How to Dirtbag

| June 28, 2013 | 19 Comments

By MacKenzie Ryan 

By Peter Stevens FredBeckey

By Peter Stevens

1. dirtbag
A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle. Dirtbags can be distinguished from hippies by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for their living communally and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags are seeking to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle.

v: to ‘dirtbag’: the act of living as a dirtbag

Climber A: “Sorry to hear you got laid off. You bummed?”
Climber B: “Nah, I’m just gonna dirtbag it in the Valley [Yosemite] all summer and regroup next fall.”

(excerpt from

If you want something bad enough, you’ll make seemingly unreasonable sacrifices to get it. It all starts with a goal that’s a little over your head. The nagging idea that if you had more money, more time, a more flexible job, you could just [insert semi-crazy but feasibly achievable goal here].

This goal starts to possess you. At work. On your bike. At the gym. Out to dinner. Watching a movie. You’re not paying attention. Visions of you climbing Yosemite, heliskiing Alaska, backpacking through Europe, mountain biking in Moab, or whatever, are rooted in your brain and growing. You fantasize about it when you’re stressed, tired after a long day at work, disappointed with your love life, unhappy about your neighborhood, mad at your roommates.

Now, you’re becoming fixated.

Like a grade-school crush, you titter with your girlfriends about this goal at lunchtime and happy hour. You have deep, longing conversations about it with your best friend during your Saturday morning jog.

Now, an exorcist couldn’t chant it out of your soul if he tried.

You start Googling, looking at FareCompare, browsing Craigslist—stepping out of the fantasy zone and moving toward action. You start weighing logistics. How much money you’d need, how much time. Do you quit your job or take time off? Do you fly or drive your car? Do you camp or crash on couches? The questions are many, and the time it takes to answer them can be saved by following these general guidelines.

1.) Don’t dirtbag permanently.

It will save you the money you need to pay for the adventure your family surely won’t approve of, or help you recover from the last adventure they didn’t approve of either. It opens your eyes to living a life with less stuff. It provides the freedom to leave one place and check out another, without screwing anyone over by breaking a lease or quitting a job.

You will eventually want to settle into a normal routine. Being on the road solo day-in and day-out takes a lot of effort. Even migratory tribes chasing elk herds had to settle down here and there.

Decide on a flexible window of time for you live a life a little reckless. For example, ski bums tend to dirtbag during summer in order to save money for winter. Mountain bikers and climbers occupy much of Southern Utah in the Goldilocks seasons of spring and fall. Once the season of dirtbagging is up, they move on. You should, too. You can always come back and do it again.

2.) Ditch your lease.

You are wasting valuable money to have a roof over your head and cable TV when you could have a tent or car (for sleeping), storage space (for your stuff), and a gym membership (for showering).

Let’s do some math.

If you spend $700 a month on an apartment, you will save $2,100 over the summer months. Just think: $2,100 is two days of heliskiing in Alaska, a plane ticket to the Southern Hemisphere, a new carbon bike frame, a very nice laptop. You get the idea.

By Jon Hurd

By Jon Hurd

Camp instead. Choose campsites that are close to the places you need or like to frequent. Paid parking is a no-no; paid camping is a last resort. If you are dirtbagging for a short period of time, look at or talk to friends in the area about your situation. Everyone has been in a spot where they’ve had no money, or have been trying to save money. Everyone can get behind you going to live your dream. Almost everyone wants to help. You’ll likely refuse more help than you’ll accept.

3.) Maximize space in your car.

You will be living out of it or in it. A number of ski bum types will sleep in their car, even during winter, the idea being they are free to chase powder. Heated vans, mattresses in truck beds, pop-up trailers—people take it to the extreme. So, have an efficiency-based system.

