The Freedom Of The Dirt-bag Lifestyle
I’ve lived a blessed life. My journey has taken me across North America and throughout the Western Alps of Europe. But it hasn’t been a straightforward path. Unless you have access to obscene amounts of cash, skiing, climbing, and traveling several months out of the year is not financially viable.
If you do choose to grind your hind end off to save a couple bucks, you’re not going to have enough energy to devote to skiing and climbing. If you don’t have enough energy to devote to skiing and climbing, you won’t be the best you can be. If you’re not the best you can be…you may be plateauing, or worse yet, stagnating. As Alex Honnold has oft said, it’s not about happiness, it’s about performance. It’s expensive out there, but we can’t let that stop us from living our best life. That is why van life for athletes is the only path I can recommend if you want to hit the classics, meet like-minded denizens, and experience the upper echelons of your sport.
I get asked a lot of questions about this sort of thing by friends and strangers alike. I know what secrets you need to learn to unlock your inner van life skier. And I definitely know what secrets you need to learn to unlock your inner van life climber because, let me tell you, it is way easier than chasing the big white dragon around all winter. The following is an FAQ that I put together to help good folks like you get a little bit closer to your dreams.
How Exactly Does Living In A Van Equate To Skiing And Climbing?
There are two principle reasons why the dirtbag lifestyle will allow you to ski and climb more. The first reason is a lower cost of living. When you have a lower cost of living, you don’t have to work as much. If you’re like me and most other humans, and have a limited amount of energy each day, a lighter workload will increase the proportion of energy you can devote to skiing and climbing. I have found that the closer this percentage is to 100%, the better the results. Climbing in particular seems to require my everything, and the folks at the top of this sport do little else but climb and train.
The second reason is you will have the ability to travel and comfortably live in the top destinations for your sport. Not all skiing and climbing is created equally, and some places are just better than others. My first day ever on skis as a kid was at Ski Sundown in New Hartford, CT. It was great then, and I still appreciate it as a local ski hill, but if I had just skied there for the rest of my life I wouldn’t be as skilled, and more importantly, I wouldn’t be aware of the joys of big mountain powder skiing. Simply put, the sport would not have been as much fun.
The same goes for climbing. My first few experiences outdoor climbing were in Ophir, CO, outside Telluride. On one of those early climbs I nearly got drilled in the balls by a baseball-sized rock that we knocked off with the rope. Luckily, I spread my legs just in time, did a little hop…and we continued to descend. Ophir is old school and legendary and all those things, but it’s also kind of a choss pile, and if I hadn’t had the opportunity to travel to Red Rock, Index, Squamish and other truly classic spots, I don’t know how much I would have progressed at the sport.
How Much Do You Save On Rent?
Kudos to you if you can find a room in Telluride or Jackson for less than $1500 a month, unless you’re an employee, in which case you will have roommates and you will be locked into a service job with the resort or town.
However, you don’t want to stay in the same place all the time – you want to follow the season, skiing when its cold and climbing in the spring and fall (and summer). That means car camping at best, or an Airbnb/hotel which will violently
destroy your bank account. With a rig, you can always have your happy home at the end of a big day, and it makes a big difference for recovery and performance over the long run. Plus, there’s no moving your stuff every six months, no leases, no landlords, no roommates, etc.
So even if you live in a place with cheaper rents some of the time, I think the ability to have your home anywhere you travel equates to at least a savings of 18K a year.
How Much Did Your Van Cost?
My van was $5500. On top of that I spent $3200 to rebuild the suspension, $1000 on a battery bank and solar panel, maybe another thousand on miscellaneous other things, and then 1-2K a year thereafter, on average, for various repairs and improvements. Then there’s standard maintenance and gas. The slow build will definitely ease the cost pressure a bit. I have some ability to work on my own rig, which allowed me to go with an older model (’78). If you don’t work on your own truck, do not get a vehicle of this vintage.
We also have to consider that price dynamics have changed considerably since 2016. Currently, it will be more expensive to procure a cozy rig, but I scan craigslist now and again and it is possible to have a rig of my quality for less than 20K, easily.
