Deciding to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as a Flip-flop

UPDATE: We successfully thru-hiked the AT in 2022 as a flip-flop! This post describes how we made the decision to do this thru-hike. For more detailed posts about our day-to-day and for specific tips and gear recommendations, check out our other AT blog posts.

Making the Decision to Thru-hike the AT

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is “the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.” It is roughly 2,200 miles and extends from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. Only about a quarter of hikers who begin thru-hiking (end-to-end backpacking) the AT make it. So, deciding to thru-hike the AT in 2022 was no small task. Developing the confidence to take on this kind of challenge, making logistical arrangements, and placing other life stuff (careers, homes, relationships, etc.) essentially on pause for almost 6 months has taken a lot of energy and investment. 

Just a couple of years ago, if you were to ask either one of us if we either had a desire to or felt that we were capable of thru-hiking one of the Triple Crown trails, we would have laughed. I would have said there is no way I’d want to take time out of my life and career to be dirty, live in the woods, and be scared of bears all day long. Kevin would have said there is no way that my wife would consider that, so I wouldn’t want to consider it for myself. Then, the pandemic hit, we lost a loved one to cancer, and we really started to reflect on and reevaluate what a fulfilled life looked like for us individually and as a couple. 

On the fifth day of section-hiking the Long Trail in Vermont (which also coincided with the Appalachian Trail), I told Kevin that I wanted to hike the AT. He was as surprised to hear it as I was to say it out loud. After just a few days backpacking, I, for the first time in my life perhaps, felt some level of peace and self-acceptance. Being on trail for a few days, where decisions are stripped to the studs and disconnection from daily responsibilities was possible, I was truly able to consider my needs, wants, and desires. I was able to see how strong and capable I am physically and mentally. I was able to reflect on what I want out of life and what is really important to me. There wasn’t much more to do than walk, eat, think, sleep, and do it all over again. I didn’t grow up spending time outside. I still hate bugs. I still don’t like feeling slimy moss under my feet when swimming in lakes or rivers. I still question where to set up my tent and if I put the stakes in correctly. I often do not feel like a typical “hiker trash” hiker who just loves every part of the thru-hiking life. But, I do like that I have begun finding my own identity on the trail. I have realized how much physical challenge, being with nature, myself, and the trail community, can teach me. 

So, about 9 months into this pandemic, we started more seriously discussing the idea of taking a break from everything to hike AT. There were a number of logistical challenges to consider: would we move? Would Kev take time off work (he loves his job)? Would this torpedo my dissertation process/career? Is there even a specific career I want? Can we afford this?

Sometime in the midst of all of this, I must have been talking a lot about my future and career path when my advisor just straight up asked me, do you want to thru-hike the AT? When I realized that I wanted to say yes, it felt really clear that we needed to make it happen.  

Planning a Flip-flop Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike

Grateful to have the privilege, means, and support to make this happen, the logistical elements started falling into place. We decided to work through the school year and start hiking in June 2022. Kevin will take a leave of absence from teaching and I will pause writing my dissertation and plan to graduate a year later than I had planned. To save money, we will move out of our apartment, put our belongings in storage, and rely on family members to take care of our car. 

There are three popular ways to thru-hike the AT: northbound (NOBO from Georgia to Maine), southbound (SOBO from Maine to Georgia), and flip-flop (start somewhere along the AT, usually in the middle, then return to that spot to finish hiking the trail). For some, doing the traditional NOBO thru-hike is an essential part of the AT experience. However, as two people who love the solitude of hiking, hate hot weather, and like the idea of lessening our impact on trail, we decided to do a flip-flop hike. Opting to thru-hike the at as a flip-flop is not the most popular choice. According to reports by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the vast majority of AT thru-hikers go NOBO. That said, it seems as though going SOBO or doing a flip-flop is becoming more popular over the years. The most common flip-flop itinerary starts in Harper’s Ferry, but since we need to start later in the year because of work constraints, we are going to start in Pawling, NY in June, hike up to Katahdin by around early August, then flip back down to Pawling and hike south to chase fall and finish at Springer Mountain around mid November (just in time for a Thanksgiving feast)! Our hope is that we will take just about 5 months to hike all 2,200 miles. 

