The Evolution of the Dirtbag

Dirtbag {via Dictionary.com}: a dirty, unkempt or contemptible person

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.

This concept of a dirtbag has been rolling around in my head for a year or two, but I didn’t really know why. And then, it hit me while on the OmniGames trip in Park City:

Being a dirtbag has become…cool!

Naturally, I’m not talking about the old-school definition of the word and instead, am referring to the more modern, almost-revered meaning where an individual leaves society in order to pursue some outdoor love. You see, I get this idea….because I did it myself.

bike trip 3

Our home

Longtime readers likely remember this but for those of you that are new, here’s a story for you: I was once a dirtbag myself! Way back in 2005, a friend and I decided to leave our post-collegiate lives and pursue adventure, both domestically and internationally. We terminated our lease, sold every single belonging {including our cars!}, and quit our first professional jobs. We packed our belongings down into one small backpack each, hopped on our road bikes and pointed our wheels to the east.

{You can check out more stories of our cycling adventures here, here, here or here}

bike trip 4

There is nothing quite like finding a public shower in a city park!

Bike trip

We were riding through the Appalachians and the sun began to set. We quickly realized we needed to find a place to sleep….so we chose that dirt patch on the left side of the road!

We spent 4.5 months cycling around the US, only traveling where we could pedal and sleeping in my tent every single night. We didn’t stay in campgrounds and instead, crashed in various parks or abandoned areas. After all, budget was of utmost concern! We each had four outfits—a warm and cold cycling outfit and a warm and cold “real world” outfit—and that was it. Y’all, this was even before cell phones became a big deal so we barely had one of those. I would call my parents once a week at best, assuring them that their daughter was still healthy and alive, but that was about it. Twitter? Facebook? Instagram? Never heard of them! These new fangled things called blogs had just popped up on the web, so I did start one of those……and you’re looking at it, almost ten years later!

bike trip 5

The open road in Kansas

After the cycling component, we headed down to South America where we spent another year traipsing around the continent. We stayed in filthy hostels, all in order to save a buck, and crashed in our tent whenever possible. When my one pair of jeans shredded past the point of recognition, I “gifted” myself a new pair for my birthday. After all, who needed more than one single pair of pants?! And makeup? Psssh, I had worn enough of that during my dancing years. I was fresh faced and waaaaay too au natural!

Fast forward almost 10 years, and we arrive at the reason I’m sharing these stories. Back then, I truly felt like people thought we were crazy! I never met a single person who understood why we were living in a tent, and I can’t even count the number of people who thought we were certifiable for giving up our jobs. You see, my friend had a government job with NOAA and I worked for a successful PR company with a side job as an assistant editor for a trade magazine. For 23-year-olds, we were doing pretty well…. so we must have been insane or sick to give everything up, right?!

bike trip 2

All of our belongings….total

These days, I don’t feel like the shock and awe would be so dramatic. Off the top of my head, I have a handful of friends who are choosing to live the same way, and although none of them live in tents, they all reside in various van reincarnations. However, my favorite part nowadays is the reaction I see from people. When my friend Katie decided to travel the country in a big yellow van, seeking out all the best climbing sites, I noticed people were encouraging, if not envious. Beth, a fellow Omniten-er, resides in an RV with her husband and dog, traveling around the country, and people are fascinated with her lifestyle, and again, totally jealous. My friend Steve just embarked on a new adventure when he purchased a minivan {or house-on-wheels} so that he can travel the country, searching out the best backcountry powder for shredding. He’s currently crashing in our guest room upstairs but thus far, he is loving his adventures and looking to the upcoming weeks.

My point? Being a dirtbag is the new black. There are even hashtags on Twitter and Instagram that showcase the 21st century’s love for the freedom of the open road. If you don’t believe me, go check out #VanLife or #Dirtbag, and you’ll see proof! People even flaunt the dirtbag hashtag with pride when they share photos from their mellow, two-hour hike in Boulder. Does that truly warrant dirtbag status? I’m not sure, but people sure love to use it!

How did this happen? There is a large part of me that wishes my adventures took place a decade later so I wouldn’t have needed to deal with such extreme skepticism and fear. But then again, it was all a part of my experience and I wouldn’t change that for anything! However, the popularity of the dirtbag concept is still a mystery to me. Did society just decide to scrap everything and try something new? Was it a gradual evolution? Are we just more accepting than we were 10 or 15 years ago? Regardless, I love it. I think living on the road is something everyone should try at least once in their lives!

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Thoughts? Would you ever do the “dirtbag” lifestyle?

27 Comments

  • Reply Justin Fricke at

    Love the post Heather and to answer your question…Heck yea!

    Alison and I are just starting to save for our soon-to-be, epic year long adventure. Much like Katie, we’ll be searching for the best climbing spots, but adding surfing and hiking into the mix as well.

  • Reply Whitney at

    That sounds like an exhilarating journey! What part of Kansas did you ride through!?

    • Reply heather at

      Hey Whitney! We entered Kansas from Colorado via 36, a secondary highway. We cut south through Hays and took back roads until we crossed into Oklahoma to head to Stillwater. It was all on very quiet secondary roads so avoided all of the cities.

  • Reply Liana@RunToMunch at

    Sounds amazing! I wish I did that after college, now i feel too deep into my life to give it up now.

    • Reply heather at

      That is definitely the tricky part– doing it before you have kids, a mortgage, bills, etc. But, it’s worth it!

