Going with the crowd never seemed the right way for me – go to college, get a job, get a car, get married, get a mortgage, have kids, pay off debts for most of your life, forget your hobbies and passions, lose your essence, then reach the end of the line. I knew I had to live life in my own terms.
But society was there, breathing down my neck, influencing some of my decisions, stirring the inner conflict. So, it took me a while to accept my condition, to put the pieces together. I finally know who I am – a dirtbag, a vagabond climber living an out-of-the-box life.
Now, you may ask whether dirtbagging is still a thing. Doesn’t it feel as though outdoor activities, the kind that stem from freedom and purity, have somewhat lost their essence as of late? What happened to those climbers with tousled hair and ragged clothes that would spend their last dime to go climbing?
The huge boom of the outdoor industry in the last decades has added a dash of glamor to these pursuits, turning them into something mainstream and shiny. Yet those who would ditch the norms have always been there, taking the unconventional road.
Want to learn more about this counterculture? Do you identify as a dirtbag? Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in this article; or maybe you seek some inspiration to free yourself from mindless consumerism and the many shackles of society. Something must have brought you here, so read on and dream big!
In this article
What is a dirtbag climber?
If you look it up in a traditional dictionary, “dirtbag” has a derogative meaning – “an unkempt or unpleasant person.” However, in the climbing world, the term has become a sort of badge of honor, used to describe a dedicated climber who defies social norms, eschews material comfort, and works irregularly in order to pursue their passion.
Let’s take a look at the origins of the dirtbag climbers. These were groups of climbers in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Squamish in the 60s and 70s who began developing a counterculture, subsisting through radical means such as dumpster diving and eating leftovers from tourists so they could climb as much as possible. Their lifestyle in Yosemite is portrayed in the documentary Valley Uprising.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard used the term in the early 60s to describe a lifestyle. During an interview for Outside Magazine, he said “Being a dirtbag is a matter of philosophy, not personal wealth. I’m an existential dirtbag.”
Fred Beckey, one of the most famous and accomplished climbers in American history, is one of the original dirtbags and perhaps the most recognizable. The life of this legend, who would hold a “Will belay for food” sign on the side of the road, is depicted in the documentary Dirtbag: the Legend of Fred Beckey.
Back then, dirtbags would live on the fringe of society, sometimes spending months at a time in a place, sleeping in tents, cars, or under boulders, even eating out of dumpsters. Such was their dedication.
Dirtbags aren’t just climbers; they are anyone who chooses to pursue outdoor adventures instead of being confined to a typical life. They can be backpackers who roam the world on a low budget for months, years even. Mountaineers who dedicate their lives to being up in the mountains, bikers, ski bums, surfer dudes, paragliders, rafters, sailors, and so on.
Essentially, a dirtbag is a nature and outdoor lover who dismisses traditional employment (i.e. working a 9 to 5, building a career), simplifies their existence (smaller housing, cheaper bills), embraces minimalism (buys fewer things, spends less money), and spends extended periods of time outside following their passion.
Read more >> Dirtbagging and Climbing in Leonidio, Greece
What is the dirtbag lifestyle?
Image credit: Color Drops Mandala
For us dirtbags, money buys one great thing – time. It may sound simple enough, but it takes grit (and balls) to pursue this lifestyle.
Simply put, it means making a choice to live a simpler life in order to be fully invested in your passion for the outdoors, be it climbing, skiing, mountaineering, rafting, hiking, or something else. To forgo unnecessary material aspects and dedicate your existence to what makes you feel alive. And, very importantly, to do it for yourself, because it’s who you truly are, not for fame or money.
Many say that the 60s were the golden days of the dirtbag culture. Some argue that dirtbagging is dead. I beg to differ. I believe that dirtbagging merely changed, as do many things over time. It may look different today, but its core principles have remained the same. And there are still many that follow the dirtbag way to a tee.
The internet has indeed opened new doors. It presented the dirtbag lifestyle to the masses, and more people found this to be something they crave for, something they need, something to pursue. In fact, I’d say that the dirtbag lifestyle is making a comeback in recent years.
And no, you don’t have to commit to it full-time. As long as you invest as much time in it as you can and are willing to make sacrifices for it, thus feeding your wild side, you might very well be one. So, all in all, there’s no set of rules for living like a dirtbag. It all comes down to what’s in your heart and the choices you make.
Read more >> 20 Telltale Signs You Might Be a Dirtbag
How I accepted myself as a dirtbag
I’ve never been one to bow my head; not to mention sacrifice my time over money.
I’ve never felt like I belonged in a society that values money, shiny possessions, or careers over time and experiences. I did not like school and I was a serial ditcher. Unsurprisingly, I did not fit in those little groups of teens that would hang around during recess.
