Become a Hobo

Historically, many people have been forced into becoming hobos because of circumstances where jobs are so scarce that they have no choice but to travel from place to place in search of work. There are many theories of the origin of the word hobo (see Wikipedia's entry, listed in the Sources and Citations), ranging from a contraction of the words "Hoe Boys" to one from the words "Homeward Bound". In any case, the American Heritage Dictionary defines a hobo as "one who wanders from place to place without a permanent home or a means of livelihood." But the dawn of the Internet and increased dissatisfaction with the 9-to-5 routine have led more and more people to wonder if earning a living while on the road is a viable alternative to the daily grind. If you're thinking about becoming an opportunistic and resourceful transient worker, keeping your costs low, your responsibilities simple, and your freedom intact, here are the questions you'll need to ask yourself—and the preparations you'll need to make.


  1. Remember the differences between hobos, tramps, and bums: hobos are people who travel and look for work, tramps are people who travel and don't look for work, bums are people who neither travel nor look for work.
  2. Farm hand - If you've ever thought about being a farmhand, there are places all over the world that offer housing, food, a stipend, and experience in exchange for getting your hands dirty. You can time your travels to follow harvest seasons around the country or even around the globe.
  3. Take stock of your skills and experience. Historically, hobos have made their living from manual labor, but that doesn't always have to be the case. Any skill that is in wide demand and does not require an extended time commitment can be useful to a hobo. As long as you can advertise your services and earn people's trust (ideally through references), you can do anything. Some pursuits that lend themselves to this lifestyle are:
    • Landscaping and construction - Many migrant workers who cross international borders find work in this area, as it is the least demanding in terms of language barriers. Having experience is essential, however, as you'd be required to work with potentially dangerous equipment and machinery.
    • Farm hand - If you've ever thought about becoming a farmer, there are internships all over the world that offer housing, food, a stipend, and experience, in exchange for getting your hands dirty. You can follow harvest seasons around the country or around the globe. Progressive farms tend to provide better circumstances.
    • Fishing - Serve as a deckhand, cook, or fisherman as you travel the high seas.
    • Any web-based service such as writing, editing or programming.
  4. Establish Plan B. This is a serious, life-altering decision. Don't abandon everything suddenly and disappear. You need something to come back to if your life on the road doesn't work out. Make sure all your Repay Your Debts and responsibilities are handled before departure. If possible, have some savings set aside before you go, that you can access while you're on the road, if need be. Emergencies happen, and they cost money.
  5. Be prepared. You may like the romantic idea of leaving with nothing but the clothes on your back and whatever is in your wallet, but that is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. You must assume that you will be sleeping, cooking, traveling, and essentially living outdoors, unless you decide to drive a car.
    • How will you get from place to place? Hobos are often associated with train-hopping, because this is what many hobos during the Great Depression did. A car can double as transportation and sleeping quarters, but keep in mind that gas is expensive, and upkeep on a vehicle is a major expense and if the expense bothers you, hitch-hiking is a good option since it's free. Some hobos prefer bicycles, but this will limit your range (to warm weather regions) and limit how much you can carry. A motorcycle can get you where you're going faster, but has maintenance requirements similar to those of a car, though not to the same degree. Buses are also an option: Greyhound, in the US at least, offers steep discounts when you purchase tickets a week in advance, and even more for still earlier purchases. Buy tickets at the station for the best deals; web purchases have an extra $3 or $4 tagged on whether the tickets are mailed or "on call".
    • Where will you sleep? Unless the place you work can offer housing, you will have to sleep in your car (if you have one), urban camp, squat in an abandoned building, or Find a Cheap Motel or Hostel. Another option is using the Communities Directory online to find urban co-ops, land trusts, and other alternative housing arrangements, which often welcome guests. See Yet another option is a traveler's network such as or, which offer free lodging to those who intend to contribute (in kind, or in other ways). Consider the costs and dangers associated with each.
    • Where will you take showers? Some campsites have showers, but many don't, so you may consider purchasing portable shower equipment. You can also obtain a membership to a national gym chain and use the showers there (provided you actually work out and maintain your appearance).
    • How will you defend yourself? A nomadic lifestyle can be a dangerous one because you're constantly putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, and you're probably alone—both of which can make you a target for theft and assault. You'll need to outline some precautions you can take, such as always letting people know where you are, carrying a cell phone - and only going places where there's a reliable signal, having an alert system or weapon on you, etc. In addition, always know where you are so when you call for help you will be able to give them a location.
  6. Make a list of connections. Look at maps of the areas in which you'll be traveling, and determine whether or not there's anyone you know, directly or indirectly, who lives there. Ask your Aunt Sally if your great uncle Billy still lives in that Stay Warm When Sleeping in a Cabin in the woods. Ask your friend if his cousin still works at the car dealership in Move Into a New LDS Ward. Most important of all, ask them if it's okay if you can get in touch with those people in case of an emergency. Some people might offer to make arrangements so that you can actually visit, which is always nice. (Just be a good house guest!)
  7. Make an itinerary based on the type of work you plan to do, the connections you have in place, and the places you'd like to see. Do as much research as you can beforehand. Make a list of places you can stay, eat, shower, camp, etc. It's also wise to look up churches and shelters and any other services that are offered to the homeless. The more prepared you are, the more you'll enjoy your travels.
  8. Learn the hobo code. Historically hobos relied on a shared system of symbols that let fellow travelers know more about their current environment.The symbols can vary from place to place and may no longer be used in many areas. Here are some symbols to get you started:
    • spearhead - defend yourself
    • circle with two parallel arrows - get out fast, hobos not welcome
    • wavy line (signifying water) above an X - fresh water and a campsite nearby
    • three diagonal lines - not a safe place.
    • cross - "angel food," (food served to hobos after a party)
  9. Hit the road! Leave your roots behind. Find a place to live and work from day to day. See the sights of each new place you visit. Make interesting friends (you never know when they might lend a helping hand). Life on the road means that every moment is your own. With no schedule and no responsibilities (except keeping yourself healthy), you must decide how to best use your time to achieve a balance between work, travel, relaxation, and entertainment. Enjoy the variety that each day has to're earning it.
  10. Don't hesitate to dumpster dive. You wouldn't believe the amount of free undamaged food that is thrown away all the time. For the best results check behind smaller grocery stores and fruit markets, as they usually don't invest money in a sealed garbage compactor (although these can sometimes be opened as well)—just be careful. Fast food chains are also usually good, but more traditional restaurants generally don't waste nearly as much food—although if you are really hungry you can usually find at least something there.


