A Thru-Hiker’s Guide to Flip-Flopping the Appalachian Trail

In 2022, we successfully thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail as a flip-flop. It was one of the best experiences of our lives and we are really happy we chose to do a flip-flop thru-hike of the AT. 

This blog post is dedicated to those interested in doing a flip-flop thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail!

Making the decision to thru-hike the trail is a massive undertaking. But, one of the best parts of the trail for us was seeing how many creative ways there were to hike and experience the AT. We are firm believers that getting out there in any way you can and in any way that makes sense for you is wonderful. For us, flip flopping the AT not only made the most logistical sense, but aligned well with our goals for thru-hiking, which included a combination of solitude and community-building. 

Below, we talk about why you should consider a flip-flopping the AT, what our itinerary was, the benefits and downsides of flip-flopping, flip-flop itinerary recommendations, and tips for preparation. We did blog throughout our hike, so if you want more details on our day-to-day life, check our our blog posts:

Ways to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail

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. 

There are three ways to thru-hike the AT: 

  • northbound (NOBO from Georgia to Maine)
  • southbound (SOBO from Maine to Georgia)
  • 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, need to start after the school year ended, and like the idea of lessening our impact on trail, we decided to do a flip-flop hike starting in June. Others who begin at this time might consider doing a traditional SOBO. We decided not to do that because we greatly dislike black flies and mosquitos and they are swarming in Maine at that time. 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. But, it seems as though doing a flip-flop is becoming more popular. The most common flip-flop itinerary starts in Harper’s Ferry, but as educators who do not finish the school year until June, we did not want to start smack dab in the mid-Atlantic at the start of summer (hello heat and humidity). So, we decided on a rather unconventional starting point for our “No-So Flip-Flop”:  Pawling, NY. 

Our AT Flip-flop Itinerary

June 18-August 19 (NOBO leg): 

Pawling, New York to Katahdin, Maine

We took the Metro-North Railroad from New York City to the Appalachian Trail stop (only open on weekends) just outside of Pawling, NY to begin hiking northbound on the AT. One big benefit of starting around Pawling was its accessibility to New York City–a transportation hub. This section of the trail (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) was the most difficult. Not only because we did not quite have our trail legs, but because the Northeast, specifically New Hampshire and Maine, is known as being the most rugged and challenging of the entire trail. This might not be the right start for some, but was actually a draw for us to hike the more difficult terrain while we were still fresh first. We live near the White Mountains and are frequent hikers in the area so we felt prepared to tackle this tough section first. We began gradually, hiking just 10-12 miles a day and our pace for the NOBO leg (average of 14 miles) was slower than our SOBO leg (average of 20 miles).

August 19-22 (the flip)

We summited Katahdin then stayed at the 100-Mile Wilderness Inn in Millinocket, Maine (the closest town). The inn owner shuttled us from Baxter State Park to the inn after we summited Katahdin. The next day, they shuttled us to a bus station where we caught a bus to Bangor and then rented a car to drive to New York City. We spent two days relaxing in the city before hopping back onto the Metro-North Railroad to the Appalachian Trail stop to pick up where we left off. 

August 23 – November 10 (SOBO leg)

Pawling New York–>Springer Mountain, Georgia

We hiked from Pawling, NY to Springer Mountain, Georgia in less than three months. After summiting Springer, we stayed at the Lodge at Amicalola Falls to celebrate, then got a shuttle to the MARTA train that took us to the Atlanta airport. From Pawling to Georgia, we increased our pace significantly. Between having trail legs and the easier terrain of the mid-Atlantic, we sustained a 20-mile average pace from Pennsylvania through the end. We loved chasing fall south from Virginia to Georgia. 

Overall, it took us 4 months and 3 weeks to thru-hike the AT as a flip-flop. 

Benefits of Thru-hiking the AT as a Flip-flop

1. Time, flexibility, and accessibility

Because the ATC defines thru-hiking the AT as hiking the entire AT in 12 months or less, not restricted to a calendar year, you have much more time and flexibility to get on an off trail due to any issues or injury and have a bigger/more flexible window to summit Katahdin (which often opens in June and closes sometime October). You also have more options to figure out where to begin your hike. Springer and Katahdin starts are much less accessible for many people. Starting in places like Harpers Ferry or New York, where there is more accessible public transportation, may be a benefit.

