There are a variety of different reasons why people choose to hitchhike. Some do it because it saves money while others are searching for adventure. Others simply hitch because they feel a burning desire to do so after reading books like Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
No matter the reason, there is one thing you can be sure of – you just never know what is going to happen. You don’t know how long the journey will take or even where it will take you. You have no idea where you will lay your head and you never know if your next driver is going to be an angel or a demon.
But it is this uncertainty that makes hitchhiking so attractive for many people. Just like our lives are often impacted by unforeseen events and circumstances, hitching provides the ideal platform from which to leave every aspect of our lives entirely in the hands of fate.
Hitchhiking is however not for everyone – it requires a certain disposition and unlimited well of patience. While there will be times when you find a ride in a matter of minutes, you are mostly going to have to wait or foot it for hours before you get picked up.
There are also going to be times when you connect instantly with your driver and others where uncomfortable silences dominate. Although it is unlikely, it is best to be prepared for the worst and consider the risks involved with hitching.
Those who are well versed in traversing the highways and byways will relate intimately with the following guide. For those who have until now only entertained thoughts of hitchhiking and the newbies, these tips will provide you with a comprehensive guide to get you started and keep you safe on the road.
To truly get into the spirit of hitching, you are going to have to abandon any and all plans that you may have had. You simply don’t know where you are going or if and when you will arrive at a predetermined destination. It is far better to let the road take you wherever it goes and let the spirit of exploration and adventure guide you. All your best-made plans will simply be laid to waste plus you run the risk of losing out on offers that are full of potential from those you meet along the way.
2. The Pack
Ideally, you want to travel as light as possible with just the bare necessities such as a change of underwear, toothbrush and comb. One small backpack makes it far easier to slide in and out of rides. It also makes it much easier for the times when you are walking for an extended period.
However, it is called hitchHIKING for a reason. If you are going on a long journey, it is probably a good idea to have one large pack to hold your camping gear and one small pack to carry snacks, water and other essentials. An umbrella or rain poncho will come in handy.
You may also want to pack some small, cheap and lightweight gifts to give to drivers and other people you meet along the way. These little tokens are a great way to show your gratitude and can serve as excellent ice-breakers.
3. Copy It, Save It, Print It
Have digital copies of your passport, ID and other important documents and papers saved on your phone or other mobile devices. You should also save these to the cloud or email them to yourself. Should these important papers get lost en route, it is a simple matter of finding an internet cafe or library where you can print them out at a minimal cost.
Also save the important banking contact information. If your credit or other bank cards go missing, you will need these details to cancel them immediately and order new ones. You can have new bank cards mailed within a couple of days to a local post office or embassy if you are traveling in a foreign country.
It is always best to start your journey with a quality map in your pack (especially when traveling abroad). While you can find free maps at tourist information centers, hotels, airports, bus/train stations, etc. your map is going to keep you from losing your way. Rental car establishments have the best free maps.
Your map should show you road numbers as well as rest stops and gas stations. A map will improve the impression you make on drivers.
Don’t rely on digital map apps. You never know when your device’s battery will run flat, when there is no service or the app is simply incorrect.
5. Keep It Simple
If you do have a planned route to a specific destination, keep it simple. Eliminate as many turns as possible. Drivers are going to be irritated by having to drive complicated routes and concerned about finding their way out.
So walk out as many turns as possible or get dropped off near your destination and then hoof it the rest of the way.
6. Divide And Conquer
In order to eliminate extreme waiting periods, it is best to divide the total journey into a number of shorter legs. This is a great way to get around those back roads where most local drivers simply don’t have far to go. Drivers are more likely to offer rides for part of the way instead of the entire journey. Accept rides to the next town or junction and keep in mind that the whole concept of hitchhiking is going to involve multiple rides.
Also remember that it will always be easier to find a ride for a short distance than long distances. However, there is a limit and it may be best to decline rides from drivers who can only take you a mile or two. As long as you are heading in the right direction, you are getting somewhere.
7. Know The Law
There are a few legalities that you need to know about before you go traipsing across the United States:
- Hitchhiking is illegal in Nevada, Idaho, New Jersey and Utah.
