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Hobos and Hikers

When I was growing up, being a homeless hobo had a certain romantic appeal to it. Hobos are wandering itinerant workers who ride the rails in the United States, a tradition that got its start after the Civil War when men and women had to journey from their homes to find work. It continued unabated through the Great Depression, but has tapered off with the decline of the rail industry in the United States. Still, while there are less trains now and a lot fewer hobos, many of their traditions live on in the American imagination.

For example, Appalachian Trail nick-names have always struck me as being uncannily similar to hobo names,  and I don’t have any doubts about there being a connection there. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to meet a hiker with a hobo name like Cardboard or Harmonica Spike at an AT lean-to. There are also similarities between hobos and ultralight backpackers, especially when it comes to cooking or shelters and  improvising with the materials at hand.

While you might think it childish or romantic to maintain hobo traditions, I think that hobo ways are inextricably part of the hiker mystique in the United States. We admire people who wander with a purpose, whether it’s to find work or find ourselves on the trail.


  1. The stove is simplicity itself. Unlike the BSA, Scouts Canada has no restrictions on homemade stoves. I think my Scouts will love these. I love the piece on the Hobo Convention. As a graphic designer the little touch I really appreciate is the font used for their title "Riding The Rails" is called… Hobo!

  2. That’s one brave HOBO leaving the cap off his alcohol bottle whilst lighting his stove!!!

  3. I never thought about this but I think you're right. I recall trails names like Vermont Pete, Baltimore Jack, Vagabond, Rambling Man, and these all capture that hobo spirit.

  4. Unless you meet a real homeless "hobo" on the trail that has some sort of a chemical unblance. It kinda of looses the rommantic traveller aspect of them. It turned a 15 mile day into a 20+ day.

  5. I was called a hobo in PA. A group of what looked like 5th graders were preparing for a class day hike on the trail, and kept yelling "Hey, hobo". Figured it must have been the beard at the time, but found out later they said that to all the backpackers that day.

  6. I was amazed to find the CBS piece on hobos on youtube. Make sure to check out, as well, which describes the hobo museum mentioned in the video.

    Make yourself a hobo stove sometime. This is basically the supercat for anyone who's ever wanted to get into UL backpacking. It's amazing what you can make yourself if you want to save some money. I think MYOG is one of the philosophical themes of UL, but it's also interesting to note the historical influence of hobos on lightweight ingenuity.

  7. Thru hiking has made me do more double takes to people walking along roadsides and those hitching. We have always wanted to reciprocate some of the hitches we've received but have not had the opportunity yet.

  8. I found a book on the internet once that described the hobo life during the Depression. These were men who left their families to find work, not homeless in the sense we think of today, more like migrant workers.

    They had an informal code and language; including trail markings that would point to the nearest water source, etc.

    Will try to find it and post.

    I have also read about people [in England?] who illegally ride the rails as a hobby.

  9. That was easy. My Google kung fu is strong today.

  10. And the hits just keep coming…


  11. In the late 1800’s there was a guy who made a circuit between NY and CT on a very regular schedule and was giving the nickname of “Leather Man” as he wore leather paints, shirts, and coat. One of his stopping places was a shallow cave on some property that a friend of mine used to own.

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