I could never imagine myself at a desk job, ever since childhood. Sadly, many children dream of great adventures for when they grow up, as did I, but those dreams often fade away as soon as they become of age. That was not the case for me.
Over the years, I tried many different things – local guide, rope access projects, renovating old interiors, even helping out a film crew descend into a medieval well… I also wrote a lot. I even stayed at a remote marketing job for 5+ years, which gave me a certain amount of freedom, but not quite enough.
All this time, I climbed. And I would often choose to go climbing instead of going to school or passing down work opportunities when I had already planned to be out in nature.
Looking back, I realize that I took each day as it came. Although I often worried about the future and would sometimes wonder what it’d be like to have a steady income, build a career, go with the crowd, who was I kidding? I did not belong there. To live like a vagabond was a decision I made a long time ago, albeit unconsciously at first. Now, I’m simply becoming more and more aware of it.
So here I am, following my own path – the dirtbag way – even if it took me a while to embrace it.
How to embrace the dirtbag lifestyle?
“The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. It’s so easy to make it complex. What’s important is leading an examined life.” -Yvon Chouinard.
The days when climbers would eat canned cat food or out of dumpsters, spending months at a time sleeping under trees and boulders in order to climb, are pretty much gone. In fact, it might be a bit easier to embrace this lifestyle in our present time.
Nowadays, dirtbagging looks a bit different. But its core essence remains the same – choosing the cheapest options to travel and climb for as much as possible. And there are quite a few…
First and foremost, you need to embrace frugal living. Unless you’ve inherited some great fortune, money only takes you so far. If you wish to spend more time climbing, then you need to save up and relinquish certain spendings altogether.
Photo by Szidonia Lorincz
You still need gear, and climbing gear can be expensive. But, once you’ve invested in it, some of it can last for a few years. Climbing shoes are a drag, as they wear out too fast, but we choose to resole them as much as we can. And, of course, we hunt discounts for climbing gear.
With remote work and freelance opportunities booming in recent years, it has now become somewhat easier to take to the road and live the dirtbag lifestyle. You can find a job that allows you to work from anywhere and at your own hours. You can also work on a project-basis, for a set time, using the money earned to climb for a few weeks, months even.
When it comes to food, I cook a lot, both at home and when we’re traveling. That saves quite a lot of money, since eating out does cost a pretty penny in most European countries. When we’re traveling, I cook simple (yet delicious) meals over the camping stove or campfire.
I make meals out of scraps and I try use whatever I have left in the fridge, not letting food go to waste. I also hunt down near-expired food at discounted prices.
Traveling and climbing for cheap often means staying in a tent or sleeping in a car. Nowadays, van conversions have become all the rage, and with good reason – they are a great way to travel on a low budget while enjoying some creature comforts. Plus, they enable you to stay in places where you cannot pitch a tent. So, van life is an excellent way to embrace the dirtbag lifestyle for extended periods of time.
You gotta stop being picky. I use my clothes until they wear out completely. I go thrift shopping. I eat simple meals. I don’t turn down a free meal if I’m offered one. Neither do I turn down free clothes or free climbing shoes from someone who no longer uses them. By shaking off your shyness, you may find some alternative ways to get by.
Find alternative ways to travel to a dream destination, such as volunteering at a climbing campsite. You’ll get food and lodging in exchange for helping around at the campsite. Be open to any volunteering opportunities in the place you have in mind that might enable you to climb more.
Remember, you don’t have to be a full-time dirtbag. You can sell everything and live in a van. You can work remotely and travel more. You can be a dirtbag over the weekend. That’s right, you don’t need to go all in. Whatever you decide, dirtbagging is in the heart. It is being pleased with the choices you’ve made, pursuing your passions, knowing that you’ve done everything you can to live the life you want for yourself.
There’s nothing wrong in being a weekend warrior.
You can still have a 9 to 5 job and be a dirtbag over the weekend and whenever you take a longer trip. You can even be a dirtbag in the afternoon if you find a job you like and live near a climbing area or the mountains.
We’re dirtbags, and we’re proud of it
I love sleeping in a tent. If the weather’s good, it feels so much better than at home. I enjoy knowing that the earth is right beneath me, stars above, the crisp air fills my lungs. I for one could not imagine sleeping any better at an accommodation.
Waking up in the morning, getting out of the tent, taking in the scenery, walking through the morning dew, getting my feet wet, brewing a big cup of coffee, making scrambled eggs, sitting in our camping chairs and just enjoying life. These are my kind of mornings.
We go climbing when we feel like it and spend the whole day at the crag. We fill our water bottles from a spring, return to our tent, have a beer or two while reminiscing the day, go to the river to wash up…
Gather woods, build a fire, have a barbecue, have another beer, look at the sky, try to guess the time by the position of the stars, talk, stay silent, go to sleep… The simple life.
