Pros of the Dirtbag Lifestyle

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“We took special pride in the fact that climbing rocks and icefalls had no economic value in society. We were rebels from the consumer culture.[…] The natural world was our home. Our heroes were Muir, Thoreau, and Emerson and the European climbers Gaston Rebuffat, Ricardo Cassin, and Herman Buhl. We were like the wild species living on the edge of an ecosystem  – adaptable, resilient, and tough.” – Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard, from Let My People Go Surfing

By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure. Follow her on Instagram @heysarawrr.

I remember a night when we stood still after every few steps, felt like animals in the dark, our eyes wide and patient. Our headlamps would surely give us away. Slowly and with delicate feet, we tip-toed across the cackling duff of the forest floor, searching for a lee of boulders to sleep behind, trying not to get caught. I never truly knew what dark was until I moved to Yosemite National Park to work for corporate concessionaire, DNC, three years ago. And it was my first summer in the Valley that also made me rediscover my true love for the mountains. I wanted climbing to be very present in my life; I was addicted, and there was no going back to the big cities. I sat by Mirror Lake one night, and the concept of ever having a standard 9-5 career faded with the sunset off the face of Half Dome.

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Sunset. Photo by Sara

I became curious about the strategies and the mentality behind being a ‘dirtbag’, especially those in the climbing community.

dirtbag via urban dictionary
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 [e.g. rock climbing, skiing, paddling] and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags are seeking to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle

Recently I went back to Yosemite to visit friends and climb briefly, in what small weather window I had. I luckily ran into a few of my good dirtbag friends and they shared more of their treasured “guidelines” with me. Good (or bad) for them, they finally had real jobs. One was actually working for the National Park Service, funny enough, but he still gets to be a dirtbag, because what he does for them is study the effects of fire damaged areas on owl populations. Meaning he gets to chase owls through the woods and sleep under the stars. And another friend got a job with the Yosemite Conservancy, but he still visits his old hiding spots when he can. In true dirtbag style, a storm was coming in and he turned to us and said, “I think I’m going to try out this new camping spot I found to see how it stands up to the rain.”

Ryan Evans stoked to wake up by the Keeler Needle in the High Sierra of CA.
Ryan Evans is stoked to wake up by the Keeler Needle in the High Sierra of CA. Photo: Damien Nicodemi

But I’ve come across dozens of people, from all over the states that seem to characterize the dirtbag lifestyle, and it opened up my perspective to alternative ways to live and work. When I was hiking on the PCT, it was a given that you were a type of dirtbag, and me and other hikers always joked about there being a fine line between a NoBo (a North-Bounder) and a Hobo. I’ve met fellas and dames that lived completely out of their trucks or vans (even I lived out of my Jeep for a month when I first moved from California to Boulder, CO). I’ve heard stories of people seeking caves in National Parks and having to maintain themselves by scouring the local food courts or the discount marts. Many of my Yosemite friends work seasonal jobs, then run away to Central and South America for the winter, or to Greece and Spain.

“None of us saw the business as an end in itself. It was just a way to pay the bills so we could go off on climbing trips.” –  Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard, from Let My People Go Surfing

Liz Regan spelunking into the void of her car.
Liz Regan spelunking into the void of her car.

There’s a lot of grit and resourcefulness involved, and while dirtbags today still seem to get more bad rap than good, dirtbagging is nonetheless an appealing way to experience the world. Granted, it was much easier to exist beneath the radar when there were only a handful of climbers hanging around Camp 4. But why are so many of us drawn to these alternatives in the first place?

Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo courtesy of Adam Prieto (R. Adam Photography).
Good company at Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo: Adam Prieto (R. Adam Photography).

The Pros of a Dirtbag culture:

  • Minimalism You definitely learn a thing or two about what’s important and what’s not, thus you become an expert at telling the difference between what you merely want and actually need. And not only do you know where everything you own is, but on a more intrinsic level, it teaches you how to be resourceful, creative with what you’ve got, and the ease of mobility is almost critical, let alone freeing. Bills and responsibility are at a minimum, and a lot of people find this an ultimate stress reliever. I think it also lends to a more community-oriented style of living, where making friends would most likely benefit you, as they might own the very French Press you’ve been saving pennies for.
The wardrobe of Dirtbag Dustin.
The wardrobe of Dirtbag Dustin. Photo: Dustin Garrison.
  • Nature Nurtures – Wilderness Therapy is becoming more mainstream, and it’s no surprise. Nature not only seems to recharge us, or allows for us to feel self-reliant, something about the flow of the natural Earth just makes everything feel sublime and anew. And for those who pursue the adventure, nature challenges them in ways never thought possible. It pulls out a very raw version of us, and I think this is one of the main reasons why people seek refuge in the surf, on the ski slopes, or on a granite cliff. The cities are noisy and complicated, with expectations up the wazoo. How do we keep track of ourselves when we are supposed to exist in so many different planes? Work, family, friends, personal organization, money (or the lack thereof), cars, laws, health, politics, etc.. We are asked to be specific, profitable, yet disposable, and our own worth must involve debt. It’s no secret why we often find ourselves passionless and robotic.
Photo: Adam Prieto
Photo: Adam Prieto
  • Living Out Your Dreams – It’s almost a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless. Cutting out distraction and obligation allows you to focus on your sport, travel, art, or wherever your passion lies. While many see it as childish and selfish, it can actually be quite healthy and rewarding, social and expressive. Even if it’s temporary, whatever you seek to experience and accomplish becomes exponentially more real and attainable when you commit full-time, which seems like a no-brainer. But most people fear that commitment, or feel stuck in whatever life they’ve already established for themselves. The unknown is frightening and it can feel like you’re gambling. But when you take that step, and trust that in the end, you will be okay, and well, it just makes the dream that much more adventurous and satisfying.
El Capitan. Photo: Adam Prieto.
El Capitan. Photo: Adam Prieto.

The outdoor industry is growing fast and has almost become synonymous with dirtbagging tendencies. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to find a happy medium between being a cubicle-living workaholic and a sunburned transient who climbs 200 days a year. Industry employees still prioritize their outdoor activities as much as possible, or seek jobs that match their passions, like professional guides. Even if they work 9-5 during the week, being a weekend warrior can be just a fruitful for those who don’t really desire being a full-time vagabond.

"Home is where you pitch it." Photo: Adam Prieto
“Home is where you pitch it.” Photo: Adam Prieto

The inspiration, I suppose, lies in the fact that alternatives actually exist. And truthfully, the alternative might be the only way for you to be more present in your life. “Life’s for the living so live it, or you’re better off dead,” Michael David Rosenberg (aka Passenger) sings in one of his songs. So whether you live out of your car, run away every chance you get, or only dream from your office, the lure of a hands-on intimacy with the world is present in all of us. But what we do with it, how we nurture it and let it grow, is what really matters. And who says it better than Thoreau himself?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.” – Henry David Thoreau, from Walden; or Life In The Woods

Photo by Sara

Why do you dirtbag? Tell us with the hashtag #dirtbagdreams!

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese. Sara wakes from a bivy, photo by Mike Hernandez.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese. Sara wakes from a bivy, photo by Mike Hernandez.

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