My Non-traditional Thru Hike: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Flip-flop
Stepping onto the Bridge of the Gods, I crossed the Oregon-Washington border and began my thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). It was 80-degrees and cloudless with a slight breeze–just perfect. Meanwhile, my hardy southbound compatriots were battling near-freezing temperatures, intermittent rain and snow, and a dangerous windchill. The first of July was a drastically different day for me than for others starting at Hart's Pass towards the Northern Terminus of the PCT.
So, why was I startingmy hike from a seemingly inauspicious place? Well, in a term, I was "flip-flopping." Flip-flopping is a non-traditional thru hike worth a closer look. Essentially, it is when you hop around to different sections of the trail to complete it, rather than walking continuously from top to bottom, or vice versa.
Benefits of a Non-Traditional Thru Hike
For several reasons, I enjoyed my flip-flopping, non-traditional thru hike. Below are some of the benefits of this option that other hikers may want to consider when planning their thru hikes.
Soaking in the Sunny Weather
Completing my thru-hike in a flip-flop fashion allowed me to follow the most favorable weather. Typically unheard of, I smiled my way through Washington having absolutely picturesque conditions. In fact, I stopped setting up my tent somewhere in the middle of Washington and simply cowboy camped the rest of the way–yes, all the way to Campo, even through the Sierra Nevada.
Gorgeous weather was my norm on this non-traditional thru hike because I was hitting every part of the trail at the absolute best time. Not being constrained to a linear footpath allowed me to pick the optimum times to be in places that can pose serious threats to traditional thru-hikers–namely the North Cascades and Sierra Nevada. In fact, I had no precipitation for my entire hike. Hard to believe, right?
Avoiding Overburdened Resources
Full hiker box, after full hiker box was my norm on this trek. I didn't bother to travel off of the trail for the whole of central California (Tehachapi to South Lake Tahoe, or almost 600 miles). It simply wasn't necessary to leave the trail, as every hiker box I encountered was overflowing with food that I would never be able to afford on my meager hiker trash budget.
Access to trail amenities didn't just extend to hiker boxes; trail towns and other indispensable resources weren't overburdened by what I term "the hiker horde." I never had a problem with empty convenience store shelves, pilfered Darn Tough socks at outdoor shops, or any of the other mainstays of "the bubble's" descent on these unsuspecting trail towns, resorts, ranches, and lodges.
A True Wilderness Experience
Another unexpected perk of walking against the grain and out of normal hiking season was that the PCT felt like a true wilderness experience. I went seven days without seeing a soul on my longest stretch, and deeply cherished the solitude and introspection that allowed. This certainly would not have been possible hiking in a traditional way.
Walking in a flip-flop fashion on the PCT also made me much more agile. No, I wasn't frolicking or trail running, but I was extremely flexible around closures and unforeseen circumstances. For example, when the Hirz fire closed down 50 miles of trail south of Castella in northern California, almost every southbound hiker was forced to skip that section. Although I got to Castella the very day the closure went into effect, it hardly made a dent in my hike, as I simply flipped again and walked a different section while hotshot crews brought the fire under control. An added bonus to this was being in the Sierras before they became unbearably cold. This strategy allowed me to walk every mile of trail that year–a feat not many can boast.
Improving Leave No Trace
The last, and perhaps most salient, point to be made about choosing to do a flip-flopping, non-traditional thru hike is the impact every hiker has on the trail. Big trails like the PCT, Appalachian Trail, and other popular routes are literally being loved to death from overuse. It's incredible to see the surge in popularity of hardcore outdoor pursuits, but this shouldn't come at the expense of these national scenic trails.
Even with the best Leave No Trace ethics, thousands of hikers continuously passing through such a small corridor has a serious impact on the trail. Evidence of this appears in compacted non-durable surfaces, improper disposal of human waste, and disregarding fire safety and regulations. All of these were on full display, along with other detrimental proof of past hikers, throughout my hike. By flip-flipping and avoiding the crowds, I was able to limit my contribution to this and help ensure these incredible outdoor gifts can be shared for a long time to come.
Drawbacks to Consider for a Non-traditional Thru Hike
While I enjoyed the many benefits afforded by my non-traditional thru hike, this choice is not all rainbows and snicker bars. There are some definite drawbacks to a non-traditional thru hike that prospective hikers may want to consider.
Loneliness on the Trail
Traveling distinctly on your own trajectory can be alienating at times, especially if you've met and had connections with hikers who no longer share your same intended path. Personally, I enjoy the solitude that comes from being in nature and seek it out whenever I can, but this may not be everyone's objective.
Navigating the Flow of Traffic
As a flip-flopper, you'll have the unfortunate task of hiking against the flow of traffic for both the southbound and northbound bubbles. This can mean passing upwards of a hundred people a day. This can be exhausting and demoralizing for some.
Lack of Continuity
This is probably the biggest obstacle in convincing someone to pursue a flip-flop thru hike. For a strange reason, there is a huge romanticization around starting at one border and ending at the other–even if that means missing or skipping sections, as was the case for nearly all northbound and southbound hikers this past year.
However, I will end with this thought: While there is definitely something to be said about a continuous footpath, the rigidity of these made-up "limitations" are the exact reason why we escape into nature in the first place. Afterall, as author Peter Thiel puts it, "the most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd, but to think for yourself."