Hitchhiking Tips And Tricks: How To Safely Travel By Catching Rides

0
Stuart Jameson, a lone hitchhiker walking down the center of the road in Iran

After traveling through the United States, Central America, and South America, I returned to Europe in the summer of 2012. Sitting alone in a bar in Berlin, I contemplated where my nose would take me next.

In the years previous, both my parents had passed, and I had subsequently quit two jobs and sold just about everything I owned to globetrot for as long as possible. Tolkien famously wrote, “Not all who wander are lost,” but I had no idea where I was going.

Yet, as I drained my glass of cellar-temperature German beer, my course of action suddenly popped into my head, fully formed. I was going to hitchhike to India.

A Personal Perspective Hitching From Berlin to Cambodia

My last and only experience of this form of vagabond transit was circa 2007 when my then-girlfriend and I randomly hitched to a music festival and snuck in for free. Terrified of flying yet wanting to see the world, hitchhiking seemed like a viable course of action to cross continents. If you prefer to fly, Going.com is another.

Upon returning to the Generator Berlin Prenzlauer Hostel, I raided the dumpsters for a suitable piece of cardboard, borrowed a fat magic marker from reception, and wrote INDIA in large letters.

The following morning, a little hungover and garnering bemused looks, I wandered out to the side of a road south of Berlin. Within the hour, I had secured a ride to Dresden, and the mission that would consume the next six years of my life was underway.

I traveled at a glacial pace, up as far as Estonia and down as far as Greece. I ventured through all of Eastern Europe, then into Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, and Kyzgystan. China wouldn’t let me have a visa to cross a land border.

But for the most part, I hitchhiked the whole way. In the Czech Republic, I decided to start raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support – the charity that assisted my parents in their twilight years.

I upgraded my INDIA sign, and I asked everyone who ever picked me up to sign the back of it. It now has pride of place on a wall at home.

In the end, I made it as far as Cambodia. Through over forty countries, across thousands of miles, in hundreds of different vehicles, with a truly eclectic range of interesting people.

I was shattered and couldn’t continue. At the same time, I’d found what I was looking for and decided to call it a day. India can wait.

Very long story short, this epic hitchhiking journey has gifted me with a unique knowledge of the subject. I will share that with you now in a guide full of hitchhiking tips and tricks. Perhaps you will come to love hitchhiking as much as I do. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room:

Is Hitchhiking Dangerous?

Hitchhiking by the side of the road in Thailand
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

There are several horror movies about hitchhiking (The Hitcher being the definitive classic). Campfire stories have been told about the proverbial escaped axe murderer lurching from the woods to flag down a ride in the dead of night. But considering the most dangerous place in the world is your kitchen, hitchhiking has been unjustly vilified by the uninformed and inexperienced.

For example, a young woman hitchhiking alone must take more precautions than a man and a woman hitchhiking together. Certain countries might be more challenging than others. But in all the years I was hitchhiking solo, I only felt a bit nervous a couple of times, all attributed to some memorable misunderstandings.

I met some truly amazing people – because people are inherently good. For the overwhelming majority of the population, nobody sets out in the morning thinking today’s the day they will harm a hitchhiker or commit crimes. Don’t believe the fearmongering; use your common sense and follow this guide.

Is Hitchhiking Illegal?

Truck and hitchhiker near Antalya in Turkey
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

I was hitchhiking in Iran when a long-distance trucker unintentionally dropped me outside a highway police station. Some 10 to 15 officers turned curiously in my direction as I struggled to disembark the cab.

As a UK national, I shouldn’t have even been in the country without a chaperone, and my heart sank as the officers waved me over. Upon jovially inspecting my well-stamped passport, guitar, backpack, and hitchhiking sign, each took turns enthusiastically shaking my hand in welcome.

In the vast majority of countries, hitchhiking is perfectly legal. When it comes to hitchhiking across America, it depends on the state.

