The Uncomfortable Truth About the Dirtbag Lifestyle

When I hugged the Katahdin sign at the terminus of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, I realized the only thing I wanted to do was keep going. My heels were on fire, my body was malnourished, and I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life — but I was happier and more free than I’d ever felt too.

Usually, people take a little while between thru-hikes to gather more funds, process what they went through, and start new life paths.

But I was hooked. I made up my mind that I wasn’t quite done with long trails yet and decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail the following summer.

That meant finding a temporary job to fill the intervening months, preferably one that would let me spend as much time out in nature as possible. To save up for the PCT, I took a seasonal job as a lift operator at a ski resort. I had officially stepped into the dirtbag lifestyle.

The Dirtbag Lifestyle

Every thru-hiker has been tempted to abandon the traditional path society has laid out for us: get a job, get married, have kids, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this path, but it’s not for everyone. So, what happens when you don’t take it?

You become a dirtbag — and figure out how to live with the consequences.

Dirtbagging can take many forms. Very simply, it’s a lifestyle that prioritizes outdoor adventure over traditional values like stability and financial security. For instance, some outdoorsy people fall into vanlife so they can live inexpensively and visit outdoor destinations more easily. Many take seasonal outdoor jobs with guiding companies, ski resorts, and the like.

Why pick a career that pays little, potentially involves living in a dormitory, and is temporary? Because for many of us, it’s more rewarding than a cushy desk job. It allows us to continue pursuing the outdoor adventures we’re most passionate about.

My work as a lift operator at a ski resort mainly entails pushing buttons on a ski lift and shoveling snow all day, but it also means I get to snowboard daily, live in the mountains, and have the freedom to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail this coming summer. It allows me to connect with like-minded friends who want a memorable chunk of their lives to be lived outside.

If the choice is between low finances or sitting at a desk job for the next however many years, at this moment in my life, I’m choosing the low finances. Even if that choice also comes with numb toes and subpar living conditions.

I want to live this bit of my life outside, doing the things I love — backpacking, snowboarding, meeting outdoorsy friends — as much as possible. So far, it’s been the happiest year of my life.

However, dirtbagging isn’t all sunshine and roses. It has its downsides — and if you’re thinking about making the leap into this lifestyle, you need to know about them.

Being Broke

Being a dirtbag with a penchant for thru-hiking means sacrificing temporary fun to save up for the six months I’ll be unemployed. I don’t make a ton of money working at a ski resort — but I’ll save enough for another thru-hike as long as I’m intensely frugal.

Every time I’m tempted to go downtown with friends, I remind myself that even a $3 beer is a $3 beer I could be enjoying at the end of a 20-mile day in the desert. Thirty bucks for dinner could’ve been a hotel room split four ways with hiker friends.

Envisioning my summer goals in this way helps me stay on track with my budget. However, this also means living like a hermit and missing out on nice things today to save money for later.

I can’t pursue hobbies that cost more money — like going to art classes or joining a club team — but I can find other free ways to occupy my time. For me, these include writing, photography, hiking, painting and snowboarding (free because I work at a ski resort, which, again, was sort of the point).

When friends invite me out for dinner or drinks, I invite them to do those free things with me instead. I find I can form a stronger bond with someone when I create art with them rather than finish a pitcher with them anyway.

Meanwhile, I cook almost all of my own meals and eat a ton of eggs and soup. I try to keep my grocery budget under $50 for the week. This means I’m not cooking extravagant dinners, but it’s enough to get by.

It can be rewarding to save in this way while looking forward to a thru-hike. The immediate gratification isn’t there from spending money on drinks or dinners out. However, I know in the long run, it’ll pay off in my experiences over the summer.

Living like a gremlin isn’t for everyone, but it does make the occasional nice dinner feel incredible (kind of similar to being on trail!).

Of course, it helps to be frugal during the thru-hike as well. On trail, I typically put off zero days until I desperately need them — maybe when my body has gotten too sore or I’ve started smelling myself. Even then, on the AT, I would usually nearo into towns to avoid paying for two nights at a hotel.

My 23-year-old stomach is really good at tolerating all the junk I throw at it, so I often eat an inexpensive diet of Snickers, ramen, and instant mashed potatoes on trail. My sodium intake might be staggering, but the views from my thru-hike will be too. Spending half the year hiking and the other half working an outdoor job keeps me healthy even though I’m eating terribly.

E-BOOK – How To Afford a Thru-Hike

Mental Strain

It can be draining to constantly calculate finances and monitor my every purchase. It makes it difficult to treat myself to a tasty snack at the grocery store or a piece of art I really like without feeling guilty.

