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Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a time-honored tradition, but which direction should you go? Should you start at Springer Mountain in Georgia and hike northbound to Maine? Or should you start at Mount Katahdin in Maine and hike southbound to Georgia? Let’s take a look at choosing how to hike your A.T. thru-hike and whether NOBO, SOBO, or Flip Flop makes the most sense!!
A NoBo hiker is someone who hikes generally northbound on a trail, whereas a SoBo hiker is someone who hikes generally southbound. A flip flop hiker does part one direction then picks up to hike from another direction.
Each of these phrases is frequently used on long-distance paths such as the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail. It helps hikers communicate. where they came from and where they are heading in a concise manner.
Since you now know what each is let’s dig into the reasons why you would want to look at a NoBo, SoBo, or Flipflop discussing each of their positives and negatives. This way you can make your decision from a point of knowledge.
Expanding On NoBo, SoBo, and FlipFlop Thru-Hike Experience
When you (or at least most people) begin planning their hike they are so excited to get out there. So at this point, it might not be the time to initially choose which direction you are going to choose to thru-hike without learning more about each.
There are some differences between the social, weather, and logistics of each direction. There are also many who will say tradition is always a NoBo hike and that you should always start from this perspective before making your choice.
What is a NoBo Hiker?
For those new to long-distance trail hiking, they may not have heard the term NoBo hiking before so what does the term NoBo mean?
A northbound hiker is someone who is hiking their trail from the Southern Terminus to the Northern Terminus, for most trails this is the default direction of travel for most thru-hikers.
This doesn’t make this the only way or the “correct” way, it is just the most common and frequently has the most support along the way aligned for the typical hiker foot travel.
What is a SoBo Hiker?
In addition, for the sake of pure clarity understanding the opposite, or SoBo hiking is just as important and helpful, so what does the term SoBo mean?
A SoBo hiker is someone who is hiking their trail from the Northern Terminus to the Southern Terminus, for most trails this is the opposite direction of travel for most thru-hikers.
This doesn’t make a southbound hike the “right” or “wrong” type of hike, it is frequently more complicated and less traveled leaving you with more isolation time and introspection opportunities.
What is a Flip Flop Hiker?
The last of the three core thru-hikes on the Big Three of the Triple Crown, a flip flop hike can help in many cases where time becomes the problem or maybe weather, so what is a flip flop hiker?
A flip flopper will generally start north from the southern terminus, though not required, then at a point or multiple points move up the trail and backtrack. A frequent way on the AT is to hike north to Harpers Ferry, then find their way via transportation to Maine and Mt Katahdin to continue the hike south back to Harpers Ferry.
This can allow you less worry on issues like reaching Main in time and not having weather shut down Katahdin and end the thru-hike completion chance. This can also end up costing you additional money for this transportation.
Benefits and Drawbacks to NoBo Thru-Hiking
There are non-stop discussions on hiking NoBo vs SoBo on the Appalachian Trail. These frequently discuss what is better for the overall experience as expected the stories from everyone are vastly different and that neither is truly the “right” way but that each shares some benefits and some serious drawbacks.
A NoBo hiker will have some amazing experiences with larger groups of others on the trail along with things like trail days at Damascus, it tends to change people’s perceptions and opens them up to more in life.
There are loads of good things that are there for any hiker looking to start on a northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hike. You will be able to work on building trail legs, meet many people from all over the world, enjoy seasons, and have bountiful trail support and trail magic opportunities.
The point for many thru-hikers is to be thoroughly engaged in the culture and social atmosphere. Hiker bubble refers to a large volume of hikers right around the same area at roughly the same time passing through the trail at once.
This is beneficial for those who are anxious about being alone in the forest and lends a more party atmosphere at times as many of those hikers all tend to be in shelters together, in towns together, and this leads to not feeling alone.
Another benefit is that some thru-hikers enjoy trail towns for their energy and just being able to hang out at a store, a laundromat, or bar and meet up with other hikers and sometimes even family or friends for company and conversation.
For many, it’s about the people and the journey.
Ability to Build Fitness
Starting at Springer Mountain can be challenging for many, but this is a good way to gauge where you are physically and how prepared you are at certain points and at certain mileages.
This can be good for building up the physical endurance needed to finish the Appalachian Trail, at least most agree this is a benefit of starting at Springer Mountain and not at Mt Katahdin.
Trail Magic Around Every Bend
When you head north you will find many people, like trail angels, who have the bubble times well understood and they know when the bubble will hit their area along with where they can help the most hikers by giving out trail magic at the right times at these locations.
This can include things like food and beverages, slack packing with lighter weight packs for miles while they drive your heavier packs ahead, or even offering ride shares into towns that are miles away.
