Train Hopping in North America
Below is a sitemap of my diaries documenting my travels train hopping across America and New Zealand dating back to 2016 when I first started riding trains. If you enjoy the short stories along with this guide then swing on over to my YouTube Channel and be sure to check out some of my adventure travel videos. Feel free to like, comment, share and subscribe.
Note: After much thought I have decided to release the book, “Diary of a Digital Tramp” for free. It will be available for download on the blog once I finish the editing process. If you are interested in donating for the time I put into the book then please contact me for details otherwise a comment on the blog, or subscription to my YouTube channel will suffice. Thanks for your support.
Please Note: There are many other riders out there, with way more experience than me, and more riding time. I am not an expert nor will this guide make you one. You will make mistakes. Riding freight is dangerous and I don’t advise doing it. However, this page was created to divulge information for those interested in approaching this topic more safely. You won’t learn how to ride from the Internet or YouTube, but hopefully you can learn from my personal experiences, my mistakes, and use the resources provided within to better understand the seriousness of the railroad, its inherent risks, and the importance of safety around the train tracks.
Diary of a Freight Bum
2018 – The Train That Never Came
2018 – Night Rider of the Blue Dusk
2018 – Tauranga Diesel Boy
2017 – A Year of Freight Trains
2017 – Back on the Road Again
2017 – Dirty Face in Pecos
2017 – Come on Down to Cleveland Town
2017 – Two Train Kids and a Pooch
2017 – Train Hoppin’ Across America
2017 – ¡Runners in Snakeskin Botas!
2017 – Bippin’ in Texas with the Misfit 4
2017 – The Bipolar Express
2017 – A Night on the Steel
2017 – 8 Thumbs and a Dog Goin’ East
2017 – Fractured From Her Tracks
2017 – Head Wounds and Buffoons
2017 – IM Stuck in Carrier
2017 – Suicide to Springfield
2017 – Fuck Outta Here White Boy
2017 – Creepin’ Outta Rossville IM Facility
2017 – The Sunset Line Meets Border Patrol
2017 – Face Tats and Steelies
2017 – Speedballin’, Spacebags, Sidewalk Slammers
2017 – Here Comes the Rooster
2017 – Gettin’ Flooded
Here are some interesting reads on freight train hopping, not just in America, but around the world. I know my blog covers more than just the culture of freight trains, with budget travel being the main focal point, however, hitchhiking, bicycle touring, and backpacker blogs are much more common. So if you are looking for more entertaining stories then you have come to the right place. I have compiled a list to freight train short stories and train-oriented blogs so you can read at your leisure and really soak in the culture of riding as the stories take you along for an adventure.
Railroad Photography and Monikers
Freight Train Photography
Photography by Brian Cray – This is a photo diary of hopping freight trains around America over the past year of 2017. In total I traveled around 16,000 miles through 33 states over the course of 7 to 9 months on 70 to 80 trains with some hitchhiking and the occasional bus between.
Mike Brodie Photography – Brodie rode about 50,000 miles through 48 states back in his period of juvenile prosperity, taking photographs with a 35mm Polaroid camera, coining his nickname, the Polaroid Kidd. His riding took place over 5 years and his photos inspired the next generation of riders capturing a stunning depiction of what it’s like riding the rails through tones of dirt and grime. Although, I am not much a fan of Brodie, I respect his work and realize he has had an impact on railroad culture. Thus, I have put his website here for anyone interested in buying his screen prints and publications.
Moniker photography by K0k0m0joe
Railroad Films, Documentaries and Other Footage
Train Hopping Around America (Romanticized)
Train Hopping Across America
Slow and Scenic in the Northeast
Rutland to Burlington – On the Roof
Klamath Falls to Roseville
Portland to Eugene
The Cascades on the High Line
The High Line Part 1
The Mississippi River
Buffalo to Chicago
Train Hopping In New Zealand
Train Hopping Movies and Documentaries
- Don’t be a dick and report these links. They took a while to find on the net and even more time to upload over free Wi-Fi. I am trying to keep the culture of riding alive, you can respect that, or leave. I’ve been pirating since 15 and if you think organizations like the MPAA and RIAA give a damn about piracy, they don’t. The money from their court cases goes straight into their pockets and funds their organization. That’s what they care about.
