My fiance and I recently embarked on an around the world traveling adventure, and our primary means of getting from one place to another is hitchhiking. With some common sense and an adventurous spirit, anyone can enjoy a hitchhiking journey.
Our basic philosophy is that people are trustworthy. But one of the biggest responses we get from people who hear that we are hitchhiking is, "But that's not safe, is it?" Actually, you are no more likely to be the victim of a violent crime while hitchhiking than while enjoying a cup of tea in your favorite cafe (see Hitchhiking Crime Studies). If the statistics don't reassure you, reduce your worry with these simple precautions:
If you don't feel comfortable hitchhiking alone, don't. Having a partner not only provides you with a sense of security, but also provides you a source of amusement while you wait for a ride.
If possible, don't stand directly on major highways. It will be hard for a car going 60 mph to stop and pick you up, and it would hurt a lot if a car going that fast hit you. Stand at entrances to highways, and try to make sure there is space for a car to pull over without interrupting traffic. However, if you are at a light-traffic highway entrance and don't want to wait around all day, walk out to the median strip between the entrance and the highway. This way cars on the highway and cars entering the highway can see you, and there's usually enough room for you to stand at a safe distance from the cars rushing past.
a minute to evaluate the ride. Don't just hop into the first car that
stops to pick you up. Approach the car and if the driver rolls down the
window, take a minute to ask them where they're going and how far they
can take you. If they don't roll down the window, open the car door but
don't get in. Talk to them for a minute first and take a moment to
decide whether or not you want to accept the ride.
Know that it is okay to turn down a ride. If someone stops to pick you up and makes you feel uncomfortable in any way, whether for lack of seatbelts or empty beer cans in the backseat, just say no. If you want to give them a reason, ask where the person is going, then say "No thanks, I'm hoping for a ride that will take me a longer ways" or "Hey, I just realized I'm headed the other direction!"
Keep your stuff with
you whenever possible. If you are going on a long hitchhiking journey,
you will probably have a backpack. Try to keep it with you. For
example, if you are getting a ride with someone in a truck, don't
necessarily throw your bag in the back of the truck. If there's space,
keep it on your lap or next to you. Chances are no one who picks you up
is going to try and take your stuff, so don't freak out if you do need
to put your stuff in a trunk or the back of a truck because of lack of
space in the car, but only do so if necessary.
I do recommend you always keep your identification and cash on your person. That way if something does happen to your bag, at least you've got the important stuff. One time one of our rides started to drive off before we had grabbed our bags from the back of his truck. He wasn't trying to steal our bags, he just forgot they were in there. We flagged him down in time to get our bags out, but if we hadn't, I would have lost my passport. Now I keep my passport in a money belt around my waist when I'm hitching.
Dos and Don'ts to Getting a Ride
Do look presentable. You are much more likely to get a ride if you are clean and put-together. By put-together I mean that your clothes are not ragged or dirty, and that your stuff is contained in a backpack or duffel bag rather than, say, a garbage bag.
Don't let yourself get too
dirty or smelly while hitchhiking. Just because you're traveling by a
cheap means of transportation doesn't mean you can't take care of
yourself. Truck stops often have showers, and so do many campgrounds.
Wash your clothes by hand one item at a time. That way, you can attach
that item to the outside of your bag where it can dry.
Do look like you're trying to get somewhere. My fiance and I traveled with hiking backpacks and numerous people who stopped for us said they did so because we looked like travelers. If you're not traveling with anything, it makes you look purposeless and less safe to pick up.
Don't put out your thumb in a spot where drivers can't see you well or where there's no room for them to stop. You want to make it as easy as possible for someone to pick you up, so make sure they can see you for a long distance as they approach you and that there's space for them to pull over a long distance behind you.
Do use a sign, or don't. I can't say decisively whether or not a sign makes much difference in your ability to get a ride, but it doesn't seem to hurt. One of our rides said he didn't read our sign, but the fact that we had one conveyed purpose and affected his decision to stop. Another ride said he only stopped because he was going to the city written on our sign. Probably three quarters of the time we don't use a sign and we still get rides.