Damascus Trail Days
A highlight for many is when they get to experience the Damascus festival of Trail Days, this is a fun time where many meet up and parade around while getting to see others they may have passed or been passed by.
During Trail Days many vendors will come to showcase new gear they are working on or releasing to get real eyeballs from real hikers on them, this frequently includes companies like Zpacks, Hyperlight Mountain Gear, Waymark Gear Company, Enlightened Equipment, and many more.
Experience Different Seasons on Trail
Starting northbound means beginning at the tail end of winter and into spring, this means you can hit snow and cold temperatures and there are no leaves so it is less of a green tunnel and more views will exist.
Many hikers enjoy hitting the different seasons and having the ability to experience different aspects of trail life and how the forest blooms and comes awake while you are walking alongside it.
Then as you continue on you will run into summer and the sweltering heat and humidity, then as you continue on the trail you will run into the beginning of fall and leaves may start turning on the way to your finish.
More Trail Support
A northern hiker will find much more support even outside of trail magic and help, the businesses in towns are geared towards supporting the northern hikes and they will be more stocked and typically run longer hours.
This also leads to more options for shuttles into town and back to the trail and more options at hostels and hotels at night. This is how many of these towns will bring in a large part of their income, you might even consider this their “Black Friday” period.
One of the biggest draws for a NoBo is the end, a very hard and earned ending at the top of Mt Katahdin is a key visual for many that alone will last them a lifetime.
This is no simple climb and is a culmination of all the acquired skills, physical toughness, and mental resolve.
To put it simply, Katahdin is a singular and most dramatic ending to a thru-hike versus the others in the triple crown trails.
While there are loads of good things that a NoBo will encounter there are some significant issues with heading northbound from hitting the bubble and overcrowding issues to the Katahdin time crunch for completion.
The Bubble or AKA Everything is Crowded
For some, this will be a nuisance but for many, it can be a solid problem. The rush will be to get to a shelter to get first dibs on their place and take all the better options from camp.
This then follows you into town, you now have more shuttles needed to get into town, and once there the stores will be consumed with thru-hikers purchasing resupply options.
Then you have the hotels, hotels, and everything being full and having to almost get lucky to get a room or learn how to work with others to share a space in a bigger hotel.
A Bug Life
Once the bugs start coming out, the sheer number of bugs at times will be staggeringly mind-boggling. The annoying part is the bites and then their non-stop incessant high-pitched buzzing in your ear all day.
Not that it gets better at night when during those prime sleep hours you have to hear their constant buzz outside while they hope for the chance to attack you anew!
The one thing many don’t speak much about is the time crunch hikers feel when going north, as unlike a southern hike to Springer, Mt Katahdin closes once it is deemed unsafe for travel which is typically some point in October.
This tends to drive people to overly focus on mileage and less time spent going out to the vistas and taking the time to take in the sights of a once-in-a-lifetime trek.
This can lead thru-hikers at times after they complete the trail feeling like they didn’t get the full experience of the trail and that they would do it very differently if they got the chance to go a second time.
Benefits and Drawbacks to SoBo Thru-Hiking
There are always ongoing arguments on SoBo vs NoBo and which is better for the experience as expected the stories from everyone are vastly different and that neither is truly the “right” way but that each shares some benefits and some serious drawbacks.
Southbound hikers will have some amazing experiences with smaller and more tight groups of hikers on the trail while missing things like trail days at Damascus they will have more ability and time to experience the hike without the bubble.
Very similar to the NoBo discussion above this tends to change people’s perceptions and opens them up to more in life.
There are some very cool opportunities for south bounders to enjoy that may even trump a northern hikers’ experience depending on what you want to get out of your trek.
If you are looking for a small-scale bond with a few people then this direction is a prime way for you to go, let’s take a look at the benefits of a SoBo approach.
Later Start Dates
A nice thing to starting a southbound hike is that you have a much later start date, this aligns much better for many people as June is right after graduations and summer heat as opposed to the cold of winter and early spring.
This allows many to plan and start their hikes at a more comfortable time at their preferred pace. You also are starting with the lightest pack you will have on the trip which allows you to move faster and more efficiently versus someone having to climb Katahdin in late Fall.
No Huge Bubble
There are very few, I have seen quoted as 10% of yearly hikers will go SoBo, so you won’t have the same issues with there being no room available once you reach a shelter or in town for a hostel or hotel room.
In addition, when you are on the trail you will see far fewer people, and short of holiday weekends and some day hikers you will have many more days on the trail where you may not see another person.
Experience Different Seasons on Trail
For a southbound traveler, the seasons are different also as you will start with everything green and in pure summer growth then you will get to see the change to fall in places many NoBo’s will have passed already giving you unique views.
