The dirtbag lifestyle has been romanticized for decades. Sleeping under the stars in the sand by the ocean, waking up to A-frames no one else will make the trek to surf, or vanlifing it in a snowy parking lot at the base of a resort, paying nothing while other skiers spend thousands to stay farther from the lift than you are. While these images are almost something out of a Kerouac novel, there’s nothing romantic about using the bathroom on the side of the highway. During a traffic jam. In the sleet and rain.
Both ski and surf bums are characterized not by their living situations, per se, but by their complete commitment to avoid any and all trappings of “real life” in order to keep living the dream, whether that be in the ocean or on the mountain. The term “surf bum” actually came after “ski bum,” writes Matt Warshaw in an Encyclopedia of Surfing entry on the term.
Though the two are linked, the culture surrounding each is distinct. Skier and writer Cy Whitling argues that, more often than not, ski bums aren’t “some scuzzy guy with nasty hair and a creeper van who never actually Venmos you for dinner. Sure, ski bums can be dirtbags, but you don’t have to be, and the smart ones usually aren’t.” Perhaps this is due to the high cost of skiing in general — even one-day lift tickets nowadays go for as much as $309, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the gear, housing, transportation, and skis!
The same can be said of surfing, where true surf bums aren’t always broke, however, surf culture’s outlook on surf bums may be generally friendlier than ski culture’s perception of ski bums. Just as Laird Hamilton reminds us that “we’re all equal before a wave,” everyone is equal at the beach, too. There’s little distinction between hardcore surfers, wealthy tourists, homeless people, and, well, surf bums. Perhaps the only good way to tell who’s a surf bum is by watching the same break for days on end and seeing who scores the perfect windows. They don’t have a job, they’re always out, and they know when it’s working.
Plus, some of the most revered surfers in history have been known to do some incredibly bummy things. Miki Dora paid no respect to the law, scammed people, and stole things. Pat Curren packed nothing but a 10-pound sack of flour to save on food when boarding the plane to Hawaii. Carwyn Williams slept in a car for three-and-a-half months at Hossegor, and then again (in a different car) for six weeks on the North Shore, sustaining himself on sandwiches. And these feats are not only remembered, but celebrated! Culture advantage: surf bums.
But, while surf bums can sustain themselves on virtually nothing, and living at the beach can be (almost) free, the job market reflects that. Surf bums may shape boards or do ding repairs, but surf instructing rarely pays the bills and is often looked down upon in the surf community. Ski bums have countless job opportunities: ski instructing, ski tuning, waiting tables at upscale resorts, bartending on the mountain, being liftees or snowmakers… and, let’s be real. Unless you ride the backcountry exclusively, you can’t ski or snowboard at all if you’re broke, so the word bum is being used loosely in the first place. Surf bums may literally live in a tent or shack, live off the land, and not need a job at all. Job market advantage: ski bums.
Speaking of living in a tent, let’s compare living situations. The most hardcore of ski bums may live in a tent, like die-hard Canadian skier Charley Ager who says “rent is for posers,” but more often than not, the conditions that allow people to ski do not allow for comfortable outdoor living. Camper vans and condos are expensive, and even then, you may need a sub-zero sleeping bag and hand warmers.
Surf bums, on the other hand, are advised that “no self-respecting surf bum trades currency for living space.” Surf bums do, of course, on the North Shore, where houses pack four people to a room. Plus, surfers living on the beach have access to everything in the ocean, which means plenty of opportunities to fish, throw nets, and dive for food. The biggest risk for surf bums is getting kicked out of parking spots or beaches. But they can always sleep in their coffin bag, if it comes to it. Housing advantage: surf bums.
Bums always end up, at one point or another, relying on the kindness of strangers. Whether it be hitchhiking or cleaning up leftovers, friends come in handy. Surf bums have access to bonfire cookouts and (if they’re lucky) a seat in the back of a pickup. Ski bums have resort busses and leftover, overpriced resort food visiting families forget to throw out. Bumming it at a ski resort may be slightly more demeaning, but there may be more on offer since the average customer has a lot more to dispose of. Plus, and it could mean nothing, but there’s usually a lot more free alcohol at ski condos than surf shacks. If anyone asks why you’re there, you can always say you work at Tesla. Just keep your neckie all the way up. Advantage: ski bums.
I’d say being a ski bum is harder, but it’s hard to call anyone skiing or snowboarding a bum. They can pursue it 100 percent and shirk responsibility as much as they want, but their coat probably costs more than my rent. Either way, when it comes down to it, whether you’re a snow bum or a surf bum, there are going to be some hard times and rough nights. Whether those are spent on the sand or in a sleeping bag is up to you, but you’d better get ready to trade comfort for freedom. And what comes with freedom: first tracks or dawn patrols in paradise, is worth whatever 7-11 musubi or oatmeal you’re eating to chase that.