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    The Road

January 8, 2006

Guerrilla Camping 101.12 – Railroad Tracks

Draft originally posted at The Guerrilla News Network. Included here with GNN commentary courtesy of the GNN Archive.

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Here is a bit more in depth stuff regarding my travelling without driving blog, this time focusing on walking railroad lines.

Guerrilla Camping 101.14 Track Walking

Railroad tracks are frequently the best bet for the long distance pedestrian. Their right of ways cut wide swaths through the country ranging from the largest metropolis to the smallest rural community, often taking you through forgotten boomtowns and pristine woodland in the process. At their side you will frequently find perfectly leveled and secluded meadows ripe for stealth camping and every corner presets you with both natural and human history as you pass by the remnants of repair and driving camps and through tunnels carved clean through our geological past.

The best tracks are the converted commercial lines that have been adapted for tourism. The trains generally only run only on weekends and holidays so you don’t have frequent or unpredictable traffic to worry about , but the rails are still guarantied to be preserved and sturdy. You don’t have to worry about washouts or decrepit bridges and since the lines cater to tourists they often run through some prime sightseeing territory. Unfortunately, these lines are few and far between given the high cost of maintaining railroads and low returns for tourist routes.

The rise and fall of the American railroad industry was a pedestrian dream, buiding thirty foot wide trails across the country and now leaving them untouched by the iron behemoths that once spewed coal smoke acrous the country from their steel lanes. In many places, the interstate system arose linking the same cities as the rail systems, so defunct rail lines are seldom more than a few dozen miles from the interstates and thus have frequent connections to large towns where one can fund supplies or work.

There are a number of perils to these rail trails, the most obvious being their state of decay. A washed out bridge in the middle of rural wetlands can easily take half a day to circumnavigate and in some places along the Pacific Northwest line the remoteness of the tracks can mean a two day detour to hike out of a valley where landslides and washouts have made the trail impassable without climbing gear and a solid belay person.


Before setting out on a rail trip, be prepared. The most important aspect of planning should be a careful examination of the tracks, both on USGS topographic maps and with aerial photos. The best tool I have found for researching rail lines in the US is a program called USA Photo Maps. For the rest of the world, Google Earth will have to suffice.

There are a few important things to know when planning a rail route using USGS topo maps. The first, and most obvious, is how to identify rail road tracks on the map. They are indicated by an unbroken line intersected with perpendicular dashes. You can also identify other features about the trail from the maps. Areas where the tracks are built up on an embankment are indicated by a second series of hash marks on either side of the rails. Bridges are not indicated in most cases, and can be assumed where the rails cross bodies of water. If you see the rail line interrupted where it crosses a steam or river, it means that the bridge is unsafe for rail crossings, but frequently these are still passable on foot. ALWAYS try to check aerial photos to determine the existence of bridges. Tunnels on a map are also not always shown, but the more lengthy ones are. These are indicated by two rows of dashed lines intersecting the hill they pass through.

Unfortunately, since most maps are not created for the rail traveler in mind, you will not be able to judge distance by features on the tracks; where the map shows two tunnels, you my encounter seven. A “creek” your passing over might be a leech stream for a nearby farm, and for every bridge you see on the map, you’ll pass seven. Your best bet it to rely on the topo features around you where possible, using hills, water towers, power lines and other geographic features to mark your progress. You don’t need to worry about getting lost, since the tracks are obvious even when buried, but realizing you are twelve miles south of where you believed and have an extra day to get to town can be disheartening or even embarrassing if you pride yourself on your map reading ability like I do.

When looking at satellite or aerial photos to determine the condition of the route, don’t worry if you loose the tracks under trees; wooded areas are only prone to washouts which are easy to get around. However pay careful attention for areas where the tracks cross or border waterways. Especially large commercial waterways. If you plan on traveling an abandoned track and see boats floating along a canal you expect to cross in the aerial photos, pay extra attention to alternate routes; it suggests draw bridges and turnstiles which are most likely inoperable.

Alternate routes in this case can be just as difficult to identify, since there is seldom any notation on maps to indicate if a bridge that is passable by car is passable on foot. This situation happened to us on our route through Petaluma. Right on the Sonoma county border we encountered a bridge that had been washed out by a river of agricultural runoff, leaving only two thin rails crossing a forty foot expanse of rushing green water. We were surrounded on all sides by sloppy wetlands just down hill from a commercial dairy, indicating unhealthy consequences should we land in the muck. Instead of trying to shimmy across the rails, we opted to backtrack and cross the meadows through the dairy. We fortunately made friends with the dairy owner who drove us past the break in the line as well as an extra two or three miles to pass a permanently open turnstile right on the inside of city limits. He pointed it out as we passed letting us know that he hadn’t seen it closed in easily five years, dropping us off a minute or two later at an auction yard. If the farmer had been less hospitable and told us to turn around we would have had a three or four mile walk back to the nearest cross road, and had he let us keep walking we would have faced the same distance walking on the shoulder of the 101 freeway. Neither option seemed good and we were particularly grateful for his assistance.

