- When is your free time?
- Do you want to tackle the most mentally-challenging section (the south) when you are fresh and enthusiastic? Or do you want to tackle it when you are tired but experienced?
So, for the next hikers, northbound or southbound? Here is a summary of what you might consider:
Hiking northbound (presumably beginning in mid-spring)
On the bright side:
- A meaningful mountain (Flagg) to mark your beginning
- A gentle start (with shelters!) on the Alabama Pinhoti Trail
- Relatively easy terrain throughout Georgia makes for faster miles and high morale
- Chattanooga provides a needed rest prior to tackling the challenging Cumberland Trail
- Reaching the halfway point in southern West Virginia and knowing that well over half the mental work is done
- Reaching Pearisburg, Virginia where the rest of the trail (over 700 miles) is dependably blazed and/or (mostly "and") has really great guides
- Greater feeling of trail cohesion as the trail heads north
- Some tricky resupply points in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but at this point you've been hiking long enough so you should be able to figure it out without much of a problem
- Just a personal preference, but I was glad that I was heading UP the Thousand Steps
- Hiking north, Pennsylvania becomes less rocky
- A quiet finish to the hike with a shelter; a good place to take a day and reflect upon the journey
- Significant road walking/unblazed route in Georgia and on the Alabama incursion which could be mentally challenging so early in the hike
- Great guides available but not for the entire south - challenging gaps to figure out
- The first outfitter on trail is in Chattanooga, a few hundred miles from Flagg Mountain
- Significant roadwalking/linking of trail sections in Tennessee and on either end of Kentucky, still early-on in trip when you're figuring it all out.
- Catoosa WMA may be closed, requiring additional planning
- Potential for late-spring storms that could drop snow on higher elevations in Tennessee or Kentucky
- Spring flooding in Bluestone WMA may make the recommended route impassable.
- Challenging rocky sections of Pennsylvania when you're already exhausted
- Intense heat on very dry ridges of Pennsylvania
Hiking southbound (presumably beginning in late summer)
On the bright side:
- Beginning your hike at an intersection connecting 10,000 miles of hiking trails
- Dependable blazing for the first 700ish miles - less thinking involved in the beginning
- Reliable guides available for the first half of the hike
- A gentle, rolling beginning through New York and northern Pennsylvania
- Completing your first state in just a few days, which can be a big morale boost
- Hitting the tough rocky sections of Pennsylvania when you're fresh (and not making big miles each day anyway)
- First outfitter of the trail is in Wellsboro in northern Pennsylvania (about 100 miles into the journey); another is located in State College and there are shoes and socks available in Woolrich. Pennsylvania has the most outfitters and they are more useful to southbound hikers who encounter troubles with gear they thought would work.
- Challenges of the south (unblazed sections, roadwalks, areas without guides) may be easier to overcome with all the experience accumulated in the northern half of the trail - at any rate, you'll be too stubborn to give up once you've come that far!
- Chattanooga is a welcome rest after one of the longest states on the trail
- Ending your hike at the end of the Appalachians
- Potentially tricky resupply points in Pennsylvania before you really settle into the trail
- Some water sources flowing for northbounders probably would have dried up by late summer
- Hunting season on several stretches of public land would have to be taken into consideration
- Reaching Pearisburg, Virginia and knowing that you have the hardest part ahead of you and that you're not yet halfway done
- Shorter hiking days on very challenging sections (night-hiking not recommended in many areas)
- Potential for autumn storms that could drop snow on higher elevations
- Significant roadwalking/linking of trail sections on either end of Kentucky, in Tennessee, in Georgia and on the Alabama incursion - these could be both physically and mentally challenging at a time when many hikers feel "done" with their journey already
Your mileage may vary, hike your own hike, and have fun no matter which way you go!