Like anyone else who’s read too much Kerouac, I was always intrigued by hitchhiking. I wanted to test myself out there on the road. And when I began traveling around the world, I finally got the chance to try it out. Over the last few years, I’ve hitched hundreds of rides in dozens of countries. And hitchhiking has become one of my favorite ways to travel.
I have met so many amazing people and had amazing experiences. From the German couple in Spain who took me out to lunch, to a Serbian trucker who invited me to stay at his house, to a Turkish guy who gave me a tour around a castle.
The first and most obvious reason is that hitchhiking saves you money. The money that you save on bus, train, or airplane fare can be used for more important things, like a meal that isn’t cheap pizza or that final gin and tonic that bestows you with sweet dance moves.
Hitching can also sometimes be the fastest option. In the case where a bus only comes a few times a day and you have to wait for hours in a remote place, it makes sense to stick your thumb out and give it a try.
Hitchhiking is also a great way to meet local people. The people that pick you up may be from the local area and are usually really excited to tell you about their local culture. They’ll be happy to tell you their favorite kebab shop or complain about their corrupt politicians.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned hitchhiking is that people are great. The type of person who goes out of their way to help a stranger on the side of the road is more friendly than your average bear. I can’t tell you how many times a driver has bought me a cup of coffee or paid for my lunch despite my protests. While everyone will try to scare you, I have met some extremely kind and friendly people.
Hitchhiking is also a great way to step off the well-worn tourist routes and take the path less traveled. It forces you to travel slow and experience a new country from a different angle. You may find yourself in the parking lot of a hardware store asking for a ride from a construction crew with a flatbed truck. What is more off the beaten track than that?
Why do anything difficult? Why run an Ironman, climb a mountain, or read an 800-page book? Because it’s challenge to be faced. It’s an obstacle to overcome. And in the process you will learn about yourself. You will face logistical dilemmas. You will be forced to make real time decisions that have real world consequences. Nothing in life worth doing is easy.
Is Hitchhiking Dangerous?
While the data is rather skimpy, I can anecdotally say that I have never felt in danger. I know what you’re thinking: well you’re a white male with a background in martial arts. I can tell you that (again anecdotally) I also know a ton of girls who hitchhike, and they all talk about the amazing experiences they’ve had (check out my podcasts with Marina, Kelly, Amber, and Caitlin).
I also don’t want to downplay any potential danger. Of course bad things can happen out there on the road. And bad things can happen anywhere; going to a nightclub in Barcelona at 4 AM has its dangers too. But of course girls who travel solo face risks that I don’t even understand. So if you’re worried about safety, here are some measures you can take.
Only hitchhike during the day
As with any situation, it’s safer during the day. You will have a much better view of the driver before you get in and can make better judgements. Some of the risk comes from a possibly impaired driver, and this will be much less likely during the day.
Find a hitching companion
Find someone else who wants to travel with you and this makes it much safer. I have hitchhiked with girls a bunch of times and I always love how much easier we get picked up!
Trust your instincts
The more you hitchhike, the more you will be able to make quick decisions about taking a ride with people. You are always allowed to refuse a ride from someone if you don’t trust them. One way that gives you more time is if you hitch from a gas station or service plaza instead of the side of the road. You go into the parking lot and walk up to people and ask for a ride. This way you have more time to make a judgement on the person.
Utilize your smartphone
For all the complaints about the government tracking you on a smartphone, it can be a really powerful tool to stay safe. As soon as you get to a foreign country, make sure to get a SIM card so you can have data when you’re traveling. You can take a picture of the license plate and sent it to a friend before you get in the car. You can share your live location over WhatsApp. Take a selfie with the driver right away. Tell them that you always do it with new drivers for your memories.
How to Hitchhike
There are different types, from just sticking your thumb out after a hike to city hopping. Depending on your distance, the local laws, and timeframe, your strategy will change. But here are some basic tips.
Make sure you smile. They say that you don’t pick up rides with your thumb but with your smile. Drivers will see that you’re a friendly person and not threatening. Sometimes I even take this further and do a little dance as I stand there. I shuffle my feet and bounce around with a giant smile on my face.
Make a sign. I always carry a black marker with me when I’m out on the road and find a piece of cardboard to write my destination in giant capital letters. This helps drivers know where you’re going and see if it’s a match.
The first thing I do when planning to hitch anywhere is check HitchWiki, which is a website that gives directions on the best spots to hitchhike from. You can look up the city where you are, and it will tell you the best spots depending on your destinations. It tells you everything you need to know to get there and people write comments about their experiences in different spots.
When selecting a spot to hitch from, before all else, make sure it’s legal. Thankfully, HitchWiki usually has a brief description on the local laws of each place. In many countries it’s illegal to hitchhike from the side of the highway because cars are going too fast to safely stop otherwise. So you must try from a entrance ramp, gas station, or bus stop.
Not only is this sometimes the law , but it’s also good advice: make sure cars are going slow enough to stop. A car flying by at 80 miles/hour won’t always have time to make a decision and stop. So if you can, position yourself at the entrance ramp that leads to the highway. If there’s a stop sign or a traffic light in the area, even better. The more time you give the driver to make a decision the better.
But all the time in the world won’t help if the driver doesn’t have enough space to pull over safely. So make sure there is plenty of space to pull over. Bus stops, wide shoulders, and parking lots are great for this.
This may sound really obvious, but make sure you’re going in the right direction. This doesn’t mean almost the right direction or in the general direction, but the right direction. Because you really want to minimize the number of rides you have to get, and you ideally want to find someone who is going to the same destination as you. And if you go out of your way you might get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no traffic.
So always make sure there is plenty of traffic. If you find yourself waiting long periods of time without traffic, you’re in the wrong place. If you can walk to a nearby intersection or hitch to a better spot, get outta there as fast as you can.
Sometimes you will get stuck though, so be patient. This is when a driver drops you off somewhere along the route and you have to hitch again but it’s a bad place. This is what you want to avoid. So don’t accept every single ride. Be a little pick. If someone can take you just 10 kilometers down a major highway and drop you at a McDonalds, think about it first. You have to start fresh from there. Maybe there will be a really light flow of traffic. Maybe it’s better to just wait for someone going further.