2. Weather

Related to the above point, because flip-flopping provides greater flexibility, you have a better opportunity to curate an experience for optimal weather. For example, we flip-flopped starting in New York in June going NOBO, which means we got to hike through the Northeast in summer weather. Then, we started hiking south in August, which meant we chased fall the entire way from Virginia to Georgia. We avoided the extreme cold that NOBOs face in February and March in Georgia, the extreme heat of the mid-Atlantic in the middle of summer, and the black flies that SOBOs face in June in Maine. And, no Virginia blues because the fall foliage was spectacular! 

3. Two times the celebration

By flip-flopping and ending each of our sections at a terminus, we were able to experience the celebratory nature of both Katahdin and Springer! 

4. Getting the best of both NOBO and SOBO experiences

Being a NOBO and SOBO hiker are distinct experiences. Yes, we all share the same trail, but going in different directions inherently has a different culture. By flip-flopping, we were able to experience what it was like for the NOBOs in the last couple of months of their thru and what it was like for us as SOBOs in the last couple of months. 

5. More solitude

This is one of the biggest reasons we decided to flip-flop in the way that we did. Starting at a non-traditional point on the AT meant that there were many fewer thru-hikers on trail. We wanted a trail community, but did not relish being part of a bubble with resource scarcity or overwhelming numbers of people. We had a much quieter and introspective experience, which is what we craved. And, we also made incredibly deep and lasting connections, just perhaps fewer of them than traditional NOBOs or SOBOs.

6. Lessen impact on trail and spread the love

Less hikers meant less impact on the trail. Less hikers also meant more opportunities to stay at places that are often full and more opportunities to patronize places that needed some extra love in slower seasons.

Drawbacks of Thru-hiking the AT as a Flip-flop

1. Missing community experiences

Not being fully NOBO or SOBO can feel a little lonely and you can miss some traditions that are often associated with the AT. For example, when we got to the halfway mark for the half gallon challenge, it was not very exciting and the vibe of being there in the cold fall was very different than we imagine getting there with a NOBO bubble in the middle of summer. 

2. Being neither NOBO or SOBO

People often asked if we were “SOBO or NOBO,” but the honest answer was that we were neither! We could not fully share the experiences of either group and despite making true and deep connections with others, we did not develop a tramily. This may be, however, because we flipped at a less conventional point. Those who flip-flopped from Harper’s Ferry seemed like they had a bit more of a community experience. 

3. Logistical challenges

If you hike SOBO or NOBO, generally, you are going in one direction the whole time. It may be harder to get to one of those destinations to begin, but once you’ve done that, you don’t have to figure out how to travel and get on and off trail in the middle. Choosing to flip-flop meant that we had to figure out how to get back to a flip-flop point from Katahdin. We are privileged to have the financial means to rent cars and hop on planes, but not everyone can do that. So, it is important to consider the financial and logistical necessities of flip-flopping that going traditional NOBO or SOBO may not include. We grew up on the east coast so we had plenty of people to stay with at no cost during our flip, but that is not the case for everyone. The good news is that when we got to the terminus’ or anywhere close to them, so many people offered to give us rides or help us find a way home. Remember that the community is there for you.

4. Stigma

Although we believe this is changing, there is almost a stigma of not being a traditional NOBO or SOBO. We often got the sense that people didn’t think we were true thru-hikers for not going in one direction. SOBOs have the reputation of being badass, NOBOs have the reputation of being purists, and flip-floppers are, well, undefined right now. Some assumed we would not do the hike continuously or assumed we needed to take more than the average thru-hiker would take (5-7 months). First, we’d like to say there is NOTHING wrong with either of those things. However, there are inherent assumptions associated with saying you are a flip-flopper which may not fit with how you see yourself. Honestly, we really believe that hiking the AT in any way is a beautiful thing and those who make a big deal of labels are not worth paying much attention to. 