The Beggars of Life
Who is Bozo Texino? – Change file extension from .rar to .avi in order for it to play. File extension was changed to keep it from getting deleted by mediafire
Train Hopping 101 Disclaimer
Before I go over any of this information about cathing out I just want to clearly state the following:
DISCLAIMER: RIDING FREIGHT TRAINS IS DANGEROUS. I HIGHLY DISCOURAGE ANYONE FROM TRAIN HOPPING 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.
This page was created to preserve the train culture that I romanticized about back in the day. I created this tutorial from resources I’ve read over the years from counterparts like Duffy Littlejohn, SquatThePlanet, Limey Pete, and my own personal experiences. It in no way is a substitute for actually riding and I am not trying to promote riding either. All I am doing is giving a taste of information for those actually interested in taking the plunge so you go into it understanding the SAFETY and don’t get yourself killed or maimed. I am in no way responsible for your actions.
This resource is provided for FREE because too many people have watched the likes of videos by Brave Dave and other hooligans out there and actually believe that’s how you ride. Be safe out there guys. You don’t have to fit a stereotype or mold, wear patches, have dreads, a dog, a Carhartt jacket, and be dirty as fuck to ride freight…just be yourself. Be smart, ride sober, ride safe and treat the train yard and train with respect. Use all of this information as both inspiration and a resource and if you are one of those people who thinks this will blow up the scene then ask yourself, “Why did I even get into traveling?” Take a step back to self-reflect because you’re supposed to be free out there and that includes being free of judgment.
The videos and photography show the landscape of this country in a romanticized fashion. Actual riding has a lot of down time waiting for your train, running around finding the right train, siding out, and spending long hours clunking around on junk. You can enjoy the views without actually doing it. Have fun. Be safe and enjoy life…try to be less critical, projecting negativity and judgment only shows the insecurities of yourself and we’ve all been there.
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!
Train Hopping Safety
Why You Should Not Hop Freight?
It’s Extremely Dangerous. I hear stories of kids losing limbs, or worse, dying. It can happen to anyone, look no further than Hobo Stobe. I don’t encourage anyone to hop freight. In fact, you should seriously stick to hitchhiking and the bus if you are new to travel anyway. This guide is only here for people who are looking to gain more knowledge on the subject of train hopping. It’s not really intended to teach you how to hop a freight train. There is far too much involved in learning that you can’t obtain from reading textbooks.
It’s Illegal. You hear about all the stories of people hopping trains, ending up places, but you never often hear much about what happens when they get caught. Sometimes you are searched, so if you have drugs on you, your charges will increase. They might give you a citation or court date. You could end up in jail. You could get pulled off in the middle of nowhere and left there…yes, this happens also.
Violent. The tracks can be a violent place, from the random strangers you meet by the rails to the parts of town you hoof it through to get to the hop out, you could get mugged, assaulted, or worse depending on gender, race and sexuality.
Ending up in the middle of no where. It’s possible to end up in areas you did not plan to stop, or hop the wrong train and put yourself in the mountains when you were trying to go to the desert. Often times the more experience you have, the less chance you have of this happening, but without a scanner and even not knowing specifically if they are dropping your car off, there is no way to know exactly where you will go.
Before Hitting the Steel – Guides on Railroad Safety
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 Riding the Rails Matt Derrick also wrote a nice outlined guide for basic guidelines to Freight Train Riding Safety…some of the images don’t work, but give it a read as well since knowledge is power, especially on the steel.
My Quick Safety Guidelines
- Always keep your head on a swivel whenever you are crossing the tracks or actively roaming around through the train yard. Trains can move at any time and just because they are stopped does not mean they aren’t working or breaking up and could move at any moment. Amtrak also flys through areas so it is always a good idea to pay attention to what you’re doing. The tracks aren’t a joke. If you treat it as such you will end up maimed or dead.
- Know your limits. If you can’t make split second decisions and catch on the fly safely identifying your rideable car, then don’t. Only catch out on stopped trains as it’s safest and only get off stopped trains too. If you can’t catch on the fly then what makes you think you can get off a moving train safely?
- Don’t catch on the fly in the rain and don’t catch anything faster than running speed. A good way to judge speed is by being able to count all three bolts on the wheel. If you can’t count them then it’s going to fast, but also it depends on your athleticism. If you can’t run alongside the ladder safely and grab onto the rungs, then it’s going too fast. This involves both speed, stamina and strength, don’t underestimate it and don’t overestimate your abilities.