Van life climbers who don’t ski have it much easier as they don’t require as much space for gear or indoor living space for the frigid months. Many climbers opt to live out of their cars, and save maximum amounts of coinage doing so. Don’t bother trying this as a skier, it will be torture and will affect your performance, unless you a) possess Buddhist monk levels of tolerance for pain or b) are still 23 and pumped to be stoked.
Do You Live In That In The Winter?!
An emphatic “yes” to this one. Alas, winter is the season of the goods. I have a couple main pieces of advice for van life skiers here. First of all, you must have a wood stove. It’s borderline non-negotiable, if you want to be at the top of your game. A wood stove devours moisture like the cookie monster devours grandma’s own snickerdoodles – that is to say, there will be none left in a very short period of time. Your boots, pants, jacket, hats, and everything else in your van will dry off over the course of the night, even after slaying wet pow all day. Stoves designed for ice fishing are better than the boutique models that you see from brands like Cubic Mini – they can fit normal-ish sized pieces of wood and can get hotter and burn longer, i.e. all night. Oh, and they are half the price. I have a Cylinder Stove, which is a company based in Utah.
Diesel heaters are also good but less convenient if your vehicle runs on gas, plus they require a small amount of electricity to run a fan. The same goes for propane heaters. If you are plugged into shore power, a space heater will also work to keep your living area at a threshold during the day, and can be supplemented at night by any of the above options.
The second piece of advice is, if you can’t afford a 4×4 van, then at least have snow tires. I do not have 4×4 but I have had BFG KO2s on my rig and the tires alone have saved me from getting stuck countless times, in mud and snow alike. Van life climbers who don’t ski will maybe still want to get nice tires to avoid getting stuck in mud.
Where Do You Park?
Once again, this is more of a dilemma for van life skiers than climbers. For climbers, camping generally errs on the side of ridiculously easy. This is because most climbing out west is surrounded by vast tracks of desert or national forest land. Lift access skiing is a whole other beast. As you know, the situation is getting awfully tight up in the mountains these days, especially in the winter when the forest is inaccessible. My first suggestion is try to find a friends driveway (affectionately dubbed “moochdocking”). Offer up some wampum or belly rubs for the deal. You could try craigslist or a local marketplace to see if there are any locals in the area willing to extend a hand. If that doesn’t work out, see if you can pay for a parking spot in a private lot. It can be worth it if it gives you a home. Lastly, if you must stealth camp, do so under the cover of the shadows, and try to get up early and get on with your day (this is a general rule with any stealth camping), and most importantly, don’t bother anybody and they usually won’t bother you.
Where Do You Shower?
Showers can be obtained in a variety of ways, from a variety of places. Some showers cost money, namely those in campgrounds and gyms. Others are free, like friends’ houses and employers. It can be worth it to find access to a reliable hot shower, even if it costs some money. I find that they refresh the soul, body, mind, and spirit after a long day in the mountains. That said, I take on average about 1 shower per week. Comfort level with this frequency of showering is going to give you a great advantage. It’s not gross (really, I swear) and you don’t want to be freeloading showers all the time. Or paying for them. Or using all that precious time in the day, because when you don’t live where you shower, it takes a lot longer.
How Do You Cook?
I believe that a small kitchen is essential for all van life skiers and climbers serious about dirtbagging in the long term. Van life for athletes must also consist of healthy eating habits, or else the gains made in not paying rent it will be lost to your tab at restaurants and, eventually, the doctors office. Having worked my fair share in the
restaurant industry, I know that one of the worst things you can do for your health is eat out frequently. This will gradually eat away at your performance in your sport.
My kitchen consists of a sink (which is not usable in the winter time because I clear all water from the system to prevent damage from freezing), a three burner gas stove, a small oven, a pantry, and a Yeti ice chest. If you have the cash and the available solar, an ARB chest would be more convenient. Ice chests do take a bit more planning. Otherwise, my setup is perfect for preparing most every type of meal you want, with relatively little hassle. Painless meal prep is important to encourage cooking whole ingredients and avoiding processed foods. Van kitchens have the added benefit of incentivizing vegetarianism because cross contamination is a real threat when you are working in such a small space.
Do You Carry A Gun Or Get Scared That Someone Will Try To Hurt You And/Or Steal From You?
