How To Hitchhike

HitchhikeI touched on hitchhiking in a previous post, but felt that it deserved a deeper treatment than I gave it at the time.

For those not familiar with the term, hitchhiking refers to getting rides, for free, from generous motorists who have a free seat and are willing to take you to (or at least closer to) your destination.

To give a bit of personal background, I’ve hitchhiked in Canada and across Europe (throughout the UK, Holland, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, etc).  I based my philosophy initially on Europe on 84¢ a Day, then developed my own approach after getting bit of experience under my belt.  I haven’t hitchhiked in years myself, but I do pick up hitchhikers (and keep thinking I should try hitchhiking up to my hometown at some point).

Why Hitchhike?

First and foremost hitchhiking is a way to minimize travel costs (and save money for more important things, like beer).  Whether to allow a trip that couldn’t be afforded, travel further on a set budget, or just to save money, hitchhiking lets you go further on less (in 1996 I traveled Europe for 4 months on $5000, including airfare).

Often when traveling you end up in a bubble that protects you from the locals.  You’ll spend time with other travelers, which is great for learning about the world, but somewhat sad that you’re finding out about India when you’re staying at an Amsterdam hostel.  Often the locals that you do interact with, such as hostel staff, don’t have much interest in you as a person (they’re just doing their job) and aren’t particularly keen on a cultural exchange. Hitchhiking makes it FAR more likely you’ll be talking to a typical member of the culture you’re traveling in, and it will probably be someone very interested in talking to you (as often that’s why they picked you up).

Social Contract

There’s a number of unspoken rules when hitchhiking.  Both parties are interested in safely and enjoyably spending time with one another.  The hitchhiker does this to get closer to her destination, the driver does this to have company on the road (or to feel good about himself for helping someone out).

When someone picks you up your have an obligation to be a pleasant traveling companion.  Talking to the driver and keeping the conversation friendly and enjoyable are necessary – this isn’t the time to debate religion or politics.  I still feel badly about one time I got picked up with a woman I was traveling with at the time.  We’d tried to camp out the night before, and slept VERY badly, so shortly after being picked up we both fell asleep for the next 4 hours of the drive.  The driver didn’t pick us up to listen to us snore, and was very gracious when I apologized profusely after waking up at our destination.

Small exchanges are certainly appropriate (if you’ve packed a small lunch and want to eat, certainly offer to share – standard etiquette applies).  SOME hitchhikers will offer payment (in cash or gas), but to me this kind of defeats the whole point: if I’m going to pay for transportation, why not just take a bus?  I took a small bag with Canadian pins, coins and other small gifts that I gave to drivers (especially if they picked me up with children, the kids were delighted with small trinkets).

Since drivers have been good enough to pick me up in the past, I feel obligated to pick up hitchhikers when I’m driving.

Appearances Matter

Sadly, as in many areas in life, first impressions matter.  Particularly when drivers are speeding past at 80 km / hour, often they’ll be too far down the road by the time they decide to pick you up if its a tough decision.  Everyone should be clean and decently dressed when hitchhiking.  For men, having short hair and no facial hair is probably a good idea.  For women I’d probably err on the side of modest dress (the last things you want drivers to think is that you’re offering physical affection).  Standing on the side of the road puffing a cigarette is probably not the best idea (I’ve never smoke cigarettes, so this wasn’t an issue for me, but I recently hesitated to pick a guy up because he was smoking).

If you can do something to get attention, look harmless, and look like fun it’s probably worth doing.  While traveling Europe, if I had to wait more than 5 or 10 minutes I’d pull out a Canadian flag I was traveling with and start dancing with it on the side of the road.  One time a bus full of Asian tourists slowed down, they all took pictures of me, then it sped up and disappeared (I felt so used 😉 ).  I giggled at the time thinking about the starring role I was going to have when they went home and showed their friends the European vacation pics.

Two guys will have a tough time getting picked up (most drivers would find it intimidating to be in a car with two young guys).  Traveling on your own, or with a woman, is probably the best approach.  Two women traveling together have an easier time getting rides than two men.

Location, Location, Location

Where you hitchhike is probably the biggest factor to determine how long you’ll wait for a ride.  Sometimes the country itself is a problem:  when I was in Sweden, I couldn’t get picked up to save my life.  I was told that all students in the country can take buses for free, so motorists had the feeling that no one should have to hitchhike and wouldn’t pick you up.  After spending a morning on the side of the road, I sprang for a bus ticket to Stockholm and got out of the country.

The best places to hitchhike are where drivers are traveling slowly or stopped (giving them more time to decide they want to pick you up).  A gas station is therefore a MUCH better place to find a ride than a highway on-ramp, which in turn is better than along the shoulder of the highway.  Often drivers will be happy to drop you off at a restaurant or gas station if you ask.

In some countries (and in certain areas within them) it is illegal to hitchhike.  The Dutch police pulled over and told me that they’d be back in 10 minutes and would arrest me if I was still there.  Usually I think the police will understand that you aren’t a local and hopefully give you a warning if you’re somewhere you shouldn’t be.


Hitchhiking has a higher chance of getting into a dangerous situation than many other forms of travel.  The first comment on my review of 84¢ a day was a fear of ending up in a Hostel horror movie.  If you’re worried about this to the point that it makes you uncomfortable (or worse, decide to carry a weapon to protect yourself), you’re better off just paying for travel and avoiding the hitchhiking experience entirely.  I had two bad experiences over four months (a German guy tried to talk me into letting him fondle me, and two stinking drunk Fins offered me a ride) and in both cases I just stayed polite, alert and got out of the situation as soon as I could.

I’ve met a woman was raped while hitchhiking, so bad experiences happen (although I’ve met men and women who have hitchhiked extensively and had overwhelmingly positive experiences).  Weigh your feelings of the pros and cons and decide for yourself if it’s worth hitchhiking as a form of travel.

Have you ever hitchhiked?  Have you ever picked up a hitchhiker?  What was the experience like?

9 replies on “How To Hitchhike”

I was educated to never get/offer free rides to strangers due to safety reasons. I think safety is the major issue that prevents people of hitchhiking in South America (where I was borned and raised). Our parents always say: never talk to strangers! 🙂

I have never hitchhiked myself, but I have picked up a few hitchhikers. I am a woman, so the rule for me is that I have have my own passenger (preferably a guy) in the car already for a safety factor. I have never had an issue.

I hope this good karma comes back to me if I am ever stuck on the road somewhere and need help myself.

I”m a 42 year old woman and have hitch-hiked across Canada; Niagara Falls to Miami; almost all the way around Australia; up to Prudhoe Bay in Ak; all over Europe; Hawaii; S.Pacific.. and even India! All in all, I’ve got over 1,000 rides under my belt.
Unreasonable fear is the biggest factor detracting from an experience that benefits everyone. I’m sorry we (humans) are so affected by it. If the driver does not operate the vehicle in a safe manner, that is not unreasonable fear and you should get out. But for the most part, what stops us is irrelevant unfounded fear. I do wonder what the actual statistics were for injury to hitch-hikers vs. bus passengers.

Either way, I’m happy to at least see SOME article on hitch-hiking floating around out here. And no.. my experiences are not dated.. India was last year… and Yosemite will be this year.. come join me!

Please give it a try (hitching or picking) and stay open to life

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