  • Remember that, as a hobo, you enjoy traveling and are willing to work, unlike a bum or a tramp who also travels but will not work, and lives by begging for money or for food.
  • Remember the Hobo Symbols. You can find them on the internet but here's a few:
    • Bird Means free telephone
    • Cat means a kind lady
    • A Circle with an arrow pointing means go that direction
    • Top hat means a gentleman lives there
    • There's a lot more. These are just a few.
  • Read some books on the topic:
    • "You Can't Win" by Jack Black, an insightful look on life on the road by a man who made it his career.
    • "Down And Out In Paris And London" by George Orwell. It is a non- fictional account of living in poverty and hand to mouth.
    • Steal This Book or the wiki it inspired,, for specific advice.
  • If possible, attend the annual National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa during the month of August and join in the festivities. Have some mulligan stew and share stories around a campfire. There are many other hobos who enjoy living a free life, not having obligations, and just traveling from place to place, enjoying their style of life.
  • If your mind can't accept this lifestyle neither can your body. If you have enough self reliance to know you can handle anything life gives you you will succeed being a hobo, or anything else for that matter.
  • Bring a camera, preferably a digital one with large memory, and/or keep a journal. You'll always like to remember your travels while you're on the road.
  • Look for temporary labor agencies in major cities. Most of these agencies will pay you daily, or have a daily draft. Even if you don't get hired, there's usually free coffee. Show up early, and look decent. Home Depot parking lots are also great places to find daily work, as they attract the same contractors that look to hire from Manpower & Laborworks.
  • Read the books, "Hobo," by Eddy Joe Cotton for a modern hobo cautionary tale and "Rough Living: An Urban Survival Manual" by Chris Damitio. Both books offer tips for the road, ideas about how to find food and shelter, and useful lists of hobo lore, definitions, and things to avoid. For more practical information, try Duffy Littlejohn's "Hopping Freight Trains in America".
  • Don't spend all your money on booze. Many drunk hobos had been killed by a train. Remember to be safe!


  • Don't trust everyone.
  • Respect the law unless you are willing to spend some jail time and risk getting a criminal record.
  • If anyone says something about you, just ignore it. If things get serious, run away or call for help. Never fight back especially if it's a group.
  • Do not neglect everything you have, or you will be left with nothing.
  • Investigate the workers' compensation laws in the areas where you will be traveling. If you should be injured on the job, it's important that you know what protection is offered, and what action you can take to ensure your protection.

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Sources and Citations