People can thru-hike the AT in three different ways.
The first way is to go Northbound, or NOBO, where you start at the Southern Terminus, Springer Mountain, Georgia, and hike to the Northern Terminus, Mount Katahdin, Maine. This is the most “traditional” way and by far the most popular. Some NOBOs for the 2019 season are already getting started! For a really long time, I just assumed I would be hiking north. Every blog I read, every YouTube video I watched, they all were NOBO hikers. It really is only in the last year that I started to think that the NOBO route wasn’t for me, for reasons I’ll get into below.
The second option is going Southbound, or SOBO, where you start in Maine and hike to Georgia. I didn’t feel like a SOBO was right for me either, since I wanted to get to Katahdin after hiking a long distance since it is a great, tangible goal I can keep in mind. There’s also the fact that starting in Maine means starting on some of the hardest terrain on the trail.
And then there’s the third way, the flip-flop. A flip-flop isn’t really “one” way to hike the trail, but a myriad of different approaches that involve breaking up the trail into different sections, but still hiking all the miles of the trail. You could start at Springer and hike to New York, for instance, and then flip up to Katahdin and hike back to where you left the trail in New York. Or you could start at Damascus, Virginia, hike to Katahdin, then go down to Springer and hike back to Damascus. There are infinite ways you can do a flip-flop, but the most common way is to start in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and just shy of the half-way point of the trail. From there, hike north to Maine, then bus/train/fly back to Harpers Ferry and hike south to Springer. That’s the way I’ll be thru-hiking. There’s so many reasons why a flip-flop can be a great option for people, including better weather, starting on easier terrain, and more flexible timing. However, the big reason why I’ll be attempting a flip-flop is the same reason why the ATC is encouraging them: overcrowding. Thru-hiking is becoming more and more popular and there are significant issues with large groups of people using a section of trail at one time. The biggest place that this is an issue is in the southern portions of the trail, around the time of the traditional NOBO start, March and April. Every year, the ATC encourages prospective thru-hikers to self-register their hike, so hikers can see how many other people are starting and they can (hopefully) spread themselves out. If you go to this page, you can look at graphs from this year and past years that show how many people started from different locations on different days. If you look at last year, on March 1st, 87 people registered starting their hike at Springer. As of this writing, there are 58 people registered for March 1st of this year. And those numbers only show people who decided to register, so actual numbers are definitely higher. March 1st is always on of the really popular days to start, but really any day in March there are probably an average of 20ish people starting.
Think about those kind of numbers for a second.
I don’t know about you, but one of the reasons why I want to hike the Appalachian Trail is for an opportunity for solitude and connecting with nature. I don’t know how well I could do that if I started NOBO. For purely selfish reasons, I just don’t want to be around that many people. Who wants to be competing with 40 other people to use a shelter? Or a privy?? Not me. And I’m not even going to go into the outbreak of things like Norovirus that seem to plague NOBO hiking bubbles. I’m sure you can still find peace and solitude in Georgia and North Carolina if you decide to go NOBO, but you’re going to have to work for it.
And then there’s the non-selfish reasons. The trail is getting severely beat up by the amounts of people starting in Georgia. Vegetation is trampled, trash starts to collect, and people forget how deep 6 inches really is when digging their cat holes. You’d think that every person who voluntarily decides to hike for 6 months would have an understanding of Leave No Trace principles, but sadly that’s not the case. For every person who packs out not only their trash but also trash they find on the ground, there’s someone else who decides that half-burning their trash at a shelter is good enough. And even if every single person was an LNT hero, the sheer number of people would not be good for erosion, vegetation, and shelter and privy use. I can at least mitigate the harm I will do by avoiding those overused areas during their peak.
So that’s why I’m flip-flopping. I have seen people on the internet questioning if a flip-flop is a ‘real’ thru-hike, because it’s not done in one continuous trip. To them, I say, “Hike your own hike. I’ll still be hiking every single mile of the AT in a single trip. I’ll just be starting in the middle.”
If you want to learn more about flip-flopping, I recommend starting with the ATC. They have a page with all sorts of great alternative hikes.