Many people have goals and dreams when they are young but a good majority most likely kick it to the dirt and take a different path.
But not Jennifer Tull of Budd Lake. After working 23 years in human resources and information technology at Merck, Tull retired in August 2022 and is finally realizing her dream — to hike the Appalachian Trail.
“I am hiking the entire Appalachian Trail which begins on Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends on Mt. Katahdin in Maine,” says Tull, who turns 60 in June.
“I have wanted to hike this entire trail since I knew it existed when I was about 12 years old,” she says. “I went to a YMCA summer camp, and we backpacked a small section of the AT. I have wanted to hike the entire thing since then.”
She decided to start her hike on February 14, ironically the day of love. Like Cupid with a pointed arrow, she aims at reaching her destination in early August.
According to Tull, the Appalachian Trail has been around since 1937 and is 2,198.4 miles long. She was on mile 534 when she was resting at a hostel in Marion, Va., to answer these questions about her six-month journey.
A resident of Budd Lake for a dozen years, Tull has been hiking weekly for the past seven years.
“My most challenging trip by far was hiking 170 miles of the Long Trail in VT,” she mentions. “I hiked that in September of last year to prepare for hiking the AT. That remains harder than anything I have done yet on the Appalachian Trail.”
She hikes primarily with Metrotrails, which is a hiking group based in Warren County that hikes every week in the area, but also plans trails in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and even Maryland. She also hikes with Hudson Valley Hikers and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Her current adventure is called an Appalachian Trail Thru Hike. She started her journey with a woman she met on an Appalachian Mountain Club trip last May.
“She expressed interest in thru hiking the AT so I suggested she join me,” explains Tull. “We hiked together until Fontana, N.C., right before the Smokey Mountains. My knee started giving me trouble and so I stayed behind the group of people we had started hiking with so I could rehab my knee. She went ahead since I wasn’t sure how many days I would need to rest. I caught back up with them after a few weeks but now I’m behind them again because I hiked with some friends from home for a few weeks.
“Most people do begin this hike alone but then meet people along the way who are hiking about the same distance each day and form groups called Tramilies (trail families),” explains Tull.
Despite some hurdles, Tull is toughing it out!
“It started out really good,” describes Tull. “50’s during the day and 30’s at night. Quite a bit of rain but that’s to be expected. In early March we had about a four-day cold snap that took most hikers off the trail. I was hiking with a woman named Chillin at the time and her and I stuck it out. We experienced night-time weather in the single digits and daytime hiking weather in the teens. It was my worst days and nights on trail. Frozen water bottles and even frozen food made it extremely uncomfortable and difficult. We finally decided to get off trail and we were able to get a ride to town so we could stay in a hostel for a night. The next day we were back on trail because the weather broke and warmed into the 40’s and 50’s in the next few days.”
Tull says “The extreme cold weather was the biggest challenge I faced. The next is knee pain. I believe I have patellar tendinitis in both knees. The right knee is the most painful. I’m ok unless there is a lot of descent in a day and then it swells up. I hike with a compression brace on it and that helps. This is something that developed on trail. I’ve never experienced knee issues before.”
While there could be some wildlife animals, Tull is not too concerned.
“There are wild hogs in Georgia and North Carolina, but I never saw one,” she laughs. “There are definitely bears on the AT in all states and so we just have to be careful to store our food in bear proof containers at night. But I haven’t seen any bears yet. I am hoping I maybe see a moose in New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine. But besides bears and maybe a moose there really are no dangerous animals.”
Another challenge is having to carry all her belongings.
“All of my belongings are with me all the time on my back!” she says. “My backpack weighs between 25-30 lbs. depending on how much food I have with me.
Staying in shape was key in Tull’s training for this trip.
“I swam three days a week in the Randolph YMCA master’s program,” she says. “I also bike and run.”
While some may hike the trail for a fundraiser or a cause, Tull is simply there to have fun.
