Train Hopping 101
Freight Hopping Across America
Train Hopping 101 Tips and Safety
Before I go over any of this information about train hopping I just want to clearly state the following:
DISCLAIMER: RIDING FREIGHT TRAINS IS DANGEROUS. I HIGHLY DISCOURAGE ANYONE FROM DOING THIS AS A MODE OF ALTERNATIVE TRAVEL. I WILL NOT BE HELD LIABLE FOR ANY INHERENT CHARGES, INJURY AND/OR DEATH IF YOU CHOOSE TO TRESPASS ON THE RAILROADS. With that said stick to hitchhiking, tramping or bicycle touring.
The Hobo Ethical Code
An ethical code was created by Tourist Union #63 during its 1889 National Hobo Convention in St. Louis Missouri. This code was voted upon as a concrete set of laws to govern the Nation-wide Hobo Body; it reads this way:
- Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
- When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
- Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
- Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
- When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
- Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
- When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
- Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
- If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
- Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
- When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
- Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
- Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
- Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
- Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
- If present at a hobo court and you have testimony, give it. Whether for or against the accused, your voice counts!
First and foremost before getting into what train cars to ride, and so on, please review train safety. You should not enter the fucking yard before you read up on your train safety. I am not going to bore you with re-writing a guide on what to do and what not to do around the tracks, but instead will post a link to a guide written by Johnny P from Squat the Planet. Review this guide and treat it as your bible because it may save your life or your limbs. Safety for the Greenhorn Train Hoppin’! Matt Derrick also wrote a nice outlined guide for basic guidelines to Train Hoppin’ Safety…some of the images don’t work, but give it a read as well since knowledge is power, especially on the steel.
With that being said I also want to state that I am NOT a train hopper. I am a greenhorn and I hop trains in between seasonal work while I camp outside. I only have about 60 trains or so. I am posting this guide for people who are interested in hopping trains, just like I was, but do not have sufficient information on where to look, learn and read about the safety, precautions and gear needed to be a train hopper. This post will group a bunch of resources and information together for those of you out there interested in Ridin’ the Rails!
Firstly, if you have not done so, please register on Squat The Planet and become an active member there with other misfit travelers leading an alternative lifestyle. Most of your questions can and will be answered there depending upon how you phrase them or if you have done your research and used the search button. Do not join and post stupid questions like, “Hi, I’m new here and wanna be a train hopper, does Upstate New York have a train yard?” No one will take you seriously and you will be wasting everyone’s time including your own. Help out around the forums, be humble, ask questions about basic travel, like hitchhiking, etc. and once you feel you have mustered up enough cred to post in the train hopping forum then do so, but be prepared to get flamed for poorly written posts.
If you have not already purchased additional reading then I highly recommend two of the following books to start you off, which will cover a variety of safety about hopping trains along with enough information to make you a professional hobo or at least a “smart greenhorn,” like myself. I recommend purchasing a paperback copy of:
DUFFY LITTLEJOHNS: HOPPING FREIGHT TRAINS IN AMERICA
THE BLACK BOOK OF FREIGHT TRAIN RIDING BY LIMEY PETE
Other reading material that is worth carrying along with you on your train hopping adventures…keep these PDFs on your phone or print em out at the library.
VAGABOND BIBLE FOR TRAIN HOPPERS, HITCHHIKERS AND BICYCLE PUNKS! - I re-uploaded the Vagabond Bible (2015) edition provided by Hobo_Huck of StP and the subreddit /r/vagabond section
Both these books are great resources for the beginner train hopper, and even if you have hopped before they are great resources for the seasonal train hopper as well. By no means am I a seasoned rider, I have a few seasons of riding in, but there is still much I need to learn about train hopping and bigger yards, however, these were both great reads with exceptional information and safety guidelines, which I utilize every time I catch out whether it be in the yard or on the fly. They should also be read multiple times to ensure you are safely catching out.
Now that you have the book knowledge let’s talk about the proper gear you need. As a new train hopper, the gear I use is the same gear I use for hitchhiking.
