About the Author: Laurie Freeman is a naturalist, environmentalist and soon-to-be retiree. She earned a BE in mechanical engineering and a MA in biology (ecology, evolution and behavior). Laurie spent the majority of her career as a professor of biology and environmental science at a small upstate NY community college.  She and her husband Jim built their home (and homestead) using local material and human powered tools, and she continues to practice self-reliance by gardening and beekeeping. Laurie teaches yoga and runs a small herbal medicinal practice in her community. How she finds time to hike is a mystery. You can follow her AT thru hike on trailjournals, instagram @lauriefreeman and twitter @LaurieJFreeman. 

Editor’s note: NoBo is short for NOrth BOund, or starting in Georgia and heading north. SoBo then stands for SOuth BOund, or starting in Maine and heading south. 

NoBo? Not!

I started thinking about my AT thru hike from the premise that I would walk from Georgia to Maine. I mean, that’s what everyone does, right? It certainly seems that way when you start reading blogs and watching Youtubes of thru-hikers. Through this research I uncovered a couple of facts:

-A thru hike takes about 6 months  (averaging 12 miles per day).

-Katahdin closes sometime in mid October.

Given this, and counting back on the calendar, I’d have to start at Springer Mountain, GA mid-April at the latest in order to finish in ME before the closing bell. Though I’m retiring this year, as a college professor I have an obligation to work until the end of the semester in mid-May.

SoBo? No Thank You!

This put me thinking about the less popular SOBO hike. If I started at Katahdin, I would have to wait until the mountain opened. At best that would be at the end of May or beginning of June. Great!  That timing would work well with my retirement date.

Here’s the rub: I live in the southern Adirondacks of NY and I have hiked in Maine (and New Hampshire) in June. There are A LOT of black flies and no-see-ums (or punkies). Early summer in the north woods marks the dance of the black flies. They breed in swift moving streams, the kind associated with snow melt and spring rains. In season, clouds of the little devils swirl relentlessly around your head invading every orifice: eyes, mouth, nose and ears. They prefer to bite in the thin skin near the hairline. Along with piercing the skin (well, actually they sort of scrape a hole in it), they inject a chemical cocktail that includes an anticoagulant and an anesthetic; resulting in a bleeding hole that you never felt occur. The aftermath is a nasty, itchy welt that, in my case, lasts for days to weeks.
No-see-ums are, as the name suggests, so small that you can’t see them. They appear at dawn, at dusk and on cloudy days. They seem to avoid sun and they are so tiny that they can’t withstand wind. Unfortunately, most of the trail is comprised of damp calm woods, perfect conditions. Their mouthparts make razor-like nicks in the skin and then they spit on you. The saliva has enzymes that eat into your skin and cause it to itch like crazy. Even after you squash them, the enzyme continues to irritate. The intense itching lasts 30 minutes or so before dissipating. Imagine thousands of no-see-ums bathing every square inch of exposed skin with burning pain.
I have some not-so-fond memories of backpacking in Maine in early summer. One morning I awoke to HANDFULS of no-see-ums INSIDE the corners of my tent. The miniscule monsters had made their way THROUGH the tent netting. You cannot fathom how many no-see-ums it takes to make a handful. Seriously, this scene should be put in a horror flick. There is no way I want to relive that experience.
Ok, you probably think I’m a bug-weeny and I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I spend plenty of time outdoors around bugs and I rarely use repellent (but will in extreme circumstances). I’m tolerant of most insects. I keep bees. During bug season, my strategy is to wear a brimmed hat, light colored clothing, long pants and a long-sleeve, loose fitting, button down shirt. If I need repellent, I just squirt the brim of my hat and maybe my hands. That said, the only recourse for black fly season is a head net unless you want a good dose of extra protein. For no-see-ums your best choice is to stay indoors, hardly an option on a thru hike.

In short, I cannot fathom dealing with the Maine and NH biting insects for the first month of my hike.

Another Option?

