One of the big questions any anticipating hiker must ask themselves before hitting the trail is, “which way am I going?” Both north and south bounders like to share their grief with one another, and argue over who has it worse. I’ve taken note! Here’s what I’ve learned regarding the good and the bad of hiking in either direction.
PEAK HIKING SEASON:
It’s important to address that these perks and problems are mainly focused on the high seasons. This does not include those of you who are considering hiking over the winter. If you are, you’re badass! Otherwise, I’ve noted when the most popular times are to hike in either direction below.
Northbound (NOBO) Season
- Most people hit the trail NOBO during late March through early May. The hikers that don’t quit will aggregate along the trail, and will be referred to by other hikers as “the bubble”.
- Some start late-January into March, but expect to run into more snow and cold weather if you start this early.
- Others start late May and into late June. If you do, expect to have less desirable winter weather once you get up north, and you’ll be at risk of arriving there after the closure of Baxter State Park, where Mount Katahdin is located.
Southbound (SOBO) Season
- Most start all throughout June and into early July. This is generally when you’ll have the most desirable conditions up north given the season and the altitude. Plus you’ll be more likely to finish your thru hike by November or December.
- Some may start a little earlier or a little later. Snow melt can cause difficult trail conditions if you start too early, and if you start too late, you might not reach the southern terminus by the end of the year.
Note: you are in the mountains, so the weather conditions can be totally different at higher altitude than it will be down in town.
YOUR PERSONALITY MATTERS:
Do you enjoy being around people? Do you like to party? Do you like to run with the pack? If you answered yes to all of these, then you have the perfect demeanor of a NOBO! Hiking NOBO is the “traditional,” and therefore, the most popular direction to hike the AT. Because of this, expect to run into a lot of human traffic, especially in the beginning. Although it will slowly start to mellow out after the annual Trail Days Festival in Damascus, VA, the trail is like a huge bar crawl that goes on for a couple months straight.
If you’re more introverted and prefer to be more by yourself during the trek, you should hike SOBO. If you’re headed south, expect plenty of solitude and fewer crowds. The trail family that does develop, unless you choose not to speak to anyone at all, will be an intimate one given your limited numbers as a whole.
A Little of Both?
If you feel like you’re somewhere in between, keep reading and hopefully you’ll be able to narrow down which fits your preference. Personally, I’m pretty introverted, but I hiked NOBO and really enjoyed myself!
THE PROS AND CONS:
NOBO Pros: You’re never alone. If you need help or just want someone to talk to, there will pretty much always be a new or familiar faces around. Some people will be hiking your pace and you’ll see these people often. You might make friends with a few or gain a whole posse of “tramily”! If you like to party, you’re headed the right way.
NOBO Cons: Given the crowds, sometimes finding a place to pitch your tent or hang your hammock is tricky, and the shelters will likely fill up quickly too. Shelters are great when it rains, and it rains A LOT! If you’re on the trail to help with your sobriety, the party crowd will make this extremely challenging. If you want solitude, you won’t get much in the beginning of your journey, but finding a stealth site will get easier as the hooligans are weeded out.
SOBO Pros: You likely won’t have to fight to get a spot in the shelters or to claim a spot for your tent, especially after the NOBO bubble passes through. Looking for the full fledged nature experience? Solitude is found! It will be a lot easier to find a quiet place to yourself, and just “be”.
SOBO Cons: If you’re more of a social butterfly, there will be a much smaller variety of people to converse with. If you make friends easily, you’ll be crossing paths with a lot more people that will come and go, never to be seen again, versus those who are hiking in the same direction. The partygoers are starting from the other direction too, so you’ll be missing out on a lot of the fun that makes the AT experience so incredible to begin with.
NOBO Pros: Most trail angels want to help out when and where there are the most hiker sightings, and NOBOs bring the crowds! This means more free food, sodas, and occasionally, beer waiting for you at road crossings and along the trail.
NOBO Cons: You’ll find yourself getting distracted often, which means foiled plans for the night and between trail towns. You’ll find yourself carrying more food than you need, since that warm, juicy burger was just delivered to you. If you’re on a tight hiking schedule, these distractions can pose as a problem.
SOBO Pros: Hey, less interference means a more authentic experience, right? Back in the day, they didn’t have handouts around every corner. You’ll be having fewer distractions, so you’ll be able to stick to schedule easier.
SOBO Cons: If you are on a tight budget, you’ll be missing out on a lot of freebies, much needed calories and fun surprises.
NOBO Pros: You have the most incredible build up of scenery and the most epic ending at the summit of Mount Katahdin. It feels like receiving an award for all your hard work. You can ease yourself into the hiking experience and should have those trail legs good and strong once you make it to the physically demanding sections of “The Whites” and southern Maine. You’ll also be more experienced, and will be able to plan your resupply properly so you won’t be lugging more than you need through the 100-Mile Wilderness.
