The Dos and Don'ts of Hitchhiking
“It’s the journey, not the destination.” - Albert Camus (The Stranger)
Hitchhiking comes under many names. Thumbing, tramping, hitching, or thumbing up a ride. It's a very different way to get from A to B. It's a very different way to have an adventure.
Hitchhiking is one of those activities that's associated with travelling. I mean, who hitchhikes in their own country? It's cheap way to travel, fun, and a great way to meet people, but it can be dangerous too. This is a comprehensive guide to hitchhiking, the dos and don’ts, and how to get the most enjoyment out of it.
People hitch for all sorts of reasons. Because they have no money. Because they want to meet someone. Because it's an adventure. Whatever your reason, it's great fun. There are now sponsored hikes, charity events, and people plan entire trips away with just hitchhiking.
Check out 'Choose a Challenge' for more information on what's possible through hitchhiking.
Location, Location, Location
Line of sight
You need to find a place where you can be seen early. This gives the driver time to decide if they want to pick you up. It also gives the driver time to safely pull over. Ideally, there should be some traffic to slow up the driver, but not too much either, as this makes pulling over difficult and makes drivers assume that you can always get a ride with somebody else.
On the edge
Try to get a bus to the edge of town. It is always easier picking up a ride on the edge of town than in the centre. Also, if you are on the edge of town you are more likely to be picked up by someone travelling a long distance.
This is a great place to catch a ride. They have amenities if you are thirsty or hungry, cover from sun or rain, and most importantly, a toilet. People always seem more willing to give you a ride at a service station as you can strike up a conversation too.
Any location where people stop for five minutes to an hour is a good place to be picked up. It takes courage but just ask people for a ride. More often than not you will catch them by surprise, and in turn they will surprise you by saying yes! The worst thing that can happen is they say no. You’ve lost nothing.
Hitching on your own is always easier. People feel sorry for you and pick you up. Two people hitching, or in a group, is more fun, and less frustrating as you’ve got someone to talk to, but it can take a lot longer. You need to decide why you are hitchhiking, whether it is worthwhile. An important factor - timing should never be an issue.
Is it illegal?
Hitching is illegal in some countries, and in certain areas of some countries. For example, it is illegal to hitch on a motorway in the UK as it is considered unsafe. Make sure you research the country you are in to see whether it is legal, and safe, to hitchhike.
If you are waiting around for a while and are getting restless then just take a walk. Pick up your bag and walk in the direction you want to go.
Make sure you know the right gestures used locally to stop a car. The ‘thumbs up’ sign doesn't work in many parts of the world. An outstretched waving arm is another common gesture, but generally defer to locals.
It is important to smile, be happy, and talk. You won’t get very far if you are moody and sullen. Tell the driver who you are, where you are travelling to, and why you are hitching. It is essentially your job to talk to the driver - it's your payment.
A setting sun
It is very difficult to travel at night and it is not recommended. However, some truckers drive through the night. If you have to travel at night, catch a lift with them.
The type of person who will pick you up
More often than not, it will be someone who has picked up hitchhikers before. This is usually the older generation, but not always. Camper vans/caravans seem to love hitchhikers. Whoever it is, just be yourself, talk, and relax.
Be prepared to walk all day
Hitching can be very frustrating at times. You can be standing for hours in the baking sun, or shivering in the freezing cold, watching car after car pass you by. It can take hours before you get a ride, and you should be prepared to wait all day if needs be. Don’t be surprised if you start talking to yourself! Make sure you have enough food and water for the day. You should always be prepared for anything! Sunscreen, a hat, rain poncho, a map etc.
If you catch a lift but the driver says he can only take you so far, ask if you can be dropped at a good spot for getting more rides, e.g. a gas station or a toll place.
Signs catch a driver's attention. Simple signs like ‘north’ or ‘south’ are very effective, but if you’re not going to a specific place then use a quirky sign that will make the driver smile or laugh. Something cheeky, such as ‘to infinity… and beyond!’ or ‘to Mars, but not Jupiter’, will make drivers pull over to see what you are like. You want a sign that can be easily seen from afar and give the driver enough time to consider if he/she wants to pick you up or not.
You should always offer money for petrol. More often than not the driver will turn it down, but it’s the gesture that counts. If you stop off at a service station then buy some food or drink, share it around.
A token of thanks
A nice little touch is to give a token of your appreciation. Hitchhikers hike for the adventure. So do the drivers. It is a story to tell the family or friends in the evening. Give them a memento, no matter how small. Something for them to talk about. It is a permanent memory. A good token is a postcard with a message like “Thank you so much for the ride! It was so nice of you to pick me up. If you ever need a ride when you are in my country then e-mail me on... you’ve made my day!”
You don’t always need to say yes to someone. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. Just because a woman picks you up, or a family, doesn’t mean you can trust them.
Sometimes it can be a good idea to take down the number plate, just in case. Its good to have on record if you ever need to contact the police.
Eyes and ears
Keep them open! Do not fall asleep whilst hitching. It is rude and more often than not you will find yourself on the side of the road again. You must always be polite, and that means talking lots.
All these books encapsulate the spirit of hitchhiking:
- On the Road - Jack Kerouac
- The Grapes of Wrath - John Stienbeck
- Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
- Hitchhiker's Guide to Europe - Ken Welsh
- Into the Wild - Jon Krakauer
- Around Ireland with a Fridge - Tony Hawks
- Off the Map - Hibikina Chickena and Kika Kat
- Even Cowgirls get the Blues - Tom Robbins
About the Author: Macca Sherifi
Macca is gapyear.com's travel editor and writes on a myriad of topics, giving the best travel advice in an easy-to-read style that he would describe as 'cutesy'. His two passions are travelling and writing, which is lucky, because he's a travel writer. Macca travelled for 20 months non-stop, never settling in one place for more than a week or two, living to travel and travelling to live. In his spare time, he reads about travelling, thinks about travelling, and then travels. If that fails he still harbours hopes of being a professional rugby player...