of my untrained ability, it was a fairly thorough and unbiased sampling of information… But in the end, it got me no where. (This isn’t to say that the interviewers didn’t help at all, they did… may be too much.)

As I read over the answers, I began to see more and more that North Bounder’s and South Bounder’s are just the same, or rather, so opposite that we are perfect mirror images of each other.

The interviews seemed to only tell me that, yes, as we all know and expected, hiking South Bound means there will be less trail magic, and, yes, as we all know and expected, hiking South Bound means seeing less thru hikers overall. These are South Bound stereotypes and they warrant such an aesthetic, much like the greatly talked about North Bound bubble.

As a North Bounder this past season, I spent a lot of energy avoiding the “North bound bubble”. (A Tip: you can’t) But even as true as these ideas are, there are also exceptions. Every South Bounder I met has a beautiful story about trail magic that they will not forget for many years to come and several never had a day spent alone while on the trail.

But in every way that was interesting, that mattered, or that seemed surprising, I was finding that North Bounders and South Bounders are not the titles of the two separate camps of thru hikers, but simply the collective inhabitants of the Appalachian Trail. They lived the same lives, climbed the same mountains, ate the same food, visited the same towns. So what if a North Bounder saw Hiawasee, Georgia in March or April and a South Bounder saw it in November or December. When you were at one or another place isn’t what makes a thru hiker. It’s the Trail that makes you a thru hiker.

But with all of that pretext out of the way, I won’t leave you empty handed when you came looking for something. Here are my findings…

What Separates SOBOs + NOBOs

First off, some stats from the ATC

The number of hikers who choose to hike South Bound are but a fraction of those who choose to hike North Bound. We are talking well over a 1,000 North Bounders start at Springer Mountain each year and in the same season only about 200 to 250 South Bounders start at Katahdin. On top of that, the number of North Bound starts seems to grow by the hundreds each year, but the South Bound starts have more or less stayed the same in the past six to eight years. Interestingly, the completion rates are about the same for both North Bound and South Bound hikes but surprisingly South Bounders only make up 10% of all recorded thru hikes! (North Bounders come in at 65%, Sections hikers at 20% and Flip Floppers at 5%) Any thru hiker is a bona fide bad ass, but this makes South Bounders a bad ass’s bad ass!

Now on to the highlights of my collected data

On Personality Types: Of the hikers I interviewed, they were pretty evenly split between personality types that leaned towards either an extrovert or an introvert. Many people believe that South Bounders are a more introverted group as a whole but I didn’t find this to be true. During my own hike, the largest and by far the most rowdy band of hikers traveling together was a group of South Bounders (That actually was a surprise). And sure, experiencing less human contact than usual as you live a life among the dirt and trees for half a year has the tendency to make someone a little bit more reserved, or even strange, in the eyes of others. But even still, I don’t recall seeing a single North Bounder at the end of my trip that didn’t have glazed over eyes and a new found, severely crooked sense of humor, despite being pretty well socialized during the hike.

On Choosing Direction: If fact, none of the South Bounders I asked said they chose their direction because there were less people. It’s a unique benefit of the South Bound experience but most hikers I heard from had just come to a major change in life (college graduation, sold a house or simply wanted to walk home) and didn’t see a reason to sit around until Spring to get going.

On Trail Magic: Though I fully expected to hear it, I was still saddened by the lack of trail magic for the South Bound hikers. The joy of a cooler of soda on a hot summer day is never to be underestimated but as one South Bounder named Kosmonaught said, the lack of it “made it more cherished”. When asked if he felt he received less trail magic, South Boound hiker Spider Web said, “If you mean free food, then yes, I know I did.” Which addresses the first tier of trail magic and leads us into the second. Sour Patch, another South Bounder, agreed with Spider Web’s sentiments on free food but said, “as far as the experiences and the way the trail provided, no.” He didn’t feel any less looked after than any North Bounder was. I loved to hear this, as I am a firm believer that the trail provides in a way that is far beyond us simple-minded hikers scouting out coolers.