  • Reply Mike Off The Map at

    There is so much to love about this article. I’m in semi-dirtbag mode at the moment. I live in a house yes, but I only have two pairs of ratted jeans, no mattress, and I spend as much time as I can outside. I left a cushy job so that I could concentrate more on my writing and freelancing and it’s living dangerously to say the least but I’m the happiest that I’ve been in a long time. Really, really awesome story there 🙂

  • Reply Katie Boué at

    Oh man I love this post so much! And frankly, YOU were a real dirtbag – the rest of us, not so much. Even I have to laugh at myself sometimes when I call myself a dirtbag – yeah, I spent a year living in a van, showered once a week, and ate a lot of canned food – but I also had a sweet solar set-up, a heap of gorgeous new Columbia gear, and was constantly glued to my iPhone.

    Let’s get real, dirtbags aren’t dirtbags anymore. We’re just kids who like to get messy and reevaluate priorities in life. 🙂

    • Reply Beth at

      I’d argue it’s the reevaluating priorities that’s important. (And I might be REALLY cozy compared to even your van with the camper but Sprocket makes sure we keep the dirt in dirtbagging…)

    • Reply heather at

      I definitely think the reevaluating priorities is key. I also think a lot of people are doing the dirtbag thing older now– like, they’re sick of the daily grind and just kinda want to walk away, you know?

  • Reply Allie at

    Ah to be a dirtbag again! First of all, your story is amazing. I once traveled the country (in a car) but only slept in a tent and spent very little money. It was an amazing adventure but people thought we were both a little cray cray. It’s funny how it’s almost “trendy” now and I truly admire anyone who has the nerve to do it – it’s not for the weak minded. Great read!!

    • Reply heather at

      I think you nailed it– it’s almost more of a mental state than anything. There are a lot of “luxuries” you give up in order to try it out.

  • Reply Johnie at

    My boyfriend and I just had a discussion about this—when we first looked at buying a Sprinter (and then invested in our SECOND—aye!—Sprinter) our families and friends gave us such a hard time…and that was only a few years ago. Now that we’re selling one of them, the only people showing up at our door are the ones looking to do the same sorts of things we did in it…namely travel, camp and get really, really stinky.

  • Reply Christy at

    Amazing journey you went on! I read about 6 months of your old blog posts from your biking to the amazon. I wish I had the guts to do something like that! My husband’s brother is travelling and living out of his car right now. I’m too much of a worry wort to take risks (like feeling like I need medical insurance so I don’t go into bankruptcy if I would get hit by a car, etc). I wish I wasn’t like that though!

    • Reply heather at

      Ah, to be young and dumb again, right? 🙂 I definitely didn’t worry about much then, but I also have a very mellow personality type so it works! Glad you enjoyed all the back posts– so funny to go back and look through them all!

  • Reply Chrissy at

    ah, nothing like an unexpected picture of a shirtless Steve. You should have picked a picture where he was dirtier and hairier!

  • Reply Wrecking Routine at

    That is so cool that you and your friend took off like that. You’re totally right that is has become cool to do things like that now. My husband and I did the same thing with moving to Vietnam. I am dying to have my own RV and just ravel around, but my husband isn’t convinced.

    • Reply heather at

      I’d like to do it again one day when I’m older, but I think I will definitely do the RV route. The days of me just living in my tent are likely gone!

  • Reply Marissa Lucero at

    Seriously. What an awesome adventure! I’m too much of a control freak to go out on a whim like that —which makes me super envious! I LOOOOVE reading these stories. What did you guys do for food? Did you do canned food or just snack a lot on random snack foods or…?!

    • Reply heather at

      I think I’ll likely end up writing another post about the details (bc I’ve gotten a lot of questions!), but to summarize: we ate a lot of crap. Gas station food, DQ hot dogs, etc. Whatever was cheap and filled with calories basically! Truthfully, I haven’t been able to eat Little Debbie’s since!

  • Reply Krysten (@darwinianfail) at

    I love this! Admittedly, I am stress-ball type A crazy pants, and as much as I LOVE the idea of the dirt-ball lifestyle, I don’t know if I could ever really convince myself to take the plunge. That being said spending my days running and riding sounds pretty wonderful!

  • Reply Carla at

    HELLS YES!!!!!!!!!

  • Reply Patrick Gensel at

    Love reading this this Heather! Emalee and I are contemplating an off the grid life for 2015. Did you guys work any odd jobs while off? or just live off savings?

    • Reply heather at

      Like I was telling Marissa above, I’ll likely write a follow-up answering a bunch of questions I got, but in short– nope! All savings 🙂

  • Reply Joshua Riggins at

    Great post. This is totally my plan, when the time is right. I know most people say that, but I have 2 responsibilities to take care of first.

    Funny thing is, I have been thinking of writing a “Dirtbag” blog as well. Something I came up with since the Omnigames. But it will be more on the funny side 🙂

    • Reply heather at

      Agreed: your two little guys need you now!

  • Reply How To Become a Dirtbag: The Details - Just a Colorado Gal at

    […] ← The Evolution of the Dirtbag […]

  • Reply Kayla at

    Traveling is the best! Although, we didn’t do our year long adventure dirt-bag style, it was still amazing.

    I think the more advanced technology gets tangled in our lives, the more and more people are appreciating or envying the simple things in life.

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