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Dirtbag Meaning: A Climbing Badge of Honor

Starry night camping

What do climbers call someone who has very little income, works irregularly, and lives cheaply to spend every possible moment pursuing a sport they find irresistible? If they’re lucky, the world will dub them a “dirtbag” (aka climbing legend!), and you should, too.

In rock climbing, mountaineering, Alpine skiing, and a handful of other outdoor sports, the word “dirtbag” is a term of the utmost admiration and even endearment. Some might even call it a badge of honor for those who scale heights that others only dream of achieving.

Is the Title of Dirtbag Climber Something to Aim For?

hiking and camping in nature

Absolutely. Dirtbagging emerged out of rock climbing’s earliest days. Dedicated climbers abandoned all connections with traditional work and lowered their living standards for extended periods to pursue this unquenchable passion for climbing.

In that sense, a dirtbag went after what they wanted with the singular focus of an Olympic-level athlete. These adventurers shunned the rat race, house mortgages, and anything else that could tie them down. They valued time over money, lived in cars or tents in national parks, and explored isolated locations to stay close to the rockfaces.

If we fast-forward to the technological age, the internet has catapulted dirtbagging into a far more accessible way to live in our society. A much wider pool of people can now pursue this badge of honor, as remote working makes the quasi-dirtbag life a viable pursuit, even with a full-time job.

More About the ‘Dirtbag’ Way and How to Get Into It

Snow camp in Russia

Choosing a dirtbag existence is crafting a lifestyle to being wholly immersed in Mother Nature’s bounty, but there is more to it. The first known media reference to this unique title was when actress Claudine Longet went on trial for shooting Spider Sabich, a professional Alpine skier, in the mid-1970s.

In the end, Longet faced a conviction of criminally negligent homicide for Sabich’s death, and the media frenzy made its mark. Sabich earned plenty of money from skiing and regularly socialized with the wealthier residents of Aspen. The news surrounding the trial included a reference to the humble sportsman’s frequent remark to friends along the lines of, “I’m just a dirtbag; who am I trying to fool?”

The rest, as they say, is history. However, a huge part of the dirtbag lifestyle’s subsequent ascent to fame was the undeniable contribution of Fred Beckey, one of America’s most prolific mountaineers, and Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder.

Fred Beckey, the Original Dirtbag

Fred Beckey Dirtbag

Born in 1923, Fred Beckey dedicated his entire life to climbing and mountaineering. His playground was North America, where he accomplished many first ascents, like the Northwest Buttress on McKinley Mountain with Henry Meybohm in 1954.

Beckey certainly didn’t climb for fame or money; he simply enjoyed life in the mountains, as immortalized by Corey Rich’s shot where we can see him hitchhiking on the side of the road, with climbing gear and a sign that reads: “Will belay for food!!!”

In 2017, Patagonia released the must-watch documentary appropriately titled Dirtbag: the Legend of Fred Beckey to celebrate his contribution to rock climbing history.

Yvon Chouinard, from Dirtbag to Billionnaire

Yvon Chouinard dirtbag climbing patagonia founder

At 83 years old, the American rock climber Yvon Chouinard makes a fascinating study in dirtbag ideology. He is an environmentalist and outdoor industry businessman who is also a billionaire. As an early adopter of the classic dirtbag way of living, Chouinard is the “original gangster” of dirtbags.

It was no surprise that Chouinard began inventing climbing gear in the late 1950s. He needed just enough income to equip himself for the climbs ahead, but it was not an easy journey. Some of the dirtbag’s infamy relates to surviving on cat food during youthful climbing trips, a practical and cost-effective means to keep himself strong enough to scale the heights he has managed to achieve.

Chouinard was a leading dirtbag climber of incredible talent and dedication. He took up the sport in Yosemite Valley during the 1960s “golden age” that many climbers cherish to this day. He was also an early ascender of the North American Wall and El Capitan.

Real Dirtbag Gear

Rock climber with harness

Valley Uprising was a 2014 film documenting the early days of rock climbing in Yosemite National Park. The captivating film quotes Chouinard saying that the Yosemite Valley rock dwellers of the early 1960s were all dirtbags, including himself. The legend’s consistent advocacy for big-wall climbing techniques has been instrumental in the sport; Chouinard virtually created modern high-grade alpinism.

His belief in how crucial gear was to the experience was also prominent. In the 1970s, he founded Patagonia, the outdoor company famous for its sturdy clothes and unwavering environmental focus. Today, the businessman is still the most articulate advocate for style, being an essential feature of modern rock climbing.

In retirement, Chouinard has become an avid fly fisherman in Jackson, Wyoming, near Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks (dirtbag paradise!).

How to Take on the Dirtbag Definition with Style

Everest Base Camp Nepal

Modern dirtbags honor Sabich and Chouinard’s outlook on life. Avid climbing enthusiast Fitz Cahall offers a podcast, The Dirtbag Diaries, which unpacks these ideas in more detail, including comparisons, tips, and current developments.

He describes the original dirtbags of history as on the fringe, including unsavory habits like dumpster diving and stealing tourists’ food. However, the podcast’s focus is modern, outlining the outdoor community’s tremendous development in the major climbing areas around the world since those early days. It provides space to explore the meaning of the word (climbing or anything else), including having the courage to prioritize what we care about.

Rock-climbing enthusiasts could embrace a new definition for dirtbag: someone who follows their heart, wherever that may take them.

Spot the Dirtbag

Tent in the French Alps

Purists claim that “nomadic” workers are not the same as true dirtbags. Nonetheless, many modern dirtbags feel that they share a common denominator. They still value time over money and immerse themselves in irresistible outdoor activities–in other words, live the dirtbag dream.

