Guide to Hitchhiking

I’m a big fan of hitchhiking. Over my life I’ve gotten rides from scores upon scores of people across many thousands of miles in several different countries (only on cars and trucks, though; never on trains, boats, or planes, which are also popular to hitch on). While hitchhiking is widely regarded as a highly dangerous activity, I’ve found that keeping a cool, discerning head, turning down sketchy rides, and being a 6’1″, 210 lb, buff, dirty, scruffy, scary-looking man is largely sufficient to dissuade trouble (just kidding on that last one! Mostly. It’s important to recognize my own biases and hitchhiking privilege. Although funnily enough, I’ve been picked up by all sorts despite exemplifying the above description, including single mothers with a baby in the backseat, soccer moms who’ve put me between their soccer kids, really old people, really young people, you name it!).

Figure 1. You might be surprised at the sort of people who pick you up. For example, say you’re stylishly dressed and in the middle of a crosswalk in New York City. Who will give you a lift when you stick out your thumb? The answer is nobody, or maybe a taxi, because who hitchhikes there? Seriously (photocredit: Damian Morys).

The overwhelming majority of my experiences hitchhiking have been utterly delightful, packed with laughter, good times, and interesting conversation (I have had some iffy rides, though very few. Maybe I’ll write about them in another post). I think it’s a great way to develop conversational skills, too — when you’re in a car with a (not entirely random — there’s certainly a filter for gregariousness in who stops for you) stranger for several hours, you’ve the perfect opportunity to practice Carnegiesque active listening and show genuine interest in your benefactors. Talking with your driver for hours is a great way to meet a variety of fascinating people with passions outside those you’d normally encounter, as well as learn some local history and flavor and get insider recommendations on places to go or things to do. Some especially generous folks have even given me money or bought me lunch, which is always nice when traveling on a tight budget (the free transportation has been good there, too). Others have taken the time to give me a tour of the city or gone out of their way to drop me off at my trailhead or hostel door, which is also much appreciated. Do be sure to attend to social cues, though — if your driver prefers music or silence, don’t subject them to your yammering!

first hitchhike comp.jpgFigure 2. One of my first times hitchhiking! Taken back in 2010. Probably also the most danger I’ve ever faced hitching — sitting unsecured in a moving truck bed — and not something I’d be interested in doing ever again.

That said, people I’ve picked up have often really sucked at it. I’ll ask them how long they’ve been waiting for a ride and they’ll admit it’s been hours, which is crazy. I’ve almost always been picked up within 15 minutes (*brushes shoulders*), and this has curiously been mostly independent of traffic conditions (I suspect with higher traffic comes more opportunities for rides comes bystander-like effects and greater frequency of non-hitchhiker-friendly folks; conversely, people out in the backwoods on little forest roads feel greater kinship towards you and know how few others are out and about, and so are more likely to stop). Luckily for me, when I first started hitchhiking in 2009, I came across Aaron Bell’s wonderful Evolution of Hitchhiking, which got me started on the road to thumbing competence. I want to write about what I think are the keys to my own hitchhiking prowess (a patronizing lecture I’ve given to many hitchhikers); hence this blog post. My advice is broadly geared towards guys since I’m mostly one myself and the male-centric perspective is where my own experiences lie. Plus, guys are usually the ones hitchhiking and interested in hitchhiking, at least from what I’ve seen.

Do note that the experiences this guide reflects have so far been limited to the United States, Western/Southern Europe, and New Zealand. They won’t necessarily generalize to other countries, which might have drastically different hitchhiking customs and laws. Seek more specialized references if hoping to hitchhike elsewhere.

Figure 3. The person above is quite bad at hitchhiking. After you read this essay, you’ll be able to name at least three things wrong with his technique!

First and foremost, before you even step out to the side of the road, you really gotta do your best to look non-threatening. I’ve been lucky in this regard because most of my hitchhiking has been to and from backpacking trips, so I have my big, sorta bulky (depending on how ultralight I’m feeling) backpacking backpack prominently displayed at my side, wearing my hiking boots and hiking clothes and holding my hiking sticks, which all serve to let people know why I’m there. Don’t mind me, just an outdoorsy bloke out for a tramp, certainly not a nefarious killer, my gear signals, and often drivers are eager to talk with me about where I’ve been and what I’ve done lately. Having a conventional “prop” of this sort is helpful because it gives people a good, immediate explanation for your presence there.

