Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a great symbol of human endurance and persistence. The camaraderie, culture, and beauty of the experience are unrivaled. Everyone sort of makes it their own and brings something unique to the table, no hike is ever exactly the same. Some people really like to break the mold though and approach the hike in ways many hikers would be surprised by.
Hiking in flip flops is one of those mold-breaking ideas and there is a bit more to it than you might expect. Whether you are adamantly against it or enthusiastically supportive there is something to be appreciated on both sides of the discussion.
Flip flop, two words with two meanings
The hiking world is full of trail names, inside jokes, and non-traditional meanings for things. When most people talk about a flip flop they are usually talking about the open-toed breezy lightweight thing that holds via a thong running between your big and second toe. When they ask about doing a trail in flip flops this is what they’re referring to of course. Well, if you mention the word flip flop to experienced thru-hikers you might be talking about something else.
For them, a flip flop is likely to mean a particular type of long-distance thru-hike. So, when you ask about completing a trail in flip flops you might get an unexpected answer. A thru-hike is typically described as completing a hiking trail from one end to the other without stopping for any appreciable amount of time in between.
A flip flop thru-hike is a different approach to completing a trail. Instead of starting at one end and walking straight to the other end you begin somewhere in the middle. For the Appalachian trail, this means you might start in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, hike northbound (nobo) to the northern terminus in Katahdin, Maine, then return to where you started and hike southbound (sobo) to Springer Mountain, Georgia. This is a flip flop thru-hike and there are infinite variations thereof.
People do this for a variety of reasons. Some like to take advantage of the weather changes so they do the northerly sections first and then go south as winter sets in. Others are trying to avoid the crowds or reduce their impact on the trail by not starting where everyone else does. Better weather and avoiding peak crowds make flip flop thru-hikes quite compelling.
Some folks doubt the legitimacy of such a hike though and say it isn’t a real thru-hike in the classic sense. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) disagrees. If you’re taking the same time, hiking the same trails, and you’re covering it all end to end then that’s a thru-hike in their eyes. The Conservancy even provides guides and resources for people who want to flip flop the AT. From an ecological perspective, they especially support the practice because it reduces the strain typically placed on the southern terminus of the trail. Flip floppers are seen in a very positive light.
Flip flops: the good
Despite all the risks inherent in hiking the Appalachian Trail in flip flops, there are some arguments to be made for the benefits of doing so. Whether it be a long and arduous thru-hike, or something shorter, some people have sworn off boots. Part of this feeling comes from an old adage that goes ‘a pound on the foot is worth five on the back’. Basically, a pound of heavy footwear strapped to your feet has the same cumulative effect of carrying an extra five pounds in your pack.
So, for every pound saved in the footwear, you can hypothetically carry five pounds more of food, water or whatever else you might like. There is even a 1984 study from the US Army Research Institute that backs this up. They essentially found that it takes 4.7 to 6.4 times as much energy to hike at a particular pace when weight is carried on the foot instead of the body.
Another description of the findings is that one pound on your feet equals 5% more energy expended. This makes sense too given the sheer number of times you lift your feet on a given day of hiking. Usually, this information is translated to support buying the lightest, and often most expensive, boots that are available. The discovery is also a justification for barefoot or flip flop hiking if you choose to see it as such.
Some people suggest that flip flops are actually better for foot health. With your feet open to the air they will dry faster when they’re wet or sweaty and dry feet are a hiker’s best friend. It’s arguable whether or not this dryness will offset blisters or not though. It really depends on the hardiness of your feet and how accustomed they are to exposure. People who never wear shoes and spend all day walking outside typically have hobbit feet. The soles of their feet are very tough and their ankles have built enough muscular support to steady the joint.
Flip flops: the bad
What you can do and what you should do during a hike of the Appalachian Trail are two different things. At first, glance, wearing traditional flip-flops to hike the rugged trail seems like a bad idea. However, people have done it. Some have even gone so far as to try hiking barefoot, it isn’t impossible. It just depends on your feet, ankles, and experience.
As a general rule, the less time you spend outside hiking and/or barefoot the more you need good boots for the Appalachian Trail. This is especially the case if you’re attempting a thru-hike. If you do a traditional south to north thru-hike then you will eventually encounter freezing temperatures, scorching temperatures, and very rough terrains. Combine these variations with the nearly 2,200 miles of walking and 464,000 vertical feet of ascents and descents and you are putting a brutal beating on your feet. Just imagine walking in flip flops through the cold weather and difficult terrain of New York or even New England with New Hampshire and Vermont.
A particular problem with flip flops is that they like to collect little rocks and twigs too. The AT is full of them. It isn’t a stretch to say that you might spend every twenty steps shaking something out of your flip flops or picking a rock out from between your toes. You might also get a nice surprising stab from a sharp stick. The trail is long enough as it is so there is no reason to delay the experience. Your feet will get much dirtier as well. The griminess is ok for a while but as it adds up mile after mile, day after day, it can become one of those little things that nag at the mind.
Last but not least, you must remember that you aren’t the only living thing out there. There are snakes and insects which can happily take advantage of your nicely exposed feet. Depending on when you go you just might have the poor fortune of stepping in a fire ant pile. If that were to happen, boots and thick socks seem preferable to flip flops.
Flip flops: the ugly
Hiking in flip flops can be very dangerous so if you are considering doing so you should understand why. Saving a pound on the feet to save five on the back and not caring about pebbles, twigs and grimy feet are all strongly offset by the real dangers of hiking in flip flops.
