Nathan Staiger in his Mercedes Sprinter. (Photo: Kai Burkhardt)

Parked under a bridge in Queens is a white Mercedes Sprinter van. On the outside it looks like any other car; maybe you notice the solar panels on top, or the windows blocked with insulation. But on the inside is Nathan Staiger’s entire life. Staiger, 30, goes to school, rock climbs and sleeps in his van. Some may think he’s homeless, climbers may think he’s awesome, but Staiger and a small community of other vandwellers in the city are carrying a torch that has a deep history in climbing and other outdoor sports. 

Dirtbagging, where climbers would sleep in cars, tents, caves– basically anywhere and everywhere they could find– was popularized in Yosemite Valley after World War II. Climbers would spend day after day looking for newer, harder things to climb, playing an enormous part in forming rock climbing into the sport it is today. They were passionate, driven and often dirty people. If you’re still having trouble picturing them, just know that a group of dirtbaggers cut out thousands of pounds of weed from a frozen lake in 1977 in Yosemite, and the profits funded their low-cost lifestyle for decades after.

While rebellious Yosemite climbers like Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell still exist, you just don’t see as many climbers living in their vans these days; in fact, it’s been said that “Dirtbagging is Dead.” But now, as climbing culture turns more towards indoor gyms, so do the dirtbags. Denizens are taking full advantage of the convenience of gyms to make their nomadic lives easier. 

Aaron Randolph (Photo: Kai Burkhardt)

Nathan Staiger and Aaron Randolph are two modern-day dirtbaggers who have done something every New Yorker wishes they could: avoid rent. The best friends both own Mercedes Sprinter vans and use Brooklyn Boulders Queensbridge in Long Island City, Queens, as a homebase. Staiger, 30, has been living in his van for two years and in New York City since last September. He’s driven across the country visiting National Parks, climbing and following warm weather. He’s planted himself in the city for the moment because he’s attending the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and he’s found how easy it is to live in a van here. “Nobody bats an eye when somebody’s getting out of their van or brushing their teeth outside,” he said. “New York is easy, it’s comfortable.”

Randolph, 33, has lived in a van since 2012 and he’s been in New York City since New Years Eve 2015. He’s lived the van life in California, Colorado and Arizona, and is currently a middle school teaching assistant at VOICE charter school in Queens. 

The two agree that New York City is the best place to live in a van. You can walk to everything, bodegas are everywhere and something is always open late into the night. Parking laws require a car to be moved at least every seven days, but some “unicorn spots” don’t have street sweeping or parking signs so the pair have parked there for weeks on end. Randolph said he’s even shown cops his van and they thought it was cool. “They don’t care at all,” he said. 

(Photo courtesy of Nathan Staiger)

The best part, however, is the availability of climbing gyms in the city. New climbing gyms and van life go hand in hand. Aside from being a place to climb, gyms give dirtbaggers loads of utilitarian amenities. Need to take a shower? Walk into the gym. Need to pee (or dump your jug of pee in the toilet)? Walk into the gym. Need a place to chill or want to make some friends? You guessed it: gym.

Luckily for vandwellers, there are an abundance of climbing gyms across the country, and in New York City especially. In 2018, the commercial climbing gym industry grew by 11.87 percent with 50 gyms opening in the U.S.– its biggest year to date, according to Climbing Business Journal. Here in the city, there are 15 climbing gyms open or opening soon. They’re multi-million dollar facilities, often equipped with thousands of square feet of climbing terrain, along with coworking spaces and ping pong tables (as an employee of one of the newer gyms, MetroRock Brooklyn, and someone who frequents gyms a lot, I know how nice they can get). Their laissez-faire attitudes mean gyms are more than just a place to climb. They’re a communal place where people hang out and now they’re attracting these modern-day dirtbags. “I have to assume if there’s six of us right here in this tiny neighborhood,” Randolph said about Long Island City. “I would assume they’re scattered throughout New York City.”

(Photo: Kai Burkhardt)

Though living in a van is relatively convenient in New York, there’s still a lot of problem-solving involved. Randolph and Staiger both agreed the hardest part of living in NYC is the weather. Summer is the worst. “If it’s 85 degrees in here it’s really hard to sleep,” Staiger said. They both said that they try to travel to somewhere cooler in the summer months to avoid the heat. The cold, on the other hand, they’ve learned to deal with. 

“There was stuff you wouldn’t even think of having a problem with getting cold,” Staiger said.  “Like the gel soles in my shoes would be super stiff.” Staiger has also had jars of pasta sauce explode because they froze, and just the moisture from his breath overnight froze one of his doors shut. You have to be inventive to stay comfortable in a van; Staiger and Randolph both fill water bottles with hot water and put them in their sleeping bags to help stay warm on cold nights. Living in the metal vans can be tough, but neither of them would have it any other way. 

Staiger grew up in San Diego and worked odd jobs such as taking pictures for Google street view on his bike and making climbing holds for Everlast Climbing in Minnesota. He then joined the army, but after an intestinal issue he left and now gets disability. He said he’s had around seven surgeries on his abdomen and is considered 90 percent disabled by the Veterans Benefits Association. “When you look at me and I say, ‘Hey, I’m disabled,’ it’s not necessarily outlooking,” he said. “It’s more internal.”

(Courtesy of Nathan Staiger)

Staiger has been climbing on and off for ten years; the sport helped him recover from his injuries because it isn’t high-impact (if you don’t fall), and it has become a huge part of his life. After discovering van life through climbing, he realized it was the easiest, cheapest way to pursue the sport. He purchased his van for a hair over $39,000, built it out over the course of three months, and drove around from climbing area to climbing area, following the good weather. “I got an apartment for like two months,” he said. “Then I was like, ‘I don’t wanna do this. I don’t like rent.’” Now, after two years in the van, he can’t picture himself living in a normal apartment. “Let’s just say tomorrow I won $20 million; I would probably get a small apartment and rent a room out of it,” he said. “But I would still probably stay in the van. It’s just more comfortable to me.” 

Randolph has been living in a van longer than Staiger, and identifies less as a climber. He loves music and surfing more than climbing, but he’s constantly in climbing gyms. “Right now, seriously I do it because this is where I live and I’m here all the time,” Randolph said about the sport. He came into van life completely separate from climbing. When he was in his mid-twenties Randolph also got fed up with rent, and bought an old van off his uncle for $300. He’d met a couple other people who lived in cars and said that seed grew in his mind for years. So Randolph finally bought one and built it out with his grandpa. Even though he didn’t find vans through climbing, he’s not quite sure how he’s different from other dirtbaggers who are more serious about the sport. “It just feels like I put on my shoes before my pants, I guess.”

But his life still focuses around climbing and gyms because of the community and convenience. “A rock climbing gym has way more of a communal feel than like, a Planet Fitness,” he said. “I don’t even know of another type of gym where they have tables where you’re welcome to sit and do work.” No one looks at you weird at a gym. Since dirtbags are such a prominent part of climbing’s history, they’re normalized and accepted in the climbing community (people will actually think you’re cooler for it). 

#Vanlife, which started gaining popularity in 2012, along with the expansion of fancy climbing gyms, has birthed a new-age dirtbag lifestyle. And with the density of gyms in New York (including a 24-hour gym soon) and all of the city’s conveniences, more and more vandwellers are bound to make it to the city to live the sort of modern van life that trades in a VW at Camp 4 for a Sprinter in Queens. Young climbers can get a taste of the freedom and rebellion of climbers of old. “I’m free to do what I want,” Randolph said. “As quickly as I can quit a job, I can quit a city.”