If the dirtbag lifestyle appeals to you, perhaps you already live it in principle.

Ten Ways to Know Whether You Might Be a Dirtbag

good spot climbing world

Here are ten ways to determine if you qualify for the dirtbag lifestyle:

#1 You love Mother Nature and are willing to give up modern amenities.

Would you give up necessities to spend more time outdoors? Think about items like three square meals a day, hot showers, and air conditioning.

#2 You do not need indoor plumbing.

Can you bathe while shooting white water rapids, skinny dipping in a creek, or getting caught in a rainstorm while on pitch 5 of 12? You might be a dirtbag.

#3 Your home has four wheels, terrible gas mileage, or leaks, but there is an elevated platform for sleeping with gear storage underneath.

You might also obsess over how others design practical and portable homes.

#4 You can sniff out free food.

Do you know precisely when the grocery store discards expired food? Have you got food sampling down to an art? These valued dirtbag skills might serve you well, especially if you feel nothing about eating off the plates of complete strangers.

#5 You live for rock climbing, rafting, mountaineering, and international travel.

If you possess an impressive ability to start a conversation about these topics with anyone, the dirtbag gene might be in you.

#6 You enjoy cheap drinks (a lot of them).

Celebrating with an expensive microbrew does not fit your style like a simple draught of whatever is cheapest. In fact, it might be as much of a sport as climbing.

#7 Your mostly thrifty clothing allows you to focus on living the dream.

Underwear might also be optional. However, if you follow Yvon Chouinard’s trailblazing, one of two good-quality items may be essential.

#8 You put every penny toward the lifestyle.

Needing to “get a real job” might mean you are doing something wrong. Go back to #1.

#9 Life is seasonal.

Late spring, summer, and early fall mean rafting and climbing; wintertime brings ski slopes. You could even avoid the cold with some well-placed Southern Hemisphere climbing.

#10  You love freedom.

You practically tremble with excitement when describing your life to others, making it worth it. Your life fits in a backpack, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Know Thy Privilege

bonfire cooking in the forest

After the high of describing the climbing dirtbag life, we wouldn’t want to crash it all down for a finish. However, it’s essential to recognize that poverty is not a trivial matter. And that we are not all equal in the face of it.

Duane Raleigh, Rock and Ice’s publisher, and editor-in-chief, recently said the following:

“We were young and could climb and enjoy risks because we had freedoms that non-white America does not have. We were part of a culture that I regret. White privilege let our ‘fraternity’ exist, and we could be inappropriate, and do just about anything without consequences.”

While dirtbagging may appear as a glamourous destiny to embrace for anyone, the truth is that pulling it off will not only be a matter of passion and commitment to crags but will also depend on the color of their skin, their level of education, the wealth of their family, and so on.

As such, let’s not only strive to be dirtbags. Let’s ensure we strive for a world where everyone can embark on this journey; if it’s only for the few, then it’s not worth it.


  1. That was a great article except the last point. That “white priveledge” symbolism over substance trash totally ruined it, especially with that garbage quote from Duane Raleigh.

    I grew up with parents making minimum wage in the 70s-80s. My dad crawled under our single wide trailer in 60-below winters to blow torch the water pipe, so they didn’t crack in Jackson hole in the 1970s. They worked for people who are millionaires and billionaires. There was zero “privilege”.

    I have climbed with people of every race and so many nationalities that I can’t remember at this point. I just finished a climb on Denali. My fourth one. Solo by the way. There is zero correlation between skin color, capability, and dirtbag style.

    I’ve met many races doing fake remote-worker dirtbagging in Ten Sleep, WY. This navel gazing guilt is self destructive at best. And again, it relies on the ra-ci-sm of low expectations. That psychology is even more insulting. Because of my skin color, I have had people act protective around me in Europe, Asia, Canada/US. As though I would rob them. I have had many assumptions made of “who I am” or what race I am. That’s the way of life. I’ve gently embarrassed so many people based on their assumptions. It’s laughable at this point.

    By the way, I have a bachelors degree in electrical engineering and a masters degree in computational science. I’m a scientist in computational fluid dynamic data visualization. I’ve made electronics that have flown into space and are on commercial and military aircraft. People rely on my software to survive.

    I earned my degrees myself. I paid my way. There were no forgiven student loans. No free passes. I worked my butt off. There was and is no “privilege.”

    I’ve published 37 books on adventure, climbing, polar exploration, astronomy, and other topics. Again, there was no privilege. I wrote every word myself. No AI. I had to scratch and claw. That’s how it is.

    One of my best friends is a Mexican national who became a US citizen. His family lost everything in the 1980s Mexican peso devaluation. Yet he and I were out climbing unknown crags in San Diego, subsisting all day off of bread and water we bought from a Mexican bread shop. He is far “whiter” than I am. In fact, I get mistaken for all sorts of nationalities other than “white”. People would talk to him when we were trekking in Argentina and would abjectly ignore me – skin color distinction. And yet, people would only talk to me in Peru and they would completely ignore him. Humans are humans everywhere.

    Fun article but please get rid of the garbage ending. It really ruins the ethos. I hope you actually publish this commentary and don’t just block it. Blocking it would indeed show symbolic “privilege.”

  2. Hey Aaron, I appreciate you sharing your experience. However, I don’t see anything in it that refutes the fact that, yes, there’s structural racism in America and that, as such, dirtbagging is likely easier if you’re white than if you’re black.
    – Kevin

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