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Hitchhiking America: Hopping A Freight Train (Part 2)

Hopping a Freight Train

Hitchhiking America: Hopping a Freight Train

Oregon, USA

Initially I was planning to head East, but wound up hopping a freight train out of Portland that took me North instead. This is how it all went down…

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START HERE: Hitchhiking Across America

Day 5 of my cross-country hitchhiking journey across America begins with me tracking down hobos in Portland to learn how to hop freight trains. There’s just something magical about the thought of riding a train through the countryside.

Traveling the rails as many did during the Great Depression. Escaping 20th-century traffic congestion and advertising on the highways to watch the scenery roll past on a set of train tracks. Smelling wildflowers in the fresh mountain air.

Yet a small community of modern rail riders still exists even today.

So I read books, asked questions in obscure online forums, and spoke to a few freight riders in person. Attempting to prepare myself as best I could to prevent getting injured or arrested. Because riding freight trains is pretty dangerous and definitely illegal.

Train Hopping Portland

The Refrigerated Boxcar I Jumped Into

Riding Trains Isn’t Easy

The first obstacle is locating where you can even catch a train. They slow down or stop at specific places: inside rail-yards for loading & unloading, at “sidings” (where one train will stop to let another pass), and crew-change points.

Then you have to determine what direction the train is even going. It could look like it’s pointed East, when in reality it may turn South a few miles later.

Next, you need to search for a rideable car. There are a few different types, but some can be downright deadly to ride in if you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact just maneuvering around a stopped or slow-moving freight train can be extremely dangerous.

Of course, avoiding getting caught is also a priority. The rail police (aka “Bulls”) are constantly on the hunt for illegal train riders. This will result in a ticket or even a few nights in jail depending on the location.

Other rail-riders can be a threat too. Drug addicts or criminals may be riding the same trains as you. There is a lot to think about!

Riding a Freight Train

Ride #6: BNSF Railroad! (they just don’t know it)

Ride #6: BNSF Railroad

My initial goal was to hop a freight heading East out of Portland. But it took me 3 nights and over 18 hours of waiting on the side of the tracks to catch one — and when I did, it was headed in the wrong direction!

On the 3rd night of attempting to “catch out”, I found some thick bushes and made myself comfortable as the sun began to set. Stuffing my face full of tasty ripe blackberries that grow wild along the tracks. A few trains came by, but they were moving too fast.

It was around midnight (4 hours later) when an opportunity presented itself. A “junk” train began pulling out of the rail yard next-door and onto the mainline where I was waiting.

Junk Trains pull cars with less valuable cargo. Grain. Oil. Coal. Lumber. Steel. Fruit. Etc. They cruise the tracks at 40 mph or slower.

Hot Shots are loaded with shipping containers full of valuable merchandise. Cars. Electronics. Designer clothing. Each container can easily be packed with over $500,000 of stuff. These fly by at 70 mph.

As my junk train rounded a corner onto the main track, it was only traveling at about 5 mph. Perfect.

I spotted a few rideable cars too. So after rushing up the embankment I began running alongside a refrigerated boxcar (aka “reefer”) covered in graffiti. It was closed, but there’s a small cubby-hole area in the back that houses the refrigeration unit. I grabbed the ladder, jumped up, and squeezed inside with my pack. Success!

Freight Train Riding

Officially a Train Riding Hobo

Whoops! I’m Going North…

After a few miles the train picked up speed and I made myself as comfortable as possible. The landscape passed by under the glow of a full moon. But my car was very loud. Not only from the grinding steel sound on the tracks, but the refrigeration unit kicked on and off every 30 minutes — so it wasn’t very peaceful until I threw in some headphones and turned on Bob Dylan.

When I eventually checked the GPS location on my phone, I discovered we were headed North instead of East. Whoops! No big deal. I knew there was a chance of that happening.

Because we were headed North, I assumed the train was traveling to Seattle. But after a 3-hour ride, we pulled into a brightly-lit rail yard and stopped.

I was forced to throw a brown tarp over myself & my pack to hide from the yard-workers walking by. After an hour of no movement, I realized that we were not just waiting for a faster train to pass, but this was the last stop.

My fear was confirmed when I peaked out to discover the two engines up front were no longer attached…

Running From The Bull

Packing my gear I soon left the safety of the boxcar to search for another train in the yard that would be heading North as the sun began to rise.

But after looking for a while, I made the mistake of climbing out into the open in front of a rail cop’s white pickup-truck about 100 yards away. Shit!

He hit the accelerator and drove right at me. To avoid getting caught, I scrambled back over the train and ran towards him with a mile-long string of cars between us.

Unless he left his truck and chased on foot, there’s no way he’d find me in this maze of trains.

With my adrenalin pumping despite a lack of sleep the night before, I escaped from the yard as quickly as possible and made my way to the roadside.

Covered in train grease and looking like a proper bum, no one would pick me up. So I was forced to walk 4 miles into the town of Kelso, WA.