- Always have three points of attachment when standing up on a porch or moving between freight cars in the yard to find your train. NEVER STEP ON OR BETWEEN THE COUPLERS (KNUCKLE) OF STOPPED OR MOVING TRAINS. This is the way to lose a foot or get crushed and smooshed by a train.
- Never go between Autoracks, walk around the train to get to your train.
- Don’t ride suicide or empty coal, there’s really no reason to, but if you must, make sure you do not fall asleep and always see where you’re at when stopped in a yard or siding to see if you can switch to a better freight car.
- If you ride a cab do not mess with the controls or hit the horn and leave it in the condition you found it.
- Do not ride the roof, but if you want to check it out, make sure the train is going very slow and creeping, and have three points of attachment at all times (this should be noted you should have much experience before doing this).
- Hide at crossings when you are riding through cities or if you can see cars waiting perpendicular to the tracks. These people will call you in along with most rail fans. So stay hidden through cities and you can be more in the open in the country.
- Don’t ride in packs of kids and with packs of dogs, it’s a good way to get caught, injured or die.
- RIDE SOBER. I cannot stress how important this is…
- Don’t hop between wells and porches on moving trains.
- Account for slack action when riding, especially on junk, because it could fling you off the train. Just use common sense and don’t treat train hopping as a joke or like a playground like a lot of these hipsters do on YouTube, Brave Dave, Stu the Jew…the list goes on…this is not an episode of Bear Grylls.
- Never go under a freight car for any reason.
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 or find paid housing/workaway situations. I only have about 90 trains or so. I am posting this guide for people who are interested in train hopping, 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 Riding the Rails!
It should be duly noted that this information should not be replaced with real experience. JUST BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS GUIDE DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD HOP A FREIGHT TRAIN. Instead, use it as a supplement. Go to a yard, scope it out, try to find someone to teach you and take you under their wing. Explain that you are green, and don’t know what the hell you’re doing. No one wants to hear that you have been riding for 7 years, 365 days a year without taking a shower, and you’ve ridden every line known to little baby fuckin’ jesus. They’ll see through your bullshit, and you’ll look like a dumb ass, some people refer to these types as “oogles,” call ’em whatever you like. Don’t be this person. Instead, be honest, be a good judge of character, and see if someone will show you the ropes. Understanding the train yard comes with experience and every yard is different. Even the big yards can be a bit tricky and you should always be out there learning, no one knows everything. If you have the thirst for a red-blooded adventure, the will to learn, you realize the dangers, and are careful, and smart about it, then you’ll be fine out there. Also, be aware that not everyone out there will tell you the right thing, sometimes, more often than not actually, people will fuck with you if you’re green. So don’t be gullible.
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 three 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.” I recommend purchasing a paperback copy of:
Train Hopping Books
DUFFY LITTLEJOHNS: HOPPING FREIGHT TRAINS IN AMERICA
THE ANARCHIST'S GUIDE TO TRAVEL
THE BLACK BOOK OF FREIGHT TRAIN RIDING BY LIMEY PETE
Hobos, Tramps, Migratory Workers, Trainriding, Wobblies – Courtesy of Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture – (over 600 entries) listing of books, magazine and newspaper articles, and other reports on historical and modern day train riding culture.
Train Hopping Downloads
Other reading material and digital maps that are 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
2016 FREE CAMPGROUND SITES - This is just a list of free camp sites where camping is legal. I have shared this because sometimes these places offer free showers and this can help you out on the road. These aren't by the tracks for the most part, but it's just another useful resource.
All these books are great resources for the beginner on your train hopping adventures 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. 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.
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 >>Waterproof Gloves >>Hat and/or Gator to cover your neck
- External Battery Pack to charge electronics ~ 20,000 MaH (optional)
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
The Train Yard
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 for. 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.
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 and 5.5 days in McAdam, NB when I got stuck in Canada. 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 or lifestyle 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.
Entertainment – Movies, Television, Apps & Games
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), and 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.
Here are a list of books to get you started with reading material for the road from authors like Aldous Huxley, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, Hunter S. Thompson, Douglas Adams, Jon Krakauer, Jack Keroauc, Jack London, George Orwell, William Golding, Henry David Thoreau, Boris Pasternak, W.H. Davies, James A. Michener, Jack Black, Michael Crichton and others. This compilation has roughly 100 books in .PDF, .MOBI and .EPUB form to get you started. I will be updating this frequently as I come across more. I have not read all of these, but look forward to in the future.