- Hitchhiking is illegal on Interstates other than in Texas, North Dakota, Missouri and Oregon. You can still thumb a ride on the on-ramp to the Interstate.
- It is illegal to hitch from the road itself in most states. However, you can hitch from the shoulder. If you are uncertain, rather stand just off the shoulder – this is a safer option too.
- The laws regarding hitchhiking are complicated and involved in the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Maine, Florida, Wisconsin, Kansas, Washington, California, Hawaii and Alaska. You may want to do some research and read up on the laws if you will be traveling in or through any of these states. In general, the laws apply within city limits and hitching is legal outside of city limits. Although it is rare to cited by a police officer, it does happen so be aware of the laws and avoid unwanted trouble.
- Officers are allowed to ask you for identification even if you aren’t doing anything wrong. Even though you aren’t technically required to identify yourself unless you are breaking the law, it is better to do so. The police are just doing their jobs trying to make the world a safer place.
- In some states, it is illegal to hitchhike on the federally owned property or roads other than the Interstate. This includes National Park roads, Scenic Byways and National Recreation Areas.
Although these laws are rarely enforced, it is best to be knowledgeable about where, how and when you can hitchhike. You never know when you might be cited and this could ruin an otherwise excellent adventure.
First impressions count and you are going to find it far easy to catch a ride if you look presentable.
- Both your clothes and your person should be clean, neat and tidy. Drivers are far less likely to give rides to people who look like tramps or escaped convicts. Don’t wear torn or dirty clothes that are rumpled beyond recognition. A clean-shaven face or neatly trimmed beard/mustache is best.
- It is also a good idea to take into consideration local standards of dress to fit in with your surroundings. Dressing like the locals will give you credit. Jeans and flannel shirts are great for working neighborhoods whereas slacks and a collared shirt is better suited to upper-class areas.
- Generally, it is a good idea to avoid clothing that is damaged, dirty, faded or doesn’t fit. These clothes are more likely to get you dirty looks than a ride. You may also want to avoid wearing shades. Sunglasses prevent eye contact and can make it appear as if you are hiding something.
- Black is not a good color for hitching – it can make you look intimidating and is less visible, especially if you are hitching at night. Lighter, brighter shades will get you the right type of attention and ensure that you are more visible.
Talk to the people near trailhead parking lots, along with the road or day hikers. You don’t have to be direct and ask for a ride. Simply chat about the weather, ask for directions or the time. They will recognize you further along the road with your thumb out and will be far more likely to offer you a ride.
The same applies for towns. Greet store attendants, restaurant staff and other people you meet and have a friendly chat. Remember that you don’t have to openly solicit rides which could irritate some business owners. Just talk to people so that they can see that you are friendly and not a threat.
This also gives you the time to assess the people you will most likely be getting a ride from later on. Hitch within eyesight of the parking lots of stores you have visited to ensure that the strategy pays off. If you catch the eye of someone you have spoken to, give them a friendly wave. Stick your thumb out and you are sure to get a ride in no time at all.
11. Ask About Public Transit
Ask people about the availability of public transport in the area to get to your destination. You aren’t actually going to use public transport (you are hitchhiking after all). These questions do however inform others that you are looking for transport as well as the direction that you are headed in.
Most often, the locals will offer you a ride if they are heading in the same direction. It is preferable to let them think that giving you a ride was their idea.
12. Ooze Confidence
There is nothing quite like standing on the side of the road to make you look sad and lost. So put a smile on your face and try to look like you belong there.
Look passing drivers in the eye, with a smile on your face and even give a friendly wave. Think of it as a drive-by interview where the driver needs to make a decision based purely on your appearance and body language extremely quickly.
Standing in the hot sun or cold rain can make smiling difficult. But if you look anxious or desperate, you are simply going to attract the wrong type of drivers. So ooze confidence, smile and wave.
13. The Prime Location
A car is not going to stop for you if it is not safe to pull over. Choose a spot that provides enough room for a car to safely stop and pick you up.
- Interstate on-ramps are a good location as are traffic lights or stop signs. Traffic generally has to slow down or even stop in these locations making them perfect for a quick pick-up. Gas stations and exits from parking lots are also great. Remember that slow driving gives the driver more opportunity to get a good look at you.
