How to hitchhike / A guide to hitchhiking for beginners (anybody) / The rules of hitching. Call it what you will, this post is intended to provide useful advice for anybody who wants it.
Hitchhiking is not an exact science. It is more of an art form. There is no perfect formula to ensure success (or failure), but there are things that you can do to increase your chances of success. The following advice is drawn upon by my own meandering experience involving tens of thousands of kilometres of hitchhiking. The longest single hitchhiking journey I undertook was a 14,000 mile journey through Europe.
The advice is split into multiple sections. They are not ordered in importance, because each section is important in it’s own right. Please feel free to comment if you have any thoughts on the material.
Travel with the Right Person
Who do you want to go with? Think hard about whether you want to travel alone or with company. Consider enjoyment and comfort. I travel alone and find myself easy to get along with most of the time, although not always. When I meet someone on the road who I think that I could get along with, I will travel with them for a period of time.
Travelling alone. If you are thinking of hitchhiking alone, address the following questions. Are you comfortable hitchhiking alone? Can you deal with being alone in new places and meeting new people all of the time? For me, I love the challenge because it pushes me to my limits. It isn’t always an easy ride, but it’s a fun one. For girls it is often more intimidating than for guys, but I know several girls who have successfully travelled alone by hitchhiking.
Travelling with someone. If you are not alone, ask the following questions of you and your fellow hitcher(s). As a group, do you feel safe travelling together? What time of day are you comfortable hitching? Some people prefer not to hitch at night. Where do you want to sleep at night? You must agree on this for obvious reasons. How do you signal to each other if you are not comfortable with a ride? Do you have an exact ‘plan’ or are you flexible to change? Bare in mind that the more of you that there are, the more intimidating you appear to passing cars and the less likely they are to have space for you all. I have found that hitching as a guy and girl together can work well because people assume that you are a friendly couple. Often when travelling with female friends, I have found it valuable to play on this image when needed. If you don’t have a hitchhiking partner, try searching the groups on Couchsurfing or forums on Digihitch.
Get travel insurance. The most likely thing to happen is a common accident, for which you will require medical assistance. Get travel insurance, even if it is only basic. Medical bills are extortionate worldwide. Two fractured vertebrae, six stitches in my head, and occasional other injuries, as well as lost wallets and broken cameras all agree with this. As a result of always having travel insurance, none of these have caused me major lasting problems.
Have a reserve money supply. I recommend a second bank card hidden in a secure place. I generally don’t carry anything and ended up ‘squatting’ in a beach resort in Zanzibar a few years back when my wallet went ‘missing.’
Keep an electronic copy of all your documents. In the event that they go missing, a printed copy is much better than nothing at all. I e-mail my documents to myself so that I can retrieve them from anywhere around the world. This includes my passport, my insurance documents, and.. well that’s about all I need.
USE YOUR INTUITION. I cannot understate the importance of this. I have met people who carry pepper spray or knives but I am 100% of the opinion that using your initiative is a much more powerful weapon. Think about yourself for a minute: in a threatening situation, would you have the equipment (pepper spray / a knife) to hand so that you could get it out? Would you have the conviction to look like you might actually do something with the weapon you wield? I used to carry a knife until I realised I wouldn’t know what to do with it and it would be immediately obvious to anyone who threatened me. I could use my hands far better. Pre-emtive action is the best defence. If you are not comfortable, make any excuse to get out of a ride or don’t get in in the first place. You will never see the person again, so do not be afraid to offend them. ANY excuse will do. Hitchhiking is not dangerous if you make it safe.
Don’t leave your valuable possessions in a car. For me, this is my notebooks and my photographs (saved on my camera). When stopping at a gas station for a break, I leave my main luggage, but normally carry a small, separate pack with all of the things I really care about in. Try not to offend your drivers by making it clear that you don’t trust them. Occasionally I sneak a cheeky photo of the license plate as I pass in case they drive off with my stuff.
Make a sign (optional). Often, I hitchhike with nothing but my thumb. It requires no equipment and gets lots of people to stop. However, a sign shows that you are serious about your trip and have a goal in mind. Make the sign clear and easy to read. Don’t be too specific. Often writing the name of a big town in the general direction that you wish to travel (or even the general direction e.g. South) is all you need. People are nicer than you would believe and often go out of their way to help you get where you are going. My most commonly used sign simply says ’20km’ and I negotiate a ride with the driver once they have stopped. Most people are driving 20km (if you’re standing in the right place), thus it greatly increases the number of people who will stop for you.
