Hitchhiking used to be reasonably common-place for people of both genders, even at young ages, particularly those living in remote areas, as it was often one of the only ways to get around. The decline seems to have come from wider accessibility to more places, meaning hitchhiking is no longer the necessity it once was for a lot of people, as well as the fear-mongering that seems to have resulted in a society that’s so terrified of strangers that if somebody talks to you unsolicited in public, then your initial thought is that they’re a complete weirdo. Instead of being ‘friends you have yet to meet’, strangers are now met with complete animosity and they clearly only want to harm you in some way. Speaking from experience I know for a fact this isn’t true, and on the whole I’d like to believe most people, even if they’re not ‘good’ per se, are not bad and would never go out of their way to do somebody else harm.

So why do people hitchhike? There is no doubt you are putting yourself more at risk by hitchhiking than you would be by taking a form of public transportation, so why do it?

First of all: money. Although I have never been forced to hitchhike in the sense that I have been completely penniless, the idea of saving money by not having to pay for public transport is a benefit too tempting to my penny-pinching mentality. Why spend hundreds of Euros on a Eurail pass when I could travel virtually for free?

Second of all: the experience. You will never face periods of such rapid changes in highs-and-lows as you will with long-distance hitchhiking. You’ll be near to breaking point as you stand in the rain, trying not to look miserable after two hours of being stuck in that same spot, desperately watching the horizon for one of the infrequent vehicles that pass by after some asshole dropped you off in the middle of nowhere, and feeling like you just want to drop down in the mud and give up on life. Then within an hour you’re sat in the car of an amazing couple that have bought you a two-course meal and offered to drive you right up to the door of where you’re staying. It’s a challenge to say the least, but when you finally arrive at your destination (if you have one) there’s no greater feeling.

Gifts we were giving whilst hitchhiking in Italy in 2014.

Gifts we were giving whilst hitchhiking in Italy in 2014.

Even when you’re stuck at some Hungarian rest-stop in the middle of nowhere, and the only person who has attempted to be friendly is the Romanian truck-driver whose idea of ‘friendly’ is inviting you into his cabin for a quickie, there’s very little opportunity to be bored. You’re constantly watching out for lifts and even when it’s quiet on that front, you’re enjoying not having to forcibly converse with someone, and you’re taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a place you know you will probably never be again.

You get to see things and places you wouldn’t see otherwise when drivers take little detours or drive via the scenic routes. You get to meet people you would never normally have had an opportunity to meet, and have conversations you would never have had. You get given information, invited places and every now and again someone will go out of their way to take you all the way home or give you a gift that completely brightens your day.

There are pros and cons to being female and hitchhiking, but as long as you’re as sensible as possible I feel there are far more of the former. Everybody that gives you a lift will have a mother, sister, daughter or granddaughter, and lots of them will tell you how worried they would be if she were in your position. This association with their family members means women get treated so well, because they want them to be safe, like they would want their mother/sister etc. to be, so women often have an easier time.

Hitchhiking is an art: there’s a skill involved that comes only with practice. But in order for you to not be as naïve as I was before I began, here are a few pointers for the beginner, and some for even the most experienced hitchhikers.

Know the Signs and Laws

Hitchwiki.org is an excellent website for information about country-to-country hitchhiking laws and regulations including where you can and cannot hitchhike, as well as tips on how to get in and out of places and even where to eat and stay for free or next to nothing. Let this be your bible. Most Western countries use the standard thumb method for road-side hitchhiking, but in a few countries it will be different so do your research beforehand so you don’t come to discover you’ve actually been insulting everybody’s dead grandmother. Learn the hitchhiking laws in the country you are in, so as to avoid confrontations by police and possible fines (making that cheap journey not so cheap).

Learn a Little Bit of Language

Particularly important is finding out the name of the place you are going to in the language of that country, as well as basic greetings, directions (North, South, East, West are very useful) and a few simple phrases that will make your journey that much easier. Hitchwiki.org has a comprehensive list of Hitchhiking Phrasebooks in various languages that are really useful. There are a few phrases on there like ‘don’t touch me’, but in a situation where you’d be forced to use that, I don’t think a language barrier would be a real issue – body language, tone and volume should be enough to deter somebody who’s willing to drop it.

Pack Light

I cannot stress this enough: you do not want to be lugging around a suitcase or multiple bags along the side of a road or the two kilometres walk from the bus stop to the gas station. Do yourself a favour and take as little as possible – it may mean the difference between getting and not getting a lift when there’s only one seat available in a car.

One main backpack with a smaller bag with important items is ideal.

One main backpack with a smaller bag with important items is ideal.

Pack Sensibly

A few of absolute must-take items are:

  • A sleeping bag (and maybe a tent) – you never know what’s going to happen, so you want to be prepared to sleep at the side of the road or in a public toilet if the need arises, as it may get to the point where it’s best to give up for the day and continue tomorrow, rather than keep going late at night.
  • A thick marker pen – depending on your chosen method, but very useful for writing your destination on bits of cardboard (another alternative is to take a whiteboard so that you always have something to write on)
  • Food and drink – you will get hungry and thirsty on the road, and unless you want to pay outlandish prices for the terrible food at service stations, pack sandwiches and snacks (also nice to share with people giving you lifts)

Dress Appropriately

Anywhere in the West allows for reasonable dress tolerance, and whilst I’m a big advocate that victims of sexual assault should never be blamed for what they wear, it’s never sensible to wear skimpy outfits whilst hitchhiking. One reason is that you may genuinely be mistaken for a prostitute, particularly if you are at or around the truck stops, and another reason is that unfortunately we still live in a world where the amount of skin you bear relates to how much respect you get, so don’t even put yourself into a position where somebody thinks you’re ‘up for it’ because you’re wearing short-shorts.

