Madeleine LaPlante-Dube of Portland works on the build for her Subaru Forester at the beginning of the pandemic. Courtesy of Madeleine LaPlante-Dube

I’ve always wanted to be a dirtbag.

I wanted to be setting new lines at Yosemite and carving couliers in Jackson Hole. I wanted to wake up every day and brush my teeth with a mountain view. I wanted to be a beatnik, writing and traveling full time. And I swear, I wanted to do it all before Instagram made it cool – and outrageously expensive.

In the “core” outdoor world, “dirtbag” is a term of endearment. A dirtbag lives outside the mainstream: They’re likely dirty, probably seasonally employed and definitely living out of a car. But what a life, right? Outdoors all the time. Breathing fresh air. Living simply.

This photo shows some of the sleep platform before the cabinet and drawers went in. Madeleine LaPlante-Dube photo

Dirtbaggery is the root of van life, a concept now so mainstream that it’s moved beyond the accessible. Search for a van online today and you’ll find any number of double- and triple-digit Mercedes Sprinters sitting in parking lots, fully kitted out ready for adventure. Head to the base of Katahdin or in one of the lots at Sugarloaf and you’ll probably see a handful of them, too.

In 2020, I worked in the outdoor industry, and like so many others during the pandemic, I started to itch for a new routine. As the child of two outdoorsy Mainers, van life had been whispering in my ear for over a decade by that point. But I was also tired of the new version of life on the road: clean, Instagrammable, ridiculously expensive, and exclusionary. So I decided to do an experiment: How cheaply could I do my own build?

The answer came after a week of sawing and sanding in my parents’ driveway alongside my dad, building out the back of my 2008 Subaru Forester: about $350. And that was with a few bells and whistles.


Interested Mainers: With about three Benjamins, a handsaw, and a little ingenuity, you can have a platform bed, a pull-out drawer, a sweet double-sided cabinet unit with a drop-down desk, a pull-out table and a little extra storage in the back of your car. No overpriced Mercedes necessary.

This photo shows the cabinet unit opened up from the back of the car. Madeleine LaPlante-Dube photo

The thing about this approach is that it was authentic. The build itself was loud: My pans and camp stove jangled around on backroads, and my cabinet unit doors clattered. The mattress topper was always covered in a layer of grit from my dog’s dirty post-hike fur. It was cramped. It was unorganized.

Dare I say: it was the way (van) life should be.

I’m sad to say that the ol’ Forester has since bit the dust — a symptom of the cheap dirtbag lifestyle. For now, I haul my camping gear in the back of an outdoorified Chevy Sonic (of all things).

But in my free time? You’ll find me surfing Craigslist for the next great weekender. I’ll add the bells and whistles later.

Madeleine LaPlante-Dube took this photo of her Subaru Forester build while at a campsite in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.

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