Smile at people, dress appropriately. This goes a long way. I love wearing my loose fitting ‘hippy’ pants and in certain countries, they work very well; in others, not so much. People only have a couple of seconds to decide whether or not to pick you up and jeans or regular shorts can often be successful in obtaining a ride. Sunglasses are a bad idea because it looks like you’re hiding something. For guys, long beards or long hair can prove difficult because people think you haven’t had the opportunity to keep yourself ‘tidy.’ When it rains, try to stay dry. Sympathy is a less powerful emotion than the lack of desire to have a soggy stranger in your car. Hair that is too short (shaved) can intimidate people. Ultimately though, it’s a smile and eye contact that secure the ride more than how you look.
Put your (reasonable) bags where people can see them. It makes you look like a hitchhiker. Suitcases are bad for hitchhiking and no luggage can suggest that you are on the run (or a prostitute). Pack reasonably because you will be carrying your pack for a long time and sometimes for long distances. More reasonable sized backpacks can also fit into smaller cars. Try to limit yourself to one bag (or one large bag with a small handheld bag for valuables; I have a tiny shoulder bag for my camera, passport, and money).
Signal clearly. Typically, I hold the sign out clearly where people can see it, put my thumb out, and make direct eye contact. The eye contact can quite often prove to be the deal maker. Again, smile.
Know where you are going
Knowledge is power. Maps can be extremely valuable. For reduction of weight, I often take photos of maps on my camera and look at maps in service stations, but sometimes I am caught a little short. Try to learn the map (roughly) so that when you are offered a ride to a certain town, you know whether to say yes or no. Make it clear to your driver where you want to get out. I ask for the motorway exit (as it also has an entrance) or a large service station. Getting taken into a town is an absolute nightmare for hitching. When travelling long distances it is easy to get a relatively lightweight fold out map of a large area to help you out.
Stand in the right place
Get on the right road. It sounds like common sense, but is is easy to get yourself in the wrong place. Check where you are by asking people nearby. When you don’t understand the language, point and say the name of the place that you are going and observe the individual’s response. Do this with multiple people and put your trust in the majority opinion.
Do not stand on the motorway. In many countries, it is illegal and the police will move you. It is also dangerous and terrifying. Almost anywhere that is not past the motorway sign, is legal to hitchhike (do not hold me to this). Sometimes I stand ten metres in front of the motorway sign, but I never cross it. Once you cross that sign, you are officially breaking a law and could face a fine.
Find excess space and lack of speed. Stand where people can stop. My first choice is slip roads because they are close to the motorway and you know all passing cars are going in the right direction and will pass relatively slowly. Find a wide space where they can pull over. My next choice is service stations on the motorway. Again, you know all cars are going in the same direction. Find a place close to where traffic rejoins the motorway so that you can catch all types of vehicle. I also use bus stops, roundabouts, and anywhere where cars move slow enough to read the sign and have space to pull over. If you are in a place without space or where the cars are moving too fast, it becomes too dangerous for everyone.
Be visible. Give drivers time to decide to take you. Jumping out from the bushes will shock them far more than it will incline them to stop. Waving or even a little dance can sometimes make people laugh and they are more inclined to stop for you. I have used these techniques with great success at times and know people who juggle or perform handstands to obtain rides.
Ask. There is no harm in approaching people at gas stations to ask for a ride. Sometimes they are a little surprised by this direct approach and say yes because they feel too embarrassed to say no. For this reason, I normally choose not to do it, but when experiencing difficulty in catching a ride, this is what I resort to.
Find a good place. Be prepared to walk to find it. If I wait in a single place for an hour, I move. Then I find a new place and continue on my way. Sometimes when exiting a city, I walk for several miles until I am happy with the place that I have found. Use hitch wiki to find good starting points from big cities.
Just do it. Get over all those fears and preconceptions that you might have and hit the road. You’ll figure most of this stuff out when you simply get out there and do it for yourself. By the way, it feels great.
Don’t give up. Sometimes people pass you by, sometimes they laugh. Occasionally they even flick you off. But when you get that ride and reach your intended destination, all the badness washes away and you are on top of the world. Don’t stop chasing this moment.
You may also be interested in reading How to Hitchhike a Boat, Is Hitchhiking Dangerous, or checking out the Travel Without Money (for free) advice page.