Dressing appropriately also encompasses not dressing like a homeless person regardless of gender (personal hygiene is still important, and you’ll find if you smell like a rotting carcass you’re probably less likely to get a lift) and dressing for the weather. If it’s cold make sure you have warm layers, as you don’t know how long you’ll be out there for, and if it’s wet wear a raincoat. You’ll get far fewer lifts if you look like you’ve just stepped out of a bath fully-clothed.

It does in fact rain at points.

It does in fact rain at points.

Know Where You’re Going

Knowing where you’re heading towards will save you a lot of hassle and stress and if possible bring a map and a compass with you. Even if it seems too tempting to fall asleep or ignore the road, try and stay alert and follow the route the driver is taking, not just for safety reasons but also so that you know where on the map you are which will help you to choose appropriate lifts and allow you to know how to ask people.

Time it Well

You’ll get better at predicting time with experience, but as a general rule normally whatever Google tells you, double the time. You need to judge each journey on a case-by-case basis. Don’t set off at night. Give yourself enough time to get there comfortably, ideally inbetween sunrise and sunset, as it’s a pretty daunting prospect to still be hours away from your destination as the sun is setting and the roads are quieting down.

Go Alone or in a Pair

This isn’t a hard-fast rule, but on the whole trying to hitchhike when there are more than two of you will just be a downright fail. Hitchhiking when you’re female is on the whole much quicker because people have less fear you’re going to rob them. On your own you’re more likely to get lifts for space reasons and because you’re less threatening to the driver, you can be the one deciding the lifts, but it’s tiring doing it all on your own. In a pair you’re much safer, but the lifts are harder to come by. Three or more and you should split up, as it’s unlikely anyone will offer you lifts (although it can be done).

The one time hitchhiking as a trio actually paid off.

The one time hitchhiking as a trio actually paid off.

Avoid Bad Lifts

It’s common sense to avoid getting into a car with anyone that seems intoxicated or a large group of men when you’re a woman on your own, but it’s also often not a sensible idea to get lifts a little bit further up the road (unless you’re in a dead-zone). You may be leaving the prime spot, and even though in reality you are progressing, you may end up being stuck as everyone will have stopped off at an earlier petrol-station to fill up. A few times whilst hitchhiking I have asked for lifts to be dropped off at a service station in the opposite direction to where I’m going in order to be at a busier part of the route.

Be Firm

Firmly stating where exactly you’d like to be dropped off is important. If someone is going to be rushing and will drop you off at the side of the road just before a turn off, it is not a good idea to take the lift unless they can drop you off sooner in a better spot. A lot of drivers think they know best and will drop you off at a place where everybody is going in a completely different direction to where you want to go. Look on the map before you go, and try and discuss where they’re going before you set off.

Learn to Converse

You have to appear friendly and approachable if you’re asking strangers for lift, and you’re usually expected to chat with them in the car (lots of bored businessmen seem to be the most popular drivers who picked me up, and they enjoyed talking about their failing marriage and how much they hated their lives). Get good at communicating, and ask people a lot of questions because they don’t want to drop you off and feel hard done by. You’ll learn how to deal with dull conversations (as well as terrible music) and will repeatedly have to explain to people who you are and what you’re doing.

Harden your Skin

Overall hitchhiking brings out the most amazing side of humanity, but despite how well-dressed, courteous and polite you may be, you’ll have to deal with the animosity of some people thinking you’re a loser. In some cases you may be very firmly denied a lift despite the driver having seats and going in the same direction (once it was because the driver’s girlfriend didn’t want two other girls in their car and the driver had to awkwardly backtrack and suddenly decided he wasn’t going to the same place he just told us he was). It happens. Harden your skin, pick yourself up and revel in the fact that most people that are dicks to you are probably miserable.

Keep your Belongings Safe

In the car try and keep your most important belongings close, ideally in a smaller bag to your main backpack that you can sit it on your lap. Keep your belongings close when you’re at the side of the road and keep spare money inside a sock, bra etc. in case something terrible does happen. 

Hitchhike Safely

This means do not hitchhike at night and if possibly note down registration numbers and text it to somebody, letting the driver know you’re doing it (this is something I’ve never done, though, mostly due to time restraints when jumping into a car).

The safest and most effective method of hitchhiking is getting dropped off at rest-stops, so you can judge people and directly ask them for a lift (much safer than thumbing it at the side of the road). It takes more balls, but on the whole it has a higher success rate as they have opportunity to see you’re human rather than miss you on the side of the road and it be too late by the time they’ve decided they ought to have pulled over. Obviously this is never going to be a foolproof method of avoiding dangerous people, but it’s far safer.

Rest-stops are at least a good break for yourselves, even if you don't instantly manage to get lifts.

Rest-stops are at least a good break for yourselves, even if you don’t instantly manage to get lifts.

Have you got any other tips and tricks for hitchhiking? Feel free to share in the comments below.