The term “dirtbag” originated in the climbing world to describe people who were so committed to climbing that they would forgo a traditional lifestyle in order to spend as much time as possible climbing, beginning in the 1960’s and 70’s. Examples of dirtbags are Yvonne Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, and The Stone Masters, a group of climbers who would spend their summers living and climbing in Yosemite. This lifestyle or and lack of traditional career path led these “dirtbags” to have a limited cash flow, leading to dirty, beat up gear and the occasional canned cat food dinner.
These days the dirtbag lifestyle isn’t as drastic since most have a little more money and are pressured into slightly more traditional career choices, but it still has its own unique aesthetic, which usually presents itself through gear choices. The modern dirtbag often starts off buying really nice gear, and using it until it falls apart. In between these two stages, the dirtbag aesthetic is marked by using duct- tape to hold together Goretex or other technical fabrics. In that case that duct- tape won’t quite suffice, you might see a gear patch. This DIY attitude to repairs, produces a well worn aesthetic. Things look well worn because they are.
This desire and or need to use things until they are falling apart also leads to simplicity. Dirtbags are people who are so committed to their outdoor passions that they will sacrifice many other areas of their lives in their pursuit of a good ski day, climbing route, adventure, etc. People who ski 100 plus days a year will have their gear set up dialed, likely wearing and using the same things every time they go out. This reuse leads to simplicity, not only in routine but also in material objects; why own multiple ski jackets when you always wear the same one? Another cornerstone of the dirt bag aesthetic is function. No one wants the adventure that they sacrifice so much for to be ruined by a faulty piece of equipment. Because of this dirtbags make sure that everything they use in their pursuits will perform to a high standard. Furthermore, those who take the dirtbag lifestyle to the most extreme, and live in their vehicles have limited space. These people need to make sure everything they take with them is fulfilling a specific function, as they simply don’t have the storage for unnecessary things.
Patagonia, the gear company, still plays a large role in the dirtbag world. Their policy and attitude of repair, usually for free, makes a Patagonia garment a great investment for someone who plans to use their gear until it disintegrates. The dirtbag aesthetic has also bled into the general outdoors aesthetic. People who enjoy the outdoors, but maybe aren’t willing to sacrifice the comforts of a more traditional lifestyle, still buy the same gear for its toughness, and functionality, but will probably replace it before it falls apart. These people may even employ a strip of duct- tape here and there, they just aren’t willing to put up with disrepair to the same extent. The van life aesthetic is also influenced by the simplicity and outdoor aesthetic of dirtbags, but in a more gentrified way. The frequently instagram #vanlife movement tries to give off the same commitment to the adventure that dirtbags have, minus the disrepair that can be avoided by traveling in a $70,000 van.
Finally, the dirtbag aesthetic exudes fulfillment. Life would probably be more comfortable working a 9 to 5 and replacing gear before it is mainly held together with duct tape and dirt, but would you have as much fun as a Ski Patroller (people who are known to be perpetually broke) who didn’t miss a powder day all ski season because they were guaranteed first tracks in their packed out boots and holey long underwear?
Ballister, Tucker. “Camper Shell Ideas: The Mega Drawer.” 14 Camper Shell Ideas for Comfortable Truck Camping, The Wayward Home, 12 June 2021, https://www.thewaywardhome.com/camper-shell-interior-ideas/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Enderlin, Tom. “Well Worn Patagonia Baggies.” Baggies Shorts Throughout the Years, Patagonia, https://www.patagonia.com/stories/baggies-shorts-throughout-the-years/story-71408.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
McAllister, Dave. “Photos of Old School Climbing Dirt Bags.” Thundercling the Dirtbraggers: A Response to Something or Other, Thundercling, 22 Nov. 2014, http://www.thundercling.com/2014/11/the-dirtbraggers-a-response-to-something-or-other/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
“Ski Boot Liners Used for 1500 Days.” Zip Fit, Zip Fit, https://www.zipfit.com/resources/product-care-and-repair. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Worn Wear- A Story About the Stories We Wear, Patagonia, https://www.patagonia.com/stories/worn-wear-a-film-about-the-stories-we-wear/story-18015.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.[@the_blondes_]. Photo of happy skiers. Instagram, 18 Dec. 2022, https://www.instagram.com/p/CmVHh8bPIvE/
Having read this I thought it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!
I enjoyed this post and I like that you took a personable approach to the article. I have a friend that I feel embodies this aesthetic perfectly and I have been exposed to a lot of the “dirtbag” culture because of him. I’m glad that you commented about the rise in popularity of the #vanlife movement and bandwagon taking place. It seems that certain cultures, hobbies, and even locations are being vanilla-ed due to social media as so many people are exposed to these things and then want to participate. Its good in a way because it can expose people to simple living and the outdoors but at the same time the dirtbag culture just isn’t the same with software engineer millionares in their boujee van builds driving around. Do you think the vanlife and dirtbag cultures will begin to evolve due to this like some other hobbies/groups/cultures have? If so in what way?
This is something I thought about a lot in my post. I felt like to even define a “dirtbag” aesthetic I had to delve into dirtbag culture more than I had the opportunity to do. Personally, I think that van life culture takes the fun aspects of dirtbag culture, like adventure and fun, but avoids the inconveniences, like lack of financial stability. I feel like van life is almost a gentrification of dirtbag culture. If anything, I think the dirtbag culture is dying out as the cost of living rises, and it becomes more difficult to support oneself through seasonal labor. I think that van life culture is going to evolve, but I’m not totally sure how. I think it would be cool if the switch to more people working from home, made the nomadic van life more attainable for the average person.