What’s more, many dirtbags fear they’ll never be able to establish a more traditional career or contribute enough to retirement savings. For instance, I worry about the gap in my resume: how will I ever explain to a hiring manager my life’s sudden derailment from a typical 9 – 5 trajectory to long-distance hiking and working as a lift operator?

Someday I want to pay off my student loans, afford an apartment, and save for retirement. It’s stressful, at times, that I’m deferring those goals to pursue an unconventional path. Living alongside that stress is as much a part of the lifestyle as the magic of pow days and the camaraderie of other dirtbags.

The dirtbag lifestyle is fun, but again, it’s not lucrative — nor is it something that can be pursued as easily without an able body. The thought of getting injured is terrifying when you rely on your body to hike 2,000+ miles for a whole summer and then to do manual labor all winter.

Then there’s health insurance, which is both expensive and confusing. I’m still young enough to be on my parents’ health insurance, for which I’m grateful. Some dirtbags just forgo it altogether — which could lead to crippling medical bills on top of lost wages if they ever get injured.

When under financial strain, it’s important to focus on the things you do have — good friends, a place to sleep, food to eat (even if it is soup) and the ability to go outside. I also read several books about the trail that I’m planning on thru-hiking to get myself excited and remind myself what it’s all for. The books make the trail feel more real: a concrete goal, rather than just some abstract dream.

Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

In the age of social media, it can be extremely difficult to avoid comparing ourselves to others. I see other friends my age growing up and settling down with significant others, houses, pets, jobs, and even kids. When I meet up with friends my age who aren’t living like dirtbags, the way I choose to live my life feels so strange.

When the conversation turns to mortgages, remodeling homes, or promotions at work, I feel like I’m out of place. Behind the curve. Refusing to grow up. The most broke person in the room.

I guess in some ways I am — but I’m also in no rush to establish those things in my life. They will come in time, but right now, I’m prioritizing adventure and getting outside as much as possible while my body still works and I have the freedom and financial means to do it.

I try to reassure myself that there is also no such thing as being “behind.” My life can’t be compared to others’. Everyone has a different set of life experiences and choices that have led them to where they are today. The only person it does any good to compare yourself to is a past version of yourself. If you’ve changed and grown from who you were even a year ago, you’re making progress.

Solitude Also Means Isolation

As far as seasonal jobs go, it’s isolating working at a ski resort. Since I’m trying to save almost everything I’m making, I don’t have the financial means to travel and visit friends. Ski resorts are often in the middle of nowhere. It can be lonely — but it also allows me to see some incredible nature and visit parts of the country I haven’t seen before.

Whenever I feel sad or alone, I just go snowboarding or take a walk in the woods and remember all the awesome things my lifestyle allows me to do.

Lack of Stability

With the freedom of the dirtbag lifestyle comes a lack of stability. The first thing I realized about avoiding the typical 9 – 5 trajectory is that I don’t stay in one place long enough to have a long-term community of friends or a permanent sense of home. This can feel lonely.

Being free to adventure is incredible; it allows me to meet people from all over the world and experience nature and places I’ve never seen before. However, it also means that friends come and go in my life quickly. I can make some extremely close friends on a thru-hike (even a long-term romantic partner) and form strong bonds with people I work seasonally with — but at the end of the thru-hike or seasonal job, it’s unclear when or if I’ll see them again.

Maintaining long-term relationships is still possible in this lifestyle, but it takes work. Social media helps me stay in touch with friends and still feel connected. This is especially helpful during my thru-hikes — some of my friends live near long trails, giving us a fun way to catch up and talk about our lives when I pass through on a hike.

I often catch up with friends on the phone while I’m doing chores or cooking. I also have a habit of sending letters. A note of appreciation to a friend can make you realize how much they’ve added to your life as well as make their day.

It’s also an incredible privilege to be able to travel across the country every summer and make a bunch of friends along the way. It allows me to meet people of all different backgrounds and ages as well as further develop my perspective on life.

Another facet of this lack of groundedness is that I’m unable to have many material possessions. Most of my stuff is still at my parent’s house while I’m across the country working on the mountain. I have a minimal wardrobe here: three sweaters, two sweatshirts, three pairs of leggings and two base layers. And a puffy.

Most of the time I’m too physically exhausted after work to care much about what I’m wearing. I don’t buy new clothing at all these days. I rarely go out to shop at stores or order things online unless it’s something that I’ll be able to use in daily life.

I get rid of anything I don’t use from day to day because I don’t have a lot of space. I enjoy how all of my clothes and possessions have functions. However, if you can’t handle a minimal lifestyle — the dirtbag life is not for you.