What Train Cars to Ride When Train Hopping
Rather than reinvent the wheel I will link to a few websites that have already covered this important information on rideable train cars with some short blurbs of my own on 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!”
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 stopped 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.
The boxcar is an ideal ride to keep you out of the rain. Often times, nowadays, doors are closed on empties making it a little harder to get into them, but don’t let this deter you from finding a ride. As long as it is not loaded and does not have a seal on the door, then you should be able to find your ride and open it up as you get more comfortable moving about the yard and staying hidden. On older boxcars where you cannot lock the door, it is important to stick a railroad spike in the door tract to keep the door from closing shut and locking you inside. Many hobos have died from this in the past so always keep this in mind because the crew might not check that car for weeks at a time since junk is low priority.
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, scrapped frag, etc…use common sense. It goes a long way. ALWAYS REMEMBER DO NOT FALL ASLEEP IF RIDING A LOADED GRAVEL OR SAND CAR, YOU COULD GET DUMPED IN INDUSTRY, SO TO STAY ON THE SAFE SIDE, STICK TO RIDING EMPTY GONDOLAS.
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.
GRAINERS are one of my favorite rides. I enjoy riding dirty face on them and having the wind hit my face, but most the time I ride clean face since it’s safer and you’re less likely to be seen by conductors, and people. The best way to spot a rideable grainer is to look for a leading edge along the freight car…if you see a leading edge then you know that it has a floor and this becomes crucial when catching on the fly because you can spot a rideable several cars down and get a running start. BNSF has a lot of suicide grainers…don’t ride them, there’s no reason to, where as Union Pacific (UP) has way more rideable grainers. The cool thing about grainers is you can stash your gear and yourself in the fox hole if you are small like myself to stay hidden from the bull spotlighting the train and to hide going through yards, cities and crossings. They also have high wall grainers where the whole grainer car extends to the roof of the hopper car. These give you more cover from rain, but they have less of a view. A note on grain trains though. Note: If you ever decide to ride a bunch of empties or full grainers you may end up in the middle of nowhere at a grain facility, whether it’s unit grain or not, so keep this in mind. Also, this is especially more common on the EAST coast. A lot of junk trains on the east coast are local and only go short distance…like we found out in mid-spring of 2017, we spent 5 days and only traveled like 40 miles because we were riding a train with a bunch of empty gondolas and empty grainers and went nowhere. So keep this in mind. You’ll travel further distances out west on unit grain, but nothing is certain. That’s the beauty of riding though, not knowing where you’re going to end up, that’s the adventure.
THE COAL CAR
I absolutely LOVE riding loaded coal. I don’t know why. Afterwards I’m covered in coal dust and look like I just came straight from the mine. People look at me crazy when I walk down the street covered in coal dust, dirty and it’s so hard to get out of my pores, but I love it. With that being said riding loaded anything is dangerous. Don’t do it if you don’t feel comfortable. Loaded coal cars, unit coal, is most likely going to industry so you could end up in the middle of nowhere. Do not fall asleep on loaded coal unless you know where you’re at because you could get DUMPED in industry which could possibly maim or kill you. With that said, loaded coal offers slow and spectacular views of the scenery around you and is loads safer than riding empty coal. DO NOT RIDE EMPTY COAL.
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.
Even after 80 or so trains I still have trouble identifying rideable well cars. Nowadays, the railroads have been cutting costs by making much of the well cars floorless to cut weight and diesel expenses, meaning it’s harder for us to find rides. Identifying well cars will come with experience and there is no sure way from my understanding and experience. I do know however that most ribbed 48′ and 53′ cars, the old cars, normally have rideables. If it stops at a siding or on the mainline just roam around and check each car to find your ride, then run out of the yard and wait for it to air up, catching it as it creeps or as it airs up on the main. This is normally what I do. Some well cars have only porches. Some have a porch where you can squeeze your pack and your body underneath the grate. Some well cars are deep buckets and spacious. Some have flat T-Well porches and are exposed to the world. And then a vast majority of them are suicide, with the holes in the middle or the angled steel bars that look like trusses. Things to know about riding on Intermodal Double Stacks (IM/DS)…these normally take priority over many other trains on the line…but that being said you should still carry plenty of water. I once sided out for 15 hours in Carrier, Oklahoma and had to hop on a passing train because I ran out of water and town was 9 miles away. Don’t assume anything. Mail trains, the juice train, etc. are fast hotshots, along with a few of the trains on the high line from Minneapolis to Seattle, Washington. That being said they normally check them more frequently for riders so stay hidden when you should be hidden. Also, when going through yards lay low. Do not jump around and try to stay hidden under the grate, both your body and your pack, to stay out of view from the eye in the sky. Sometimes there is nothing you can do and you get caught, but that comes with riding IM/DS.