Waiting for your Train
So I hate to tell you this, but a majority of train hopping is WAITING. Yes, that means sitting around and being a bum. The longest I have waited for a train was about 2.5 days in Huntsville, AL at a siding. If you don’t have patience and you cannot entertain yourself and sit around while you wait for your train then this is not the sport for you. This is not a weekend warrior sport, many people live their lives hopping trains, so if you think this is something you can pick up as a weekend hobby and make it back to your 9-5 job come Monday morning, you can’t. With that said, I will assume you have some prior experience hitchhiking. If you have experience hitchhiking then you know you will have the patience to wait for a train because sometimes you might sit by a gas station or on-ramp for days before getting rides…that’s part of the unknown, part of the adventure.
So what do you do to pass the time while waiting for your train? I like to read books, write train hopping stories and hitchhiking stories in my spare time, play video games on my phone or watch movies, depending how close I am to a power supply, etc. Do yourself a favor if you have the funds for a smartphone (regardless whether you have service or not), there is free WiFi somewhere, grab the following apps.
- Terrarium TV – This is an Android app for smartphones which searches the Internet for new movies, and TV shows, available for streaming/download.
- Mobilism – This is not a specific Android app per say, but register on this site to grab mobile warez for your phone. Do yourself a favor and grab a hacked version of Pandora or Spotify.
- Emuparadise – For me, I enjoy old RPGs for my own personal entertainment, maybe you’re different…idk. Regardless, if you enjoy playing video games grab some that you can enjoy offline, that don’t waste too much battery. Emuparadise offers a ton of ROMs, especially a lot of Super Nintendo ROMs, stack your phone for days.
Train Hopping and Hitchhiking Gear
- 5.11 Tactical Backpack (Black) (43 Liters) (OR any equivalent pack from the Army Navy Surplus Store)
- Tarp or USMC Bivy Sack
- 0 or 20 Degree Sleeping Bag, any Coleman or cheap bag at Walmart will do, or if you get lucky you can buy one on eBay for cheap. I got a Kelty 0 Degree Cosmic Down bag for ~100 USD because of a defect in the zipper
>>Under Armour Long Sleeve
>>Long Johns or similar Thermals
>>Carhartt Bib or equivalent – Goretex works too, just expensive as hell
>>Base Layer of some kind
>>(2) pair smart-wool socks
>>Waterproof Timberland Boots (This is the most important accessory to your travels…take care of your feet. Jungle rot, and staph infection are no joke)
>>Dark Long Pants
>>Hat and/or Gator to cover your neck
- External Battery Pack to charge electronics ~ 20,000 MaH
- 15W Small Solar Panel – Make sure the watts and amperage are enough to charge your smartphone
- Cheap flashlight from Walmart
- Phone that connects to WiFi – doesn’t necessarily need service
- Railroad Atlas either in electronic or paper copy form
- Road Atlas either in electronic or paper copy form
- Crew Change (not necessary by any means, but helpful) either in electronic or paper copy form
- USB cables and adapters
- Passport if leaving the USA
- Medical supplies: Bacterin, tweezers, band-aids, flint and steel, lighter, nail clippers, razor, baby wipes, toothbrush and paste, etc. Anything you need to stay clean on the road. Take your showers in the sinks at Fast Food joints and be sure to clean up your mess so they don’t lock the bathrooms to the public.
- Baofeng UV-5R Scanner with Railroad channels pre-programmed for your needs. Tutorial here – Cheapest Scanner
Finding your Train
So over on the /r/vagabond sub-reddit group they actually have some decent information for greenhorns about train hopping. I especially enjoy huckstah’s post on finding your train as it’s very important and a basic knowledge of identifying where you are at in the “YARD” you are in will make your life much easier, and safer. Basically there is a classification yard and a departure yard. You will want to AVOID the classification yard at all costs. Normally the yard tower is located here, which means security, because this is the most dangerous part of the yard, bulls, cameras, etc.. Trains will be getting humped together here, moving back and forth along the tracks, getting ready for a future departure. Do not get on trains here or even be in this part of the yard.
However, the departure yard will be what you want to look at. Here cars will be lined up for a future departure not too far off in the future, and anything stopped on the main lines will depart even sooner as trains on the main line are more than likely changing crews.