5. Losing momentum at the flip

We felt this acutely, but could imagine that others would feel this much stronger. In the first few days after the flip, motivation to hike waned a bit. After achieving such a big goal and hiking through such wild terrain in Maine, it was jarring to return to the trail in the mid-Atlantic, where people, towns, and cell reception were plentiful. We realized the importance of readjusting our expectations for the rest of the thru-hike. Instead of expecting expansive mountain views and wilderness, we became excited for farmland, wooded treelines, milder terrain, engaging with locals, town stays, and a glimpse into a region of the country we are quite familiar with, but perhaps haven’t appreciated as much. With this mindset, we were pleasantly surprised by how much we ended up enjoying our time after the flip. 

Recommended Appalachian Trail Thru-hike Flip-flop Itineraries

  1. Shenandoah National Park – Start in April with the highlight of Shenandoah. There are plenty of waysides to get food and the trails are lovely. 
  2. Harpers Ferry – Start in April or May. This is the most typical flip-flop start. It splits the trail in half (not perfectly, but close to half). Hike NOBO to Katahdin, then choose to hike NOBO from Springer to Harpers Ferry or SOBO from Harpers Ferry to Springer. 
  3. Pawling, NY – Our choice! Start in June. Spend the summer hiking through New England, avoid the worst of the mid-Atlantic heat, and then chase fall through the south. 
  4. Springer Late Start – Start in April or May. Go NOBO to Harpers Ferry. Then flip up to Katahdin and hike SOBO to Harpers Ferry. You can take more time and will not be worried that you won’t make it to Katahdin before Baxter State Park closes for snow.

Gear Recommendations, Considerations, and Preparation for a Flip-flop Thru-hike of the AT

1. Hone your gear

  • Specific flip-flopper tips: You will most likely need to add cold-weather clothes later in your hike. We did not have cold-weather clothes picked out before we left for our thru-hike. Consider creating a package of your cold-weather gear so that a family member or friend can mail it to you when you are ready.
  • Remember that cold-weather gear is not just clothing! You might consider swapping out sleeping pads for those with higher R-values (if you have that option) or adding a sleeping bag liner.

2. Physically prepare

3. Do a shakedown

Sunset from Killington Peak Vermont

Long Trail Section 5

We summited Killington Peak, our 5th and final VT 4,000 footer on this NOBO Long...

  •  We did shakedown backpacking trips on the Trans Catalina Trail, Long Trail, and on an overnight in the Catskills. Getting out there in different weather conditions helped us learn a lot about what we needed, didn’t need, and gave us the confidence that we could thru-hike.

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  1. Dan
    August 30, 2023

    Been thinking of doing a Flip Flop, but I’ve had trouble finding any good starter itineraries (many online sources are for NOBO itineraries). How did you go about planning your days and how/when to take a zero day?

    • Kathy
      September 5, 2023

      Hey Dan, agreed! We didn’t find a lot out there about flip flopping either. In our blog post, we included a few potential flip flop itineraries. Most people start in Harpers Ferry. The ATC does have an annual flip flop kickoff festival each year where you can get more information if you haven’t checked that out yet. They also have a website we linked with some potential itineraries. In terms of getting started, we hiked less in the beginning, like 10-12 miles a day and slowly ramped up. If you flip flop, you’ll be hiking a lot less than traditional NOBOs because they will have their trail legs already. Be ready to be passed! But, listen to your body and don’t try to keep up. We usually had a general ballpark idea of how far we wanted to walk in a given week or two, but really only planned details for two-three days (from resupply to resupply) at a time using the FarOut app as a guide. You cross enough roads and opportunities to get off trail on the AT that we found we could get off for a zero or a rest relatively easily, with the exception of some more remote places in Maine. When we took zeros, we took them in places where we knew somebody we could stay with, or in towns that had amenities for hikers. Honestly we didn’t take very many zeros and often opted for “neros” where we’d hike some miles into a town and stay one night so we didn’t have to pay for 2 nights. People take zero days so differently, though: some take them at hostels to rest at a hiker-friendly and inexpensive place, some take them on trail, some take them in bigger towns at hotels with more amenities. It really depends on your budget and your body, and there are usually a lot of options on the AT.

  2. Audra Crisler
    September 15, 2023

    Hey! My friend and I are considering doing the same flip flop trail that y’all did and have lots of questions! Would you be willing to chat with us via email or zoom?

    • Kathy
      September 16, 2023

      Exciting! Feel free to send us an email with all of your questions (trekkingsketches@gmail.com). Happy to start there and then do a Zoom later if that helps!

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