- A spot with shade is ideal to keep you out of the sun and cool, calm and collected.
- Apart from annoying laws preventing hitching within city limits, it is simply far more difficult to get a ride in a busy city. Take public transportation to the outskirts where you are far more likely to get a ride. Avoid areas that have high crime rates as well as prisons and government facilities where employees are prohibited from picking up hitchhikers.
- When you exit the city, make sure it is on the same side as the direction you are headed in. You are far more likely to find drivers heading in the same direction this way. So if you are heading west, get to the west side of the city and so on.
- Find a straight stretch of road where drivers can get a clear view of you for longer (about 700 m in each direction should be sufficient). A road with an incline is best.
- Check the speed limit signs and find a spot where cars are passing at less than 50 mph. Make sure that you are standing on the side of the road with traffic traveling in the same direction as you are headed.
- A well-lit spot is important at night for safety reasons and to allow passing drivers to get a better look at you.
14. Safety When Pulling Over
Make sure that there is enough room for a car to pull over safely and that the driver will not be breaking any laws by stopping illegally. Look for wide shoulders or turnouts. And obviously, make sure that you are on the right side of the road with traffic heading in the same direction you are. A car crossing lanes to get to you is dangerous as it is running across the road to get to a car that has stopped for you.
15. Braking Distance
Make sure that a driver has sufficient time to see you and then slow down in time to pull over. Drivers aren’t going to want to slam on brakes in order to stop for you and neither are they going to want to reverse or make a u-turn. Ensuring a good stopping distance will improve your chances of getting a quick ride. Standing near a road sign or other roadside feature will attract a driver’s attention and give them more time to see you and react.
16. Keep Your Pack Nearby
If a driver sees your backpack or trekking poles, they will assume that you are hiker needing a ride to the nearest town – probably to pick up supplies. This means that you aren’t traveling too far and that you probably aren’t an ax murderer.
It is going to be far more difficult to get a driver to stop for you in fast-moving traffic. They have less time to get a good look at you, slow down and pull over. By the time they realize that you are looking for a ride, they will probably be way past the spot where it is safe for them to stop and it will be impossible to reverse or turn around and come back.
Then there is also the matter of inertia. Fast-moving vehicles all moving in the same direction create a sense of inertia making it seem like far too much hassle to pull over and then merge back into traffic. Keep in mind that large trucks take much more time to come to a standstill when moving at high speeds.
Drivers moving at speed are also simply less likely to take notice of their surroundings and rather focus on the road ahead. Your attempts to attract their attention and communicate your need for a ride are probably going to go unnoticed. On the other hand, vehicles that crawl by creating an uncomfortable tension between drivers and hitchhikers.
Choose spots where drivers are naturally or legally required to slow down or roads where the speed limit requires drivers to move slower. Gas stations and parking lots are great locations to catch a ride. Roundabouts, traffic lights, stop signs and speed ramps are also good spots. If you must hitch on a fast road, choose to do so at peak traffic times when bumper to bumper traffic can slow speeds down significantly.
18. Don’t Hitch At Night
Hitching at night is dangerous. You are less visible at night and are more likely to get hit by a car than get a ride from one. Night time is also when criminals come out to break the law under the cover of darkness. You are putting yourself at risk by hitching at night so rather find a motel or camping spot for the night and hitch in the morning when you are well rested.
19. Be Patient
On average, a hitchhiker can expect to wait around 1 hour for a ride across the United States. This is however an average and the reality is that you are far more likely to wait 2-3 hours to get picked up. So expect to wait for at least a few hours in the same spot and be grateful for the days when you get picked up in just a few minutes.
If you really can’t stand the wait anymore, take a break. Camping gear is ideal for times when you just need to get away from hitching for a bit. Walk to the next exit or call a taxi to find a location that may provide better opportunities for a ride.
20. Going The Wrong Way Can Get You There Faster
If you find yourself in a place where you simply cannot get a ride in the direction you want to go, head the wrong way. Sometimes heading the wrong way for a short while will take you to the perfect location to catch a quick ride in the right direction.