It also depends on the spot you hitchhike from and any police officers you may or may not encounter. Even in places where it is forbidden, you’re unlikely to get arrested, and the most you’ll receive is a slap on the wrist and possibly a fine.

Always check local hitchhiking ordinances. Know where you can and cannot stand on the roads, and understand the laws of the state or country you’re in for soliciting and offering rides.

My next ambition is to hitchhike from the East Coast to the West Coast of the US. Perhaps I’ll see you out there?

Why You Should Start Hitchhiking

Two photographs of a hitchhiker taken in the same spot ten years apart
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

The main advantage is the free ride. I’ve seen some of the best places on earth without paying a bean to get there.

But the randomness of who you meet and how you make it to the next town is utterly thrilling, and that’s what makes hitchhiking so special. I recommend doing it without a phone for total freedom and adrenaline. It takes you off the toxicity of social media and restores your faith in humanity.

It is said that nobody picks up hitchhikers anymore and that it’s had its heyday, but as long as people drive, there will be people sticking out their thumbs. It’s not for everyone, but for intrepid, adventure-seeking travelers, a successful hitchhike is an exhilarating, unforgettable, life-affirming experience.

See Related: Reasons Why Traveling is Important!

How to Hitchhike – Planning and Preparation

Making a hitchhiking sign for Timisoara in Romania
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Don’t Have a Time Frame

Hitchhiking isn’t like public transport. When you get a random free ride, schedules and timeframes go out the window. If you need to be somewhere by a given time, hitchhiking isn’t the way to achieve it.

I’ve crossed vast distances much faster than any public transportation could ever have taken me, especially when scoring a longer ride. Manage your expectations, and you’ll have a less stressful trip.

Plan a Route

Google Maps is your friend. As is the legendary website Hitchwiki, which became my bible for many years. Being something of a Luddite, I traveled without a phone and would draw my estimated route on the back of my cardboard sign the night before a hitch.

You don’t have to do it that way, and smartphones have all the bells and whistles to help you get from A to B. Yet, I would still advise giving your route a once-over before setting off.

Your phone might die, and/or you might find yourself in an area without coverage. Having a few screenshots AND a hard copy of a local road map is invaluable.

Observe Personal Hygiene

Most people don’t want a smelly, dirty traveler in their car. Be sure to observe personal hygiene, shower, and wear clean clothing.

Men should ensure any facial hair is tidy, although I would always be clean-shaven for a hitch day. Perhaps that has more to do with my inability to grow a beard, but I find a fresh face will always work in your favor.

Wear the Right Clothing

Drivers pick up clean, well-kept humans, not disheveled monsters hunched at the side of the road. The right clothing can go a long way in getting a ride, not to mention your safety in low light and poor conditions.

Wear bright colors and clothing that is suitable for the weather. Layering is highly recommended, and having a packable rain jacket like this one from Patagonia is a great idea. Try not to wear sunglasses – drivers need to see your face as they only have a few seconds to make a snap judgment you’re not a threat.

But my best piece of clothing advice? Wear a Superman T-shirt. That dude is a universally recognized symbol of hope and peace.

I lost track of how many times I got picked up because of it. Don’t wear anything offensive, ragged, or ripped, and you should do fine.

A collection of hitchhiking signs
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Make a Readable Cardboard Sign

Different hitchhikers will tell you different opinions about signage. Put a funny joke on it. Draw a smiley face. Say something witty.

However you decide to use your artistic ability, it’s as simple as this – make it readable. I carried a fat magic marker and made my signs big and bold.

If I needed to, I sometimes changed signs mid-hitch. I would learn and write my destination in that country’s language to be extra clear.

And the rule of thumb is the closer the destinations, the easier it will be to get a ride. Although I did massive hitches that often took over 12 hours, no more than 30 miles is the sweet spot for a single leg.

Tell Someone Where You’re Going

This is the standard advice for any outdoor adventure. I would do three things:

  • Tell a family member my intentions.
  • Tell my current accommodation the same.
  • Finally, I would inform my future accommodation that I was en route and that they could expect me anytime.