Sometimes I start to panic about nowhere feeling like home and feeling like a drifter. However, in these times, I remind myself that my body is my home and I have my whole life to settle down somewhere. Why not see as much of the country as I can before I choose a place to call home?

Getting Comfortable With Discomfort

Going from thru-hiking to working at a ski resort and living in a hotel was a humbling experience. A hotel is an upgrade from a tent — but it still comes with similar struggles of cooking and keeping your clothes clean when there’s only one functioning laundry machine in the whole building.

This was frustrating to me at first because I was looking forward to going back to the comforts of a “normal” life after thru-hiking. However, I think deciding to do a thru-hike changes your perception of “normal” for the rest of your life.

I allowed myself the space to be frustrated and then got creative with the ways I chose to fix my problems.

A lack of an adequate washer and dryer allowed me to spend time hanging up my clothes all over my room to dry and listen to music while I did it. My limited cooking options (two rice cookers, a crockpot, and a pressure cooker) just meant I had to get more inventive with my meal prep. I usually cold-soaked my food on trail, so any hot meal was a step up from that.

I also focused on the fact that I actually had a bed and didn’t have to deal with condensation or cold since I slept inside. It might not seem like a lot, but when it’s 40 degrees and raining outside, I always felt thrilled to have a comfy bed to cozy up in.

Post-Trail “Depression”

For all the challenges of the dirtbag life, it can also be very rewarding. If you’re having trouble adjusting to it post-trail, don’t be too quick to write it off. Especially in the first months after your thru-hike, you might just be struggling with so-called post-trail depression. Many thru-hikers experience a low period after their hikes end. That feeling sucks whether you transition into dirtbagging or return to a traditional job.

Working outside in the mountains, using my body to it’s full capacity every day, and learning how to snowboard was the only way I could combat the lows I faced after thru-hiking. The prospect of going straight into a 9 – 5 after trail seemed intimidating, suffocating and jarring. In contrast, working a seasonal job on the way to another thru-hike seemed scary, but also fun and familiar.

It allowed me to know what I was facing. Maybe I’ll be ready for a 9 – 5 after the next trail, or maybe I won’t. For now, I know I’m able to be outside every day and use my body to do the things I love, which makes me happy.

READ NEXT – Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

The Reality Is …

I lower my standards of day to day living for some incredible adventures over the summer. I find comfort in the little things: my freedom to explore, make new friends, get outside and appreciate the natural world. Oftentimes, I feel people’s main criticism about the dirtbag life or van life can be that you will get tired of it after a year or two. Even if you do — so what?

Choosing an unconventional way to live, even for a little bit, will open up your perspective on life and allow you to experience new things and meet people you may never have otherwise. Life is about stepping out of comfort zones. It’s how growth happens.

Everything is temporary — the uncomfortable parts and the incredible parts. Savor where you are, whether you’re a dirtbag, working a 9 – 5, living in a van or on a trail. You won’t ever get to be exactly who you are at this moment, so it’s important to make the most of right now.

Featured image: Graphic design by Chris Helm. Abby Evans photo.

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Comments 17

  • Doug Wise : Feb 1st

    I enlisted into the Marines during my last year in High School – I was certain, at the time, college was not for me. I knew I did not want to stick around Valdosta GA and end up settling down there- so the military was the option I chose.

    I don’t recall how I learned about the Appalachian Trail, but I was very intrigued by the thought of a through hike (this was in 1995 or so). I had no idea how to use a computer for anything other than playing card games (so planning a through hike was a bit more difficult then). My game plan was to save some cash, buy my hiking and camping equipment while I finished up my time in the Marines and ride out unemployment benefits for a few months to help fund a through hike. My first daughter was born in 1998 – clearly, I did not follow through with my plans of being a dirt bag.

    I exited the Marines in May of 2000, started a career in the telecommunications industry and have worked at the same job for 24 years. My last day is March 8th. Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife that is counting down the days with me and will support me as I set off on my first hiking trip over 100 miles. I will fly out and start the Arizona Trail on March 20. If I enjoy being a dirt bag for 60 days this year, I will follow in your footsteps next year on the AT. From there, the sky is the limit. The wife is very interested in the PCT after getting a taste of the Sierra Nevada’s (We walked to the peak of Mt. Whitney a few years ago together).

    I often wonder how my life would have turned out if there was no daughter in 1998 and I had started walking on the AT 24 years ago instead of taking the “normal” road through life…..I can see the allure of being young and care free and just having fun drifting from trail to trail and working interesting outdoor jobs along the way to fund the next adventure. On the other hand, it will be nice to hike the trails I want to (as long as I am able) and not have to worry about how to pay for my next adventure (cashing in my hard earned savings to do the things I have put off for 25 years). We have a house we can come home to when we are done playing. The house will be rented out to pay for part of our trips when we are not here.