Figure 4. See, look at all that nature stuff! So trustworthy!

In addition to this, make sure you look put-together and hygienic before you go out to the road’s shoulder (or as clean as you can be after a week in the mountains and woods). Having muddy shoes and pants can serve as a sign you’ve been out hiking (and I’ve regretfully dirtied a few new, fancy cars with my filth), but I think it hurts you more than it helps. Having some artfully arranged patches of dirt might enhance your outdoorsy appearance, but don’t look like you haven’t washed in months. Don’t look disheveled, either — have short, neat, brushed hair (even brushing with your fingers helps, and get a haircut every few months while in town), be recently clean shaven or with a neatly trimmed beard, and put on your cleaner sleeping/town clothes.

Your clothing also shouldn’t be emblazoned with offensive images or symbols, and keep in mind that what others find offensive could well be different from what you and your friends find offensive. Bright, practical, and reflective clothing is probably best, especially if hitchhiking under low-visibility conditions (and be extra careful after dusk! Find a well-lit spot, toss on the easily-stowable safety vest you have in your bag, and perhaps light yourself further with a headlamp or flashlight. If it gets really dark, think on calling it a night and either stealth camp nearby or trudge back to some local place of lodging). And be prepared for inclement weather, in case securing a ride takes a while. If it’s hot, drink plenty of water; if it’s cold, be well insulated; if it’s wet, be waterproof, etc.

Take off your hat and sunglasses as cars approach so drivers can get a good look at your face. However, don’t go blind staring into the sun, and consider that a hat and shades might look less dicey than a squinty frown (e.g. the phrase “wide–eyed innocence”).  You can’t really do this on the fly, but try to maintain a good skin care regime, too, and wear sunscreen (perhaps supplementing with Vit. D, NO, etc. as needed)! Halo effects are likely in play while hitchhiking, so if you look good people will think you are good and be more likely to stop.

Now that you’re looking fresh and sprightly it’s time to hit the road! But not any road, no — you’re looking for a special patch of road that matches certain conditions, which are:

A. It’s legal to hitchhike from there. Or at least mostly legal. Look up the laws in whatever country you’re in and see if they have any restrictions regarding hitching from particular sorts of roads.

B. People on it are going where you’re going and in it for the long haul. Conventional thumbing is impossible from the city or town center, since the majority of traffic is local. When moving from big city to big city I’d pay a buck to take a bus half an hour out and hitch from there because it streamlined the hitching process considerably. Look at a map and make sure your destination is the one most people will be traveling to (e.g. don’t stand a couple miles before a major highway intersection, though this can work fine with a sign).

C. People can see you from a long way off and have time to slow down and a safe place to stop. “A long way off” applies more to time than it does distance, and ideally people will see you for a long time at close distance to get the best sense of who you are. Drivers are more likely to stop if they’re going 40 miles an hour than if they’re going 80 (especially truckers, for whom it costs a nontrivial amount of gas and money to get up to speed). This also means you shouldn’t stand around blind corners — not only is it more dangerous, but people will hardly get a glance at you before they’re past. Make sure to stand well off the road at a place where there’s a wide shoulder stretching off for quite a distance that can be used to slowly and safely stop a car without obstructing traffic. Ideally, drivers will see you from hundreds of feet away, recognize that you’re hitching, get close enough to assess whether they want to pick you up, and slowly pull over after they pass you.

Basically, put yourself in the minds of your would-be drivers and identify how much and what sort of information they’re receiving, as well as whether a person inclined to pick you up can make a safe stop. Make sure you’re highly visible so nobody runs you over, especially under poor atmospheric or low light conditions, and again, consider putting reflectors on your person and gear. For example, the photo below shows what I think is a pretty good hitchhiking location:

Figure 5. Examine the wide shoulder, long buildup, presence outside a major town, confident thumb, highly visible red shirt, obvious backpacking gear, and upright posture. Taking off the hat and having a sign (discussed later) might have helped, but otherwise “Benoit Rochon” is doing well! (photo taken from Wikimedia Commons)

