Guide to Train Hopping Like a Hobo

homeless person at train station

[Uisup Kim] / [iStock] / Thinkstock

Though the train hopping days have long been considered over with, there are still those who exist on the fringes of society, living out of their bundles and riding the rails. Some are vagabonds and some are travelers who let their minds and bodies wander, they feel the terrible winds whipping through their hair while leaning out of open boxcar doors. Trains take you to places some people call nowhere. Others would have the right to argue. They take you everywhere. For the outdoor-inspired, it’s everywhere. Freighter routes wind through forgotten forests and below desolate peaks, across the plains and along raging rivers. So gather up a bindle and make your way to the tracks, it’s train hoppin’ time.

As you run towards your first freighter, you’re looking to avoid two things: injury and the law. The human body is soft while train equipment is heavy, sharp and unforgiving. Keep an eye out for quietly rolling boxcars and don’t cross underneath cars or couplers. Remember, you will not win against a train.

Many yards have a railroad cop – commonly known as the Bull. Back in the Dust Bowl days, it’s said that bulls would wait at the yards with shotguns and pop off the hobos as they came through. Luckily, this isn’t a concern any longer, but that doesn’t mean you want to get caught by one. Keep off of the roads within the yards and don’t go near the office to avoid a Bull. Keep an eye out for the bull-mobile (usually a white pick-up) and walk in between the strings of cars rather than in the open.

When hopping trains, the goal is to do so undetected. That being the case, make sure you blend in by keeping everything on you – your clothes, your pack, your sleeping bag – as dark as possible (grays and blacks) and consider the weather. Dress in layers and with warmth in mind. If your train heads deep into the Sierra on a frigid night and with a raging torrent of wind pummeling your body, it will be cold. Gloves, good boots and a beanie will also prove invaluable.

Pack light and make sure your pack is durable. You’ll be throwing it on and off of trains, which means the less things you have to lug around the better. When the pack hits those sharp rocks that border the tracks, anything fragile within it will surely break; so don’t bother bringing along any valuables.

The train hopping, anarcho-punk types of now often guard their information tightly; so specific details can be hard to come by. Consider calling up the railroad business office and ask for a map of American freight lines. You can say you’re doing research for a school paper or an article.

Head to your city’s anarchist bookstore or bike co-op and seek out people who have hopped trains before. They might just give you some good information. Failing that, go straight to the train yard. Avoid the bigger cities, but do find the yards in the rough parts of town, the forgotten neighborhoods near big industry and ports. Find a yard worker and ask about the schedule. They should know which trains are leaving, where they’re going and when. Generally, railroad workers should be considered friends and they’ll likely help out whenever they can.

Catching Out
Avoid tank cars, loaded flatcars, loaded gondolas and cars marked “Bad Order,” they’ll either be transporting something nasty, provide no comfortable place to ride or will be extremely dangerous, likely all of the above. Instead, look for the open boxcars or the rear platform of a hopper or grainer. When you’re waiting to catch out – and you will – do your best to maintain some level of patience. It’s a waiting game, where walking and slouching will take up more time than the actual riding.

Once you’ve chosen a route and you’re clanging along on some rough rider, keep your eyes peeled on the scenery. You’ll find that perfect, desolate landscape, or that serene river full of trout. Riding rails is place to find the beauty of outside America and an experience that will expand the soul.

By Bryan Schatz