    Life is a balancing act – do you pay your dues early and gamble that your health will hold up long enough to enjoy life later? Or play early and hope to make up for lost time as you get older? I feel like I am doing what is best for my situation. I have been eating soup for 25 years and saving money and getting things ready for the next chapter. A money man told me years ago that putting up a retirement account in your 20’s pays off in the long run. He was right. Im 48 and I have the rest of my days to do as I please. Good thing about eating soup and living a minimalist life early, is that its easier to live on less and do more later.

    Thanks for sharing your adventures! I enjoyed reading about your AT through and hope to follow you along your PCT hike.

    Cheers –

    Doug

    Reply
    • Greg : Feb 2nd

      Doug your story is something else. You sound like a good guy. Just turned 61 – did not have the support to understand and save early. But it sounds like we long for the same things. I also have a tremendously supportive wife and two grown daughters who occasionally join me. I’m always looking for a hiking partner. I don’t really have an interest in a long trail experience…Way too much time away from my wife and dogs. There are many many many miles in the sierra that should give you that shot of awesomeness we crave/need.
      In my humble, and with all due respect to the lovers out there. I wouldn’t recommend an AT hike these days – it seems to have turned into a traveling circus of alleged backpackers who travel from hostel to hostel…while the trail is for real and hard…its a green tunnel of leaves that has been too closely encroached upon by towns.
      The AZ trail is somewhere on my list but if you’re getting on a plane go 50 minutes further to San Diego. Its a 5ish hour drive to the sierra and it is flat out as good or better than any place I’ve ever laid eyes on. There are places in the world to match the beauty – but they are nowhere near as remote or accessible and pristine.
      I’ll tell you my dream plan…I’m gonna do it either way but at my age its not the smartest choice to be alone. I want to simply do the first section of Ropers Sierra High Route.
      endless video’s on you tube – I figure an 8 ish day adventure with 2 of those days getting to the trailhead – its a major pain to stage two vehicles on the west and east side. I’d start on the east – travel mostly downhill across to the west side along Bubbs creek at Roads End where he trailhead is. Take about 6 days mostly off trail and above tree line to get back to the finishing line that leads to the Bishop pass trailhead where we could exit and take a shuttle and or hitch a ride back to the car.
      Its crazy stunning high desert into the high mountains with small mountain towns totally supporting the community. Should we hook up, check compatibility and style…a trip like this could save you gobs on logistics and hotel rooms. I love the little towns up there but ultimately leave the bar to get to the trailhead for the night. I always do so to get acclimated – its never failed me. I’d handle the permits which are selling now. Let me know if I could help serve you as you did Us in the marines.
      PCT rules
      cheers
      Greg

      Reply
      • Doug Wise : Feb 4th

        Sounds like a great trip. Get in touch and let’s make a plan. My email is my first and last name at Hotmail.
        Cheers
        Doug

        Reply
  • thetentman : Feb 1st

    What a great post.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  • Allan Adderley : Feb 1st

    Give yourself some credit. Instead of the “Dirt Bag Lifestyle”, how about the “Mindful Lifestyle “, or the “Purposeful Lifestyle “, or the “Existential Lifestyle “. A lot of people are going to be jealous of your youth and freedom. You’ve chosen to find meaning in everything. That’s great. Most people don’t have time for that. They’re smothered with decisions about work, family, social interactions, gratuitous entertainment, and keeping up with everyone else. When you’re 23 it’s hard to see what’s ahead because you haven’t lived it yet. Sure, there’s a downside but you’re built to handle that. Just keep doing what you love and it will all work out. Have fun with your friends. Give love, make love, enjoy being young!

    Reply
  • Drew Boswell : Feb 2nd

    This is a thoughtful and well written essay. You’re living intentionally and are aware of the balancing act your chosen lifestyle entails. More to the point, you’ve learned a lot about both gratitude and delayed fulfillment. At some point, you may choose differently, but the wisdom you’ve already shown will help you no matter what choices you make.

    Reply
    • Greg : Feb 2nd

      hell yes – be a writer on trail. Do what you want. Your head is right, you are continually making friends that you can call on. You dear are certainly ahead of the game even though it feels like you are the outlier. You are and your good at it. Quit when you please or be a bum forever…I’ll give a nod when I see you.
      cheers on living life with purpose.

      Reply
  • David M Ryan : Feb 2nd

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story! As I sit here now in my 65th year, I really wished I would have chosen the path you’re on for a year or so when I was young. You will have memories that will sustain you for a lifetime. You can always work, but you can’t always spend months in the beautiful outdoors. Enjoy it. Treasure it. Safe journey to you on the PCT!