Be ruthless. Pick your top five pairs of pants, choosing the ones you’ll need for all occasions, and add one pair of bike/climbing/whatever-sport clothes to that collection. Pack only the most necessary pairs of shoes, and then toss in a few sundresses and a nice outfit in case you need to look good. Have one stuff sack or plastic tub with clean clothes and one smaller with drawstring canvas or mesh bag for dirty clothes. Remember to bring hangers, as you will find you can re-wear attire if you hang it in the car, open the doors, and let the whole thing air out. If you reside in a humid place, forget this last piece of advice. Finding a local laundromat is critical.

Camping gear is mandatory. Bedding (a pillow, blanket, and sheet), cargo boxes, and bike racks are recommended. There will be at least one night where you will sleep in your backseat. Accept it and make do comfortably. When that day comes, take the time to hang up sheets or towels over your windows. You don’t want creepers looking into your car or, more likely, the early dawn light waking you up before you’re ready to start the day.

Keep your shoes out of the car at all times. They stink; they are dirty.

4.) Use a camp stove and cooler.

Understand that much of your food will be whole fruit or in bar- and trail mix-form. You will get tired of these as well as anything freeze-dried, oatmeal, and all other add-water-only foods, which will probably comprise most of your options if you’re utilizing a light-weight backpacking stove.

A cheap cooler and car-camping stove can cost you as little as $100. Food lasts quite a while in a cooler. I recommend having both a car-camping stove for base camp days spent near the vehicle and a backpacking stove for days spent out in the wilderness.

5.) Ride your bicycle and utilize public transportation.

Gas prices hover around $4, at least they do where I call home. Therefore, a tank of gas is spent going somewhere extra-cool, not piddled on trips to the grocery store.

Commuter pedaling gets you into shape and saves major cash, not to mention the Ozone. A Thule carrier system represents a very worthy, upfront investment: racks are $89.95, side frames $19.95, with bags in the $79-$119 range. But there are a million options out there, and Craiglist is probably swarming with options.

Know the bus schedule like the back of your hand.

6.) If possible, telecommute or work remotely.

As a writer and athlete, this is easy for me to recommend. Travel is part of what I have to do. Even when it’s for fun only, I tend to write about it for my website or put it in the idea bank.

You can find some options on Seasonal employment is also recommended as long as you live in a place with decent enough weather, so you can camp and shower at the gym before work.

7.) Being mobile is being efficient.

The 21st century is a great time to be a dirtbag. There’s an app for everything, plus you’ll get to take advantage of mobile banking and a phone with Internet. With emails sent via iPhone, photos uploaded via Instagram to Facebook, plus Skype and Facetime, you can still effectively have business meetings and talk to Mom.

By Mike Lee

By Mike Lee

Don’t go full Into-the-Wild and check out entirely. Be sustainable about your outdoor habit, which means staying up-to-date with your job or business remotely and cutting out any unnecessary errands.

8.) Scout the places that have free Wi-Fi.

Anecdote: I’ve been going to the same tiny coffee shop in Vail for five years. My purchases are generally the following: $2.50 endless refill large cup of dark roast, $1 day-old pastries, and, if I am splurging, $5.75 protein shakes. While not a ton of money, these purchases are key because they buy me four hours of wireless internet access. Once that is up, I am not only more caffeinated than Lewis Black, I am ready for whatever lunch I’ve planned and a work break, which includes a stroll to the public library, where I start the second half of my work day.

Some days you won’t want to read with a headlamp lighting the pages of an Edward Abbey masterpiece. Some days you’ll miss watching movies, specifically during bad weather when you cannot go climb, ski, bike, whatever. Netflix, Hulu, and the like offer many a web-streaming entertainment option. A fully charged laptop and a $1 RedBox movie will help you forget about crappy weather.

9.) Scout the places with cheap food.

There is a cheap pizza place and cheap Mexican cafe with endless chips and salsa in every town in America. These are your best non-camp-stove options.

Otherwise, buy your food at a grocery store. That pre-made breakfast burrito is $1.99 to the coffee shop’s $7.50 burrito.

Also, avoid drinking alcohol and other inebriants. They are not only distracting to your initial, athletic purpose; they are expensive. Beers from your cooler are okay. Beers at the bar are not okay.