On Information and Resources: Unfortunately for the South Bounders, many of those coolers turned up to be empty. This is a result of the biggest physical difference* on the trail between North Bounders and South Bounders: information and resources. They were empty most likely because it seems that the communities around the trail are much less aware about the South Bound season than the extremely noticeable North Bound season. To be honest, even when South Bounders are starting off at their highest count, it still amounts to less hikers than the slim numbers of North Bounders that end up in towns in Maine. They may be hardly noticeable to the townspeople compared to the yearly North Bound wave, who seems to have (almost) every town catering to its needs.

More On Information and Resources: Flip Flopping couple Lefty and Hush sited several towns in Virginia and North Carolina where they were received with a bit of surprise, if at all, as some establishments were already closed for the year. It seems as if many trail resources, everything from hostels to outfitters to shuttles, take a break during the South Bound season and gear up from the more lucrative North Bound season. This is understandable from a business aspect but it is still nonetheless unfortunate for the hiker community as a whole. In terms of information, is a solid vault of knowledge for South Bound info, but several hikers I talked with reverted to reading North Bound information backwards because most information, both before hand and while on the trail, are directed towards North Bounders. Flip Flop hiker The Roosta’ noted that he felt the flow of information was slightly hindered simply because “the best resources on the trail are the people hiking the trail” which he says there were fewer of than his days of hiking North Bound.

On Thinking We Are Different: The biggest perceived (though not actual, in my eyes) difference between North Bound and South Bound hikers, as well as my favorite, is the fact that we both think we are different. I know, you’re thinking this sounds stupid because obviously we are but I don’t think that is true at all. We are all doing the same thing, in different ways, yes, but it’s all the same in all the places where it really matters. My brother and I are like this. By the age I am right now, he was already married, had bought a house, co-started a business, and began working for a major insurance company making the big bucks. I have traveled fairly extensively as a trade in for his sort of stability but I am still stuck working two jobs for just above minimum wage in the land of rent-is-a-constant-struggle. The point is that our mother can’t see us as different in anyway (or so she tells me). I feel as if that is how the Appalachian Trail looks at North Bound and South Bound hikers and so should we.

We are all brothers and sisters and as always with siblings, they will pick on each other. North Bounders love to talk crap about South Bounders but they know damn well they can’t say anything to a South Bounder who has already made it out of the Whites. In fact many North Bounders are smart enough to pick their brain about it, though I remember a few who seemed to have a big head with visions of Katahdin dancing through it. And as for South Bounders, many love nothing more than to pick on North Bounders but they should know well enough to not step on any toes if they are less than 150 miles into the trail.

The two groups communicate in loving jabs but I think few would argue that the first time you saw a hiker headed the other direction wasn’t an intriguing and inspiring moment.  South Bound hiker Smash had an excellent way to put into words his interactions with those of the opposite direction that I believe both sides will deeply resonate with it. “My dealings with North Bounders ran the gamut. I’ll always make fun of North Bounders, but North Bounders are just people, which means there are good ones and bad ones like anything else.” With that, he spoke the truth.

*millions, billions maybe, (unlikely) will fight me on this and that’s okay because I understand that I may be far too existential in my view points to hold solid ground in the eyes of many

I would like to offer up a MAJOR thank you to all the hikers who pitched in to help out with this post! Spider Web, Kosmonaut, Lefty and Hush, Smash, SourPatch, The Roosta’ and many others. You are all top notch!! 

Have input on the differences between SOBO v. NOBO personality and/or lifestyle?  Please give us your two cents in the comments below.

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 3

  • lazerskull : Jul 31st

    Horrible article. WOT. Author basically dances around the subject. This is barely high school level journalism. How about something novel insightful how about real anecdotes how about showing us some of the people you speak of. Talking about your brother and mom? That is child’s play.

  • corndog : Sep 26th

    I almost forgot about how good the article was after I read the above comment. It is a good peace, nothing to crazy but thats how it is right? Thank you for putting your info and thoughts out there and old Laz up there can EAD.


What Do You Think?