4 Reasons Why SOBO > NOBO Thru-Hiking
I am a timid hiker. I like to sleep in shelters with other people and a knife near at hand. (Though, my husband insists we tarp; the only reason I do it is that I’m 100% certain the bear- or mad man- will go for him instead of me, because I scream louder and thrash more violently.) I don’t climb rocky outcroppings and on McAfee’s, I only barely managed the required leg-hanging picture (more of a foot-hanging picture, if we’re being honest). I like to do things by the book, and I would NEVER tear up my copy of The AT Guide (what if I need to compare sections? What if I need to go back to a town? What if I need that elevation profile from three months ago? What if, what if, what if??).
Thus, when my husband-to-be suggested a southbound hike almost two years ago, I balked. He quickly explained why we had to hike southbound (I was a middle school teacher, so our hike couldn’t start until July), but I was still skeptical. On my first AT hike, in 2011, I followed all the rules. I started at Springer like everyone else, in mid-March like everyone else, with a heavy pack like everyone else and plenty of town stops like everyone else. I heard about SOBO’s along the way, but they seemed like mythical creatures with superhuman hiking powers. I would never be able to hike the great Katahdin on Day One and then the terrifying darkness of the 100-Mile in my first week. No way! I was a NOBO through and through.
Dan, my now-husband, is persistent and convincing. He was certain Katahdin wouldn’t kill me, and, surprisingly, it didn’t (it only came close). I couldn’t flex my calf muscles until somewhere around Monson without crying out in pain, but that was of little consequence in the end. The 100-Mile wasn’t nearly as dark and foreboding as I’d imagined (though, getting Norovirus 20 miles outside of Monson certainly put a damper on that particular section). And, by Vermont, hiking SOBO seemed like the only way to go.
So, let’s get down to it. Why is a SOBO hike the better hike?
1. Timing, Timing, Timing
Most NOBO’s have to start between late February and early April, leaving them shivering from Springer to the Smokies and beyond. My NOBO hike didn’t see me in short sleeves until the day we headed into the Smokies, and within three hours we were bundled up against a blizzard that didn’t quit until we left the Smokies five days later. Granted, SOBO’s also run the risk of hitting cold weather. However, their window of opportunity is much more limited. As SOBO’s, we did get snowed-in at Wise Shelter in the Grayson Highlands, but who didn’t have to battle some sort of crazy weather in that section?? During my NOBO hike in the Highlands, I was barely able to stand up against the wind and there wasn’t a pony in sight.
2. SOBO Wings > Trail Legs
Everyone hiking long distance experiences the phenomenon called Trail Legs, that moment when suddenly you no longer notice uphills thanks to the outstanding leg muscles you’ve developed somewhere in the last 50-100 miles. As a SOBO, you get wings to go along with those legs.
After crying, sweating and cursing our way through Maine and New Hampshire (spoiler alert- the climbs of the Whites don’t end in New Hampshire, they end in the 100-Mile), we soon found ourselves hiking upwards of 25 miles a day without blinking an eye. We weren’t reaching shelters exhausted and desperate for bed, but instead wondering, “Why not go another 10? Heck, there’s a campsite in just 15 miles! It’s only 5:00; there’s still plenty of time for a campfire!” The climbs and descents after ME and NH felt like butter compared to what we’d just done, and nothing was ever going to be that hard again.
3. Nothing Will Ever be that Hard Again!
Let me say it one more time, NOTHING will ever be that hard again! Maine and New Hampshire, as the first states on our hike, literally almost killed me. Multiple times. I’m clumsy. I fall a lot, and the mountains up north have NO sympathy for hikers like me. I’ve never been more banged up, bandaged up and just plain fed up in my life. However, I did survive (mostly thanks to my husband’s first aid skills), and the moment I walked into Vermont it hit me, “nothing will ever be that hard again.”
NOBO’s spend 1700 miles thinking about, hearing about and stressing over the Whites and Maine, but SOBO’s get that nonsense out of the way on day one. I will admit, Katahdin is the best mountain on the trail. Once I recovered from our summit of Katahdin (about 100 miles later), I was a little disappointed that we’d never hike another mountain like that again. However, the relief I felt at being a third of the way through Maine and a step closer to the Green Tunnel vastly outweighed any disappointment.
4. The “Rat Race”
Hiking NOBO often felt like a race. Each morning was a race to get up first and claim a spot at the picnic table to make coffee; each day was a race to get to camp first and claim a spot in the shelter. Some variations included racing to town to get a spot at the hostel or racing to a road crossing where- word had it- a trail angel was set up but her supplies were already running low. Unless you leave Springer early and hike fast or leave late and never catch the bubbles, as a NOBO you’ll be trapped in a world of crowded shelters, limited trail magic and too many thumbs at one hitching post.
During our SOBO hike, we rarely dealt with the bubbles. No, we never snagged any work-for-stays in the Whites, because those NOBO bubbles beat us to them each time. And in Vermont, we rarely got to stay in shelters, again thanks to those bubbles (although the Vermont mice were so daring, we counted ourselves lucky most nights). Other than that, however, we had the trail to ourselves. We were welcomed into Damascus like royalty, one last influx of cash and hiker trash before the big winter lull. We had places to stay at almost every town stop, and we still got to hike with a trail family. While there are fewer SOBO’s by far, there are enough of us to create bubbles of our own, albeit smaller, more manageable ones.
I definitely chose the SOBO life out of necessity, but it also chose me. All the difficulties of Maine and New Hampshire, from a bone-deep shin gash to soggy boots that didn’t dry out until Hanover, were born out into tougher muscles and a clearer mentality the rest of the way. That being said, please hike NOBO and leave the SOBO hikes to me! Just kidding, go treat yourself to a SOBO hike and thank me with a few kind words as you stroll leisurely through the Virginia Blues as though the whole state is one big Shenandoah State Park!
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