She describes a typical day:
“I wake right before sunrise, around 6. We sleep either in a three-sided wood structure called a shelter or in my tent. I have a very small stove and pot that I use to heat up water for coffee. I usually have coffee and some type of granola bar for breakfast. Then I take down my tent and pack everything away into my backpack. I like to begin hiking about 7:30 am. Sometimes I have to go to a stream to fill my water bottle and filter it, but I usually try to have that all done and ready the evening before.
“A typical day right now is averaging about 15 miles,” she continues. “I decide the night before how far I intend to go the next day and talk to others to see where they are going. Sometimes we all go to the same place and sometimes we agree to go different distances. It just depends. We then usually leave about the same time but usually don’t hike together since we all hike at different speeds.
“I like to take 10-minute breaks at 10 and 2 and a 20-minute lunch at noon,” says Tull. “For breaks I eat different things, Trail mix, snickers bars, granola bars, Clif bars, beef jerky etc. a variety. For lunch I sometimes have bagels with tuna or cheese or chicken. For dinners I sometimes have freeze-dried backpacker meals or I have something like Ramen, Knorr sides, or instant mashed potatoes that I add either a chicken or tuna or meat packet to. We are always concerned with food weight so you can’t bring cans of food or food that isn’t dehydrated since you don’t want extra liquid weight. You also can’t carry fresh fruit or vegetables.
“It is hard to try to take in enough calories to replace what we burn everyday so eating enough is a constant challenge,” says Tull. “It’s necessary to eat food that is high in carbs, fat and sodium and often sugar as high sugar snacks like Snickers bars are loaded with energy. I also carry olive oil with me to add that to food to increase its caloric count. It’s kind of the opposite we have trained ourselves to do! But losing too much weight is not a good thing out here and if you don’t have much to lose it can end up taking you off trail.”
Staying hydrated is also important.
“Usually sometime around midday I look for a water source, a spring or a stream to get more water from. I then filter it into my liter bottle. I only carry a liter at a time because water is heavy. So sometimes I have to stop twice for more water, sometimes just once during the day.
By 4 p.m., Tull is ready to call it a day.
“I usually get to either a shelter or somewhere I want to set up my tent at around 4/4:30. I then set up my tent or if it’s a shelter I blow up my sleep pad and lay out my sleeping bag to secure my spot in the shelter if there is one. Most shelters only sleep six to eight people. We often go to a shelter but don’t sleep in the shelter. We set up our tents and sleep near the shelter. Shelters have picnic tables usually and a privy (outhouse) sometimes and often cables to hang your food or a bear box to store your food. So, it’s a place for hikers to congregate at night that has some of the things we need. There are shelters on the AT anywhere from every five miles or could be every 10- 20 miles. It’s always a bit different. So sometimes you just look for a flat spot to put your tent without a shelter.
“After setting up my tent the next thing I do is get water from a spring or stream and make sure I have enough for dinner and breakfast in the morning. When I am done with that, I make dinner, which is mostly just boiling water in my little pot and rehydrating a freeze-dried meal or Ramen etc. After dinner I usually talk with other hikers, which is really one of the nicest parts. What we are doing is not easy so commiserating at the end of the day is helpful. Most hikers are in bed by 7:30 or 8 and it’s pretty silent by 8:30/ 9. If we have cell service which is pretty rare, I catch up on texts and emails. I usually hike with my phone on airplane mode to save battery. I also have a kindle that I use to read books and I download podcasts to listen to in the evening or in the late afternoons, which is the hardest time of the day when you are hiking long days.
“I come off trail and stay in a hiker hostel every four to six days,” adds Tull. “I resupply food, take a shower, wash my clothes, and eat town food! About every two weeks I take a zero day which is an entire day off of hiking.”
Support and confidence helps her every step.
“My family is very supportive!” concludes Tull, as her kids and grandkids have followed her story on Instagram. “My mom and dad sailed around the world in their own small boat when they retired so adventures like this are not new to my family!”
The next few months should be smooth sailing for Tull…. “untull” then…..