The trails themselves aren’t always level ground and under the weight of your pack and fatigue, there is a real risk of an ankle injury. This is another reason that boots are so handy. They offer significant ankle support as you hike and can prevent injury if you slip or trip suddenly. A bad enough ankle injury can completely stop your hike and at worst it can leave you nearly immobile. If this happens when you are backpacking in the backcountry or on a particularly isolated part of the trail the danger is compounded.
The wrong footwear and foot protection can also leave you with very bad blisters. Sweaty, wet, unprotected feet rub up against poorly fitted footwear and voila blister. Bare Feet in flip flops are a perfect breeding ground for this. Left untreated blisters will eventually rupture, grow, and become infected. Some bad blisters, even when treated, can make walking difficult and hiking with a heavy pack even more so.
Flip flops can actually cause foot, hip, knee, and back injuries. The little crunch that you have to do with your big and second toe to hold the flip flop to your foot as you walk actually changes how you walk and, over time, that causes injury. The lack of support in the heel and arch of the foot can also lead to something called plantar fasciitis which is an inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot. These accumulated effects of walking in flip flops will happen to you if you thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The trail is just that long and that rugged.
If climate exposure, risk of injury, and blisters aren’t enough there’s still more. Flip flops don’t have the same quality grip that good hiking boots do so scrambling up slippery trails can be a lot more difficult. Strong and well-worn bare feet can provide excellent grip though to be fair. You have to know your limits. The Appalachian Trail is very wet and rocky at times so even a simple walk to get water can turn dangerous with a slip and fall. Most flip flops have what amounts to almost zero traction. That’s risky enough just walking around but when you add the weight of your pack a fall is almost a sure thing.
Are flip flops good camp shoes?
When you go for a long hike it isn’t unheard of to actually bring more than one pair of shoes. The typical divide goes like this: you have your heavy-duty boots for covering trail distance during the day and then you have some lightweight comfy shoes for campsites in the evening. These are your camp shoes.
You might decide to bring flip flops for hiking and if that’s the case they will probably serve you well as camp shoes too. However, if you have read up until now and think that that flip flops probably aren’t the best hiking footwear you must also consider how well suited they are for camp. The pros and cons of flip flops on the Appalachian Trail pretty much hold true across the board. The downsides of flip flops still apply even when you’re relatively stationary in camp.
In flip flops your feet will still be exposed to the elements, you can still slip and fall or injure your ankle, you’ll still have to deal with rocks and twigs and so on. Some nights you will set up camp and just crash immediately but that isn’t always the case. You are going to walk around, get water from a nearby stream, check equipment, socialize. You are going to be moving around. This means that grip, ankle support, and foot cleanliness all still matter.
Flip flops are a poor choice for all those reasons. Experienced hikers favor lightweight crocs, water shoes, sneakers or even sandals. For the needs of camp shoes, these cover the basics without putting you at great risk for injury.
So what about sandals?
There is an important distinction to be made between flip flops and sandals. As mentioned previously, flip flops are specifically the open-toed breezy lightweight footwear that holds via a thong running between your big and second toe. Sandals are different because they are often sturdier and attach to the foot with multiple straps. These straps make all the difference.
The straps on sandals make them more secure footwear to walk on and the soles of sandals also often have better grip than flip flops. Sandals still fall prey to many of the dangers of flip flops though with limited ankle support and exposure to the elements. Still, many more people are completing thru-hikes in sandals. The key things in those cases were that the hikers used socks, respected their own limits, and used alternative footwear if appropriate.
Sandals are also a fairly common camp shoe because they let your feet breathe while also providing the bare minimum in foot protection and traction. If you are someone who wears sandals all the time then it makes sense to use them more. If you regularly hike in mountainous terrain wearing sandals then you might also be ok wearing them on the Appalachian Trail.
Some hikers use their Sandals for resupply runs too. If the drop is in a nearby town just outside of whatever state park you’re hiking through then a couple of miles in sandals give your feet some time to breathe.
Is it better to just go barefoot?
If you have thought about hiking in flip flops then the idea of hiking barefoot isn’t a huge leap. The big answer to what type of footwear, or the lack thereof, is appropriate is: it depends. Everything depends on the strength of your feet, how strong your arches are, how connected your feet are to the ground in terms of awareness in movement.
For people who walk barefoot outside often, they develop the ability to carefully place each footstep as the terrain changes. They feel the earth beneath them and move the whole foot and ankle accordingly helping them form to the surface they are walking on. For people who wear shoes all the time, or even flip flops and sandals, this awareness of the earth beneath is not well-honed. That lack of practice can lead to injury.
Experienced barefoot hikers also just have tougher feet. Their feet and ankles are more muscular, more resistant to cuts and being stabbed by sticks, and more flexible overall. This doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to be able to hike barefoot then you have to practice. You can start with thin-soled shoes on stable ground and build up from there. Eventually, you walk outside barefoot without discomfort and then you can try hiking trails. Start small and grow.
Once your feet are toughened up and trail-ready then you will easily be better off going barefoot as opposed to wearing flip flops. Depending on the terrain your bare feet might still not be a replacement for a good pair of boots though, know your limits and know your environment.
For most modern hikers, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in flip flops is a bad idea, actually worse, it is a dangerous idea. In flip flops you set yourself up for foot, knee, hip, and back injuries while also running an increased risk for falls, blisters, and infections.
To be clear, that increased risk is very high and one of, if not all of those things will probably happen to you if you hike long enough in flip flops. A thru-hike of the AT is more than long enough and more than rugged enough to make the risk very real. Your best bet is to get a pair of really good hiking boots, break them in, and let them protect your feet the way they were designed to do.
Bonus tip: Learn how to prevent blisters even when you are wearing flip flops!