Hitchhiking is a form of travel that has been around for as long as there have been vehicles to ride. Originating in America and eventually spreading to Europe and the world: it can be used for journeys big or small, from a quick ride to the shop, to a multi-leg expedition across the entirety of continents. I have passed through a number of European countries, parts of South East Asia, China and Japan and shared stories with friends within the community who have hitched all over the world. Drawing from these experiences, I have compiled this ultimate guide to hitchhiking to hopefully continue growing this awesome way of travel.
So, First Things First, Why Hitch?
Hitch-hiking is a nearly cost-free form of transportation, relying on the kindness of strangers and the flexibility of your travel plans. In parts of Southern France, hitchhiking is so common that it has completely relinquished the need for taxi’s, and it’s not a rare sight to see a mother pick up her child from pre-school and hitchhike home. However, with public transport becoming more affordable and reliable, why waste time thumbing by the road side?
Two words, It’s exciting. It’s an adventure in itself. Everyone has heard the old quote, “it’s not about the destination, but the journey to get there”, well that couldn’t be more applicable. A rush of adrenaline pumps through your body each time a car comes round the corner. Each ride brings with it new stories, new life and new adventures. Stepping off the plane as the smell and heat of a new country waves over you, opening the door to a 12-person dorm room; these moments of anxious excitement can be felt each time a car pulls over opening a new perspective with each person you meet.
Generally speaking, it takes a certain type of person to pick up strangers by the roadside. In my experience, these are the type of people you want to meet. They are friendly, optimistic and looking to help someone in need. I have heard stories of amazing generosity on the road, fellow hitchhikers have been given money, food, and places to stay. I’ve even heard of people being given helicopter rides and been invited on week long climbing trips (true story!). Now, I’m not saying freebies are the incentive to hitch-hike, but it’s a nice perk and a true example of the kindness within the community.
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Hitchhiking Equipment: What You Need
Now that you’ve decided to take the plunge, step into the unknown and head out hitchhiking. Before you depart, there are a few essentials that you will need to take with you.
Backpack – first and foremost, you need somewhere to store all your stuff. Suitcases are bulky and hard to move around. You want a hikers’ backpack, with the size dependant on the length of your intended journey. It needs to be comfortable as you may need to do some walking between potential pickup spots. It’s called hitch-hiking for a reason.
Hiking shoes/boots – you need something solid on your feet. The road is long and the road is tough. The beauty of hitchhiking is you just do not know where you will end up, so be prepared for all terrain with a decent pair of shoes that you can move around in. Anything that you don’t mind getting wet, muddy and dirty.
Rain gear – there is nothing worse than being left out in the rain with nowhere to go. Except being left out in the rain with nowhere to go and no rain gear. Bring a jacket, trousers and a cover for your pack. Worst case scenario, you wrap up under a tree and wait it out. It’s honestly not too bad.
Food – you do not want to leave your post to go and grab lunch. That could be 20/30 minutes’ worth of potential rides that have driven past. Pack lunch, snacks and a f*ck load of water. You may be there for hours so be prepared.
Map – this should be obvious. Know where you are going and how to get there. This way you can find the main intersections and increase your chances of meeting someone heading in your direction.
Sign – carrying a sign holds much debate. On one-hand, a sign transforms you from homeless drifting serial killer to happy-go-lucky traveller. You look like you have your shit together and you know what you’re doing. The disadvantage is it may put off anyone who can not take you the whole way, losing out on all the short distance rides. The lack of sign also allows you to politely refuse a ride without the awkwardness of admitting you think they look like someone who may wear your skin as a coat.
If you decide to bring one: it needs to be big, clear and simple. Just the town or city name will suffice, possibly in more than one language depending where you are.
Gifts – something small can be a great way to create a positive atmosphere with your new friend. Nothing too big of course, as you do need to carry it. Small trinkets or candy will put a smile on their face and is a nice gesture to say thank you.
Camping gear – if you’re a hardcore motherf*cker and you want to do this properly, then you need to be prepared for an overnight. A good tent/hammock and an appropriate season sleeping bag will be the difference between a comfortable night under the stars and spending your last 20 quid at the only hotel in town. A small pot-set and stove will have you well fed and ready to continue the journey.
Towel – “a towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” – Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
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Hitchiking 101: Useful Tips to Help You Hitch Like a Pro
You have all your gear, you have a destination and you are ready to go. Here are some final tips that can increase your chances of getting a picked up and on your way:
Location, location, location
This is the most important variable to take into consideration. Finding the right location will massively boost your chances of being seen by people travelling in your direction and therefore increase your chances of getting picked up.
First of all, get out of the city. City folk are travelling short distances and are unlikely to be going to the same place as you. Head to the outskirts and find a road that is going your way. You need a well lit area, where oncoming cars can see you from a distance and have room to legally pull over nearby. Traffic lights, petrol & service stations can be good places as it allows more time for drivers to assess you, but be aware that the workers can ask you to leave if you do not buy anything. Finding the right balance of traffic is important. Too much and people will assume someone else will pick you up, not enough and you may become disheartened by the lack of excitement.
In some parts of the world, such as Israel; there are designated hitchhiking areas similar to taxi stands.