Generally, gas stations, rest stops, trailheads, turns onto lesser roads, on-ramps, side-of-road general store parking lots, and traffic lights positioned before a major road to your destination are good bets, but any legal and safe location with ample room to pull over should work well. If there are already people hitchhiking at your chosen location, don’t stand in front of or beside them — crowds discourage drivers (more on group-hitchhiking later), and those who began thumbing first get precedence. Instead, stay away from their spot until they get picked up, or stand down the road a ways (although potentially ask them what they’d prefer, in case they feel more comfortable hitchhiking as a pair). Occasionally, drivers with room will pick  you both up in quick succession; some have even asked my opinion on whether to acquire a second or third passenger after getting me first.

Now that you’re in place, figure out your delivery. My own approach fluctuates between two alternative strategies, the “serious, happy hitchhiker” and the “silly, happy hitchhiker”. I mostly use the former, but if bored or unlucky will occasionally lean on the latter.  In short, though, you should be happy. Don’t look sad, angry, or apathetic, but rather have a genuine (Duchenne-y) smile on your face and try to make eye contact with the driver of the car (or look at the spot in the windshield where the drivers eyes would be) — the eyes are the gateway to the soul, and you have ~2 seconds in which to make a meaningful, personal connection with the people passing you. Don’t squander them.

Make sure the drivers can fully see you, too, regardless of what you do. Standing in the shade, sitting or lying down, looking off to the side, etc. all turn you from a bright, cheerful vagabond into a dark, scary drifter, and you want to give people as much positive information about yourself as you can. That’s not to say you can’t sit or seek shade — when drivers pass rarely, I’ll usually sit on my bag in the shade reading a book, and then when I hear or see a car coming, I’ll step out of the shade and assume either the serious or silly strategy, which are distinguished by the following:

Serious: Stand up straight, but not rigidly — have good posture! You don’t need a ramrod, military spine, but don’t slouch! Smile non-maniacally when you see a car, but relax your face when there aren’t any around. You don’t want to tire your facial muscles and warp your smile into a perverse grimace. Confidently stick your thumb out on whatever side the car is passing on (and obviously stand on the side of the road corresponding to your direction of travel; so in the US you’ll always use your right thumb, in much of the Commonwealth and in many former British colonies it’ll be your left). As the car approaches, consider giving it a friendly head-nod; both up and down work well. Overall, focus on exuding confidence and charisma. You can look pathetic and successfully get a ride in certain circumstances, though, like during heavy rainfall or if you’re visibly injured, but it’s usually better not to (once I got a minor but ostensibly gruesome scrape all down my leg just before hitchhiking, which was cause for some alarm).

Figure 6. Her stance looks a mite uncomfortable to me, but hey, this was the ’70s, people were built differently back then. Try to picture seeing yourself from the driver’s perspective. Would you pick you up? Or are you a scary murderhobo best left by the wayside? (photocredit: Roger McLassus)

Silly: Here you might incorporate more unconventional props, though be careful not to look too weird. Basically, the idea is to do something goofy and attention grabbing that will intrigue drivers and encourage them to stop. When hitchhiking with friends, we’ve alternated sitting on each other’s shoulders via the “double stacked thumb” technique; when hitching alone, I might juggle some pine cones or dance or do some handstands. Make sure people recognize that you’re actually hitchhiking, though, and not some bizarre street performer – for instance, make sure your sign is in obvious display (more on signs below). If your prop is relevant to why you’re out and about, all the better — laying your snowboard on the grass and pretending to shred while in all your gear signals clearly what you’re there for. In my opinion, the serious strategy is more effective, but if you’re having no luck and feeling bored the silly strategy is worth a go.

Figure 7. A gorgeous photo, but wearing a hood, hiding your pack, and standing right after a turn in the shade? Super sketchy! (Photo Credit: Atlas Green)

Signs are an important tool in the hitchhiker’s arsenal. I initially avoided them for the trouble but later came to love them, and if I know I’ll be hitchhiking there’ll always be some big, flat sheets of cardboard and a thick-tipped sharpie tucked in my pack. They’re important because they allow the driver to very obviously recognize that you’re a hitchhiker and going somewhere specific, that you know where you’re going — having a sign means you’re hitching to get places and not for any other sinister purpose. Seeing the name of a town they’re familiar with (in a language they’re familiar with) lets them more easily connect with you, building rapport. It also puts a firm, predesignated end on your travels in their car, so they know how long you’ll be with them for, and makes it easier for you to avoid drivers not heading your way, thereby improving efficiency (since they won’t stop for you).

