How To Be A Dirtbag (7 Skills To Build Your Rugged Side)
by Pete Hoffmeister
Have you ever watched an outdoor film and seen two adventurers sleeping in a bathroom in Calcutta and thought, “Man, I wanna be like those guys! They are really living life!”
To answer that question: Yes, they are really living life…and yes, that bathroom does smell terrible…and yes, those people are what we in the outdoor world call “dirtbags.”
Dirtbags are disheveled mountain bikers on Mongolian single-track, or big wave surfers secretly sleeping on flea-infested public beaches, or rock climbers sharing the Ahwahnee caves with bears, or filthy street skateboarders with blood dripping off their chins.
Dirtbags are the ideal. They’re what we aspire to because dirtbags adventure daily, and they have skills – learnable skills…practiced skills – expertise that other people can decide to acquire.
If you’re interested, here are seven dirtbag skills that will get you well on your way to sleeping in a dirty, foreign, public bathroom…and having the adventurous life that you’ve always aspired to:
Dirtbag Skill #1: Wear Free Clothes –
First of all, think “lost-and-found.” No matter where you live, and what you do for work, there’s probably a lost-and-found that you can check in on and raid. In Yosemite Valley, I’ve raided the Curry boxes. At the high school where I work, there’s a front-office lost-and-found. Ask yourself, “Do I need an ugly brown wool scarf and a slightly-too-big North Face shell?” The answer is yes. Adorn yourself for the outdoors and go forth into the world.
The second option for free clothes is family. Let your family members know that any time they’re donating clothes they no longer want, they can bring a bag of clothes to your porch, leave the bag there, and you’ll go through the items. Whatever you don’t need will continue on to St Vincent DePaul or Goodwill or The Mission. But first, you snag good, free gear.
Alternative: For those people with a modicum of talent (or connections, or some form of random publicity), a sponsorship is possible. There’s a chance that a small or large company will give you a regular flow of shoes and clothing in trade for social media posts, Amazon reviews, or magazine articles.
Dirtbag Skill #2: Eat Old Or Free Food –
True adventurers have long gotten over the idea of eating well. Think ridiculously dry energy bar. Or instant oatmeal. Or dehydrated meals? Who thought up that idea: Add boiling water to a weird mixture inside a plastic and metal pouch, reseal the pouch, and wait ten minutes for the mixture to turn into a hot-mess of something sort of like a meal? Mmm…that sounds enticing!
And since we’ve gotten over the idea of eating well, let’s just eat anything that has calories, anything that will fuel our bodies in any way.
For example, I’ve eaten half a box of Twinkies that I found in a garbage can. They weren’t good, but at least they were food. Sort of. I’ve also eaten out of the dumpster behind Safeway grocery stores.
There’s raiding bear-boxes in National Park campsites, and there’s finishing leftover tourist food at any public establishment. Either one works!
Alternative: Most bakeries put more than two day old baked goods in their dumpsters. Some bakeries even plastic-bag their leftovers. This isn’t really scrounging in the classical sense because two-days-olds from a bakery are better than anything I could ever cook anyway.
Dirtbag Skill #3: Establish a Willingness To Suffer –
This is a mental skill that’s contrary to popular culture. We’re soft, soft people and we live in a culture of regular complaining. So to start, we have to change the way that we think. Begin by wearing the same clothes for two weeks straight (product placement: Ridgemont t-shirts are incredibly comfortable even when filthy). That’s an easy first step: Just don’t change your clothes. Put ’em on and keep ’em on.
Then get rid of the most common cultural complaint: Talking badly about the weather. Think of cold or wet weather as a challenge to your character. Look out at that 38-degree sleet and think, “I’m going outside! I’m gonna start building character right now!”
Or embrace the heat. Tell yourself that nothing overwhelms you. Become an instinctual animal and find shade or water. Or don’t. Keep blasting on and don’t let the extremes get to you.
Tell yourself, “I love to suffer!” Or say something like, “I’m just tougher than most people.” Say it aloud, then prove it. Americans in particular aren’t very tough, so a little bit of suffering goes a long way. Turn off your air-conditioning, open your windows, start moving, and enjoy the feeling of sweat tricking down your skin.
Alternative: Do the little things to minimize your suffering. Find a good cave to wait out that insane storm. Or boil water and keep hydrated with a warm drink in your hand. Or hike at night under the stars if you’re trying to cross a scorching-hot desert. Be smart about your adventuring, and your enjoyment will increase.
