What you can learn from a really long walk
Dale Sanders is an 81-year-old Kentucky-born retired civil servant who's leaving his wife and dog at home for the next five months to claim a record on the country’s most popular wilderness trail
Dale Sanders says he’s never been colder in his life than on March 14 when he was hiking through Neel’s Gap, a rocky mountain pass in northern Georgia. It was nine degrees outside with 35-mile-per-hour gusts. When he finally set up camp and crawled into his sleeping bag, he swore he would never come out. But then the 81-year-old man was forced to reckon with the late-night call of nature—twice. “I found a way to unzip the tent and just let it go right there in the ground,” he says. “I had no choice. I couldn’t go outside!”
Sanders, a Kentucky-born retired civil servant, now brings a plastic bottle into the tent with him at night. It’s one of the first lessons learned by the man who is currently trying to break the record of the oldest person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. His attempt began on March 14, and if Sanders (who will be 82 on June 14) is to be successful, he’ll finish the 2,190-mile journey in September, outdoing Lee Barry, a retired engineer from North Carolina, who set the record in 2004 at age 81.
Sanders’s goal is to average 14 to 15 miles every day—a pace he’ll need to maintain to make up for periodic rest days. When he gets out of the Smoky Mountains, Sanders hopes to average 18 to 20 miles a day across Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York before hitting the trail’s rugged New England stretch.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), only one in four hikers who set out to complete the trail finish it. And all of them are younger than Dale Sanders. (In fact, the average AT thru-hiker is about 25 years old.) “Right off the bat, the odds are against me,” he says. But his confidence remains high. “Unless something happens that I have no control over, I will do it.”
Sanders' 37-year-old son, Jony, has total confidence in his dad. “He has more energy than me, by far,” Jony says. He'd like to join Sanders for a week on the trail later this spring, and plans to meet him at the finish line in Maine.
Before setting out officially on March 14, Sanders started training. During January and February, he section-hiked the 31-mile stretch between Springer Mountain and Neel’s Gap three times to test his health and gear. As long as he hikes every mile of the trail by December 31, the record will count.
In early April, we spoke with the “Greybeard Adventurer” (or just "Grey Beard," as he’s known on the trail), who was taking a rest day in North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, about his penchant for breaking obscure records, hiking with brittle bones, and the likelihood that he might actually pull this off.
Why He’s Hiking
“I’m a pretty competitive guy,” Sanders says. “I want that Wikipedia article updated. I want to put my name in there instead of [Barry’s].”
He’s been competitive since he was a boy growing up in Lickskillet, Kentucky. Throughout grade school and high school, Sanders was the smallest kid in his class—too small to play sports, he says—and he was bullied constantly. So he started participating in unconventional activities like acrobatics, tumbling, and underwater swimming. After high school, he hitchhiked to California, waited tables at Disneyland in its inaugural year, and “got in with the spearfishing crowd.” He entered and won some spearfishing competitions in the 1960s. In fact, Sanders claims to have held the world record for underwater breath-holding (6 minutes and 4 seconds) in 1959. (Guinness World Records shows no evidence of this, and Outside was unable to verify the claim.)
In 2015 Sanders became the oldest person to paddle the Mississippi River 2,300 miles from source to sea, a feat he accomplished in 80 days in a canoe, complete with sponsors and a film crew. He raised $22,000 for juvenile diabetes during his Mississippi River record, and the support he received afterwards “made me want to do something else,” he says. “Hundreds of people have told me, ‘I hope I’m like you when I’m 80.’ It’s very inspiring.” Though he’s not raising money this time, he says he is still spreading awareness about juvenile diabetes through his conversations with hikers and others he meets along his journey.
Sanders spent 37 years working as a civil serviceman coordinating recreation activities for sailors in the Navy, and is now retired in Bartlett, Tennessee, with his 57-year-old wife, Miriam. Before he left for the AT, Sanders says he and Miriam—who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary—discussed the record attempt and determined it would be good for both of them. “I’m 81 years old, I’m not going to be around forever,” he says. “So this is a wonderful test to see how well [Miriam] likes living alone."
Hiking more than 2,100 miles at 81 is, obviously, harder than at 21. For instance, circulation in Sanders’s hands has worsened with age. “If my hands get cold I can’t pick up anything, I don’t have any grip, I can’t pitch a tent,” he says. So to keep his hands warm and dry, he wears Gore-Tex gloves at all times. His biggest concern is being cold and wet and alone in the middle of the wilderness.
“It’s scary when it’s really, really cold and raining,” he says. “I can handle cold. I can handle rain. But I can’t handle them together, so that’s what I’m most worried about.”
Sanders is particularly careful to avoid falling. He knows that a routine fall—one that wouldn’t be an issue for another hiker—might end his record attempt. “That’s one of my big worries. If I break a bone, I’m out.” So he hikes with two trekking poles to maintain balance, watches his footing closely, and periodically takes “zero days” to let his body recover. On the day he spoke with Outside, Sanders was taking care of his feet, soaking them in Epsom salt so that they will hold up through the remainder of his trek.
Sanders is carrying a SPOT Tracker that has an SOS button on it in case of a medical emergency. (The SPOT Tracker will also verify his record.) He carries four prescription medications—one each for his blood pressure and cholesterol, and two for glaucoma. But aside from a bad fall or broken bone, Sanders doesn’t see his health standing in the way of the record. Two different doctors—a general practitioner and a cardiologist—are monitoring his fitness. In the months leading up to his attempt, doctors administered him through a series of exams, including treadmill stress tests for his heart. On April 6, he received word from the cardiologist that he has “the heart of a young person.”
He's got a youthful vigor going for him. In a video posted to his Facebook page on April 11, filmed at a lookout on top of Fontana Dam in North Carolina, the bearded man jumps up and down, dances a little jig, and proclaims, “I’m going all the way to Maine! I’m going to break the age record!” before letting out a series of unintelligible yelps to the delight and confusion of several onlookers.
His pack weighs 24.5 pounds, but Sanders thinks that when the weather warms up, he can get it down closer to 20 by shedding some of his thickest layers.
Sanders made little room in his pack for luxuries. One of the few non-essential items he’s carrying is a handgun permit, which he uses as a second form of ID and says represents “something philosophical” for him, though he didn't elaborate on the meaning. He also packed 1,000 silver decals bearing his image and a link to his website that he's been handing out.
Sanders prefers not to sleep in trail shelters, which are often full by the time he reaches them. So he camps in a Nemo Hornet Elite tent nearly every night. With his two-and-a-half-inch thick Sea to Summit sleeping pad, he is plenty comfortable.
The least appealing part of this journey for Sanders is “having to make food selections. I’ve always had someone else fix my food, my whole life. I just don’t have that skill.” To make things easier, Harmony House Foods, a dehydrated foods company in North Carolina, is sponsoring Sanders’ trip and shipping him meals—free of charge—along the trail. His favorite snack? Freeze-dried pineapple.
Asked how he’s managed to stay so healthy into his eighties, Sanders says over time he developed a “formula to live happily,” which he says helped him avoid disease and keep his body fresh. The formula consists of two major tenets: first, “you have to have some spiritual belief in your life,” he says. (Sanders is a practicing Baptist.) In fact, he says, his favorite part of hiking the Appalachian Trail so far is “being out in nature, alone with nature and God and the universe.”
Second: “Live active,” Sanders says. “You need to find an outdoor activity and do it with sincerity. If you like hiking, hike. If you like boating, paddle. You have to really work at being physically fit. And if you can do these things, it maximizes your chances of being healthy even at an old age.”
If you want to follow Sanders’ record attempt throughout the summer, you can track his journey here.