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So You Want to Be a Dirtbag Trail Runner?

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It’s 11:30 p.m. and after 30 minutes circling around the full campgrounds in Utah’s Zion National Park, I face reality and leave to sleep in the back of my Jeep somewhere outside the park. I pull into a discrete spot, carbo load with some bedtime pop-tarts for the morning’s run up the Angel’s Landing and West Rim trails and tuck myself into my sleeping bag.

People tell me all the time, “You’re living the dream!” and “I wish I had done that!”

And they are right—I am and they should have.

It’s liberating to wake up at the trailhead of my choice on any given day, run a new trail, and then spend a few hours driving to another state instead of watching TV, and filling my soul with new experiences rather than material possessions.

But for every epic trail pic posted on Instagram, there are challenges, e.g. the night I locked myself out of the Jeep and froze my ass off. A moment of panic every time my vehicle/house makes an unusual sound in the middle of the desert. Pulling into another McDonald’s parking lot to take a conference call or submit an article on deadline. The time I won a coconut cream pie at a trail race and ate it for six meals straight because I don’t have refrigeration and it saved me cooking time.

dirtbag trail runner
Dirtbag lifestyle comes in all shapes and sizes, some more glamorous than others. The author’s yellow jeep parked next to a Mercedes Sprinter van. Photo by Morgan Sjogren

Whether you’re you’re looking to be a full-time dirtbag trail runner or want to weekend warrior to the trailheads of your dreams, I humbly offer these basic running-bum road rules:

1. Pack Light

The vagabond life requires simplicity—I can only fit so much into my Jeep Wrangler and still have enough room to fit my 5-foot-8-inch frame into the dog-sized bed that is built into the back (actually it is a dog bed).

My essentials include running clothes, too many running shoes (to accommodate varied terrain types), maps, my laptop, toiletries, cooking supplies, food and my camping gear. That’s it.

I remember giving my friend Jenn Shelton (who also lives in her van) crap for only owning one pair of orange sweatpants. I understand why now—there is no room for more than one pair of casual pants. So I have a pair of very practical tiger bell bottoms.

2. Sleep on It

Whether you have a decked-out Sprinter van, vintage VW bus or plan to car camp, you need to make sure that your sleeping arrangement ensures quality sleep. When you’re putting in big miles and vert, recovery is everything. Admittedly, life on the road can make this more challenging.

Invest in a quality pillow, eye mask (or pull a buff over your eyes), sleeping bag and sleeping pad. If your vehicle has room for a bed, splurge on a Tempur-Pedic mattress (you’re saving tons of money on rent anyways, your back will thank you).

3. Stay Clean

It’s called dirtbag life for a reason. I don’t shower everyday; it’s just reality. I carry jugs of water and Dr. Bronner’s soap for “sponge baths” and Action Wipes (which are bigger than standard baby wipes and more sudsy) for post-run wipe downs. Quality lotion, hot-pink nail polish and a tiny vile of essential oils help me feel relaxed and pampered (guys, don’t be shy—you’d like this too)!

When my pigtails start to turn into dreadlocks, I seek out shower options, which can include a YMCA or public pool (usually they charge a few dollars to shower only), creeks or lakes (warmer months and desperation) and visiting friends when I’m in their areas. Trail running isn’t exactly a clean sport and good hygiene will keep your immune system and morale functioning at much higher levels.

The dirtbag life affords some spectacular views. Photo by Morgan Sjogren

4. Fuel the Engine

The ramen trap is an easy one to fall into when you don’t have a full-size kitchen to prep meals. However, you will get sick of it and you need far more nutrients to fuel your running day after day.

I travel with a small Coleman gas stove and camp kitchen set-up: one pot (which I usually eat my meals directly out of), one set of silverware, a good knife, tiny cutting board, pour-over coffee filter and a tin mug.

My go-to meals are basic (aka 50 shades of burritos), real-food based and provide essential macro nutrients (protein, carbs, fat), vitamins, minerals, and they actually taste good. My favorites include tuna wraps (add pickle relish, shredded cheese, avocado, greens, sliced carrots and bell peppers), black-bean burritos (with cheese and avocado), pre-cooked sausages (cook quicker and easy to store) with sauerkraut (they say it’s good for recovery) and pasta loaded with steamed veggies. When I really go to the well on a big run, I reward myself and eat at a restaurant to ensure I get enough calories and feel satisfied.

5. Go for It

Don’t hold back! The dirtbag dream is literally being able to run on amazing trails day after day that most people must block out vacation time for. If you can dream it, you can probably run it. If you manage your time and budget wisely, you will be amazed at how many incredible trails you can have at your footsteps.

In the past month alone, I have run in Zion National Park (UT), the Grand Canyon (AZ), Buckskin Gulch (UT), Moab (UT), Bear’s Ears (UT), Sedona (AZ), Flagstaff (AZ), Mammoth Lakes (CA), Durango (CO), Sand Canyon (CO), Las Vegas (NV) and Death Valley (CA).

As I write this, I am about the hit the road from Durango to Moab. Sometimes it’s hard to leave places that I am just beginning to know, but then I remember that this mobile lifestyle affords me the opportunity to return to these places when the time is right. I can deal with a little dirt, cramped quarters, crusty running socks and cold burritos, because the feeling I get each time I step foot on a new trail is clean, shiny, warm and ripe with possibilities.

Morgan Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with her running shoes and a pen! Follow her adventures, writing and trail racing on Instagram  @running_bum_ and her blog:

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