That wasn’t always possible, especially when crossing an entire country in a day. But at the very least, someone you trust should know what you’re trying to accomplish and roughly when you expect to get there.

See Related: Totally Awkward Solo Travel Situations & How to Cope

Where to Sleep

Hitchhiking is perfect for traveling on a budget, and hostels are your best bet for cheap places to stay on the road. Alas, in some places – such as the US – they’re not as prevalent, comfortable, or as budget-friendly as they are in destinations like South America, Southeast Asia, and Europe.

You can still find cheap hotels on sites like Booking.com, and Couchsurfing is a wonderful option for meeting locals for a cultural exchange. Many hitchhikers pack tents and camp, and I’ve even been hosted by drivers who have kindly offered their homes as a place to spend the night.

Packing and Supplies

Water is essential, as is a few light bites to keep you going. If you get dropped in the middle of nowhere, you could be away from civilization for an extended time. Energy bars and bananas are always a good idea.

For sleeping, consider a bivy sack like this one for remote areas and/or long distances. Ultimately, you want to travel as light as possible. Again, while I don’t recommend them, you may want a phone for peace of mind, but it’s not an essential item.

The checklist below includes what I consider to be the bare essentials.

See Related: Essential Solo Travel Luggage & Accessories

How to Hitchhike – On the Day

Hitchhiking signs and backpack by the side of a road in Serbia
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Set off Early

I would always rise at the crack of dawn on hitch days. Aim to catch the morning traffic, because there will be a lull after rush hour. The earlier you can set off, the more chance you’ll have of making it to your destination in good time.

Use public transportation to get out of big cities. Trying to hitchhike from the center is a real challenge when all local people are getting off to work at the next exit.

Where to Stand

There are a myriad of factors for successful hitchhiking, but standing in the right location has to be up there with the most important. You must play it safe and understand your surroundings. Gas stations and highway rest areas are your best bet.

You can approach drivers and politely enquire if they’re going your way. I’ve been offered rides by sitting in a roadside cafe with my sign clearly displayed.

Ramps to highways are ideal – providing plenty of room for vehicles to stop. Always stand where you leave enough space and time for a driver to see you, decide to pick you up, and pull in safely.

Learn the Signals

In most countries, sticking out your thumb is the recognized symbol for hitchhiking. In some places, however, it might be considered offensive. When in doubt, ask about. Speak to a local or someone at your accommodation.

In several African countries, the hitchhiking signal is the hand held out with the palm facing upwards. Pointing down the road in the direction of travel works in Australia. But in general, you don’t need to use a signal if you’re carrying a good sign.

Hitchhiking sign backpack and guitar by the side of a road
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Be Patient

Patience is an essential hitchhiking skill. If you don’t have it, then this method of transport isn’t for you. (Honestly, I’m amazed my wife even tried it with me in Thailand….)

Most hitchhikers are well aware they could be spending many hours at the side of the road – depending on when and where they’re hitchhiking from. Never show your frustration to drivers, even if you’ve been waiting a while. Stay positive and have your friendly game face on at all times.

What You See is What You Get

Aside from your attire, body language is also key in obtaining your next ride. Make eye contact with every driver. Smile.

Show energy and enthusiasm – but don’t overdo it. I’ve seen giddy hitchhikers jumping around like smurfs on speed. Nobody wants that noise stuck in a moving car.

I developed a trick where I would smile, nod, and wave to every driver, whether they acknowledged me or not. The vehicle behind them isn’t know that, but they will see someone friendly and respectful. They’re likelier to stop for that than a hitcher flipping everyone off in a rage.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Even experienced hitchhikers can overlook this point, but I would like to direct this tip to the drivers. You don’t have to take a hitchhiker the whole way! To get from Yerevan, Armenia, to Tabriz, Iran, it took me eight different rides over 17 hours.

