Ask a Thru-Hiker: Should I Flip-Flop?
Travelling a long trail end to end isn't the only way to thru-hike.
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Do you dream about hitting the trail for a long—really long—hike? In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about how to do it.
What’s a flip-flop hike? Should I consider flip-flopping instead of hiking end-to-end?
Flip-flopping, in which hikers start midway through a trail and finish it in two or more chunks, is an increasingly popular way of completing a long trail in a single year. It offers a lot of benefits over a traditional point-to-point thru-hike, including better weather, fewer bugs, fewer wildfires, and more solitude. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Pacific Crest Trail Association both recognize flip-flops as legitimate thru-hikes for official purposes.
I first heard of flip-flopping on the Appalachian Trail. College students who had just graduated didn’t want to start northbound in Georgia in hot and humid May. But they wanted the experience of hiking the whole trail in a season and walking towards Mt. Katahdin, the epic summit that is the northern terminus in Maine.
These hikers started at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, one of the easiest to access and most memorable trailheads on the whole trail. It’s where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is located and is an easy train ride away from Washington, DC, so their family could easily send them off. Although rocky, this is the flattest part of the trail and a section with a lot of easily accessible services, so it was a mild way to get their trail legs. In contrast, Georgia and Maine feature some of most elevation gain per mile of any states on the AT.
The flip-floppers hiked all the way to Mt. Katahdin, reaching the summit before the herd that started in Georgia. The trail was a lot less crowded, though they still could befriend early northbounders like me. There were other benefits: The people in trail towns hadn’t tired of mouthy thru-hikers yet. They didn’t have to fight for space in the shelters. They avoided black flies in Maine. Their timing was just right for lakes to be warm enough for swimming in Maine.
When the flip-floppers reached Katahdin, they took a few days to rest, gorge on food, and replace gear. Then, they traveled back to Harpers Ferry and headed southbound towards Georgia, feeling rejuvenated and motivated.
I envy the second half of their hike–the fall colors they saw through Virginia, the cool temperatures, and the lack of crowds. After hiking in steep and rocky mountains of New Hampshire and Maine, their legs were strong going through Virginia.
The flip-floppers befriended traditional southbounders and partook in an AT tradition I’ve always wanted to experience, Thanksgiving on the trail. There’s a camaraderie that forms among AT southbounders towards the end of the hike that is unlike anything I’ve seen on any other trail. The flip-floppers get to be part of it, for most of the way at least.
Not only is flip-flopping arguably a more pleasant experience for the hiker, it’s also better for the environment and the services in trail towns. Crowding around campsites can be hard on soil, plants, and stressful for wildlife. In fact, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is encouraging hikers to flip-flop. They even have these highly-recommended detailed itineraries for flip floppers–including starts in New York, Shenandoah, and even options that start at Springer Mountain (the traditional southern terminus on the AT).
To get you in the flip flop spirit, you can even attend the Flip Flop Festival (try saying that three times fast!). It’s a great way to meet other hikers who are flip flopping, dance to live music, attend workshops about hiking skills like footcare, and get a pack shakedown (have an experienced hiker help you choose which of your gear to keep and what to send home). You’ll even get a free hiker send-off breakfast.
Flip flopping is popular on other long trails, too. Notably, many Continental Divide Trail thru-hikers will northbound to the Colorado border only to discover deep snow in the high altitude San Juan mountains. They’ll flip up to the Great Divide Basin, a desert-like landscape in Wyoming. After a few weeks, the snow will have melted off and they’ll continue back to the San Juan mountains or keep heading north and plan on hiking the San Juans later in the season.
Likewise, with wildfires becoming more common in the West as the climate changes, Pacific Crest Trail hikers are flipping up to fire-prone areas in Northern California and Oregon earlier in the season. With fire closures happening every year, it’s getting to be almost impossible to hike the whole trail in a year, especially in a traditional end-to-end way. With that knowledge, many PCT hikers would prefer to see as much of the trail as they can in one year by opting to flip-flop. PCT thru-hikers also flip to avoid dangerous snow in the Sierra, though they must acquire a separate permit to return there.
There are a lot of good reasons to flip-flop a long trail. Coordinating better with your work, school, or life schedule may be the main reason driving many hikers, but ultimately, many flip floppers find that their choice led to a more pleasant hike. As phones, satellite devices, and communication are prevalent on the long trails, it’s become easier than ever to coordinate transportation to and from a trailhead, making it a lower-friction choice than ever before.