10.) Random beauty tips for you to take or leave.

You won’t shower as often as you’d like. Legs might get prickly, eyebrows a little bushy, hair a little greasy or dreadlock-y.

Pack many, many washcloths and, yes, soap to give yourself a makeshift bath. If you get the opportunity to shower—anywhere—take advantage as many times as you possibly can.

Dry shaving your legs and armpits with lotion does work.

A small vanity mirror and pouch stashed with your cosmetics will prevent you from looking like a hobo. Wash your face!

Baby powder can absorb a lot of moisture in your hair if you have light hair. Seltzer water can take a lot of the sea water crap out of it post-swim.

11.) Potentially datable folks may be wary of your somewhat unstable lifestyle.

There’s no place to cuddle in your car. Sleeping in the tent is only exciting once or twice. They think: This lady’s hygiene is questionable. They think: She’s always using public bathrooms to change, put on make-up, wash her hair, brush her teeth, and so on.

12.) Potentially datable folks of the outdoor recreation variety may immediately get down on a knee and propose marriage.

They’re turned on by your commitment to climbing, the fact that you want to save to go to Patagonia, and the proof that you don’t mind getting a little dirty and smelly while sacrificing for a slacklining, standup paddleboarding, mountain-biking adventure! They’re in love! Be on guard for these folks, too, because when you dirtbag and someone joins, it’s hard to get rid of them.

13.) Some interesting and cool things you can expect.

You will save almost all the money you make. There aren’t a lot of surprise charges in bumming.

By Jonathan Fox

By Jonathan Fox

You won’t miss as much as you think. TV is over-rated, except Game of Thrones, which I once streamed via HBO Go under the awning of a closed espresso bar.

You’ll get pretty comfortable being slightly unkempt and possibly a little dirty. Let’s classify this as a comfort zone expansion.

Your dream will come true. The trip you’ve been planning will happen. It will be more rewarding than anything you’ve done since graduating college. You sacrificed to get there. Every turn, pedal stroke, handhold, and footstep will carry the sweet sense of accomplishment.

You will be grateful to every single person who let you do laundry at their place, allowed you sleep on their couch, cooked you a meal, or drove you to the airport. You will be filled with love for everyone around you, even the haters who told you that you couldn’t get it done because even the haters’ doubt motivated you.

Category: Out There

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Comments (19)

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  1. Kristy McCaffrey says:

    Great article! Almost makes me want to become a dirtbag. 🙂

  2. Melissa says:

    Patiently waiting for October to roll around, thus, lay off season before ski season begins! Dirtbagging is only a few months away. Fabulous article!

  3. Eva says:

    I have a 55 year-old lifelong dirt bagging climber on my couch right now. He stays in a free trailer without electricity but today it is 110 degrees in Joshua Tree so he is sitting under my cooler. He works enough to get by and somehow does. He has no retirement, no medical care, no car. He has climbed more routes than most people can imagine but his life has not been easy. While dirtbagging for a season or two might be a way to achieve your sporting dreams..I don’t recommend doing it for too many years. Your friends will get tired of helping you and the line between climber/skier/surfer and transient begins to blur. At least he did it without government assistance. Working those seasonal jobs and then going on unemployment to fund your adventures makes you a mooch, not a true dirtbag.

  4. Rob Mueller says:

    My wife and I skied our way to AK one winter in our trusty Astro Van “Blue”. The best suggestion anyone every gave us was buy a full sized electric blanket and a 100 foot extension cord. Made the trip blissful. Can’t wait to get back to it.

  5. Bevie K says:

    Fun article and an interesting housing alternative!

  6. Happiegrrrl - ClimbAddict says:

    I’ve been living in an off-grid cabin or van the last 4 years and guess I am a technically a dirtbag, though I don’t consider myself as such. Maybe it’s because I haven’t eschewed society, I don’t know. Anyway – my tip is about those washcloths, numerous washcloths, mentioned in the article: I say -???! Washcloths 1) get mildewy if not laundered fairly quickly, 2) cost money to launder, and 3) take up space. Instead, get a loofa. It does a much better job at getting off life’s buildup, especially when you don’t have the luxury of a long shower or soak in a hot tub, which – if you are really a dirtbag, and not a pretending one, you will NOT have much access to. A loofa dries quickly, and doesn’t get disgusting mildew, and costs very little in comparison to even washrags gained at thrift stores.

