What to pack for a long distance Amtrak trip

Flying with a bicycle used to be much easier. All they worried about was if you’d let the air out of the tires. Now, bikes are an opportunity for the airlines to gouge out another couple hundred dollars. Know how much extra it costs to take a bike on Amtrak? $10. Ten Dollars.

On some trains you don’t even have to box the bike. You can wheel it on for $40.

That’s not the only reason to take the train instead of flying. There’s the larger seat, the never ending view, and the long narrow space to wander.  Between checked and carry-on, you can bring two hundred pounds of gear. I’d decided early on that I would come home on the train. After my long slow ride to the east coast, flying back seemed too abrupt.

I took the Capitol Limited to Chicago and the Empire Builder to Seattle. There’s another reason to love the railroads. The trains have cool names. The only flight that has a name is the Redeye. Which is the opposite of a romantic name. It sounds like an eyeball STD.


Here’s my train packing list. And some ideas for anyone thinking about a long train ride.

Lightweight travel sleeping bag This little sleeping bag is secretly one of my handiest gear. So simple, and yet, so crucial. I’ve used this thing as a cootie barrier in hostels, alone on hot camping nights, an extra layer inside the sleeping bag for cold nights, and now for train snoozing. A blanket would work fine too.


some kind of pillow arrangement.  – Bringing a full sized pillow is a good idea. If you’re riding overnight, you can probably get two seats to yourself. A full size pillow increases your night time possible arrangements.  I still haven’t found the perfect travel pillow.The U-shaped thingies are annoying to me. I like a bigger pillow so I use an old sleeping bag stuff sack.

handiwipes – Usually I say wetwipes are for babies. But unless you’ve got the fancy sleeper car with the tiny shower, baby wipes are the only wash option. There’s a dressing room in the downstairs of the Couch Class Cars where you have a tiny bit more room to do your thing.

Reusable water bottle – You can refill them onboard from the water fountain. The faucets are sort of tiny and annoying. I used the paper cups to make a funnel so that I didn’t make a puddle on the floor.

Emergen-C – makes your water more exciting.

earplugs and eye mask – If you don’t want anyone to talk to you, bring along the biggest pair of noise cancelling headphones you can find and keep them on your head. Or this kitty cat sleep mask with built-in speakers is another option.


smart phone, laptop,  charger cords, Kindle, movies to watch – The coach class seats have electrical outlets. None of the trains I rode on had wifi, so download your media ahead of time.

Books, notebook, art stuff – It’s a long day, sitting on the train. Think of all the reading and arting you could do.

light for when the electricity goes out – The train came to a stop in a tunnel. Then the lights went out. The emergency lights glowed.  A voice came over the PA. “We’re having a slight problem with the train’s system. It’ll be a just a moment while we reboot the train.” (Who knew you could reboot a train?) I pulled out my flashlight and carried on reading my book.

sandals and big socks – Train rules say everyone has to wear shoes for walking.

Change of clothes, sleeping clothes – Normal, clean people who don’t wear the same clothes all the time. If you’re a weird hobo like me, a clean pair of underwear for each day will be enough.

toothbrush and toothpaste, lotion, chapstick, whatever  – The restrooms have soap and paper towels. You can bring full size bottles because those stupid airplane rules don’t apply. Lotion and lip balm were pretty crucial to me. Either the indoor heating or the cold winter outside make me dry up like a raisin. I also brought a travel towel, which I never ever used.

Snacks – You don’t need to go crazy at the health food store and spend $60 like I did. The best thing I brought was a bag of clementine oranges, healthy and they improve the air quality when you peel them. A tiny cooler isn’t a bad idea since you can bring two carry-ons. The train has a dining car, and the food’s not bad but it is expensive. The club car sells coffee for $2 but if you pay for breakfast in the dining car, you get unlimited coffee refills.

Here are some things I didn’t bring:

nicotine alternative –   Cigarette smokers become fiending crackheads on the train. At most stations, the train only pauses long enough for passengers to dash on and off. In other words, not long enough for a smoke. At every single stop, jonesing smokers cluster at the doors, making the conductors yell “This is not a smoke-break stop.” (I bet smokers are the conductors least favorite people.) The actual smoke breaks are few and far, about once a day. Not enough for the average addict. When the jones starts up and the train stops for no discernible reason in the middle of a dull dirty field and the conductors refuse to open the doors, even though the train’s been stalled for 40 minutes, you don’t wanna be that shitty smoker that publicly loses their shit. Harassing the train employees will only make you unpopular. Take some nicotine gum, or go Marc Maron style, and get a pack of lozenges. Or quit, junkie.

Booze – You can buy beer and booze in the club car, or you can bring your own. Either route, try and keep your cool. No one wants to get chucked off the train in the middle of North Dakota.

guitar – There were three musicians on my ride. Two of them were really good.


3 thoughts on “What to pack for a long distance Amtrak trip

  1. Very good points! As someone who has taken long distance Amtrak trips over the past fifteen years (with and without a bike tour tagged on) I know what it’s like to live on the rails for one to three days. I’ll add a few of my tips:
    The coffee on board has gotten better over the years (esp on the Cascades in the NW, where there is spotty WiFi) and at $2 a pop, not that expensive. But if you want to go cheaper, make it yourself! You can ask the cafe car for hot water, then either use a Via packet or do pour over.
    -I like using my inflatable camp pillow.
    -Get out and stretch your legs at any opportunity.
    -They also make those giant wet wipes which come in handy.
    And is that station stop depicted Minot ND?
    -Shawn, currently on Amtrak


  2. Love that damning with faint praise – “two of them were quite good” (and the third). Have been round Europe a couple of times by train. Great way to travel except when the brakes catch fire!


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