    Reply
    • Pink Panther (2021) : Feb 2nd

      I turned 67 on trail the year that I thru hiked the AT. Unless you have physical, medical, and/or family issues (or other) preventing you from exerting yourself, it is possible to thru-hike well past 65. You will still have a lifetime of memories as well albeit that might be a bit shorter than those of the author. 🙂 Please don’t let the age factor alone
      stop you.

      Reply
      • greg : Feb 2nd

        61 last week – I’m just getting started (10 years ago but now I got it) off trail, high mountains and exposer be damned. I met an 80 year old guy soloing up the mount whitney trail starting the JMT the hard way. we stopped and asked WTF – the pack was twice his size and no less than 60 lbs. His answer to all our questions with a smile was that all his friends are home on a couch taking pills. If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die out here and not on my couch next to a pile of pills. Its never too late.
        peace all

        Reply
  • Todd : Feb 2nd

    Thank you, it was an enjoyable read… a well written article.

    Reply
  • Tim Mathis : Feb 2nd

    Great essay and right on. From someone in their 40s now, I can tell you that these experiences early on will be extremely valuable later. Training yourself to live cheaply and focus on what really matters now is going to teach you to do that your whole life. To me, that’s one of the greatest gifts of thru-hiking. Get on the ladder you want to climb now vs getting sucked in by fake responsibilities and toxic social norms.

    Reply
  • Mike : Feb 2nd

    This so called unconventional lifestyle has actually been many times lived. That isn’t to say it isn’t valuable and new discoveries aren’t yours to make but yeah dirtbag climbers, skiers and travelers etc have always been around. My regret is not following it to the end. After my early 30s I rejoined “the normies”. Then again, a lot of the climbers I knew are dead so maybe I made a good choice. Impossible to say for sure.

    Reply
  • Jeff Greene : Feb 3rd

    I really wish I was irresponsible/courageous enough to do what you are doing when I was younger. When I was a young teen, I went on a white water rafting trip and the guide was raft guiding during the summer and working at a ski resort in the winter, and mostly just living in his van. I thought that was the most amazing way to spend a year or two ever, but was afraid to ever do something like that myself. Props to you!

    Reply
    • Jeff Greene : Feb 3rd

      What resort are you working at? #NoStalker

      Reply
  • Aidan : Feb 4th

    Greta article but there’s one thing that you mentioned in passing but I think needs to be a part of more conversations about the dirt bag lifestyle which is the privilege that those of us who live it or have lived it have. Being able to store your stuff for free at a parents place, to have no college debt, to have a safety net, to have had supportive parents, to have the ability to work on the road. Yes it’s choosing what to prioritize, but many people don’t have the choice of what to prioritize, and many more don’t feel welcome in the spaces I have grown to love. None of this is to say feel guilty, or advise against it, but I do think an article about this lifestyle could have mentioned the privilege required that allows us to do this kind of thing.

    Well written article that hit close to my experiences in my 20s and now into my 30s, working seasonally and exploring the US, Central America and beyond. I recognize how lucky I am to be able to do the things I do and it makes me appreciate them more, and makes me think about how a few different decisions or circumstances would have me working a 9-5 job and hating life. 🤷🏼‍♂️

    Keep on keeping on, no need to be a dragon hoarding wealth when you can be a hero collecting experiences instead of material goods and money.

    Reply
  • Riley : Feb 5th

    I loved reading your article! Although I am not living the dirt bag life myself I have thought it has a certain appeal to it. I am 24 and I’ve been saving to hike as well while somewhat hopping between jobs to make that happen. Unfortunately, my only outdoor job was temporary and now I am stuck in that very office you speak of, but it will be well worth it in the end for my hike. I do want to add that I understand the feeling of falling behind to pursue your adventures especially when that very adventuring does have a hefty price tag. I also have seen the people around me grow in different ways mostly in pursuit of well paying stable jobs, getting married, saving up for buying a house, and having children. It can feel like I am behind as well at times, but then I remind myself I am in no way ready for any of those things anyway. And think about how much they may long for the opportunity to do the things we will get to because they have chosen to settle down at such a young age (sometimes not by choice). I am incredibly grateful to still have my freedom to do the things I love and enjoy before having a family. But with that being said there is no right way to do it for those that are aspiring hikers, but currently cannot go due to family/job/other obligations. If this is part of your plan to go hike and experience the outdoors you can always make it your reality and at least begin planning for your big adventure while taking small side trips! I am hiking the PCT this year as well so maybe I will see you out there!

    Reply

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