Unless you’re hitchhiking a well-traveled route across a relatively short distance, it’s rare to do it all in one go. Be prepared to inch your way towards your final destination. I used to treat it as a game – the further I traveled with each ride, the closer I was to home base for the night.

Negotiate a Ride Carefully

Don’t just jump in the front seat when the car stops. Go to the passenger side window and talk to your potential ride. Establish where they’re going and how far they can take you.

Make a note of their license plate before setting foot inside. If you have your smartphone, a subtle snap is ideal, then send it to a friend.

And pay attention during the ride. If the driver decides to take an alternative route, you might want to request a drop-off if it doesn’t suit you.

How to Hitchhike – In the Vehicle

Inside a truck somewhere in Iran
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Interacting With Your Host

What do you talk about with a total stranger in a vehicle? The same thing as you would do with them in a bar. In the street. At a function. Anywhere, really. Start with introducing yourself and go from there.

It’s easier to outline the things you should avoid talking about. Keep religion, politics, race, gender, and any other potentially controversial subjects off the table.

Sometimes, a driver might not want to talk at all, and on longer hitches I often fell asleep. Only do that if you feel comfortable, and be sure to ask the driver if it’s okay beforehand.

Language Barriers

If you’re hitchhiking in a foreign country, you may encounter a language barrier. Carrying a digital translator or translator app on your phone can help, but where’s the fun in that?

I once had a ride with a bloke for several hours in Ukraine where I didn’t speak a word of his language, and he didn’t speak a word of mine. Yet we “talked” the entire time and had an absolute riot doing so. If everything in life was so easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable.

Respect, Courtesy, and Gratitude

Three simple words that could go a long way in this day and age. It’s just a shame that so many people seem to forget them. Treat your driver well, and they will treat you well in return.

How to Hitchhike – Additional Safety Tips

A hitchhiker with signs and backpack taken at night
Stuart Jameson / ViaTravelers

Wear Sunscreen

Essential. Not only might you be standing in the open for long periods with no cover, but you might get a ride in the back of a pickup and be exposed for hours.

I learned this the hard way. You could have fried an egg on my knees. Badger is my go-to. Remember; anything under SPF 50 is essentially useless.

Carry a Pepper Spray

I never needed to use mine, but having it in my pocket provided invaluable peace of mind. I carried something similar to this one from Sabre.

Avoid Hitchhiking at Night

Sometimes it’s unavoidable (see the photo above when I was stranded for hours at a remote Polish gas station), but try to hitchhike only in daylight hours. Hitchhiking at night isn’t impossible, but it’s far more challenging, and the risks increase.

Editor’s Note: An old English teacher of mine was killed doing exactly this on a hitchhiking tour across America. The exhausted driver of the semi never saw him in the dark.

Keep Your Belongings Close

Avoid putting your gear in the trunk before you’re in the vehicle yourself. Keep doors open when entering and exiting until everything you own is about your person.

YOU Decide If You Get Into A Vehicle

Trust your gut. You don’t need to accept the ride if something doesn’t feel right. Don’t feel guilty for turning a driver down – for whatever reason. Call it if you ever feel uncomfortable, and get out of Dodge. I’ve turned down rides from cars full of sketchy-looking dudes without batting an eyelid.

Get Travel Insurance!

A no-brainer. Whether you’re hitchhiking or not, getting good coverage while you travel is highly recommended. TravelInsurance.com is a great place to find the right plan for you, but try SafetyWing or World Nomads if you intend to stay on the road for longer.

Related Resources

Stuart Jameson
WRITTEN BY

Stuart Jameson

With over 70 countries under his belt, Stuart is a well-seasoned globetrotter hailing from the UK, now living in Madison, Wisconsin. After traveling the world for seven years (including a hitchhike from Germany to Cambodia) his current mission is to visit all 50 states before turning 50 - something he's going to fail to do if he keeps collecting board games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *