How poor do you have to be to call yourself a dirtbag?


“Let’s just sleep in the car Friday night,” my girlfriend said a couple weekends ago, on our way to Ouray to do a little ice climbing.

“No way,” I said. “I found a hotel for $42 a night.”

I just got a new job. After years of scraping by on a newspaper salary, then a nonprofit salary (I may be one of the only people dumb enough to take a pay cut from an already low-paying journalism job), I have enough money to eat. And purchase a new pair of pants without thinking about it for two weeks beforehand. If I wanted to, I could take one of my new, big-kid paychecks and buy a rack of ice screws, brand new, tomorrow. I could even afford a hotel at a ski resort, and a couple of lift tickets, if I wanted to do something I’ve never done before.

Am I still a dirtbag?

My car has 196,000 miles on it. I have $400 ski bindings mounted on $100 skis (which I bought used from a friend) and bent ski poles (which were free; a friend was cleaning out his closet). I still don’t own a suit. I bought my bicycle for $100 from a Craigslist ad. I still look for opportunities for free gear whenever I can. I spend 30 nights a year in a sleeping bag, which is almost 6 years old, and a tent with a (patched) hole in the floor. The best times of my life are when I’m wearing a heavy pack, going up or down something on a rope, a pair of skis, or hiking boots, and sleeping on the ground afterward.

Still, my new salary means I can afford some comforts, like a new pair of Outdoor Research GORE-TEX pants to replace the ones with the hole in the crotch I have been wearing for two years because they were free. Or, you know, stay at a hotel in Jackson instead of the Gros Ventre Campground or the Teton Climbers Ranch after a few days of climbing in the Tetons, were I so moved.

So that puts me quite a bit above the people I consider the original dirtbags, Yosemite climbers of the ’60s and ’70s like Yvon Chouinard, who survived on things like cases of dented cans of cat food for months at a time while they pioneered new routes all over the valley. Even scraping by at my old job, I had an income far above that of today’s “dirtbags,” who have a lot more material possessions than the original dirtbags, but still survive on half-eaten pizza from plates left on tables in Curry Village — or, as Andrew Bisharat pointed out in a recent piece in Rock & Ice: “Dirtbags aren’t supposed to have enough money for food, let alone new MacBooks, video cameras, Euro vans with pop tops and endless road trips!”

So where does that put me? And you, if you’re a “weekend warrior” who spends 40 hours a week doing something in an office? Is there a certain income level that puts you above “dirtbag” status? If you have a car built after 2001, are you disqualified?

I’m 32, have a giant pile of student loans to pay off, and I’m actually looking forward to making a dent in my debt this year. Am I going to quit climbing, sleeping in the dirt, bike camping on weeknights, bailing out of the office early to head to the crag a few times this summer? No. Have I sold out? Maybe a little bit. I’m not sitting here trying to figure out how to get myself in a position to make six figures; I’m clicking around Mountain Project looking at routes I want to climb this year.

But eventually, I’ll grow up, and if you have to take care of other people in your life, you can’t afford to work part of the year in a gear shop and spend the other half of the year climbing. Unless you have a trust fund, which I do not.

But you know what? If I make some progress paying off my student loans, I’ll be in a good position to take a couple months off and live out of my car, or a backpack. Which is kind of like being a real dirtbag, if only for a few weeks. And I’ll keep thinking I’m a dirtbag, as long as I keep doing all my own bicycle maintenance in the bathtub of my apartment, and choosing to spend money on new climbing gear instead of a flat-screen TV or designer jeans.


Tags from the story
, ,


  • I really don’t think that paying off student loans and having enough food to eat is “selling out,” it’s just smart and honest.

    Why would anyone WANT to be a dirtbag, anyway?

  • Thanks, Jill. I guess for a long time I thought poor = non-materialistic = honest. And I still do, somewhat. Not that I’m getting ready to buy a BMW and join the polo club or anything.

  • What have you got against designer jeans? Some days I feel like I’ve sold out, but today at work, on a field trip to a derelict mental institution campus, while walking around a barn currently undergoing renovation, I put my foot through the termite eaten floor of the 2nd story. I caught myself at about knee deep through the floor, but wasn’t hurt.

    An hour later, we were walking the perimeter of a vacated youth detention center looking at deer & turkey trails, then tramping through the forest to find a sweet bay magnolia grove.

    It’s times like these when I feel like I’ve made the right career choices.

  • So I found you randomly on twitter through my other twitter friends, and them came to visit your blog- and now I fear I will have to read your blog all the time.

    Which is going to take even more time away from me trying to grow up and get edumacated and schooled.

    Does it make you a dirt bag when you sleep in the back of your car in an effort to not have to pay a Mexican campground fee?

    I happen to like my rusty, 1997 Toyota Corolla. Everyone seems to think I’m going to dump it as soon as I get done with grad school. I’ve got the plan to drive it until it dies. Or until someone steals my other headrest.

  • I think being a dirtbag is more of a state of mind that a financial status. For example I camp in Forest Service campgrounds when I feel like living the good life, and park along the road and hike a couple miles in after 11:00pm when I don’t want to spend the $12.

    The place where you fall off the cliff and land in Yuppieville is when you are weighing the room service menu choices against going out for dinner and consulting the front desk.

  • Anyone using the cool new California slang “dirt bag” to describe what many of us have been doing for generations is a tourist and a poser. You.

  • So I love this post, because it’s kind of where I’m at right now (although I just bought a suit, for $10, at the thrift store). I think it’s all about priorities, and managing them. For example, I want to be able to wear a suit when I need to go to a fancy event with my wife, but it’s not super important to me, so I got a cheap one. But I spent 10 times that much getting a fleece hoody for climbing skiing and hiking. I think that labels work until they don’t, and sometimes you just have to say that you’re who you are, and there isn’t a label to fit you.

  • Growing up, my grandmother’s refrain was, “Usefulness is the rent we pay for our place in this world.” This was simply a polite way of reminding her grandchildren not to be selfish a$$holes and to contribute something meaningful to society. For this one reason alone, I have no aspirations of being a “dirtbag”. Is it admirable to forego material possessions for the pursuit of a dream? Absolutely. Is it admirable if that dream is a non-stop orgy of self-gratification (i.e. endless binges of climbing)? Probably so. Does climbing have to have meaning and purpose? Probably not. Ironically, though, the pursuit of purifying your life of consumerist tendencies just to be a dirtbag climber only makes your motivations more perfidious and you a person who just consumes what the world has to give without giving back.

  • Stumbled across this blog tonight – Great stuff!

    Is there such a thing as an aspiriant dirtbag? I’ve slept in a few bushes in my time, and under trees in city quays by the canal in Toulouse. I’ve also failed to relocate my hotel one night and slept in a doorway, but I suppose the very fact I was checked into a hotel automatically disqualifies me as being a dirtbag?

    Looking forward to following this blog… Cheers

Comments are closed.