This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.
GifGas is a Belgian photographer in his early twenties who train-hops around Europe, documenting his travels on YouTube and Instagram. For the uninitiated, this involves catching unauthorised rides on freight trains. Train-surfing, which he also does from time to time, is broadly similar, involving the standard civilian trains some of us use for our daily commute.
A lifelong train fanatic, GifGas’ deep dive into train-hopping was sparked by watching videos of Stobe the Hobo, an American who hopped his way around the States and documented his trips on YouTube. GifGas lived close to a freight depot and could pay close attention to when trains left and departed. He started poring over train timetables to help him plan his first trip.
“One day I found a train that was going from Zeebrugge to Milan. I called my mate Rico who I graffiti with, and asked if he wanted to travel for free with me,” he tells me over a beer in a bar in Brussels. “The train went through Switzerland, Germany, and arrived in Italy 13 hours later. I haven’t stopped since that first trip. It's like a drug.”
“Train-hopping gives you the feeling that you are doing something unique that almost nobody knows about,” he adds. His interest in these journeys goes beyond seeking out an adrenaline rush or a free journey. “It really gives you another perspective: You find yourself in such extreme conditions that when you face difficult situations in life, you think back to those moments and it gives you strength.”
This photo was taken by GifGas' friend and fellow train-hopper Rico on one of their trips. Photo: Rico
He’s made around 40 trips of this kind to date, either solo or with similarly adventurous friends like Rico, who contributed photos to this piece. Planning one takes him anything from a week to a few months. After consulting Google Maps, train company timetables, and occasionally local trainspotters, he packs a bag, heads out and hopes for the best. “What I love about train-hopping is that you don't know where you're going to end up,” he says. “They are planned adventures but there is also a lot of improvisation involved.”
When he travels, he wants to see “as much of a country as possible. I'm really not interested in going to tourist spots. I like small villages, places where you can really see a culture that’s different from yours.”
A while back, GifGas and a couple of his travelling companions spent the night in a stranger’s garden in middle-of-nowhere Romania. Instead of kicking them out of his backyard, the owner of the house brought them coffee. “After that, he took us to a bar with his friends,” GifGas recalls. “We said that we planned on sleeping in the woods that evening and they were having none of it. So we stayed at one of their houses and the next morning they even brought us breakfast.”
Shiey, another train-hopper with a Youtube account hitching a ride on a chilly day. Photo: GifGas
Things don’t always go so smoothly. GifGas’ first-ever train-surfing experience – which he vlogged about in 2019 – made its way on to Belgian national news. Realising that what he was doing carried with it a potential two-year prison sentence, he immediately became intent on protecting his identity, which is why he only spoke on condition of anonymity to us.
GifGas had his scariest experience to date in Italy. He’d underestimated the fact that, as a European border country, it has an increased security presence. Guards clocked the crew – GifGas, Rico, and their train-hopping friend Shiey – at the Italian-Austrian border. By the time the train pulled into the depot, ten of them were waiting.
They stopped the train to catch the trio, but the hoppers fled into the mountains. “They thought we were migrants and suddenly they went all out. A few minutes later, we saw that a helicopter was looking for us. It was like having five stars on Grand Theft Auto,” GifGas told us. “We crossed the mountains to get to Austria and there was nothing left for them to do there. We hadn't eaten anything, we were exhausted, but it was one of the best times of my life.”
Rico during the hair-raising trip across the Austrian-Italian border. Photo: GifGas
GifGas accepts that not every trip is a total success, but is nonetheless content with the lifestyle he’s adopted. “There are times when you can't take it anymore. You have to sleep in the woods and you don't know if there’s going to be some beast that will attack you or if the local farmer will turn up with his gun,” he says. “But when you go through this kind of ordeal, you appreciate your arrival even more.”
Check out more snapshots from GifGas and his friend Rico’s European adventures below.