Every hobby has specific tools that can help make life easier on the hobbyist. Railfanning is no exception. Although you could easily enjoy a day by the tracks without anything more than your unaided eyes and ears, we have found several of the following items helpful when hunting trains.
Portable radio scanner: This indispensable gadget will set you back less than $200 (perhaps as little at $50) and allow you to listen in on the conversations that take place between train crews and dispatchers. Besides adding insight into the world of railroading and being occasionally entertaining, these conversations will often provide you with clues as to a train's location and status (on the move or waiting in a siding).
You don't need a scanner with all the bells and whistles, although try to get one with more channels than you think you'll need. Many of the large Class 1 railroads use a dozen or more frequencies, particularly around yards. Maintenance of Way crews will often talk on frequencies other than those used by the dispatcher, so if you want to hear as much of the action as you can you'll need a lot of available channels.
Uniden and Radio Shack both make decent general purpose scanners that can be purchased at a variety of retail stores and over the Internet. We purchased a Uniden Bearcat BC80XLT with 50 channels new for around $112. It has served us well.
SLR camera: A Single Lens Reflex camera with interchangeable lenses and filters is almost a necessity for anyone interested in serious railroad photography. Prices vary tremendously, but you should be able to pick up a decent outfit for between $300 and $600. You'll want at least a 35-80mm zoom lens for wide angle shots, and 200mm or larger for closeups. If you intend to shoot trains in mountainous regions or from great distances, you will probably want a lens in the 500mm-plus range.
The subject of photography is too vast to cover thoroughly here, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution to your needs. We recommend you first determine the type of photography you want to do, then research the Internet and trade magazines for more information on products and advice from experts. We used a Minolta Maxxum XTsi and print film for the majority of the photos on this Web site.
Camcorder: Live video captures the action in a way still photographs can't by adding sound and motion. As with SLR cameras discussed above there are too many options to go into detail here, but we recommend a unit that will give you high quality recordings, works well in low light and can zoom in close to the action. If you tend to shake a lot when holding the camera, as we do, we also suggest a unit with image stabilization or a good tripod. You can get a cheap camcorder for around $400, with better units ranging from $600 to $1,000. Be sure to bring extra batteries!
Travel companion: Preferably this would be someone who also is interested in trains. Besides providing company and conversation for those long trainless interludes, a partner can help you with camera gear, map reading or driving while you are pacing a train and shooting video out the passenger window. If you are traveling with young children (as we often do) a partner can help keep an eye on the kids while you keep an eye on the tracks.
Altamont Press timetables: These excellent pocket guides are available for many regions of the western United States and contain information on station names and locations, radio frequencies, locomotive rosters, operating rules, origin and destination codes, signal aspects, maps and more. They retail for around $18 and can be found at many museums and hobby shops. You can also order them direct from Altamont Press.
AAA membership: If your car is insured with the American Automobile Association then you already have this. If not, anyone can purchase a membership for around $70. Your AAA card provides unlimited free access to the organization's vast collection of maps and travel guides, not to mention roadside services such as towing and jump starts. You will find these things handy if you are planning a railfan trip to some remote location such as the middle of the Mojave Desert where you would neither want to be lost nor stranded. AAA maps often show locations of major rail lines, an added bonus.
Street maps: Regardless of whether you get them for free or pay top dollar at a corner gas station, having a current map of the location you plan to visit is a great tool. When you are chasing that special train through a busy city, the last thing you want to do is guess whether to turn left or right at the next intersection.
Full tank of gas: This is especially important if you plan to chase trains for long distances, such as in the Feather River Canyon where there are few gas stations. It's just a good idea to fuel up before you go anyhow. That way you will have one less thing to worry about.
Binoculars: If you are a great distance away from the tracks, a decent pair of binoculars can help you spot reporting marks and read road numbers on locomotives. They're also great for watching birds as you pass the time waiting for a train.
Sunscreen: This is useful if you plan to be outdoors or in a sunny location for any period of time.
Umbrella: This is useful if you plan to be outdoors or in a rainy location for any period of time. It will also shelter your expensive camera gear during that must-have downpour shot.
Snacks: Always keep munchies and beverages handy for those long trips. It also doesn't hurt to pack a few items to share with train crews on the outside chance that you happen to meet them. More than one railfan has tales of exchanging a soda for a cab tour.
Cellular phone: This is a handy item to have in the event of an emergency. It also helps if you need to call home and explain to your spouse that you won't be home for supper because you got started chasing a train 50 miles out of town. Too bad it can't shelter you from flying objects such as frying pans.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Please send e-mail to Glenn or Roni Gehlke.
Return to Railfan Tips section.
Proceed to Milepost 1147.2 on main track. Hold main track at last named point. Over.
This page was last updated Wednesday, June 9, 1999.