Where Did the Term “Dirtbag” Come From?

Jack Conroy | ClimbingClimbing
When we think of a “dirtbag” today, we think of the ultimate outdoorsman, giving up comfort for practicality. But how did it get to be that way? (Photo: Outside)

These days the term “dirtbag” describes the most intense and dedicated portion of the outdoor community.  Whether they’re a climber, skier, hiker, or biker, they’re a dirtbag if they dedicate their lives to the sport and sacrifice the luxuries of comfort and steady jobs to live their dream.

But this wasn’t always the meaning of this phrase.  In fact, the first time the word was used in print dates back to the 19thcentury in an Iowa newspaper called the Davenport Daily Republican.

The paper reads, “Hundreds of section hands are striving to keep the water back with dirtbags.”  This quote references what we today call sandbags, or literally bags filled with dirt.  It is also a commonly used term for the bag in a vacuum cleaner that holds what is sucked up.

With this in mind, it might make you wonder, how did this term come to be used to describe people?

Well, let’s think.  How is a bag filled with dirt an appropriate descriptor of skiers, climbers, and bikers who live to maximize their time outside… where to begin?

fred beckey
Climber Fred Beckey was one of the first and most legendary dirtbags of all time. (Photo: Dirtbag Dreams)

For starters, they often live in their vehicle.  Be it a car, van, truck, or just their own two feet, the best way to keep living cheap and mobile is to keep it on the go.  Now, anyone who has taken a long road trip can tell you that the longer you go the more your car starts to become like one of those vacuum dirtbags.  No matter how neat you are, trash, sand, dirt, and grime will accumulate.

Second, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a washing machine in any vehicle regardless of the size and showers are rare and hard to install.  While laundromats and gym memberships are an obvious solution, long ventures into the wilderness can delay laundry/shower runs for extended periods of time.  Ever sit down at the bar next to a mountain biker after a long day? Dirtbag.

Third, as any outdoorsman these days can tell you, gear accumulates.  Whether you need it or not, it’s just so fun to buy and I mean it would really be unreasonable not to have a third backup puffy jacket, what if one’s wet and the other tears?  Safety first kids.  This accumulation of gear can give your home on the go a resemblance of a dirtbag, even if in this scenario the dirt is thousands of dollars worth of gear and the bag is a car.

The unofficial dirtbag hierarchy. (Image: Semi-Rad)

But most of all, the term is used to describe the most dedicated fans of the outdoors because to them and others in the community, it’s a term of pride.  After all, it was first used in this context by skier Spider Sabich. Sabich was one of the most successful ski racers at the time pulling six figures a year and hanging around Hollywood’s elite in Aspen Colorado.  While his skiing gave him celebrity status, he said in an interview, “I’m just a dirtbag. Who am I trying to fool?”.

When we hear the term dirtbag today, it doesn’t make us look down on the individual it’s describing.  It oftentimes inspires admiration for someone who has managed to make their dreams of getting outside every day a reality.

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