  7. Shelda Carlock says:

    My boyfriend and I have been “dirtbagging” for two years now, although we simply refer to it as traveling, haha. Sold all of our stuff (except what we could fit in our packs) and started hitchhiking around the country, hitting every music festival and trail we could.

    I don’t agree with everything in the article, so I’m with Happie^ on the loofa, except I use scrubby gloves. I don’t believe that being mobile is as important as this article makes it sound, unless you’re just one of those people who wants to constantly be plugged in. I love being smart phone free. In fact, I think being unplugged is one of the more beautiful things about the lifestyle. Another beautiful thing – getting over the beauty tips. Do it long enough, and the only thing you need to feel beautiful is the self love that you create. And you most certainly don’t need to shave your legs!!

    But if one thing was nailed right on the head, it’s the last paragraph. So, so true. Good article over all. I hope it opens more people up to a new way of living.

  8. Niki says:

    I love this article which really does answer the question how to live like a dirtbag in a serious manner, not as satire. I never thought I’d qualify for the dirtbag lifestyle but this account makes me think twice. Keep the updates from the edge coming!

  9. jeannemeeks says:

    Enticing article. Wish I had the nerve to give dirty-bagging a try. Backpacking for a week or so is as close as I get.

  10. Court Brock says:

    When i was living in my subaru one of the surprise benefits was that I did something fun every day. There just is no house to sit around in. Another was the ability to get off work and say “Hmm, where do i want to watch the sun rise tomorrow?”
    One thing to consider though is what would happen if your dirtbag vehicle/home were to come to an untimely demise. Would that actually make you homeless?

  11. I really enjoyed your article – so much in fact, that I got inspired and wrote a blog about being a “part-time dirtbag adventurer”

  12. Kayla says:

    I went online to find out how to start dirtbagging and this post just finished of the 100% of my decision to make this happen by April!

    Looking at Subaru Outbacks now online to renovate and transform into a mini “studio condo” (;

    I am living at school right now and feel so utterly confined. Thankfully I work at the climbing wall here and am starting to train to climb more difficult routes with my buddy that is going to begin dirtbagging here next month (December of 2014).

    Have to save up a few thousand bucks, but I’m inexplicably exsatic and prepared to sacrifice my life to his sport and all of God’s glorious work!!! (:

  13. Heather says:

    Ha! I never knew there was a name for this. I “dirtbag” about 3.5 months a year with 4 kids in tow. They’ve had incredible experiences around the world and we do it for the same price their peers spend on a week’s resort vacation. If I could convince my spouse to let us drop out of the real world I’d be happy to dirtbag year ’round!

  14. david davies says:

    A male writing here.

    i spent the summer last summer at Smith Rocks Oregon.
    im a senior dirtbagger (seniority and age)
    a couple more tips i can think of
    1. witch hazel is your friend. its a bath in a bottle. $1.47 at Wal Mart.
    2. dont dirtbag alone. the community is generally wholesome (qualifier needed) but a single gal is likely to get hit on more often than her patience allows.
    just like ski bumming in the old days; a lesbian affiliated bumper sticker is very useful even if your not so inclined.
    3. avoid pets if possible. they limit your mobility.
    4. castor oil for bug bites and burn from sun or other source.
    5. DMSO for sore muscles, and whatever else ails you.

  15. Thane says:

    Hey, would any of y’all be willing to help me dirtbag in vail when I get done with my associates degree? I went last winter and it is my dream to go back and dirtbag for a while. I just love the little town (and I love the neighbouring one even more) and I would love to recreate the magic of last winter, minus the hotel and crappy roommate.

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