Appalachian trail sign

Why I’m Not Hiking the Appalachian Trail Northbound: Opting for a Different Adventure

Most Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hikers kick off their journey in Georgia during March or early April.

To many, this is part of the trail’s charm: the chance to join a moving community of hikers and to experience a wealth of trail camaraderie and kindness along the way.

Key Constraints:

  • Limited Timeframe: Many hikers have the luxury of time, but for those caught in a tight schedule, this traditional window can be problematic.
  • For instance, a college senior wrapping up their final semester can’t hit the trail until after graduation in mid-May.
  • Career Obligations: Starting a new job post-hike puts a hard deadline on the adventure.
  • If one needs to be settled into a new role as a software engineer by early October, then subtracting time for moving and settling in, the available hiking window shrinks further.

Hiking Window:

  • Mid-May to Mid-September: Factoring in these obligations leaves a compact four months for hiking.
  • The Social Aspect: A major appeal of NOBO hiking is the bubble of fellow hikers and the resulting social experiences.
  • However, starting in May means missing out on this peak social season and potentially altering the hike’s dynamic.

In light of these limitations, the picture-perfect NOBO hike might not align with one’s timeframe or the desired experience, especially if integrating with the hiker community and savoring the full spectrum of trail life are top priorities.

Thus, hikers in this situation might consider alternative itineraries that align better with their constraints and aspirations.

Starting from Ahead

A hiker realized that commencing their Appalachian Trail journey northbound (NOBO) didn’t align with their personal schedule.

They anticipated that starting later than the majority could overshadow the joy of their experience, as they might become preoccupied with the pace of others.

The constraints of their timeline amplified concerns about reaching Mount Katahdin in time and the risks associated with hurrying, like possible injuries.

Heading southbound (SOBO) right from the start wasn’t fitting either due to the June trail opening, which would not give them sufficient time to complete the trail southward before their job commenced.

After evaluating these options, the flip-flop approach—beginning at a midpoint and hiking in both directions—emerged as the most pragmatic choice.

Despite the dominance of the traditional NOBO route in hiker culture, the flip-flop method better suited personal constraints and objectives.

The chosen midpoint for this hiker was Harper’s Ferry—optimal for its proximity to family and the flexibility it offered for trail completion. If needed, returning to finish the southern portion later would be easier.

Setting out on the trail, they were keen to embrace the many advantages a less conventional start offered:

  • Flexibility: Starting from the middle opens more windows to begin their trek.
  • Proximity: By selecting a trailhead near home, they ensured a convenient exit and re-entry point, if necessary.
  • Expediency: This method allows efficient use of their available time before workforce re-entry.

Personal Satisfaction in Career Versus Hiking Choices

While selecting a career is often seen as one of life’s most critical decisions, similar gravitas may not be attributed to personal choices such as the route one takes on a long-distance hike.

However, both seem to share a common pressure: the pull of conformity.

Witnessing peers predominantly opt for conventional careers in fields like medicine or engineering can create a palpable tension to follow suit, a tension not dissimilar to the one hikers might feel to undertake popular routes such as the northbound (NOBO) or southbound (SOBO) trails.

Statistics from previous years highlight interesting trends in hiking completion rates.

Flip-Floppers—those who choose to start their hike from a midpoint, hiking to one end, and then returning to the midpoint to complete the other half—seem to have a higher completion rate of over 36% in covering 2000+ miles of trails.

In contrast, NOBO and SOBO hikers complete their intended trails at rates of 28% and 26%, respectively.

While this data might not be definitive, it suggests that an atypical approach, such as Flip-Flopping, requiring more initial planning, may lead to increased completion rates.

For some, deviating from the starting timeline that aligns with the majority—NOBO hikers typically commence in March or April—can result in a more solitary and pleasing experience.

One might consider factors such as crowded shelters, particularly in the southern sections during peak starts, or even seasonal challenges like pollen levels and wet weather.

The decision to start at a less conventional time can lead to a quieter trail, allowing hikers the luxury to venture at their own pace without the pressure of keeping up with others.

Indeed, the social aspect of hiking in groups presents its own challenges.

Group dynamics often bring about frustration due to varying speeds, with the quicker members feeling held back and the slower members feeling inadequate.

Some hikers might prefer solitude or meeting fellow travelers sporadically, relishing the freedom of hiking without the need to synchronize steps.

This approach affords them the opportunity to experience the trail on their own terms, reducing stress and potentially enhancing their overall experience.

Enjoying the Journey and Preserving the Path

Embarking on a Flip-Flop hike along the Appalachian Trail holds numerous advantages. Not least is the promise of solitude and a lighter footprint on nature. The ATC endorses such hikes, understanding that they spread the economic love more evenly across small towns and limit the wear on the trail itself.

Such hikes also avoid the peaks of hiking season foot traffic.

The benefit of mostly fair weather on this journey can’t be overstated. One is likely to enjoy temperate climates above 40 degrees, which allows for less heavy gear. A trekker might opt for a more compact sleeping quilt and fewer clothing layers, diving into local communities for unexpected cold snaps.

Carrying a smaller pack helps ease into the physically demanding routine of covering an average of 18 miles a day. It’s a smart approach, especially when the starting point is one of the trail’s more manageable sections.

Local treks as preparation:

  • Linville Gorge
  • Mountains to Sea Trail
  • Eno River

Years of hiking in North Carolina sharpen trail legs and deepen a connection with the southern wilderness. Those familiar paths set the stage for the delights of the southern AT.

AT highlights creating anticipation:

  • Roan Highlands
  • Smoky Mountains
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
Posted by
Thomas Caplan

Thomas Caplan is an author and avid outdoorsman who draws inspiration from nature. He enjoys hiking, tree climbing, and rock climbing, which influence his vivid storytelling and passion for the natural world in his writing.

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