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  • Tim Mathis

What is a Dirtbag? An excerpt from "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life"

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

This is an excerpt from the introduction to The Dirtbag's Guide to Life. Other people have defined the term - I'm not the first - but I wrote the book on it so I'm staking my claim. Here's how I define a sub-culture that I've learned so much from.

Who cares about the humble dirtbag?

Once upon a time, in the 1950s and ‘60s, when countercultures were being born and postwar society was trying to get its act together, a group of young climbers set up camp in the Yosemite Valley. Out of some combination of social rebellion and love of the game, they chose to eschew jobs and traditional lifestyles in favor of scavenged food and a daily life of rock climbing and camping in the Valley for months or years at a time. They allegedly survived on cat food and thievery, and at some point, someone referred to them as a bunch of dirtbags, and the term stuck.

In all likelihood, “dirtbag” was originally intended as an insult, but as is sometimes the case with these things, the climbers, and those who followed them, took it up as a point of pride. They embraced their filthy tents and smelly-ass clothes as signs of commitment to the cause - signs that they were people willing to sacrifice for their passions, and to pursue them even as society rejected them for it.

As far as I know, there has never been a history written about the process of how the word “dirtbag” (both as a term and a lifestyle) has spread, but across the last 60 odd years, it has. And today, a quick Google search confirms that there are groups dispersed across the entire spectrum of outdoor activities that refer to themselves as dirtbags, all living a similar life of sacrificial devotion to the cause: trail runners, hikers, paddlers, skiers, climbers, world-travelers, mountain bikers, and more. Regarded as one of the best and most well-known outdoor-related podcasts of the current time, The Dirtbag Diaries has helped to popularize this term with its 9 million plus listeners. And a recent film backed by legendary outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia that profiles the pioneering alpinist Fred Beckey was simply titled, “Dirtbag.”

The progression happened gradually, but somewhere along the way it became possible to identify dirtbags as more than just a couple of weirdos doing weirdo shit, escalating into a full-fledged counter culture embraced by thousands. In an article from her blog in 2014, ultrarunner, race director and social media influencer Candice Burt identified dirtbaggery as “a growing social movement,” and she was right. The books and film adaptations of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild made cult heroes out of people living dirtbag lifestyles, and a popular documentary called Valley Uprising was made about those original Yosemite climbers. While there’s no central organizing committee, along with those popular artistic touchstones, dirtbag culture has developed its own identifiable dress code (flannels, trucker caps, cutoffs, body hair) and sacred places (Yosemite, Squamish, Patagonia, Chamonix…), and is present in beautiful outdoor locations all over the world.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of the Patagonia brand, and quite possibly the world’s most influential dirtbag, states in his autobiography, “If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent. The delinquent is saying with his actions, ‘This sucks, I’m going to do my own thing.’”

Chouinard might not have been talking about dirtbags specifically, but he could have been, and “This sucks, I’m going to do my own thing” summarizes the spirit of dirtbag culture as purely as anything. While the movement still might be difficult to define, there are a lot of us out there trying to figure out how to do our own thing in a world that sucks for a whole variety of reasons.

What does the dirtbag life entail?

I don’t remember exactly when the concept of “dirtbagging” entered my own consciousness, but my most memorable initial encounter with the lifestyle was in getting to know Heather “Anish” Anderson, beginning at a presentation I attended where she described her experience setting a speed record during her 2014 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Heather was living in Washington State at the time, not far from Seattle, where my wife Angel and I had been living since 2005. We were all active members of the state’s trail running community, and across time, as Angel and I got to know her, Heather’s life came to exemplify, for me, what it means to live like a dirtbag.

As an athlete, Heather is a remarkable person. Like myself, she grew up as a bit of a bookish nerd in the Midwest, but she fell in love with hiking during college. Following graduation, she decided that instead of starting a career, she would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. On that trail she adopted the trail name “Anish” - a reference to her Anishinabe heritage - and changed her entire life path. Across the last decade, she has shaped herself into one of the most notable athletes on the planet, breaking speed records on multiple American long trails that are still currently untouched by either gender.

