Top 10 tips from The Hobo Handbook

-Leave your dog at home: You may dream of a road trip with your dog akin to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America, but for those traveling without a vehicle, a dog will become a burden. A dog is one more thing you have to get safely on and off a moving train and one more thing that will give you away when hiding from the authorities. While it may not be cruel for you to voluntarily miss a few meals, it is abuse to subject a dog to some of the conditions you will face.

-Hitching a train: A large portion of the book is dedicated to navigating the rail yards and safely hopping a train headed your way. Mostly though, the handbook just explains all the things that can go wrong: you hop the wrong train and get stuck going several hundred miles in the wrong direction, you get locked in a boxcar, you get crushed by shifting cargo, you get stuck hanging onto the train in a precarious position for seven hours while you are assaulted by the elements...

-Develop a skill: Hobos distinguish themselves from bums by their willingness to work. With the agriculture industry needing fewer migrant laborers each year, having a marketable skill will give you a leg up when searching for a job and a place to sleep.

-You are not walking into a wasteland: Living as a hobo means cutting your possessions down to the essentials. Even a few pounds can make all the difference when you are forced to carry everything you own on your back. Remember that you can buy most anything you really need in any town along your route. You do not need to stock up with two packs of toothpaste on an industrial sized can of shaving cream. If you are starting out in the summer, wait until late fall to buy winter clothes on the road. Assume that everything you take will be ruined or lost.

-Be a bike hobo: The U.S. Bicycle Route System is an expanding network of official routes linking cities via shared roadways and trails. As a general rule you can bike on any road that is not an interstate. The benefits of biking are the exercise, you can potentially carry more gear in your saddlebags, and you will have a better idea of when you will arrive at your destinations. However, biking is not without its challenges. You must carry tools to deal with whatever mechanical issues occur. You have to be more cautious about leaving your unsecured gear on your bike when you pop into a restaurant or go for a swim. And while you may not get a ticket for trying to illegally ride a train, it will probably take you more time to cover large distances.

-Share rides: Ridesharing is like hitchhiking on the information super highway. Increasingly the Internet houses forums where thrifty travelers can connect to split gas money or even to hitch a free ride while helping someone move. There are forums where people post their destinations and the terms of their ride sharing agreement. Search for likeminded travelers headed your way on websites like Craigslist, Digihitch, and SquatthePlanet.

-Don’t forage: Unless you are an expert at living off the land, you can easily end up like the protagonist of Into the Wild, Chris McCandless, who died of starvation after he mistook an edible plant for a toxic one that made it impossible for him to digest food. Many of these identification errors will leave you feeling worse and weaker than hunger itself. Beyond that, you will probably waste more energy foraging for nuts and berries than you will gain from eating the little you find. This is not to say that you should pass up some obvious meals you stumble by on the road, like pecans, a few ears of corn from an overgrown field, sunflower seeds, or even apples. Just don't count on living off the land. Hunting probably will not work either, as drifters with guns who hunt on private property out of season are not treated kindly by the authorities. With that said, the book does provide a few surprising examples of road recipes like pine needle tea and dandelion salad.

-Dealing with a vagrancy arrest: Assuming you don’t want to wait around a month or more in the place you were ticketed for your court date, and assuming your only crime is vagrancy, you may want to plead "no contest" at your arraignment and receive your ticket and/or minimal jail time. If you plead "not guilty" you will have to return to court in a month or more, or flee and hope the warrant never catches up with you. Or the judge may decide you are a flight risk and give you an excessively large bail. This will either force you to wait in jail or put you at the mercy of a bail bondsman. If you do make it to court you can get off if the officer does not show up. Otherwise, it is your word against a police officer's, which means you will lose.

-Glad rags: No matter how many times you wash your road clothes and shoes they will take on the unmistakable musk of transience. While this odor may be fine for hopping trains, it will not do when interacting with people who do not have as liberated an understanding of personal hygiene as you. When you hit town, wash up and switch to your glad rags. These will make you more presentable when you sit down next to a cute hippy woman at a coffee shop and when you ask around for work.

-Being a hobo is not pretty: When you choose to live outside of society, you give up the protection of society. Sleeping and eating will no longer be passive events. They will take work. Traveling will turn into an endurance race. You will have to wait, sometimes as much as a few days, for the right train heading your way. Sitting in the woods eating Power Bars and rereading a dog-eared book while stewing in your own stench may not be what you envisioned when dreaming of setting out on a grand adventure, but waiting is most definitely part of being a hobo, as is extreme hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, and filthiness. The point is, be prepared.

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  • Jack Kerouac glamorized the life of an American hobo

There are plenty of guidebooks for how to “adventure” into national parks or how to backpack around Europe while spending only a minor fortune, but few books provide tips for surviving in the American jungle. Josh Mack's The Hobo Handbook teaches you how to thrive with a pack, your wits, and an eccentric sense of absolute freedom in the concrete wilderness and along the railways crossing the industrial landscape like America's iron arteries. In many ways this book strips away all the glamour that Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Walt Whitman ascribed to the open road. Living free is an art that demands a Buddhist monk's patience and a soldier's ability to endure extreme conditions. In addition to the basics, like investing in synthetic clothes that will dry faster, the book covers some of the finer points of hoboing, like how to give yourself stitches and how to waterproof a match with candle wax. Below are the top ten tips from The Hobo Handbook on how to survive as a modern vagabond searching for a double-edged kind of freedom.

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