How to Live Out of Your Car: Dirtbagging 101

“Aren’t you going to wash that off?”

I look down at the apple in my hand and back to my mother’s disgusted face. It’s funny to me, the realization of how differently we’ve been living. Living out of a car, the least of my worries has been the cleanliness of my produce. This dirtbagging craze has become recently prevalent (especially in the climbing community). Where do you begin? What do you need? How do you shower? Is ‘dirtbag’ offensive or endearing? Here’s what I’ve learned:

A Good Shotgun Rider is Key

If there’s one thing I learned throughout my summer travels, it’s that a good partner is the most important factor. While there is nothing wrong with solo travel, there’s a lot to be said for a solid companion. Besides the obvious halfsies on gas and drive-time, the benefits include: intellectual conversation (what are the dimensions of komodo dragons and what do they prey on?), an additional Spotify Discover Weekly and podcast playlist, voice of reason (we can only afford frosties tonight, not a pitcher), and designated driver when you get tired or have too much fun on Canada day.


The Whip

Being a loyal follower of van-lifers on instagram, I thought I knew it all. But get a load of this-- the Christmas lights don’t come pre-strung over a freshly made queen sized bed and most of the time your bedroom view isn’t your criss crossed feet in the foreground of a crystal blue ocean. In fact, you’ll likely keep the back closed most of the time to keep out mammoth mosquitoes and the smell of port-a-potty.

But don’t think you have to find the perfect van to live off the road-- we went small & lived in a Subaru. Every time we wanted to cook, we had to move the kitchen out of the back seat and into the parking lot. Every time we wanted to sleep, we had to move the rest of the house into the front seat. It was a never ending shuffle, and it was totally worth it.

Pro tip: Keep your windows cracked at night and sleep with bug spray on.

Food, Water, Shelter

KEEP IT SIMPLE. You will likely only use a fraction of what you take with you, so make sure everything you bring is vital. I severely overpacked and paid the price when I had to sleep smushed against a pile of clothes I never wore. We ate the same meals over and over which sounds horrible, but we were too excited about the mountains to care.

Here is our meal Bible from the summer:

Breakfast: Veggie stir fry with eggs, wrapped in a tortilla with Chalula hot sauce. Lunch: Peanut butter and apple tortillas and a Cliff Bar

Dinner: Pasta with a veggie pile on top (plus meat on treat yoself days).

Pro tips:

-Carb base with heaps of veggies on top (cheapest way to get full).
-Buy your groceries by the day so nothing goes bad.
-If you’re in an area with Glacially fed rivers, you can fill up your water supply there. If not, try and find a visitor center or gas station with free water. Worst case scenario, take water treatment tablets and clean your own #4realdirtbagging.
-You car will obviously be your shelter so take care of it like you would your house. If you’re at or below a half tank, fill up if you pass a gas station. Change the oil and rotate the tires if your road trip takes you far enough away, and for the love of all things holy, give her a name and be nice to her.


No matter how psyched you are on cragging all summer, the greasy hair and dried-on sweat will get to you. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But it will find you and it will destroy you. Find a rec center and buy a day pass every once in awhile. Shower, do a load of laundry, and sit in the AC. I promise, your dirtbag card will not be revoked.

Tip: keep baby wipes handy for days you don’t shower, it’ll make you feel a little cleaner.


As frustrating as the constant shuffle, heat, and dirt can be, remember why you chose this. Keep the spirits up and don’t be afraid to detour. You’ve got nowhere to be and all day to get there. Stop and take pictures, go out dancing, and try the local breakfast place. Deep breath, it’s all good.


A Few Things to NOT Forget

fuel for stove
Baby wipes
Music speaker
Portable charger
Big water container


Meredith Reitemeier is a writer, artist, traveler, photographer, and climber living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She works as a guide for the university outdoor center and is always planning and saving for her next adventure. You can follow her journeys at @reitemeier or

Photos by Caden Handley | @handley.imagery


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