If you’re doing a long journey, I’d recommend having multiple signs going from intervening points a few hours apart that you switch in and out as needed. Not only are you more likely to get picked up (since drivers will be more willing to commit to a shorter ride), but you can also gracefully bail on a driver if you’re not feeling the atmosphere or conversation when you arrive at your intermediate destination.

Figure 8. A good example of how a sign should look, IMO — simple, direct, with text clearly legible from a distance. Also note the availability of space to pull over behind the hitchhiker, as well as his cheerful demeanor and confident posture. The stores and advertisements behind him suggest that much of the passing traffic is local, but the sign informs drivers of his destination and ensures that only those going his way are likely to stop (photo source).

Alternatively, if after an hour or two of chitchat you’re getting along well, you can (gently! Don’t be pushy!!) ask your driver if they can take you further (since they’ll generally have told you their final destination already in the opening introductions) — I’ve only been politely refused once in doing this (by a honeymooning couple who undoubtedly felt that 3 hours of smelly, fresh-off-the-trail Nik in their car was enough). Make sure your sign is high-contrast, large, and clearly legible, with big, blocky letters, and consider putting the name of a larger city just past your small-town destination on it, since that’s where people are more likely to be familiar with and be going to, and you can always tell them to drop you off a little early.

Many opt to forgo signs, though, out of doubts as to their effectiveness or to allow for easier disengagement from suspicious drivers (if they don’t know where you’re going precisely, you have an easy excuse when they tell you their ultimate destination – see my preferred introductory words below. You’re not going that way, but thanks anyway for stopping!). As with much of the other advice I give in this guide, try things out systematically and see what best works for you! I don’t recommend this in all respects, of course, because e.g. standing in the middle of the road can be quite dangerous.

Figure 9. You can’t even see who this person is! Fishy af! Terrible hitchhiking form! (just kidding!; Photo Credit: Benoit Rochon)

Now that a driver has stopped in response to your amazing hitchhiking routine, jog on over to them, but do so non-aggressively. Usually they’ll roll down their passenger window, to which you’ll say “Hey! How’s it going? Where ya headed? I’m Nik!”  (in the appropriate language… though potentially use your own name — Nik is lovely and all, but you might not respond to it naturally, which can be odd). You’ll exchange some pleasantries and typically they’ll pop the trunk or unlock their doors and you’ll get in. Keep hold of your wits, though! This is your opportunity to judge the driver — if anything seems sketchy or off (as will rarely happen), don’t get in the car with them! Follow your gut, trust your instincts, and politely but forcefully disengage.

This includes if they seem sleepy or under the influence of any drugs, not just if they’re skeevy or angry or something. Reject rides that aren’t sketchy if they’re not to your liking, too– if your driver can only take you a short hop, or can only drop you off at an inferior hitchhiking location, you’re under no obligation to ride with them. If they’re persistent, lie! Tell them your friend just stepped out to piss and there’s not enough room for the two of you and all your gear and dog, or that you just realized you forgot something on the trail and need to head back to fetch it. In my experience, they’ve always taken off and I’ve promptly obtained a better ride with one of the next cars. If you’re only mildly concerned, text a loved one the license plate #, make, model, and location of whatever car you enter.

There’s strength in numbers, so if you’re hitching with friends carefully weigh the risks, costs, and benefits of splitting up. If traffic is flowing smoothly and there’s disparity in hitchhiking experience within your group, pair people off in such a way as to maintain balance. It’s unlikely that any passing cars will be able to accommodate especially large groups, but in my experience most compacts will fit 2 extra people + gear, so it might not be worth the hassle to split beyond pairs if everyone’s traveling to the same destination. Make sure the size of your party is clear, though — drivers might well reject you all if they can’t fit everyone, and it’s hella disconcerting to pull over for a lone hitchhiker only for their three scary friends to jump out from behind the bushes. Sometimes it’s worth separating if traffic is sparse: we split a group of three hitching to a trailhead once and had fun leapfrogging one another… though in the end it was a mail truck that carried us all to our destination, unfortunately after I’d already walked the final fifteen out of twenty miles down a remote backcountry road. Speaking of which, if your spot is poor and nobody’s passing, consult your map and consider walking a bit to see if you can find somewhere better to thumb. Take care not to walk anywhere dangerous or illegal, though — e.g. along the side of a highway. When cars approach, spin around, flashing your sign, thumb, and smile.