I do not carry a gun and I have never once felt even remotely threatened by another individual while traveling in my van. This, however, is from the perspective of a young, 6’3” male so I can imagine it is different for a female. My van life female friends have related some stories of creeper men lurking around from time to time, but I have never had a female friend who decided to stop dirtbagging because she felt uncomfortable in that way. As for the stray serial killer lurking in the night, I suppose it is remotely possible, but very unlikely.
It surprises many people, but theft has never been a problem for me. As a general rule, I try to stay away from cities. On the rare occasion that I travel to a city, I lock my doors and try not to have bikes on the rack. When bikes are on the rack, they are locked, no exceptions.
The great thing about the dirt-bag lifestyle is that you don’t accumulate expensive objects that have resale value. The only big thing of resale value is my solar power station. Other than that, my possessions are all niche outdoor gear, clothes, some tools… moreover, it would take a lot of digging around through my complex storage systems to find the valuables I do have. In a van, everything is neatly tucked away in its own little place. Even criminals do cost-benefit analysis, and from a quick glance at any true dirt-bag’s rig, there is not much to tip the scale in favor of theft.
Out West vs. Out East?
Van life climbers and skiers hail from all corners of this great nation, but they tend to congregate in what is generally referred to as “out west”. When someone says they are living “out west”, we know that their location is between the foothills of the rocky mountains and the sand of the pacific ocean. “Out east” is anything east of the Mississippi River, and…sorry folks…but there aren’t too many van life skiers and climbers trying to get down in the “midwest”.
Before this summer, I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question. However, in May I drove my van across the country, checked out a bunch of spots in the Appalachian region, then spent the summer in Vermont working as a mountain bike coach. To my surprise, I found that I really loved van life out east. It was easy to find peaceful, secluded spots to park and camp and dealing with the mosquitos wasn’t awful. The heat and my lack of air-conditioning was the hardest part, especially at night. There are so few van dwellers in the Eastern part of the country that everybody gets really excited when they see your van, you never get hassled by people who are tired of endless vans coming through, and you don’t have to compete for sweet camping. Not only is it possible to van life out East, it’s actually fun – at least, as long as you stay in the mountains. Suburban East Coast might not be ready for vans yet…
Obviously, the west wins the competition for best access to skiing and climbing. The skiing can’t even be compared. It’s a different sport. While there are incredible climbing spots out east (Gunks, New River, Red River Gorge), the classic zones out west like Red Rock and Yosemite obviously takes the cake. However, while not the subject of this article, I will say that the East caught up with, or even surpassed, the west in the quality of mountain bike parks and should be on any van life rider’s list.
How Is Traveling In Canada?
I traveled for in the van two months in Canada (B.C.) and it is one of the most dirtbag-friendly places I have been to, with the exception of the area around Whistler and Squamish (partly because they are already so overrun with other van lifers). The stereotype is real, Canadians are extremely friendly and are unlikely to hassle you in your van.
It is especially easy in the wintertime. In Revelstoke, there were van life skiers posted up on the streets, and the resort would let you stay for 7 days in the back of their lot (2016).
On Roger’s Pass, the legendary backcountry skiing Mecca, you can stay for 7 days at a time, and with several different staging lots, it’s easy to move around. Camping is always easy in the summer, but very few winter resorts in the US have policies like this. I have heard it is also easy at the other powder highway resorts like Whitewater, RED, Fernie, and Kicking horse, although I have never been and cannot confirm. With great conditions and some seriously big terrain, Canada is a great spot to take your skiing to the next level; with a great exchange rate and a dialed rig, you won’t break the bank hanging out here.
How Is Traveling In Europe?
Thanks to the money-saving opportunities of van life in the U.S., I have spent two winters in the French alps (Chamonix and La Grave), which, in my opinion, is the ultimate big mountain skiing destination. I choose to rent apartments while I am over there because rent is much, much cheaper there and the difficulty and cost of storing a van in Europe while I am in the U.S. is not worth it. I can, however, report that the dirt-bag lifestyle is going strong in the mountain towns of Europe, and it is easy to live in a van or small motorhome. There are many men and women living this life in all of the most iconic destinations, from Chamonix to Alayna to La Grave. From my experience, there are many great places to park for free, especially in and around La Grave.
Sergei has spent his adult life traveling around in his van searching for answers. He is inspired by nature, extreme sports, culture, music, history, science, creative human beings, and animals who live in the mountains with nothing but the fur on their backs.