Yes, we often use up our last resources to go climbing. That’s because when we do work, we do it in order to have money to go climbing. Depending on how much money we have, we stay for a shorter or longer time, closer to home or farther away.
When we’re at home, we try to spend as little as possible. The bulk goes into climbing.
We don’t have a steady income. Whenever possible, we prefer to work for some time, make some money, then take time off to climb. So yeah, I guess you could say that we live one day at a time. Come to think about it, doesn’t everyone? Sure, you may think you have everything sorted out – job, mortgage, house, car – but that could all be gone tomorrow. So we’re all hanging by a thread here, whether we like to admit it or not.
Pros and cons of the dirtbag lifestyle
I had moments when I’d consider myself the looser who can’t fit in. Back then, it seemed to me that others had enough money to sleep in comfortable accommodation, eat out, have new, clean and colorful climbing clothes, shiny new climbing equipment… All the while, I was wearing my old, ragged climbing clothes, climbing shoes until they’d have no sole left, sleep in a tent, cook at the campfire or camping stove, bathe in the river…
Boy, was I wrong. As my husband plainly put it, we tend to let go of what keeps us alive. And for me, being exposed to nature and all the hardships of living a simple life is what keeps me breathing.
While many of the people I once felt inferior to only got to take climbing vacations twice a year, for a week or two at a time, I would go whenever I pleased and stay for as long as I wanted (or money would allow). I had time for myself, I was not trapped in a pattern. I was on the winning side, and I now realize how rich I truly am.
Pros of the dirtbag way
Being a dirtbag means embracing a simpler way of living, closer to nature and your true self. By forsaking the comforts of society, I learn more about myself. There’s a certain pleasure in being able to prioritize and invest in your soul.
You learn what truly matters and what doesn’t. You learn to get by with the bare minimum. And you soon realize that you don’t need more. You learn to appreciate what you have, be resourceful, be grateful for every meal, every piece of equipment, every opportunity. The fewer material possessions you have, the more freeing your existence becomes.
Fewer and cheaper bills in a smaller nest translate to fewer worries and distractions so that you can focus on what’s truly important. At the end of the day, debts, bills, and social norms equal stress and imprisonment.
Spending more time in nature is healing. We humans have always known this deep inside, but city dwelling has stripped us of the benefits of being in nature, and many of us have become entrapped between concrete walls, some barely experiencing the gifts of nature.
Being a dirtbag means that you commit to your passion, either full-time or part-time, knowing that you’ve done all you can. You live out your dreams, which is all we can really ask for from life, right?
Cons of the dirtbag way
It all looks pretty cool, and I’m sure a lot of people say “Man, I wanna live like that, too.” But how many actually go on and do it?
Dirtbagging means moving against the current. And that’s easier said than done. Leading the dirtbag lifestyle isn’t always easy, and it does have its setbacks.
There are times when it seems as though we can barely make ends meet. Often, we make just enough money to set out on the next adventure. And then return broke. That is the reality.
This lifestyle can be particularly difficult if you have a spouse and kids, especially if your better half does not see eye to eye. You can’t just pick up and leave. However, it is possible to find a middle ground. Luckily, my husband and I are the same and we make the same choices, even if some are difficult.
There may be people that need your financial support, maybe even your full-time presence. There may be bills to pay, mortgages, loans, debts, which complicate things. Some may be able to give these up, make tough decisions, but some may not. Then, there may be things you won’t be able to afford, experiences you may not live. Can you accept that?
There’ll be many voices telling you “it’s not a responsible way to live”, “what are you going to do with your life?”, “it’s time you grow up”, “what money does climbing bring you?”, “you gotta get a job”, “you gotta think about the future”, and so on… Will these questions go in one year and out the other or will they cause you worry, stress, and anxiety?
I’d chose the same way, over and over again
Dirtbagging in an alternative to the rat race. For some, the choice is simple. For me, although I now realize it’s always been who I truly was, it wasn’t all that clear in the past. The lines were blurry until they suddenly became clear.
Yes, there are hardships. And yes, it does come with its fair amount of struggles. I guess the trick is to keep your chin up and remind yourself that it’s your choice and that the rewards outweigh the struggles.
The dirtbag way means having more time for yourself. It demands less work, more outdoor adventures, and a knack for prioritizing. What can you live without? Society influences us a lot, oftentimes without us realizing it, especially social media with its falsehoods and fantasies. You have to break free from society’s confines and know that there are things money can buy and things money can’t buy. What will you choose?
PS: Tomorrow’s Monday and we’re going climbing!