This will mean that you may experience much better views that are frequently fogged in due to the earlier start a northern hiker has to take.
Avoid Northern Cold Weather
Being able to hike up Mt Katahdin in warmer weather may be its own type of penalty but it does mean it is more enjoyable versus the cold that comes with a September or October climb to the summit.
This south bound start also means a solid possibility of making it to Springer without having to face late fall or early winter weather on the trail.
No Rush to Complete
Unlike the NoBo, the SoBo has taken care of the only time-based detail on their entire thru-hike, and from the summit of Katahdin, they are now on their own timeframe to completion as Springer doesn’t close at a set date or time of year.
This allows a southern hiker to look at any view they choose and to proceed as they feel they are able to, taking the diverting trails to take in majestic views that someone else may skip by feeling a time crunch.
Now just because some of the above reasons are amazing doesn’t mean they don’t come with some downsides to compliment them. Though some may see these are benefits still for the majority these are reasons why a SoBo is less interesting.
Less Social Engagement
Many who want to thru-hike are interested in the social part of having a tramily, of being a part of something, and expanding their social circles. On a southern hike, these may be few and far between except where a SoBo and NoBo bubble collide.
Tougher Terrain to Start
To climb Katahdin on day one is a mean feat that many who start at Springer may not have been able to accomplish, follow this up with descent and into the 100-mile wilderness means you are going to put all the hardest work at the start of your trip.
This isn’t a concern for some, but it can be tough starting at that level of difficulty at the very beginning which is why the NoBo approach may be so popular.
Less Trail Magic
Due to most focusing on the high volume of people who hike northbound the southern part of the trail gets overlooked at times for trail magic.
For most this will make them far more magical and something to relish coming across, but not expected at all.
Less Trail Support
The more you move south of the NoBo bubble the less available services tend to become, shuttles cut hours or shut down, businesses start to close earlier and carry less food and miscellaneous gear.
Starting in summer moving south typically means you start right into the biggest chunk of bug season with black flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and all kinds of irritating bugs which is a big drawback for many at the start of hiking.
The increase in bugs as you move south can be a deterrent for some people who want at least a little breather at times from bugs to enjoy the outdoors again without swatting at insects constantly.
High Dropout Rates & Injuries
Starting off with all this hard labor means there is a higher rate of hikers dropping out or having injuries at the start which is more likely at the beginning of a hike.
This isn’t to say at all that hikes northbound may not have dropouts and injuries, but it’s more likely at an earlier stage on a southbound hike versus later into it after you get your legs under you.
Springer Mountain is Anticlimactic
Opposed to Katahdin, Springer Mountain is nowhere near as awe-inspiring at the top.
The climb up Mount Katahdin is a hike with stunning views at every turn and something you can look back at all times to remind yourself of your achievement.
Springer’s summit, though it does hold significance as the southern terminus, isn’t as grand as standing at a height like Katahdin.
Benefits and Drawbacks to FlipFlop Thru-Hiking
Choosing to do an AT flip flop hike grants you the ability to make the best of both worlds by finding your true path.
Hiking flip flop has been growing in popularity as it can help remove the stressors from the trail and leave you free to explore all parts, even those little side trails to unique vistas many NOBOs choose to skip to get the miles in.
Unlike the previous two with specific benefits and drawbacks, a flip flop hike can be all or none of them due to the many places people can swap out to and from, if you are looking for a more balanced approach where you can take in all the sights and sounds a flip flop may be perfect.
By choosing to start northbound to Harpers Ferry for existence, they can then flip up to Mt Katahdin and then proceed south possibly catching up with other SoBo hikers but this causes a loss in any group you hiked north with from Springer.
As you see everything comes with a positive and a linked negative.
Final Thoughts on NOBO vs SOBO vs FlipFlop Thru-Hikes on the A.T.
There are loads of details and information to consider along with your own personal feelings as to what suits you best, from time availability to overall physical fitness and more. When looking at the ATC 2000 miler list you can see the majority come NOBO.
For most the best way to approach the Appalachian Trail is a northbound trip, it gives you a chance to build up your mind along with your body for this incredible experience. As IBTAT has said, your body can take you the first thousand miles but your mind takes you to the finish line.
Many will choose to thru-hike the entire trail but not understand all the ramifications that direction of travel can play to a successful trip, nor have the flexibility to change their trip from NOBO or SOOB to a flip flop when dangerous weather or other issues present themselves.
If you want to dig into more on a SoBo attempt take a look at the awesome resources over time that WhiteBlaze has built with their forums over here.
Leave a comment below about if you have completed a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, anything I may have missed that could help people, and whether you think a NOBO or SOBO thru-hike is the best way to hike the Appalachian Trail!