If I couldn’t do a NOBO hike in 2019 and I was unwilling to do a SOBO hike, I resigned myself to putting the hike off until 2020 when I could go NOBO.

Reality was that the thru-hike bug had bitten (pun intended) and I was now spending a fair amount of time web-surfing. I read through the information on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) website where I learned about a hike I had never considered: the Flip Flop.
At first I was not keen on flip flopping at all. In a prejudiced moment, my mind perceived it as ‘less than a thru hike’. This narrow view presupposition is that in order to have a continuous footpath along the trail a hiker would have to walk in a continuous line.
During my information gathering, I bumped into Jessica Mills (aka Dixie of Homemade Wanderlust), watching many of her informative and accessible videos. During her NOBO AT thru hike she had to leave the trail for a bit when her dog died. This sensitized me to the fact that many hikers leave the trail for days (sometimes weeks) at a time for various reasons. In addition, most hikers take ‘zero’ days; days when they do not hike at all.
After contemplating this reality it started to make sense that hiking part of the trail and then taking a couple of days to travel to the start place and begin walking in the opposite direction is very much like hiking part of the trail and taking a few days off and then returning to that spot and hiking on. What’s the difference? I’ve decided there is none.

What About That Finish?

So what about that epic finish on Katahdin? I have to admit, as much as I enjoy his podcast, the one thing that drives me crazy about Mighty Blue is his remarks that the only way he can imagine finishing is on Katahdin. I do wish he’d try on another perspective. I know from experience that any climb up Katahdin is ‘epic’. I’ve done it twice. A hiker that starts at Harper’s Ferry and gets to the summit of Katahdin has an ‘epic’ ½-way experience that a NOBO or SOBO hiker does not. The point is that ALL thru hikers experience Katahdin and each of us will experience it from our own unique perspective.

Pros? Cons?

With more reading I became aware of the numbers of hikers on the AT. In 2018 there were approximately 3862 hikers that started in GA (according to registrations with the ATC). Another 420 started in Maine and 371 flip flopped (for a total of 4653).

Looking at the 2019 registrations as I write this at the beginning of February, there are 1453 hikers registered to begin at Springer Mtn between February 1 and April 30. The lion’s share of the NOBOs starting in GA begin in March. These data reflect only those hikers that choose to register. The prediction is for significantly more than 3862 NOBO starts this year. I cannot imagine what this kind of traffic does to the trails, the tent sites and above all, the privies. Never mind those fields of cat holes dug by this throng of hikers. From an environmentalist’s perspective, it seems down-right irresponsible to be part of this crowd. (For an interesting view of hiker density along the AT check out www.wherearethehikers.com).
I also don’t relish hiking in proximity to that many people. I enjoy hiking with a few people at a time at most. A string of 30 folks on the trail or a shelter jam packed with hikers doesn’t sound pleasurable. A flip flop hike avoids these conditions for the most part.

Other Expectations

After I read through the ‘what to expect’ on a flip flop hike on the ATCs website. That approach was looking downright attractive. A flip flop hiker would look forward to:

-Experiencing goldilocks weather (not too cold, not too hot).

-Forgiving terrain to start.

-Arriving at the whites (and difficult terrain) when your legs are in good shape but you aren’t totally exhausted from the hike yet.

-Walking south with the fall colors.

The downsides include:

-Hunting season in the south (something I’m not concerned about if I cover my pack with a blaze orange cover.)

-Likely cold weather in the Smokies (but by then I should be an expert at outdoor living.)

-Bare trees toward the end of the hike (which is also a positive because there will be more views).

Playing the Odds

What finally clinched the deal was when I read a blog post from the Trek that revealed some interesting statistics. The post was from February 2016 so I’m guessing the numbers are from 2014 or 2015. Here they state that the completion rate for NOBOs was 26%, 31% for SOBOs and a whopping 57% for flip floppers! Well golly, I see no reason to not put the odds in my favor. I haven’t quite settled on a start date. My window is May 25 – June 1. Flip flop here I come!