21. Be Mindful And Respectful Of Other Hitchhikers
If you see another hitchhiker, this could be a good thing. Professional hitchhikers make their way through friendliness and amiability.
If you two happen to be riding in the same direction, ask if they might not want to pair up and travel in a team, which is always slightly safer. If they are not going in the same direction as you, hitchhiker code requires the hitchhiker that was in the spot first to take the first ride.
While you wait your turn, swap tales of your adventures on the open road, there are lots you can learn from a fellow hitchhiker.
22. Stay Positive
This mode of travel is not without its mental challenge. You will b engaging in an activity that has always existed on the fringes of society and is even illegal in some places. You will get all kinds of rotten attention as well just smile, ignore the hoots, hollers and honking – and keep that positive thumb waving in the air.
23. Bring A Buddy
It is always a good idea to bring a buddy with you on your hitchhiking adventures. This helps make the long hours more manageable and gives you someone to talk to. Furthermore, having a buddy makes the potential of your driver doing something unpleasant very unlikely.
But, traveling with a buddy changes the dynamic and you must consider numbers and ratios. For example, three travelers are typically the largest group with any hope of success simply due to capacity restrictions. Furthermore, if all three travelers are male, the prospect is far more menacing than a ratio of three girls.
The most successful traveling number is two and two girls have the highest chances of being picked up as their prospect plays to all drivers. Plus, two girls together lessens the chances of something unwanted happening.
The next best thing is the 50/50 sex ratio. While two men are not AS menacing as three, a good number of drivers will be rightfully loath to add two burly males to their entourage. On the other hand, one burly man and a female counterpart is not such a daunting option.
24. Sign vs. No Sign
There are two schools of thought on the idea of having a sign and some important considerations for you when planning your trip. Here are the pros and cons of the Sign and No-Sign Hitchhiking Methodologies.
A sign has the advantage of being more attractive to a wider range of motorists. They will see the sign and recognize that this is where they too are headed and will take you along with them. However, this robs you of the many people who are headed the same direction as you but are perhaps not going all the way to your destination. So, you may miss the many drivers who can take you point to point on your way and significantly enhance the entire hitchhiking experience.
The thumb is classic hitchhiking in its purest form and features a vast array of subtleties that would be superfluous to mention here. In addition to being more adventurous, it allows the hitchhiker the valuable opportunity to be guided by intuition alone and this can be a considerable tool for life. Furthermore, you will never have to awkwardly turn down a ride if you get a bad feeling. If a driver pulls over with an especially foreboding air to them, kindly ask where they are headed and then politely turn them down. Furthermore, you will get many more quick short trips this way and this is a true hitchhiker’s MO.
Consider Making A Sign
If you opt to make a sign, there are some pointers to keep in mind to craft a clear and effective message. Use a thick black permanent marker on regular brown cardboard for a traditional no-nonsense petition. Make the message short, clear and in all caps.
Right the name of the biggest city or town in the direction you are heading. Try to get as close as you can to your final destination.
If you are feeling right, add a short funny message like “Free Cookies”, “Loves Tacos”, “Doesn’t Bite” to your cardboard. This may be the perfect ice-breaker for a reluctant motorist.
Learn The Sign
This seems obvious, but it is actually only obvious for the Americas and Europe. Here the proper sign for a hitchhiker petitioning motorists for a ride is the thumb pointed mostly upwards. But, if you happen to be hitchhiking through Israel the proper hand position is an extended fist with the forefinger pointing to the road.
Tell Them The Shortest Distance You’re Willing To Go On The Hitch
When the rider asks where you are headed, give them the shortest distance you will go. For example, “I am headed to X, but a ride to Y would be just as great!” This way they feel comfortable knowing they can drop you off at some point if they don’t feel comfortable with a hitchhiker in their car. But, if you do make a good connection, they may even take you even further.
25. Smile And Be Approachable
Expect to wait five minutes or even 2 hours, So you will want to consider occupying your time and your mind while waiting. You can sing, play guitar, listen to music practice telling jokes and nailing the punchlines – a hitchhiker who can tell a good joke is solid GOLD. Always have one or two well-rehearsed jokes and one-liners to share if the need arises.
Don’t read a book or take a seat while you are on the road. This makes you look boring and unapproachable. It will also take your eyes and attention off what is happening around you and this can be bad news.