Do wear reflectors if you are hitchhiking at night and try to hitch in well-lit areas. If possible, though, don't hitchhike at night. People will be less likely to stop because they can't see you well, and it is more dangerous because they can't see you well.
Do travel with a buddy. It will be easier for you to get rides, especially if one of you is female. One of our rides said a traveling companion is known as a "road dog" and when she sees someone traveling alone, it makes her question why he or she would be traveling alone. You will seem like a safer bet if you have someone with you.
Don't be rude to drivers that pass you by. We've experienced about four different instances of people passing us, only to turn around and come back for us. One guy didn't have time to stop when we first saw us so he turned around, and another couple said they felt bad for passing us so they turned around. Just because someone passes you without stopping doesn't mean they won't give you a ride, but if you flip them the bird you can pretty much guarantee they won't.
Do ask truckers for rides at truck stops. It is great to get rides with truckers because they are usually going long distances. This is how we handle direct requests: We approach the trucker while the trucker is filling up or standing outside the truck. One of us walks up to speaking distance and says something like, "Sorry to bother you, but we are trying to catch a ride west/east/north/south. Are you headed that way?" If they say no, we say thanks anyway and try the next person. Do be discreet, though. A lot of truck stops don't like it when people approach truckers. If they ask you to leave, do so politely.
Don't freak out if a police car stops. We had police stop to talk to us a total of three times when hitchhiking from New Orleans to Seattle, and we never got in trouble. The first time, the police officer checked out our IDs, then told us it wasn't really legal to hitchhike but as long as we put our sign down when police cars passed, it was okay. He even said he would tell other cops over the radio that he had already checked us out and we were okay. The second time, the cop said they had had some trouble with hitchhikers in that town in the past, so while he personally didn't have a problem with us hitchhiking, he needed us to move outside of his district. Then he gave us a ride to a rest stop further up the road. We progressed in our journey, and we got to ride in the back of a police car without being arrested! It was awesome. The third time, the highway patrol officer said it was illegal for us to stand on the freeway entrance, but if we moved onto the nearby sidewalk we would be in city police territory and as long as they didn't have a problem with it, he didn't care. The important thing is to always be polite and respectful because they do have the power to arrest you.
General Hitchhiking Tips
Finally, here are some general hitchhiking tips I wish I had known before learning the hard way:
If you have long hair, keep it pulled back in a ponytail or braided. The hours waiting outside plus the occasional rides in the back of a pickup truck (only accept a ride in the back of a pickup truck if you feel comfortable with that!) equal incredibly ratty hair that is painful to untangle.
Bring clothes for all weather. A wet hitchhiker is a miserable hitchhiker. Waterproof shoes and a sturdy raincoat are worthy investments, and lighweight layers will help keep you warm.
Don't overpack. If you are hitchhiking long distances, you and your pack will become good friends...or worst enemies. While it's important to bring layers, keep them lightweight. A fleece jacket is better than a cotton sweatshirt, and one pair of jeans is plenty. Don't bring a lot of heavy items, like books, though you may want to bring one paperback to read in low-traffic areas. Bring a small flip-pad to jot down notes in rather than a large notebook. Use your own common sense to determine what's really necessary versus a luxury.
Bring sunscreen and use it! You may spend many hours in the wide open outdoors, and you need to protect your skin. Also, bring a hat with a rim to keep the sun out of your eyes.
Bring water and snacks. Again, many hours in the wide open outdoors, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. It is important to stay healthy while traveling, especially by such hard-core means, and that means eating well and drinking plenty of water.
Have some sort of easily pass-outtable contact information. Sometimes you will have a great conversation with someone who gives you a ride and you will want to keep in touch with them, but you don't want to make them feel uncomfortable by asking for personal information. Give them the power to initiate a continuing friendship by handing them a business card with your info. You can get them for nearly free (you pay for shipping and handling) from Vista Print.
Most importantly, have fun! Hitchhiking is an amazing way to extend trust in people. As a hitchhiker, you have to trust that the person picking you up means you no harm, and they have to trust you for the same. Beginning a relationship on that footing, however brief, can lead to some incredible experiences. You can read more about my hitchhiking experiences in my series of Hubs titled "Accounts of a Hitchhiker."