The ATC has a bunch of different suggested flip-flop thru-hike options that were helpful to sift through. Starting in Pawling made the most sense for us because of our timing and its convenience to New York City, where we plan to stay with friends before we begin and when we flip. There is an Appalachian Trail Metro-North stop that runs on weekends and is right next to the trail. After getting over the initial disappointment of not finishing at Katahdin, I am really excited about our decision to flip-flop. Since we have spent most of our time hiking in New England, we are really looking forward to begin hiking in a place that feels like home. Then, we hope that the excitement of hiking in new places from New York down to Georgia will keep our motivation high and spirits up for the second half of the trip. Kevin and I have never done things super traditionally, so flip-flopping seems fitting for both of us. 

For the next eight months, we are getting ourselves prepared—testing and buying gear, backpacking and hiking, listening to podcasts, reading blogs and books, compiling audiobooks and playlists, and getting ourselves mentally ready. Here is our gear list. I’ve really been enjoying listening to The Trek’s Backpacker Radio and She Explores. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Unlikely Thru-hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey by Derick Lugo and The Appalachian Trail: A Biography by Phillip D’Anieri. Both books are very different. The former is a funny memoir about Mr. Fabulous’ AT thru-hike and the latter is about the history of the trail. We also started reading the book, Appalachian Trials, together. If anybody has any suggestions for books or podcasts we should listen to or read in preparation for the trip or while we are on trail, please send them our way! 

We have no delusions. This hike is going to be one of the most difficult physical, mental, and emotional endeavors we’ve ever taken on, but know that it will be worth it. I cannot wait to be part of the thru-hiking community, walk through Virginia (our home state), see the leaves change as we walk into North Carolina and Tennessee, feel my body and mind transform, and return to many of the trails in the Northeast that we’ve traversed already. 

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  1. Maureen Goldman
    November 1, 2021

    I am so excited for you both and so proud of you for taking on this life-changing challenge. You both are such an inspiration to me and I continue to be in awe of all the ways you have grown together and individually. I especially loved this sentiment that you shared, “After just a few days backpacking, I, for the first time in my life perhaps, felt some level of peace and self-acceptance. Being on trail for a few days, where decisions are stripped to the studs and disconnection from daily responsibilities was possible, I was truly able to consider my needs, wants, and desires.” What a powerful gift!!!!! It makes me want to run to a mountain right now.

    • Kathy
      November 1, 2021

      Thank you so much for reading Maureen! We so appreciate all of your support.

  2. Jedi
    December 30, 2021

    Hey there! I’m also planning a flip-flop, but I’m starting at Rockfish Gap in early April, targeting a Katahdin summit in early August, then flipping back down to Rockfish Gap again to finish on Springer Mtn in late October. So there’s a good chance we’ll cross paths at some point!

    I am in the minority apparently, because I did not get much value out of “Appalachian Trials”. Not only is it poorly edited, but I thought some of the gear advice towards the end was just plain dumb. I felt like as soon as I was done reading, it just evaporated from my mind as if I hadn’t read it at all. Plus the author was just plain stupid to start out with no prior backpacking experience whatsoever (now we know why so many people fail).

    A book that I was surprised with was “In Beauty May She Walk”, written by a woman who hiked the AT 20 years ago at age 60. There’s almost no discussion of gear or logistics or anything else like that – it’s more of a day-by-day memoir of her experiences and the people she meets along the way. But it’s very well-written and it gave me a good sense of what to expect when I’m out there.

    Anyway, good luck with your preparations and I hope to see you on the trail! (I have a blaze orange backpack so I’m kind of hard to miss 🙂

    • Kevin
      January 3, 2022

      I hope we do cross paths – you’ll have your trail legs by the time we jump on trail in NY! We’re still toward the beginning of “Appalachian Trials” so I guess we’ll see how the rest of it holds up. And thanks for the recommendation on another book for us to check out.

      Best of luck with your start in April and we’ll be on the lookout for you and your orange pack!

  3. Darrell Barrett
    February 3, 2022

    I’m planning on doing a Flip starting at Pine Grove Furnace in late April. Maybe we’ll cross paths! If not, I’m also a Trail Angel and have a donation only shuttle service out of Hiawassee, GA. Encourager

    • Kevin
      February 3, 2022

      Really glad to hear someone else is planning a flip-flop like us. Hope to see you on trail! And if not, we’ll probably give you a shout when we get to Hiawassee on our way south.

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