Do not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or any other type of substance while hitchhiking. This sends a particularly bad message that you as a respectable hitchhiker should distance yourself from.
You can expect bad responses from a variety of people and plenty of impolite gestures, Just smile and let it go.
If you are beginning to look stressed and irritated, slow down, take a nap or a 15-minute break in the shade. Sit down and read a book for a while. Drivers will not pick up a hitchhiker that looks irritable and stressed out.
Consider doing something fun while you wait. Practice a card trick, play an instrument or dance and it is likely that your ride will consider your company an interesting experience.
26. People Sometimes Come Back
Sometimes folks will speed on by and even be rude while doing so. But, don’t respond with anything but a smile and wave, this will often touch something inside the motorist and it is common for motorists to circle around and come back to your aid. This is especially true when working the guilt and pity card – look happy and enthusiastic, but pathetic!
27. Be Selective About Which Rides You Take
This is actually the best way to make a good time to your destination. It is better to travel 50 miles and arrive at a good spot to pick up a ride, than to travel 100 miles and be left in the middle of nowhere.
If you have been on the side of the road for more than a couple of hours and not been picked up, you could be in an impossible situation. Better find a nice speed bump or gas station to stake out.
If you’re on a busy roadway for more than 2 hours and people aren’t stopping, you’re probably on the wrong road or the wrong side of the road.
Don’t take rides from those who seem intoxicated and never be afraid to ask questions about the person who you are taking a ride with. This will give you a chance to get to know them and their intentions a little better.
Don’t be afraid to ask the driver questions to get to know them better. Ask them where they are going, and why. This might give you a better idea of their intentions.
28. Know That You Don’t Have To Accept Every Ride you are Offered
Even if you are in a hurry, you should always consider your safety. If you are not getting a good feeling from the ride that pulled over, don’t get in no matter what. Some of the things to look out for include:
- Dirty cars – this says something about the driver. An especially filthy car that has not been cleaned in ages could be a sign of a careless person.
- Alcohol cans and bottles – if the person is an alcoholic, they may be intoxicated while driving and put your life in danger.
- Cars with several people – if the car has more than one person inside, it could be that they have ill-intent, better not take a chance.
- Shifty Eyed People – if they are not upfront with looking you in the eye they could be hiding motives, steer away from this.
- Drivers that are angry, fuming or venting – this out of control person could make a serious error on the roads and bring you down to.
29. Trust Your Instincts And Have An Escape Plan
You should always let someone you know and trust know what you are doing. If you get into a car and later realize it is a mistake, this is a good time to pull over and use the bathroom.
Before you climb in a car quickly check with your intuition if you feel good about this ride. If not, pretend that you have forgotten some highly important item back in town and must return right away.
Car sickness is another good way to get out of a car really fast. Grunt and groan like you’re about to die and the driver will pull over in a hurry– it works every time!
30. Once In The Vehicle, Be Friendly
After you’ve gotten into the vehicle, you should try to be friendly because you’ll likely be there for some time. The vast majority of drivers wouldn’t mind chatting and may even start doing so once you get in.
They may ask where you’re heading, about your trip, etc. You should ask questions as well. Of course, it is best to keep any specific or personal details out of the conversation or minimize them.
If you are in a foreign country, you should take some time to learn the language. A lot of drivers who decide to take on hitchhikers, usually do so because they want some conversation or companionship. As a result, if you can speak the language, this will help you to have a decent conversation.
Having a good conversation can even help you to get a free meal, extra information, or even take you even closer to your destination. Of course, you should never ask the driver for a free meal, but if one is offered and your intuition tells you its safe, then you can accept.
The majority of predators often look for victims that are insecure or weak. Therefore, never make yourself seem like any of those things. You should dress in a conventional or conservative manner and if the conversation becomes sexual, steer it elsewhere. You should be as confident as possible and let the driver know that the only thing you want is to get to your destination.
31. Pack In The Trunk
Be wary of placing your pack in the trunk of a car. You run the risk of them driving off with it either accidentally or on purpose. Rather keep your pack and other valuables on your lap or next to you on the back seat. This will also ensure that you can make a quick exit if you need to.
