What is a beach bum?

October 20, 2022 | Surfing
Beach bum: a surf-style, ocean-oriented, laid-back way of life | Photo: Shutterstock

A beach bum is a person - a man or woman, boy or girl - who spends a lot of time lying, loafing about, and sometimes even living on coastal sand strips or in the ocean.

Beach bums, also known as surf bums, may spend the whole year in the sun, by the shoreline, or only for shorter yet consecutive periods, such as weekends or holidays.

Beach bums are careless and carefree. They want to enjoy all the time - night and day - on the beach.

A surf bum is not necessarily a homeless or unemployed person. They can have a home near or far from the shore; they can be rich or poor.

Essentially, it's a hedonist lifestyle that makes beaches the ultimate feel-good playground and sanctuary of happiness.

Beach bum living is simple and casual and generally idle, inactive, lethargic, and lazy.

In most societies, beach bums and their do-nothing attitudes are generally not seen with good eyes and aren't well accepted.

California: the epicenter of the beach bum lifestyle in the 1960s and 1970s | Photo: LeRoy Grannis

Beach Bums in Popular Culture

The disdainful concept of a beach bum is relatively broad and may have originated in California in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the first references to a beach bum was made in Life Magazine Vol. 29, No. 9, in 1950 and, surprisingly (or maybe not), it involved surfers.

The publication reports the existence of a group of skiers who would spend the winter on snow at Sun Valley and then the summer at San Onofre, California.

They were the ski bums during cold weather and beach bums in the warm season. The news feature's detail is delicious.

"In May, as soon as the snow gets soft at Sun Valley, the bums begin to migrate," Life Magazine reported.

"They head for their parents' homes, where they drop off their skis and pick up their brightly colored 15-foot-long surfboards. Then they make for the beach."

Their personality matches their daily priorities and routines.

"On the beach, the bums spend every minute they can surfboarding, sunning, guzzling beer, making friends with the people who come down to be weekend beach bums."

"By taking jobs nearby as packers, lifeguards, bartenders, they earn just enough to fill their cups and stomachs and the gas tanks of the trucks in which they live and sleep."

"If war does not catch up with them one way or another, the bums expect to be back at Sun Vally in November."

Ironically, the term was also used by surfers to describe themselves.

"I'm a surf bum," Kahuna (Cliff Robertson) says in the 1959 movie "Gidget." "You know, ride the waves, eat, sleep, not a care in the world."

Surf historian Matt Warshaw also spotted the jocosely depreciative name in another context.

"In 'How to be a Surf Bum!,' a 1967 cartoon panel SurfToons magazine, hodads are advised to step into a pair of baggies, rub wood stain into their skin 'for that fast-fast-fast supertan!,' drive around in a woody, 'and presto! You, too, will be a surf bum!'"

And there's always the inevitable Jeff Spicoli, the star of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Dana Brown (1956-2016): one of the last original beach bums hailed from Florida | Photo: Brown Family

Barefoot Sun Worshipers

So, as we can witness, the concept of a beach bum has been closely related to surfers and wave riders, generally in their 20s and 30s.

These free spirits feel incommensurably attracted to beach life and untroubled daily living.

Typically, surf bums are OK with their status and reputation and never seem worried about what other people think about them.

Their heliocentric universe and commitment to the sun as a religious deity, combined with a passion for surfing, make them unique characters.

As vitamin D lovers, beach bums will make everything they can to extend their lifestyle's longevity - as long as it doesn't take too much effort.

They rarely leave their comfort zone, i.e., the beach and the ocean, except for better waves and shacks.

These barefoot hippie surfers sleep and eat on the beach, the world's most comfortable and liberating place.

The abrasive effect of sand grains and the health benefits of sea water is what they need to stay clean and pure.

The beach bum's unconstrained way of life is often similar to Dudeism.

T-shirts, boardshorts, flip flops, swimsuits, and beach towels are everything they need on top of their skin.

Surf bum: someone who spends a lot of time lying, loafing about, and sometimes even living on coastal sand strips or in the ocean | Photo: Shutterstock

Modern Surf Bums

The good-time crew seeks a stress-free, laid-back time on the beach from the moment they wake up until they fall asleep.

They are bon vivants - playboys and playgirls who live for the surf and its pleasures.

Relax if the above description makes you think you're a beach bum. No need to worry. Take it lightly.

Although it often carries a pejorative connotation, the informal use of "beach bum" in oral and written contexts may not necessarily address a socially disregarded person or be offensive.

It can be said in jest.

Also, it can be an affectionate, unpretentious, humorous, and light way of describing someone who lives and breathes beach life to the point of wanting to spend considerable time with their feet on the warm sands.

A beach bum can be a healthy person.

They can be teetotal, physically active, and fit, eat well, practice yoga and meditation, and protect their skin from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays.

The beach bum of the past evolved toward the more civilized, hipster-influenced beach lover of today while maintaining the timeless jovial look and blasé attitude.

The concept no longer only evokes a work-resistant, welfare-dependent individual who skipped school to wander naked and drunk on beer and absinthe.

Do you want to see how surf bums live their lives? Watch Cyrus Sutton's "Stoked and Broke."

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