When getting the car, trust but verify, and maintain caution. Don’t lose sight of your belongings unless your driver seems really trustworthy and honorable (in my case, I feel I can trust the middle class couple with kids in the shiny sports utility vehicle more than the grungy, mean-eyed stoner in the beat-up compact; classist stereotyping, sure, but better safe than sorry. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard stories of people driving off with their unwary hitchhiker’s belongings after dropping them off. Oof!). Stay alert! Do your best not to fall asleep! And keep your most precious valuables hidden on your person.

Figure 10. Ex-Hitcher, traveler malcontent, and your new hitchhiking teacher. I am here because Nikolai asked me. End of story, goodbye, the end! Any questions? When it comes to hitching I believe in a practical approach. But first, which of you can tell me how many hitchhiking techniques there are?

Watch for sudden movements and come up with contingencies in case things go sour (in overwhelming likelihood they won’t, though, if you took the above precautions and are a large, muscular man. In terms of frequency, I’ve met way shadier people more often when out in the woods backpacking, in the hostel dining room at midnight, or walking around the city at noon, so iffyness will occur, and if you want to avoid it completely you oughtta probably just stay home. Risk is inherent in everything we do, and hitchhiking hasn’t, in my experience, been any riskier than many of my other hobbies, at least substantially beyond the riskiness inherent to riding in or piloting multi-ton contraptions of fire and metal at breakneck speeds down narrow roads).

On the whole, though, have fun! The person giving you a ride is doing you a favor, so be the best conversation partner you can be, even if it’s through silence. Earn your ride and you’ll have a good time! Talk to them and learn about their lives (though initially avoid controversial topics and stick to F.O.R.D.-like themes: family, occupation, recreation, dreams)! Remember the principle of sonder and try to see the good and uniqueness of everyone you meet. They all have interesting stories and experiences to share, and oftentimes with a little gentle prodding you can tease those stories out and have some excellent entertainment for your journey together.

One last and important note: don’t get discouraged. Hitchhiking is a great way to build up your tolerance for rejection and people will often pass you by, even people who look exactly like you with lots of room in their car. Don’t fall prey to fundamental attribution error-like thinking and take their rejection personally — they owe you nothing, and in all likelihood are traveling locally, or are really busy, or their cat just died and they don’t want company, or didn’t see you in time, or any number of other possible explanations. Give them a smile and a wave, maybe an “eh, no hard feelings” shrug, and keep on thumbing!

Figure 11. Much like in this ~1500 year old Chinese handscroll painting of an emperor rejecting his consort, you shouldn’t feel bad when someone doesn’t pick you up. In this figure, the emperor represents passing cars and you, dear reader, are the consort. Notice the latter’s look of calmness and composure. You too should seek to embody such equanimity upon being ignored! (Image Source)

(note! Once more, the above represents my own, personal experiences hitchhiking in the United States, New Zealand, and Europe. They might not be representative of your own, and my advice does not constitute the results of some rigorous study. It might be false in many respects! It’s not gospel, so feel free to experiment. Be careful when hitchhiking, hiking, driving, or doing any other activity that might put you in uncomfortable situations.  If you’re incredibly risk averse, avoid doing anything that will put you in any danger whatsoever. You can also consider approaching people when they’re outside of their cars — at gas stations, say — and asking them for a ride there. I personally don’t do it, because I can be intimidating and don’t want to make others uncomfortable, but I know plenty who have successfully secured rides with this more active approach. And look at other online sources for hitchhiking information, like hitchwiki. I only just found it after writing this article, but it seems to recapitulate much of what I’ve said and make plenty of other good points, too)

Don’t forget your towel! Happy hitching!

(header image ruthlessly stolen from Wikimedia Commons, but the person depicted totally could be me!)


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