In the town where our first farm was located, the Pacific Northwest line featured a train station with a cheerful sign proclaiming the start of the Skunk Train, an interesting name given our location in the middle of Mendocino county; California’s marijuana growing region. The Skunk Train ran on the same rails as the old Pacific Northwest line, which assured us that the bridges ahead would be maintained or at least serviceable and thus passable.


Camping by the rails is often idyllic and solitary; so long as you are able to avoid camping near urban areas or places with large numbers of migrant workers. Since the rails are owned by the train company that placed them, abandoned rails fall into a legal limbo I jokingly refer to as the SEP region; Somebody Else’s Problem. Since the land is private, police will seldom bother you without a complaint being made. Because most people, even those whose property lies directly on or crossing over the rails do not know the legal status of their right-of-ways, they will seldom complain.

The best bet for rail side camping seems to be the flat spans where the original rail camps were located. In California, these are places where thousands of Chinese immigrants lived in bunk tents while constructing the railroads. Now they are soft, flat meadows, awash in wildflowers in the spring and unlikely to flood during storms. The only key to their historical past is their unnaturally level plane and occasional stacks of rotting ties or piles of rusting spikes.

In less secluded places these camps have long since gone to private ownership, now vineyards, pasture or the site of a farmer’s shack sitting securely behind a fence. In this case, you will still often find small meadows flattened where the rail road builders had to incite slides to secure their tracks, creating artificial mesas ranging from a few square feet to immense clearings the size of football fields.

When passing through wide valleys, you will often find that the track beds are raised, usually on piles of quarried rock. During any rainy season, the sides of these tracks will be soaked puddles, catching much of the field runoff as well as the run off from the tracks. In rare cases, you will be unable to get clear of the valley before it is time to make camp, so you will need to leave the rails to find a suitable place to camp. In this situation, the later you set up camp is better, since you will often be forced to camp on priate property. If possible; get permission. Usually, though, I’ve found that many larger agricultural areas are managed by land management crews who are unable or unwilling to grant permission. Your best bet if you do not see a nearby farmhouse at which to ask permission, is to camp late and wake early, usually the caretakers do their rounds between 9am and 6pm, leaving you enough time to set up camp and get a good nights sleep.

In the event that you are traveling by functioning rails, always try to camp as far from the rail as possible, both to save your hearing and your gear. Although newer diesel engines do not spew the sparks and embers of old coal driven steam engines, sparks are still frequently thrown. While these sparks may not be enough to start a fire, if they should land on your nice sil-nylon tent, they will burn through quickly.

Who you’ll encounter:

As various people heard that we were traveling along the tracks, they all seemed to have their own opinion of what sorts of dangerous people we might encounter. A woman at restaurant warned us to watch out for migrants who would rob us, a café owner told us to watch out for homeless (which we laughed at because technically, that was us) and a young stoner warned us about meth addicts.

Truth be told, you will encounter very few people along the rails, and if my experience holds true, they will all be friendly. Our drunkest encounter was with a guy who we called aqua man, who was stumbling down the tracks, nearly unable to talk. As he got to us, he help up a three gallon water jug, almost loosing his balance in the process and muttered “aqua?” before swerving wildly down the tracks in his knee high brown rain boots. We also met a pot farmer who gave us a ride into to town on his ATV then met us on the way out of town to hang out and talk for nearly two hours.

We have again been warned as we head further north that we will be entering marijuana country at the peak of harvest and we will encounter a bunch of stressed out farmers and caretakers with guns. I’m not worried to much, if they are as dangerous as the others that people warned us about, they’ll probably try to hire us.

4 years ago


nice to see you stopping by

4 years ago


I agree. Nice to read a new entry, BP.


– Ø®£Z –

4 years ago


I was wondering when you were gonna start this up again…

4 years ago


ive had some fun walking around the railroad tracks here in michigan. just day treks. But fun, seeing different rivers, no people, and lots of interesting animals and animal parts along the tracks.. nice meadows and property too.

sounds amazing out west..

4 years ago



do not let your guard down, but i agree with your assesment of the general friendliness of people found while walking in nor cal.

4 years ago


Thanks everybody, I’ll be trying to get one or two more up before I leave here. After this, the computer gets shiped down south and I’ll be incommunicado until october…

4 years ago


Thanks everybody, I’ll be trying to get one or two more up before I leave here. After this, the computer gets shiped down south and I’ll be incommunicado until october…