Check out the sub-reddit post to get a better visual on the difference between the classification yard compared to the departure yard, where you should be hiding, etc. As Huckstah has stated, all this information is publicly available on the Internet on train hopping forums or rail fan websites. I have compiled this list here to put many resources together in one spot for your reading pleasure. Check out the vagabond group here to find your train.
Where is my Train Going???
If you don’t have a railroad scanner or a crew change guide then you can use Google Maps along with these railroad maps of different railroad companies to see the general destination of where you might be going. This is for quick access, the North American Railroad Atlas is also available for download too if you want something more extensive to look at.
Union Pacific Freight Train Lines
BNSF Intermodal Freight Train MapShows the Intermodal freight train lines for BNSF, the junk lines for BNSF, and other lines for CSX, FEC, etc.
Canadian Pacific Freight Train Lines
What Train Cars to Ride
Rather than reinvent the wheel I will link to a few websites that have already covered this important information on rideable train cars. Hobo Shoestrings blog covers in great detail many of the train cars you can ride with a strong emphasis on junk train cars. Check out the list from Hobo Shoestring here, “What Train Cars Hoboes Ride!”
That covers most of the safe junk train cars to ride, but what about high priority Intermodal cars? How do you know what is safe to ride and what’s suicide or unsafe to catch on the fly? Well, below is a great read posted by Kokomojoe from Squat the Planet that covers IM/DS, “Safe Rideable Intermodal Cars!”
Riding inside of an empty gondola…it looks like a boxcar with the roof chopped off of it. This is a safe ride. You can ride loaded gondolas full of sand and gravel as well, but I would not ride anything where loads can shift, IE. re-bar, I-beams, scraped frag, etc…use common sense. It goes a long way.
THE COAL CAR
Now, with those few links above that should give you a general idea on what is safe to ride and what you should look for when trying to catch a train on the fly or stopped in the yard. You want to ninja your way in and out of the yard as quickly as possible and minimize your time in the yard. The longer time you spend dillydallying around in the yard, the better chance you have at getting seen by a worker, a bull, or the Yard Tower either landing you a citation, warning or jail time. So be smart, take the road less traveled to find your catch out spot that gives you a good view of the yard and hang out. Read a book, watch a movie or play a video game on your phone while you wait for your train to Crew Change on the main line.
Other small tips and information that will help you on your train hopping adventures comes from experience and gaining riding time, but I will give my own personal suggestions below. Typically, I catch out near the yard on stop trains, but there are instances where I might catch a train on the fly. In order for this to happen the train must be rolling slow enough for me to run up along the ladder, clasp both my hands, and swing my knee into said rung to pull myself up and onto a car. With that said, how do you know how fast is too fast? Well, experience…some people refuse to catch on the fly. It’s dangerous, people die, lose limbs, take spikes to the head and get concussions, (I am guilty of it), so it is a risk. But, the rule I always go by is if I can clearly count all the bolts on the wheel then it is slow enough for me to catch on the fly.
Other juicy pieces of information that will definitely help you out are figuring out which cars to ride that have floors and avoiding the suicides. For junk trains, your grainers with the leading edge extended the full length of the car are NOT floorless, you should scope these out as the train rolls by and stops on the main line or while it’s slowly departing the yard if you are catching on the fly. Why is this important? Because, if there is no leading edge and you can see the wheels then you might get caught riding suicide for 8 hours or until the next siding. Stay safe…be smart, learn your cars before catching on the fly or wasting time searching for something to ride in the yard.
If you are going to ride any LOADED car make sure you know what you’re riding…will the load shift and potentially kill you? If so, don’t ride it. The only loaded cars I have ridden have been loaded coal, loaded gravel, and loaded sand. Also, do not fall asleep and end up in industry or you might get dumped, injured or killed. But to be safe, while you’re first learning to ride steer clear of anything loaded and just wait for something empty to ride. Not knowing what you’re doing is a way to get yourself killed out there on the rails and it happens more frequently than you would think.
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR AND DO NOT RIDE EMPTY COAL...IT MAY BE TEMPTING, BUT IT'S NOT WORTH THE RISK. YOU NEED A ROPE TO TIE TO THE LADDER. YOU NEED TO BE ALERT EVERY TIME IT STOPS TO MAKE SURE IT'S NOT GETTING LOADED....AND YOU CANNOT FALL ASLEEP UNLESS IT'S MOVING. IT SUCKS.