But as a person, beyond the superhuman accomplishments, she’s a total dirtbag. In order to pursue her goals, she strayed from pursuing a more traditional post-collegiate career track, choosing instead to fund summer-long hikes on the long trails through seasonal work. Heather’s strategy seemed to pay off, earning her the coveted Triple Crown of long distance hiking: completing thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. She married another hiker and tried to settle down in Bellingham, Washington to work a straight tech job, but after just a few years, she left both her job and her marriage and dove full-on into hiking and peakbagging - setting multiple speed records across several years, and living as a full-time vagabond on occasional work and small sponsorships. At time of writing, she recently became the first woman to complete a “Calendar Year Triple Crown,” spending 9 months averaging 25 miles a day to complete the more than 7000 miles of trail on the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Continental Divide Trails in a single season. That also made her the first woman to earn a “Triple Triple Crown” - completing all three long trails three times each.

If the Yosemite climbers set out the dirtbag ideal of sacrificing a normal life for the cause, Heather epitomizes it. She’s placed exploration at the center of her existence, and sacrificed career, relationships, and financial stability to pursue her passions outside. And she’s treated hiking, running and peakbagging as spiritual callings - not just recreational pastimes. Her whole life is defined by the pursuit of exploration and adventure, and she does it all on the cheap.

Dirtbags are everywhere

Encountering Heather’s story was the first time I recognized dirtbaggery as a life strategy, but once you identify this pattern of behavior - of heeding the call of the wild, and abandoning social norms in order to immerse yourself as fully as you can in a life of exploration - you start to notice it everywhere. It manifests in different ways, but the dirtbag spirit pops-up again and again.

It’s true that there are the obvious dirtbags who fit the patterns already described. In my experience within the trail running world in Washington State, I think about race directors like James Varner from Rainshadow Running and Candice Burt of Destination Trail, who got into it, in part, so they could run trail all the time and avoid working regular jobs.

But it also pops-up as a pattern among the more settled. In Tacoma, WA we know a guy named Dean Burke who’s a consummate professional in his career, but spends most mornings stand-up paddleboarding on Puget Sound, encountering orcas before work, and photographing sea life that most gritty urbanite Tacomans don’t even realize exists.

And as much as “Dirtbag” culture gets characterized as a white thing, when you travel you recognize that the same spirit is present across cultures.

In Jalcomulco, Mexico, we encountered locals who‘d lived their whole lives in that small canyon town in central Veracruz, but who were managing to eke out a living as rafting or mountain biking guides, and who spent their recreational time doing the same for fun.

And in Bolivia, we encountered the phenomenon of alpinist Cholitas - traditional women, indigenous descendants of the Incas, who spend their time climbing 20,000 foot peaks in traditional garb, against social custom and popular expectation.

The dirtbag spirit manifests in different ways in different contexts, but it’s a living, breathing thing.

Why are you here?

This, I suppose, brings us to the current situation, meeting here on the pages of a book about dirtbagging - me having taken the time and energy to write such a thing, and you taking the time and energy to read it.

While I can’t be entirely sure what brought you here (although, let’s be honest, I’m self publishing, so Hi Mom! Thanks for reading!), it’s clear that some combination of factors is drawing a broad variety of people to a similar lifestyle - sacrificing the comforts of a normal life in order to play outside and explore the world.

The story that I tell myself is that some of you are here because you’ve gotten addicted to the feeling of “adventure” - the experience of putting yourself into situations that you aren’t sure how you’re going to get out of - and the personal growth that comes along with it.

And some of you are here because of the love of the game - you just really love being outside, or running, or climbing, or swimming in mountain lakes - and it feels more like a calling than a recreational pastime.

And some of you feel like life has pushed you in this direction. At some point, you developed a deep sense that something in normal life wasn’t working, and that the fix was somewhere out there among the rocks and dirt and streams and oceans. You’re looking for freedom, or an alternative to the pursuit of material things, or a life that is more deeply human than the one offered in the city or the suburbs.

Some of you ended up here through a long period of planning and intentional choices. Some of you maybe landed here by accident. Whatever the case, here we are, a group of dirtbags, trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing with our lives.

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