NOBO Cons: Unless you start at the Approach Trail, you’re going to have to hike one mile to the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, then re-hike that one mile to continue along the trail given the location of the drop off point. You will always be at risk for injury throughout your hike, however you didn’t get the most strenuous part out of the way first, so the odds are against you if you get injured late in the game.
SOBO Pros: You’ll be ripping off the band-aid by getting the hard part over with in the beginning. You’ll start with the 100-Mile Wilderness which will be like boot camp for jump starting you into your outdoor learning experience. Then, you’ll be going through the sections that beats your body up the most right off the bat in southern Maine and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. If you get injured, at least you won’t be 5 months into your hike.
SOBO Cons: There’s no sugar coating it, Springer Mountain is a dud. You do have the option of continuing on the Approach Trail before you celebrate, if you want a better ending to your hike. Also, after the gorgeous views throughout Maine and “The Whites,” you might be underwhelmed by most of the scenery that follows, and thats a lot of time to kill feeling bored. You’ll be less experienced going through the 100-Mile Wilderness, so you’ll be carrying a lot more than you need without the opportunity to get rid of anything, which can beat you up physically and mentally.
Weather and Trail Conditions
NOBO Pros: You’ll be starting right as the cold weather is about to break, so unless you start ahead of peak season, you’ll be avoiding most of the snow and cold conditions minus a few exceptions. You’ll never have to deal with the horrendous black flies in the north as they will be dispersed by the time you get there. The mud will also be a little less intense and you likely won’t have to ford as many rivers as the SOBOs do.
NOBO Cons: The summers through the mid-Atlantic and lower New England regions are very brutal. Hello, swamp ass! With the horrible heat wave, you’ll also have to deal with the limited and poorly located water sources of Pennsylvania when you’ll be feeling on the verge of heat stroke.
SOBO Pros: Overall, the weather will be fairly moderate the whole way. You’ll be in the usually cold north when it’s warmer, and headed to the usually swampy south when it’s autumn. Perfect hiking weather!
SOBO Cons: I hear the black flies are an absolute nightmare in the north around the time most of the SOBOs start. I’ve also heard from a number of SOBOs that the mud, especially in Vermont, was far worse then it was by the time the NOBOs were passing through. A trail friend of mine who “flip flopped” (more on that below), mentioned that fording was a more regular thing earlier on in the northern states due to the snow melt.
“Flip flopping” is when you start heading one way, then flip during one point of your hike, and finish the rest of the trail in the other direction. A popular place to flip is at Harpers Ferry, WV (the unofficial halfway point). Some start NOBO, then leave Harpers Ferry for Maine to hike south, others start NOBO from Harpers Ferry, then after they summit, take Harpers Ferry SOBO to Georgia. However, you can flip at any point along the trail, and start in either direction you choose before flipping.
Want to thru hike both ways? Why not do it all at once by “yo-yoing”? A “yo-yo” is when you hike the entire trail one direction, turn around, then hike it all over again the other way. Pretty intense, right? Not the choice most people make, but still an option!
I hope this post has helped you decide which way you’re headed, rather than created more of a conundrum! Happy Trails!
9 thoughts on “Which Direction Should I Hike the AT?”
This was great food for thought – thank you!
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Hey! You’re very welcome! Thanks for reading 🙂
Is the trail marked well regardless of the direction you take? I have walked a couple of caminos in Spain where there are only directions heading northwards. And some of those are a bit patchy too! 😉 Thanks, Mel
I’ve only hiked northbound, but most trees that are blazed on one side are usually blazed on the other side as well. When you get to roads, you’ll often see signs or spray painted markers on the pavement that’ll tell you which way is north and which way is south. The AT is mostly well marked throughout, except in New York. I don’t know if the trail club in that section is just slacking lately or what, but I struggled to find blazes the entire time I hiked in that state, haha!
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The more I read about the AT, the more tempted I am to walk part of it. I am struggling with the concept of (a) not having a shower each day, and (b) not having a ‘real’ bed each night. Small things in the scheme of things, I know! Maybe I need to do more reading and following!
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Do it! You’ll get over the shower thing. Everyone out there is stinky with you and most of the locals know why your hygiene is lacking. Some sleep mats can be pretty comfortable too! I have a bunch of older posts on most of the things that concerns people thinking about hiking the AT. I’d also be glad to answer any specifics you have at any time! I love talking about it so it’s no bother, haha!
Begone you Evil Woman!! 😉 You tempt me so!!
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This is such great information! I love how you broke it down into different sections to think about! We are going to start going NOBO because we live right by the southern terminus, but it was still nice to read your thoughts about both! Especially the crowd part, because some people do just prefer to hike alone or in less crowded environments! Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks Kaleigh! I’m so glad I could help! When’s your start date? You’re going to have a blast out there! Feel free to pick my brain if you have any questions. I love talking about the trail! 🙂