The start of a great A.T. tradition? I think yes

Ryan Seltzer in 2009//Photo courtesy of Ryan Seltzer//Text by Maxwell Roeske, public relations intern

The classic line “April showers bring May flowers” is being rewritten by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). The ATC is welcoming May with the Inaugural Flip Flop Kickoff Weekend at its Harpers Ferry, WV Visitor Center on Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3—and from now on, you’ll hear people in the town of Harpers Ferry saying “April showers bring May Flip Floppers.”

A flip flop thru-hike is an alternative to the old school definition of a thru-hike. Today’s Appalachian Trail (A.T.) hikers ought to know that thru-hiking the world’s most famous long-distance footpath doesn’t mean they have to start and end in Georgia or Maine. In fact, more and more thru-hikers are finding out that Harpers Ferry is an ideal location to begin or end their hike. The allure of visiting the town twice then tips the scales toward a flip flop hike.

When flip flop hikers triumphantly return to the area for a special version of a “half-time” celebration, “They have a chance to to explore the C&O Towpath, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Potomac Heritage Trail and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park,” said Laurie Pottieger, the ATC’s information services manager and organizer of what is being dubbed as the FFKO Weekend. “It’s a jumping off point for flip floppers and day hikers alike that offers a wealth of hiking opportunities and more.”

Flip flopping visitors get a chance to take some down time not usually afforded to those thru-hikers who are focused on Katahdin and its October 15 summit deadline. Many take advantage of the leisure time to wait for their southbound (SOBO) compatriots and join them in the A.T.’s southern migration from Baxter State Park towards Springer Mountain.

Joseph "Bellows" and Catherine "Watermelon" summit Katahdin during their 2014 flip flop thru-hike.

Joseph “Bellows” and Catherine “Watermelon” summit Katahdin during their 2014 flip flop thru-hike.

ATC’s Flip Flop Kick Off Weekend is a chance to celebrate and learn more about this new movement. The festival schedule is jam-packed with everything from giveaways and games to live music and hiking workshops to an official bon voyage for this year’s flip flop hikers. ATC’s Trail Information Specialist Tenny Webster, who is leading a workshop during the event, said, “We’ll be demonstrating bear bag hanging techniques including the latest and greatest tricked out variations. We’ll show various bear bag hanging systems and all of their components, from the ideal equipment for a hang (and what you will actually have on the Trail), to knots you need to know, and of course, the importance of troubleshooting as you go. It will be hands-on, so people should bring their throwing arm for some ‘Spring Training’!”

Eighty percent of hikers who set out to complete the entire A.T. in 12 months or less start in Georgia and end in Maine. Talk about a crowd! Flip flopping offers a relief from the large groups of Northbound (NOBO) hikers not only to the flip flopper, but to the Trail itself. The ATC is encouraging this conservation-minded thru-hike.

Ryan “Castanada” Seltzer, the ATC Corridor Stewardship Coordinator, is also a FFKO workshop presenter, and after successfully completing a flip flop in 2009, he’s been a flip flop advocate from the start.

“The A.T. is here to stay,” he said. “As the Trail’s popularity continues to grow, users must consider the impacts they cause and spread them out so that nature has the opportunity to heal itself. And to not just follow the crowd, spread out, take as much time as they can.”

Who wouldn’t want to soak up as much of the Trail’s beauty as they could? Flip flopping lets you slow down and enjoy more of the little things.

“That’s really why people should consider a flip flop hike,” concluded Seltzer.

The Flip Flop Kick Off is about more than the awesome temporary tattoos you can get during the festival (whice are seriously cool). It’s about celebrating the men and women, young and old alike, adopting this new version of a thru-hike. We’re gathering to celebrate the traditions of our beloved Trail melding seamlessly with new alternatives that are only going strengthen the A.T. for generations to come. That’s why there’s no doubt in my mind, that the answer to the question, “Is this the start of a new A.T. tradition?” is a resounding YES!

For more information about the Flip Flop Kick Off, visit www.appalachiantrail.org/flipflop.

A new (voluntary) step for thru-hikers

2013 thru-hikers Ninja, Bluetick, Ado and Smooth celebrate their arrival at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy//Harpers Ferry, West Virginia//Photo courtesy Chris “Smooth” Cage//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant 

Thru-hiker fever has officially set in. And with the general preparations like gear shakedowns, meal planning, mail drop logistics and (in some cases) quitting your job to hike thousands of miles, there’s another way the class of 2015 is getting ready for a thru-hike: voluntary registration.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) launched its Thru-Hiker Voluntary Registration system this year with the goal of not only better managing the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), but also enhancing the thru-hiker experience. With movies like “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” drawing attention to two of America’s national scenic trails, something had to be done to spread out the volume of thru-hikers who hit the A.T. at peak times. This voluntary registration system is one way the ATC hopes to address potential overcrowding, especially at the southern end of the A.T. in March and April

Currently, more than 800 people have registered their thru-hikes through this system, allowing hikers to see how many have plan to start their thru-hike on a particular day and giving them a chance to see when crowded conditions will exist. Prospective thru-hikers can see on what days thru-hikers have registered not only for northbound  and southbound thru-hikes, but also for thru-hikes starting in Harpers Ferry or other locations.

This planning feature is especially appealing to hikers like Barbara “Firefly,” who will set out on a thru-hike this year with her 26-year-old son:

“When we started planning, we intentionally looked into the traditionally crowded start days and tried to avoid those as well as avoiding a weekend start. I really think for many people, being able to look and visually see days that are already packed will help future thru-hikers spread themselves out.”

Hiking the A.T. is practically a lifelong dream for Firefly, who began planning her hike when she was 12. Back then, she was using the library and snail mail to gather information while also getting firsthand experience by working on trail crews. Yet it wasn’t until now that she felt like she could to take the amount of time off that’s required for a thru-hike, and when she began planning again, she realized that the A.T.—and the process of planning—had changed.

“I was a bit sad at a lot of the negatives I’ve heard concerning problems resulting from overcrowding, especially at the both ends of the Trail. As a lifelong dream I couldn’t let go of the idea of a traditional thru-hike, even though the cool breeze option looks awesome. The reality is we are approaching our hike with a degree of flexibility, evaluating our progress along the way and if needed changing to an alternative itinerary.”

Firefly’s willingness to embrace an alternative plan if necessary is a sentiment that is growing among potential thru-hikers. It’s good timing, too—as the popularity of long-distance hiking trails increases, the A.T. will benefit from those who recognize that a thru-hike doesn’t have to start at Springer Mountain, or even Katahdin. After all, the journey isn’t so much about the destination, but the process of getting there.

To everyone who has registered their thru-hike, and especially those who made an effort to avoid popular start dates or even selected an alternative starting location, thanks for making the A.T. an incredible hiking and camping experience—and for helping it stay that way.

Have a comment about our voluntary registration system? Email AT-ThruStartDate@appalachiantrail.org