Know the Signal
The ‘thumb out’ gesture is probably the most iconic sign of a hitchhiker in the Western world. However, in The Middle East, parts of South America and Thailand: it could be construed as ‘up yours’. So it’s probably a good idea to know your local hand signs before starting out.
In many parts of S.E. Asia, they use an index finger pointed out to the ground in front. Sort of like saying “stop here please”.
The Chinese like to use the back of the hand facing upwards, calling the car in a sort of reverse shooing type gesture by flicking the wrist and fingers up and down. This is also recognised in South Korea.
Generally speaking, if you are stood by a roadside looking like you need picking up, it should be obvious. Although, if you need extra tips then asking a local person at a bar or hostel will be your best way of finding out.
Appearance: Don’t Look Like a Hobo
A driver has only a matter of seconds to decide whether they wish to pick you up or not – this judgement is almost entirely a visual one. Bright colours make you more noticeable, allowing the driver more time to decide if they want to stop. Do your best to look clean, friendly and basically try not to come across as the travelling dirt bag that we all are. Smoking can lessen your chances, as a non-smoker won’t want that kind of stank in their car. Once you’ve dressed the part, take off your sunglasses, make eye-contact and smile.
Your Duty as a Passenger
You’re finally in the car, now it’s time to do your part. The driver picked you up because they want some company, that means do not sleep. They want to hear about your stories: where you’re from, where you’ve been and what your plans are. For the sake of the whole hitchhiking community, do your very best to entertain them and create a positive image of hitchhikers. They will then tell their friends of the super-cool awesome hitchhiker they picked up, thus in turn making more hitchhiker friendly drivers! A win-win for us all.
Trying to get a ride can feel a lot like trying to get a girl. You must be able to deal with a lot of rejection, knowing that the perfect person may be just around the corner. Time and time again cars will drive past you, often with many free seats, often honking and waving and not even knowing that you are signalling for a ride. It can be frustrating, but the most important thing is to keep your spirits high. Nobody has to pick you up. They don’t owe you anything. Keep smiling, keep walking and keep on keepin’ on.
Going with a Buddy
If you plan on bringing a friend, it is important you are clear on a few things. Hitchhiking isn’t all that glamourous, now and then you may end up at a villa pool party after being picked up by a group of beautiful Spanish women; but more than likely the majority of your time will be spent walking and waiting. Make sure your buddy is clear on this and they are someone you are willing to spend a lot of time with. Bringing the right person along for the ride has many benefits. The waiting time will be more enjoyable, you can take it in turns signalling cars and you will feel safer. Girls usually get picked up quicker as they are seen as less of a risk for the driver, as well as people feeling like they are helping them get out of ‘danger’. So bringing a girl can help you come across as less threatening and bringing a guy can help you feel safer. On top of this, having a buddy means you can spread out along the road and increase the time that the driver sees you, increasing the likelihood of them stopping.
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How to Stay Safe While Hitchhiking
Safety first, then team-work
Going out into unknown territory and asking to get into strangers’ cars has its risks. Although there are not as many as the news and media may portray, hitchhiking still has risks nonetheless. There are a few tricks you can do to help stay safe, as your safety is always the most important thing. Except for looking good, of course.
You can refuse any ride
you have waited for hours and someone has finally stopped. You walk to their car and you instantly pick up on a bad vibe. You don’t like how they look; they may have phrased a question weird or you can smell alcohol on their breath. Just because they offered a lift it does not mean you have to take it. Be polite in your refusal, ask where they are going first and tell them that’s the wrong way/you’re actually waiting for your mum/you only accept rides from Prius drivers because you’re a nature loving eco-warrior that shoots rainbows out your arsehole. Whatever works, but always trust your gut.
Have a grab bag
if you are on a longer journey and have quite a bit of gear, it is best to keep your important bits either in your pockets or in a small bag that you have by your feet. If it really comes to it and you need to hop out the car at a set of traffic lights, you will not be able to get your luggage out the back. Keep your money, passport, phone and important things nearby in case a getaway is needed.
Pro Tip: When getting out of any vehicle, keep the doors open until you have all of your belongings. It may be intentional, more likely just an accident – you do not want the car/taxi driving off whilst your bag is still in the back.
Entering the vehicle
If you have a working phone, it is always a good idea to text the car registration to a friend or family member. Better yet, phone somebody and casually drop in a description of the car and the route you are taking into the conversation. You don’t have to give a full police report, but mentioning the absolute hero that just picked you up in a sweet-ass silver Merc and is taking you Southbound all the way to wherever you are going has just made the driver feel very appreciated as well. It also serves as warning to anyone with shady intentions that people know where you are. If you are feeling really paranoid, hitch for rides in sight of a security camera and shout “bye Mum!” at a random stranger when you get in.Trust me, it works every time!
Always be prepared to not get picked up. Have enough food and a plan for some kind of shelter just in case. If you opt for walking, check your map and be sure that you can hike to the next town before nightfall. If you are in remote areas, local people will be so fascinated by you you will probably be offered food and a bed anyway. If not, find a guest house and try again tomorrow.
Rules are different from country to country, state to state. Hitchhiking is rarely illegal, but often there are restrictions on where you can do it. Generally speaking, staying off of highways and only trying to flag down cars that can safely and legally pull over; you should be alright. I would recommend researching the particular area you are in for up-to-date advice on the law.
So grab your bag, strap on your boots and let the journey commence. Happy hitching!