Once there I splurged on a Motel 6 bed, hot shower, laundromat, and a fat tub of Ben & Jerry’s. My very brief train riding career was now over. ★

[su_note note_color=”#F5DCDC” text_color=”#333333″ radius=”3″ class=””]WARNING: Riding freight trains is very dangerous & illegal. So unfortunately I will not be sharing a detailed “how-to” guide about it. I’m not a professional train hopper, and don’t want to encourage others to try without researching the risks for themselves. The risks are high. I claim no responsibility for your arrest, dismemberment, or death.[/su_note]

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Route: Portland, OR to Kelso, WA | Distance: 48 Miles[/su_note]

Have you ever been hitchhiking before? Have any questions about it? Let me know in the comments below!

Gary Smith

Friday 31st of July 2020

I enjoyed reading your story, have tell you though riding the rails is not like it was in the 40' and 50's. Most people you encounter riding trains are wanted, violent felons. These are not people who didn't pay thier parking tickets. Many would think nothing of throwing you off the train at any speed and relieve you of your possessions. Just food for thought


Tuesday 3rd of December 2019

BNSF does NOT have "RR police (or agents as their called) in white vehicles". They ride in all "black" Chevy Suburbans. A white vehicle is a train master (doubtful), utility (probable), car man (possible). None are going to chase you. They'll simply report you to someone who will contact an agent. Nothing more. By the time an agent arrives, you'll be in another state.


Tuesday 15th of January 2019

As train hopper for 25 years, no old so retired from rails. My advice is don 't catch out unleds you have a mentor. YOU WILL GET YOURSELF KILLED OR HURT BAD EVENTUALLY! When I say mentor, I mean a old hobo train tram ,not these dirty kids or greenhorns. They may get you killed o r rob and murder you. You don 't know shit and it takes knowledge to safely catch out & ride. Don't be a dumbass.. Don't make the cops go to your family and tell them you're dead! NEVER CATCH OUT OR RIDE DRUNK! IVE PERSONALLY SEEN SOMEONE FALL UNDER THE WHEELS. IT'S A GRISLY SIGHT OF BODY PARTS!

Mac Kendall

Saturday 20th of January 2018

Hello my name is Mac and I am almost 18 years old and I plan to hitchhike from Northern California up into Washington and Oregon down to southern Cali. I need a lot of advice. I already bought most of the gear you suggested but is there any advice I need? Safety precautions? Trails or roads you suggest?


Tuesday 15th of January 2019

Bring a pocket knife for protection! Don't keep all your money in one place on you in case your robbed. Never go off highway with a stranger. Don 't take lodging from strangers! Make eye contact with peope going by! no sun glasses while hitching ,eye contact Always ask where going. Dont go some podunk town or rural road that you have stand behind sign on on ramp that has no traffic on it! Go mid size ciry to mid size city. For above reason. bring half gallon milk jug of water to drink and hobo bath. Their is to much to write........ One last important one - if driver looks sketchy, say no thanks. trust your gut always. And stay off freight trains, no place for novice green horns. It will get you killed..

Lee Livingston

Wednesday 20th of December 2017

Wow! Love this! I went hitchhiking with my best friend Dango in the 60's so I can relate to many of your "adventures". We actually were caught by the "Bulls" in Clovis, Mew Mexico!!! Here is an except of my memoir, which I published on Amazon: " "In the dim light and when the beam of the large flashlight was not directly in my eyes, I could make out two men coming toward us. The one who seemed to be in charge was holding the flashlight and wore some kind of khaki uniform with a wide-brimmed, highway patrol hat. The other man was smaller and held tightly to the leash of large, vicious-looking Rottweiler. I knew immediately that we were looking at a Santa Fe Bull. I also knew immediately, how they got the name “Bull.” The guy in the uniform was the stereotype of the stereotypical Southern sheriff. He was 5’10 inches tall and built like a fireplug. I never saw under the hat, but you just knew he had a crew cut or shaved his head. He was a dead-ringer for Sheriff Bull Conner of Birmingham, Alabama, who would become infamous during the civil rights marches in 1963. He looked just like Rod Steiger in the Oscar winning movie, In the Heat of the Night. He was built like a bull, acted like a bull and, if bulls could talk, talked like a bull. “What are you doing here?” he shouted in our faces. I was scared to silence. All I could do was stare at the badge on his khaki shirt – “Santa Fe RR Police.” Somehow Dango responded, “Looking for a place to stay, sir.” “What?” he barked. “You’re trespassing on private property. This is a Santa Fe Railroad yard. How’d you get here?” “I don’t know, sir,” Dango went on, winging it. “We’ve been hitchhiking and were asleep and this fellow just dropped us off.” God, you had to admire Dango for that. What fast thinking under duress. Don’t admit to having been on a train, let them prove it. “He’s right, sir,” I said, picking up the ball. “We’re hitching all the way to Ohio. This is Amarillo, isn’t it?” I N T H E R E A R V I E W M I R R O R | 6 5 The guy holding tight to the dog laughed. The “bull” gave him a look that could kill and then turned his disgust back to us. “You are two of the dumbest deadbeats, I’ve ever seen. You just got off that freight that just pulled in, didn’t you?” “No sir,” we both said at the same time. “We’re looking for a place to stay,” Dango continued, gesturing to our bags. “How old are you?” “Eighteen, sir.” “Get the fuck out of here now,” he growled. “Before I let this dog eat you.” “Yes sir,” we said, picking up our bags as fast as we could and heading toward the opening in the fence. “And,” he shouted after us. “Welcome to Clovis, New Mexico, you dumb shits.” "

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