First of all, what the hell is a flip-flop besides a potentially good option for a camp shoe? A flip-flop is a type of hike that gives you an edge and makes finishing the trail more likely. Successfully beating the odds and hiking from Georgia to Maine is what every prospective thru-hiker wants, right? By definition, a flip-flop is a type of thru-hike where a hiker starts her journey in a less conventional spot on the trail, usually somewhere near the middle. Your journey will take you northbound (NOBO) part of the way and southbound (SOBO) for the rest of the trail. Though the options for where to start and end are nearly infinite, this article will focus on the benefits that come with starting a flip-flop thru-hike in the most common location at the A.T.’s informal halfway point, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
What makes flip-flop thru-hikes more comfortable, you may ask?
You set yourself up for success! Look at the numbers by clicking here: Appalachian Trail Conservancy thru-hike statistics. For various speculated reasons delved into below, the percentage rate of flip-floppers who finish the trail successfully is 57%. Compare that to the 26.12% success rate of NOBO hikers and the 31% success rate of those who start in Maine and journey south. Hindsight, as a flip-flopper myself, never once have I regretted having a part 1 and a part 2 to my six month journey. I was successful as a thru-hiker ONLY because I chose this alternative method of enjoying the trail. The statistics from the ATC back up that opinion.
Less crowded trail is in better shape – Quoting one of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy employees here, “We love our flip-floppers!” Why? The linear approach to hiking the A.T., more commonly starting in GA and hiking north, is egregiously destructive for the trail. It creates traffic jams and large crowds stomping around the same place at the same time. Sadly, more humans equals more damage to the trail. Doing your part to leave no trace is of titanic importance, although trail erosion and impact will happen in high-traffic areas no matter how hard we try to take care of it. Since most of us get out in nature to avoid traffic jams and crowds, it makes sense to plan a bit around it. That said, flip-flopping allows you to meet more people overall but offers a much less crowded experience for you and for the trail. The first time you visit an overflowing privy or land at a campsite for the night only to find it’s full, you’ll know the meaning of a trail that’s “too crowded”. Flip-flopping helps you avoid these discomforts.
You get the best of both worlds, solitude and socialization! Are you looking for a social experience? Solitude? Or would you enjoy the best of both? Starting from Harpers Ferry any time between late April and late July puts you in the middle of the “bubble” of thru-hikers heading north. Though you won’t be able to keep up with those who have been hiking from Georgia at first, rest assured, there are myriad of others just behind you, and our beloved trail has a way of putting you with the exact people with whom you are supposed to be.:) Somehow it just knows. The trail is magical!
Notice any familiar faces in the three pictures below?
June 5, 2015 – My first day on trail I rain into friends I had met at Trail Days 3 weeks before.
Flip-flopping provides a longer hiking season – One of the speculations around the large success rate of flip-floppers is the hiking season is lengthened for you, so you have a longer window of available start and end times. The big rush for NOBO hikers is that Baxter State Park, the keeper of Katahdin, closes in mid-October or earlier depending on weather conditions. Flip-flopping allows you to make it to Katahdin in plenty of time and of utmost importance, you avoid Maine’s horribly uncomfortable black fly season.
You build your trail legs gradually – Another incredible benefit, particularly if you’re not in the best hiking shape, is that you start your hike on the easiest miles of terrain. That is NOT to say it’s easy, but the boulders, rock climbing, and elevation gains are not as frequent through West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Slowly you learn how to maneuver increasingly complex terrain as you hit New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, but still, it is gradual. You build your trail legs and gain endurance well before hitting the White Mountains and good old southern Maine! Check out the captions in these pictures to see how the trail increases in complexity as you hike north.
The weather’s in your favor! In the spirit of saving the best for last, guess what? With a flip-flop hike, the weather, a hiker’s best friend or biggest enemy, is in your favor too! When it’s the hottest time of year, you are in the north. In the delightful cool of autumn, you’re heading south and probably traveling through Virginia in the fall. That in itself provides daily breathtaking, awe-inspiring views everywhere. Virginia in the spring is green, only green. In the fall? It’s the woods of many colors. Walking through a rainbow and finding that pot of gold every day, every step is like walking through a postcard.
In summary, hike your own hike! Set yourself up to succeed and get the most enjoyment from your journey and flip-flop away! The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is promoting the benefits of flip-flopping and alternative hikes. Click here to read more. There’s also an annual flip-flop party to kick off your journey on April 16 and 17 this year. Info on the fun can be found by clicking here: Flip-flop kick off
“You know the nearer your destination the more you’re flip-flopping away.” Succeed your own way. You’ve got this!