Dirtbag Skill #4: Be Dirty –
This is maybe where the list should’ve started. If you’re going to be a dirtbag, get ready to be dirty. The term “dirtbag” comes from California climbers who literally threw their sleeping bags down in the dirt. No pay-to-play campgrounds. No purchasing of tents. Just simple sleeping bags on the gritty surface of the earth so they could spend more time rock climbing.
So if you’re going to be a dirtbag, enjoy the dirtiness. Revel in it. Clean your hands with dirt. Clean your dishes with dirt. And wipe dirt on your face.
Alternative: Find free ways to get clean. This can be as simple as swimming in a creek or as complicated as stealing the Half-Dome shower codes in Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park. I’ve done both. But do whatever you want. Get clean as often as you wish.
Dirtbag Skill #5: Use Random Gear –
Perfect gear is for wealthy people. Also, most people with a garage full of gear barely use that gear. I knew a guy with more than $5,000 dollars in rock-climbing gear in his garage. When I asked him where he liked to climb, he said, “Oh, I don’t really have much time for climbing.”
Don’t be that guy.
Instead, buy time with your money. Use less-than-perfect gear as part of this equation.
Alternative: Adventure with good gear, but don’t own it. Or don’t own all of it. Borrow and loan good gear. Own some expensive nice stuff, but loan out what you have to your friends. Then borrow gear you don’t have when you go on a new adventure that requires gear you don’t own. Treat the borrowed gear well, clean it afterwards, and return it in a timely manner. Don’t make the gear-loaning-friend come to your house to pick up her gear after your adventure. Bring it back to her in good condition.
In this way, being a dirtbag can be a social experience. Build a community. Share and enjoy the process AND the equipment.
Dirtbag Skill #6: Sleep Better In A Sleeping bag –
I’ve heard a lot of people say, “Ugh, I just sleep horribly when I’m out camping” or “I always sleep badly in a tent.”
Instead, go into your adventures with a positive mindset. Think of a sleeping bag as a wonderful cocoon of perfect softness wrapping your body in the ability to sleep well. In this way, plan on sleeping well on your upcoming adventure, anticipating that delicious body-wrap enveloping you. Start with positivity. Say things like, “I always sleep better in a sleeping bag.” Or “I sleep better under the stars.”
Alternative: In addition to being positive, DO SOMETHING about your backcountry sleep. Instead of carrying one thin sleeping pad that weighs almost nothing, carry three thin sleeping pads that still weigh almost nothing. Roll them all together and strap them to the outside of your pack so their bulk doesn’t take up all of your packing space. Then – when it’s time for bed – stack all three pads on top of each other and put your sleeping bag on top. Suddenly – when you lay down – you feel like you’re on an incredibly comfortable mattress in the backcountry. Using this trick will help you sleep better.
Dirtbag Skill #7: Be Open To New Experiences Or Enjoy the Same Old Adventures –
There are two schools of dirtbaggery. One is all about the new experiences: Bouldering in South Africa or Skating slums in urban Brazil. Living on the run. If you’re invited somewhere – and can get there in any way – you always take the trip, always go for the new adventure.
The other dirtbag school is living cheap next to your favorite adventure location. Finding a free (maybe legal, maybe not) place of residence that allows you to surf that same break for three years straight or to bike the latticework of trails in the Cascades above Oakridge. Become the crustiest of crusty locals. Learn every variation and enjoy the daily process of repetition and beauty. Or usher in visitors with your knowledge-base, teaching them when they need your help.
Alternative: Embrace a combination of both dirtbag schools. Mostly do local adventures, but work and save a little bit of money so you can take the big adventure when it’s offered. Say, “Once or twice a year, I’m going to go out and do something awesome.”
This list of seven skills isn’t comprehensive. Think of your own dirtbag-skill-ideas and add them to the list. But the key is to keep adventuring. Never tell yourself that you’re too out of shape or too old. Just go out and keep going out.
Ask yourself: “What do I want to do?”
“What could I do?”
“Where can I go, and how dirty can I get?”
Venture forth, dirtbags! There’s an entire world out there and it’s waiting for you!
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is the author of the novels Too Shattered For Mending, This Is The Part Where You Laugh, and Graphic The Valley (a dirtbag novel set in Yosemite Valley). He is also the director of an outdoor program, a sponsored rock climber, and a white-water rafting guide. He recently got WAY over his head kayaking the East Fork of the Owyhee River, the most remote river fork in the lower 48 states. His borrowed dry-suit smelled terrible, but he swam in the river every day.