The Death of Dirtbagging

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—Heather Lea

Fred Beckey on the phone somewhere in North America.Photo by Cameron Burns


Are and more climbers and tighter rules squeezing out our sports’ “Lifers”? In the good old days, if you were a climber, you were a dirtbag – the lifestyle demanded it. Think of the classic photos: 1970s-era hippies living in the dust of Yosemite’s Camp Four or in the wide-open desert of Joshua Tree, scraping by on mere hundreds of dollars a year, surviving on giant sacks of corn meal in order to climb full-time. Today, however, camping restrictions, rising gasoline costs, parking-lot break-ins, tighter international borders, and unsympathetic land managers have all conspired to push true dirtbaggers – “Lifers” – to the brink of extinction. “Sometimes, I feel like a dying breed desperately holding onto the last vestiges of a nearly extinct way of life,” says the Yosemite local Cedar Wright, a dirtbag for the last 10 years. As he and other Lifers are finding, climbing is becoming more popular as a sport rather than a lifestyle, with a bleak reality creeping in. “Camp Four is so regularly patrolled that most hardcore dirtbags steer clear of it now,” says Wright. In 1996, U.S. Congress sanctioned a Recreational Fee Demonstration Program “authorizing federal land management agencies to implement and test new use fees across the country.” What started out as a three-year pilot program became mainstream, and “fee demo” camping charges, usually ranging from $5 to $20 per night, are now the norm in most public campgrounds, as are limited, usually 14-day stays. It’s easy to get defensive about mandatory costs, but, as Joe Zarki, spokesperson for Joshua Tree National Park, makes clear, parks are not designed to provide people with long-term residency. “They are designed to provide quality recreational experiences for our guests,” Zarki says. “Camping fees help make that possible.” Perhaps nowhere is more iconic to dirtbagging than Camp Four, where, in the post-WWII era, climbers would traditionally spend months – and even years – on end. Today, during the bustling May-to-September climbing season, your stay is limited to 14 days, a rule that is strictly enforced. And, if you think a Chongo-like approach toward stealth camping is the ticket, think again. Yosemite rangers have found it necessary to exercise “Seek and Destroy” tactics, using infrared goggles to spot unabiding campers. As of 2003, Joshua Tree, the longtime wintering ground for many a dirtbag, costs $5 per night, with the two-week restriction in place as well. Camping restrictions are tighter than ever in the park at Hueco Tanks. And in Squamish, the days of parking your van for free and erecting a Home Depot tarp (translation “here-for-awhile”) are over, with camping now costing $24 (Canadian) per site/per night. There are still, however, some great areas to bum – for now. Take, for instance, Bishop, with its free BLM land up near the Buttermilks and very affordable Gravel Pit ($2/site/night) at the Tablelands. Smith Rock’s Skull Hollow Campground (aka the Grasslands) is another good option; as their website notes, “Camping is free, reservations are not accepted, fires are allowed and you can sleep in your vehicle.” A dirtbagger’s dream home, providing you can put up with ” … the locals [who] use the hillside next to the campground as a target range.” Indian Creek is another wish-list item, but it, too, may soon succumb to fees as the BLM enters a planning process that may greatly affect climbers’ experiences. More often than not, however, it is the dirtbags themselves who have caused their own near-extincton. Marc Piché, an examiner for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and onetime Squamish car dweller for three years running, believes rangers are getting stricter, but says, “I also think that a lot of dirtbaggers are trying to live a lifestyle that worked when there were 20 of them hanging around an area and not 200.”


Live in your vehicle for at least half the year Take a job washing dishes so you can scavenge off the plates Swap meat stickers to a cheaper price in the grocery store Stuff your pockets and underwear full of food at buffets Shave with hand soap … in a library Eat booty-food pillaged from dumpsters Always use someone else’s rack because yours is dangerously old and tattered Have slept in a heated public bathroom, even once Live in a one-room apartment with 11 roommates Your “car key” is a coat hanger Do all your grocery shopping at gas stations


“Two months is a good road trip, two years is a good vacation, two decades and you are living the dream.” “Dirtbags dig deep into the most fertile soil of life.” “I’ve heard [dirtbags] described as the ‘fittest homeless people you will ever find.'” “I lived under a rock for eight years, and I was much happier than I ever could be again.” “Dirtbagging is pretty boring. I remember reading a lot.” “As cool as Fred Beckey is, he is a pretty good inspiration for me to secure my future.”

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