If you are traveling with a friend, arrange to have one person remain in the car until both packs have been removed from the trunk. There is nothing quite as disheartening as watching your gear leave without you with no means to contact the driver.
Although the need to defend yourself will probably never be necessary, there is a risk involved with hitching that makes it necessary to take some precautions.
Pepper spray is ideal for defense. Stun guns can be carried openly and are good to act as a deterrent as well as to defend yourself (check the laws as this is illegal in some states).
Knives and guns are not good options when it comes to self-defense. There is a risk that the weapon can be taken from you and used against you. Unless you are trained and confident using these weapons, rather leave them at home. Remember that some simple objects like a pen can make an effective weapon when needed.
Keep in mind that using weapons for self-defense should be the absolute last resort. It should only be used when you are in fear for your life. Always first try to leave or resolve the issue. A self-defense class can also be helpful.
33. Stay Connected
Always tell a close friend or family member when you are going away. Let them know your destination as well as how long you expect to be gone or when you will be back. If something does go wrong and you fail to show up on time, this person can go to the police with this information to file a missing person report to open an investigation into your whereabouts.
Take a photo of the back of a car before you get in (preferably with a clear image of the license plate). Send the pic to your friend or family member. Give them a call to let them know how your trip is going in the hearing of the driver.
34. Discuss Drop Off Location
It is always a good idea to discuss where you will be dropped off at the start of the ride. The location should be well-lit and safe. For example, a gas station. Truck stops also make excellent drop off points as you will probably find your next ride there and get any supplies you may need. You should also ask if it is possible to be dropped off outside the city limits. Be aware that finding rides in cities is far more difficult.
35. Choose A Good Hitching Spot For A Drop Off
Take notice of your surroundings and choose a drop-off point where you are most likely to catch your next ride. Stopping in the middle of nowhere will probably mean a long wait or a long walk before you get picked up again. If a driver cannot take you to the next town or a good hitching location, it is probably better to decline the ride.
Avoid hitching from downtown locations. Although cars will be traveling in every direction, they probably aren’t going very far. Rather ask to be dropped at the edge of a town or city.
36. Show Your Gratitude
Thank your driver for the ride and apologize for the hiker stench. Any person who picks you up deserves the courtesy of being thanked. When you show your gratitude, it shows your driver that their kindness is appreciated. Being appreciated will make them go the extra mile and they are more likely to pick up hitchhikers again in the future or even go out of their way to drop you closer to your destination.
37. The Dangers Of Hitchhiking
It is becoming rarer and rarer that people take on the risk of hitching. The media and Hollywood movies are primarily to blame for this – instilling irrational fears about how dangerous it is to hitch. Bad news sells papers and even the most minor incident involving hitchhiking is often blown way out of proportion.
At the same time, it is important to be aware that there are risks associated with hitchhiking. So be prepared for anything but at the same time, don’t take all those horror stories too seriously. Most of the people you meet are going to be harmless and friendly. However, be aware that it only takes one bad apple to spoil the entire lot.
Keep in mind, that by hitching, you are accepting the risks involved. Crimes are committed against both hitchhikers and drivers who are kind enough to pick them up. While drivers become victims less often, it does leave a bad taste and those drivers are likely to never trust a hitchhiker enough to give them a ride in the future.
Listen to your instincts and if you feel uncomfortable when you have already accepted the ride, simply ask the driver to stop at the next safe spot and get out. You can make up an excuse if it makes you feel better. If the driver doesn’t stop as requested, a gentle reminder that you have photographed the car’s plates and sent the pics to friends should work. If you start feeling that you are truly in danger, you can grab the steering wheel or pull up the handbrake. This should cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle and result in a minor accident that will bring the car to a stop.
Keep in mind that even a little accident can result in serious injuries or be fatal. So this technique really should only be a desperate last resort.
All of the above-mentioned tips have come from our own personal experiences and following the advice has resulted in numerous successful hitchhiking trips over the years.
It is our hope that this guide will inspire you and give you the confidence to take to the road and start your first hitchhiking adventure. And hopefully, the more seasoned hitchhikers among our readers have also been able to take away a useful tip or two.
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