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 80 trains and 18,000 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.
You can ride flat cars, and lumber racks if you so choose, but your chances of getting caught increase greatly while you’re out in the open. Trust me, I rode a flat car between two containers (COFC – Container on Flat Car) on a shorty IM in New Zealand and I’m really surprised no one noticed me at railroad crossings in broad daylight. With that in mind, you can ride on a TOFC (Trailer on Flat Car), specifically a piggyback or piggy for short, which is a semi-trailer on a flat car. You can ride on the spine or between the wheel well of the train, normally these are fast rides, especially if you catch the Z-train out of the Midway Yard in Minneapolis, MN.
You can ride loaded lumber racks stacked three high and hide in the small space between the spine or lay on top of the stack. I’ve ridden these on several occasions riding short Class II railroad lines in the northeast.
This is the unit. A lot of units nowadays are locked by the railroad companies. BNSF is known for locking about 90% of their units. There are ways to get into locked units if the nose and side door are locked, which you will figure out on your own as you train hop more frequently, but please note, there are cameras inside that record audio (not sure about video) and I believe they are starting to alarm units that are locked. Riding the unit is the cadillac of all riding, however, even with all the perks of a toilet, electrical outlet and fridge, the crew does daily inspections and check the unit randomly so be alert and vigilant…as if you get caught riding the unit you will most likely end up in jail.
Please don’t touch any fucking thing in here. Don’t touch anything! I emphasize this because time and time again I hear stories of dumb asses accidentally sounding the horn or touching controls they have no business touching. Don’t fuck with the train. If the cab light is on, leave it on, if it’s off leave it off. You can touch the A/C and such, but even still…if you are unsure about what something does then leave it the fuck alone.
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.
Avoid riding suicide if you don’t have to, sometimes riding the well cars with the circles cut out in the middle are ok, but please know what you’re getting yourself into. The well cars with the angled trusses that are suicide should always be avoided as you literally must stay awake for the whole ride because if you fall asleep you will most likely fall through to the tracks below and get torn to pieces. AVOID SUICIDE ALTOGETHER.
With that said, don’t catch IM/DS on the fly UNLESS YOU ARE CERTAIN IT ISN’T SUICIDE. The newer wells are more often than not suicide. It’s not worth dying out there, when you can wait on another train.
DESPITE THE PICTURES OF THE POLAROID KIDD, THERE’S NOTHING COOL ABOUT RIDING SUICIDE.
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. The North American Railroad Atlas is also available for download too if you want something more extensive to look at.
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.
The Crew Change Guide (CCG)
Rumor has spread around that the CCG is like the holy bible when it comes to freight hopping. Every greenhorn and inexperienced rider thinks it’s a sacred document that you MUST have in order to hop freight trains. If you think this, then you are incorrect and you should not consider riding. Why? I don’t want to see you get hurt. I’m not trying to sound arrogant and like I know it all, because I don’t, but I too once believed that this guide would teach me the ins and outs of riding. However, the truth is, it’s not accurate and should only be used as a tool to help you infiltrate the yard or find spots NOT TO CATCH OUT because they’ll be blown up with drainbow kids and oogles. The most important aspect of learning to ride freight trains is safety and patience, without these two skills you will not make it far in this sport. If you’ve read up on train safety, staked out a few yards and seen the operations, been able to determine the departure yard from the classification yard and learn where the main tracks are, then that is all you need to ride freight. This guide is just a tool to make it a little easier, but it’s far from perfect.
DO NOT POST HOP OUT INFORMATION OR THIS GUIDE ONLINE and DO NOT EMAIL ME FOR IT
Train Hopping Abroad
This section is dedicated to hopping freight trains abroad and will be categorized by region of countries I have traveled to and hopped in. It will give information on freight cars that are rideable as well as any pictures and journals of my travels abroad by freight train.