Traditionally, Appalachian Trail thru hikers — and I suspect thru hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail — make their way from South to North, starting in late Winter and early Spring, following the seasons as they inch their way up the Appalachians toward the focal point of Maine’s Baxter State Park, or the Northern terminus of the AT — Mount Katahdin.
Those that start “late” — a label hastily applied, but useful for reference — typically begin at Mount Katahdin, and hike Southbound toward Springer Mountain, Georgia. Generally, this is because of weather conditions which become a concern in mid-October, as noted in this excerpt from the AT FAQ on the Baxter State Park website:
In the Fall of the year, hikers must arrange to hike Katahdin by October 15th. After this date the park is closed to all camping. Hence, A.T. hikers planning to combine a Fall hike of Katahdin with camping in the park must plan on hiking Katahdin before October 15th. Park officials emphasize October 15th as the cut-off date for hiking Katahdin, regardless of your camping plans, because statistics show that, in this northerly climate, chances are slim you will be able to successfully finish your Katahdin hike after this date.
While following the seasons and weather North is arguably the primary reason for starting an AT thru-hike in the South — albeit, it will be cold in the higher elevations no matter what time of year — there is also the notion of finishing the epic journey summiting “The Greatest Mountain”, which is how Katahdin’s name translates.
- Katahdin’s sign from August 1989 to July 1999 (ATC HQ, 2006)
But as I inch closer to 2016, I have pondered if a “flip-flop” hike would better serve my thru-hike (and the trail) than a traditional Northbound hike. Flip-floppers start somewhere in the middle of the AT, usually in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and hike to an endpoint of the trail. From their, they either flip-flop to the opposite terminus and hike toward their starting location, or they return to their starting location and hike on toward the other terminus.
Flip-floppers often hike to accommodate their schedules, or, in the case of Mount Katahdin’s Fall closure, a deadline. Midway through their hike, late or slow Northbound thru-hikers may discover they may not make it to Katahdin by October 15th. For these hikers, flip-flopping to Katahdin allows them to complete their thru-hike without having to worry if they’ll be able to finish their hike.
- The Potomac River from Weverton Cliffs, North of Harpers Ferry (2006)
The biggest reason I would flip-flop is to avoid the masses of hikers who are all starting at Springer Mountain: There were 1400 registered Northbound hikers this year, most of them beginning their hikes in March and April.
While voluntary trail registration aims to minimize overcrowding of the trail, flip-flopping also helps reduce impact on the trail in the South:
In recent years, the northbound A.T. thru-hike experience has been defined by severe overcrowding at the southern end of the Trail. Overcrowding puts undue pressure on, and inflicts damage to, the finite number of shelters and campsites, and on the springs and streams near which these accommodations are located. When too many people are crammed together at campsites, vegetation is trampled exposing bare ground, trash may accumulate and unsanitary conditions can ruin the traditional natural A.T. experience.
Crowding is intensified because hikers tend to start thru-hikes around specific dates, such as March 1, March 17, and especially April 1 and weekends.
But, as those who have thru-hiked the AT before me, I am told by Northbounders and Southbounders alike — or NOBOs and SOBOs, in “trailspeak” — that there is no escaping the social aspect of the trail.
In a recent New York Times article, Nicholas Kristof reflects on hiking sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. His observation on long-distance hiking is an interesting one:
It’s striking that hikers come to the trail for solitary reflection, yet often end up coalescing into groups — because we are social animals, and solitude is so much more fun when you have somebody to share it with.
And so, while escaping the crowds with a flip-flop is a consideration, I am leaning towards follow the seasons, joining the others who are attempting a Northbound thru-hike, and looking forward to hopefully summiting Mount Katahdin in 2016 before it closes in October.