So what about Intermodal cars? What should I ride? Every time I run up and down the line checking for a well car to ride it ends up being suicide? Is there a quick way to tell what will definitely have a floor or not? Well, honestly even after 50 trains and 10,000 miles of riding time I am still learning this. It’s just something that comes with experience. From my own personal riding time I have learned that typically 48′ and 53′ well cars with the ribbed yellow walls normally have floors, but not always.
Well cars carrying J.B. Hunt containers or CSX containers almost always have floors. Anything else I have ridden I do not have enough time for input. To be safe, do not catch an IM/DS on the fly without knowing first whether it has a floor or not…riding suicide is not cool and despite Mike Brodie’s romanticized pictures of ridin’ suicide on an empty well car, well frankly, it’s just unnecessary and not safe. Have I ridden suicide before, yes, but I did not want to, it just happened. This gives you a start on what to look for, but typically anything with a porch can be ridden although you are easily exposed to view. So your best bet is to ride IM/DS at night time, until you become more familiarized with what cars you can ride at a quick glance. It should be instinctual like with junk trains.
Sounds to Listen for Near the Train Yard
So you infiltrated into the train yard and found a nice spot to catch out near the main lines and the departure tracks, what exactly are you looking for?
You are listening for particular sounds in the yard to determine if your train is going anywhere. Do you hear a hissing sound from the couplers as this most likely means the train is airing up for departure? Did a front engine get attached to your train in the departure yard? Was a FRED (Rear end unit that blinks red at night) attached to the end of the train? Are workers checking the air hoses and working on your train? All of these are indications that your train might be leaving soon, when who knows? Unless you ride with a scanner and know the symbols and yard lingo you won’t know when the train is leaving, but I look for these four things before boarding my preferred train car and entering the yard.
Is it on the main line or in the departure yard? If it’s on the main line it’s likely waiting on a crew before leaving the yard so really you are just waiting on it to air up before hopping on to a rideable car. If it’s in the departure yard it might take a little longer to leave, but the same rule applies, listen for the air.
Is there a front engine on the train that is NOT a YARD DOG? What’s a yard dog you ask? A yard dog works the trains in the yard, meaning it takes blocks from the classification tracks and shunts blocks together to form a train for departure. Typically it consists of a 3 digit number on the front engine with a blinking light (this applies for Union Pacific) however, it’s pretty similar across the board with FEC, BNSF, CSX, NS, etc. The number might not be 3 digits, it could be 4 digits, but the blinking light is a dead giveaway. If it pulls out of the yard and back into it multiple times remember the front engine number and this is most likely your yard dog. DO NOT hop on these trains as they are working and not going anywhere except back into the yard.
Does it have a FRED attached?
Did I hear it just air up? If yes, then get the fuck on, it should be leaving momentarily (air up = hissing noise).
Other important sounds include the WOOOOOOOSH sound. Why is this sound important and what makes it different than the hissing noise the train makes when airing up? Well, it’s quite simple. When you hear that loud WOOOSH noise that sounds like a pop it means the engineer cut the air and the front engine detached from the train, which means get the fuck off. They might be adding blocks to the train, cutting the train, etc. You won’t know unless you have a scanner. But, I don’t ride with a scanner, so normally I get off and wait along the tracks. If the front engine reconnects and it airs up I hop back on, if not I don’t.
Lastly, this is a big one, if your train stops right outside the yard and comes to a complete stop. But, several minutes later or even a few minutes later all of a sudden it starts rolling into the yard WITHOUT AIRING UP, get off the train it’s dying in the yard. It’s using gravity to terminate in the yard and it’s not going anywhere, don’t waste your time getting caught running around the yard. Grab another train.
This is not a fully complete comprehensive guide to train hopping for greenhorns, but it’s a start. A lot of this information came from months/years of riding and a few years of compiling different threads and information I read on the Internet. Do not hold me accountable in anyway for any choices you make with the content I have posted, but please if you want to experience the freedom that this lifestyle has to offer read up on train hopping safety and try to make your first few rides with an experienced rider.