Travelers hitchhike for various reasons. Some don’t have the financial means to travel otherwise, some consider it more fun than the conventional ways of transport. In some parts of the world hitchhiking is even the only option, and is practically a substitute for public transport. Hitchhiking might sound simple enough, but when you’ve tried it yourself you probably experienced some of the frustrations as well. This inspired me to write this guide on how to hitchhike.
I have hitchhiked more than 3.000 km in 4 different continents and noticed that it wasn’t all that different if you stick to a couple of unwritten rules. I can best compare hitchhiking to speed dating on steroids. Instead of a minute, you have about 3 seconds to make someone pick you up, so better make them count! Here are some of my insider tips on how to hitchhike.
1. Face the direction of the oncoming cars
Perhaps quite an obvious one, but I’ve seen many people bail and turn their back when a car hasn’t even passed yet. Make sure you face the car so that the driver can have a good look at you to help him make a snap judgment in your favor. Don’t wear sunglasses and don’t put your hands in your pockets as if you are hiding something.
2. Walk backward while sticking out your thumb
There’s something soothingly psychological about a backward walking hitchhiker. It’s almost like it conveys: “I’m getting there by foot if I have to, but your help would be much appreciated”. Walking towards the cars comes across waaaay too dominantly, and should be avoided at all times. Standing in one spot works too, but I’ve had the highest success rate with the walking backward technique.
3. Make sure your thumb is pointing in the direction you want to go
Another obvious one, but definitely an ingredient in the recipe for success. Sticking your hand out is generally how to hitchhike, but which finger to use varies globally. In North America, United Kingdom and most of Europe, the gesture involves extending the arm toward the road and sticking the thumb of the outstretched hand upward with the hand closed.
In some African countries, the hand is held still with the palm facing upwards. In other parts of the world, such as Australia, it is more common to use a gesture where the index finger is pointed at the road.
4. Wear your backpack while hitchhiking
Yes, it might be a bit uncomfortable, but if you leave your backpack on the side of the road the drivers might not see it. Remember, you have 3 seconds to make an impression, and it should be clear straight away that you’re but an innocent backpacker. They might even feel guilty about making you wear your backpack. Hey, whatever works, right?
5. Hitchhike in a visible place close to the road
Think well-lit, open spots. Would you pick someone up who stands in a shadow holding a piece of cardboard?
6. Hitchhike in a spot where cars naturally have to slow down or stop
Think traffic lights, intersections, (after) sharp corners. Making it easy for the driver to pull over without becoming a traffic hazard will increase your chances significantly.
7. The letters on your piece of cardboard should be well visible
Too many times have I seen hitchhikers (presumably art students?) holding signs with curly, thin letters. NOBODY will see your sign from 100 meters away, or even up close going 30 miles an hour. Drivers should keep their eyes on the road, not try to decipher your artistic calligraphy experiment.
Your letters should be thick, bold, in caps and with enough contrast with its background (usually black will do the trick). Don’t write too much either, simply the name of the town you want to go will suffice. Sometimes, a little joke or smiley will work too (see point 6).
8. Write something funny (but short) on your piece of cardboard
Don’t go overboard. A smiley or a short but cunning text will do. How about “Freshly showered”, “Almost there!” or “Hawaii” (when hitching a ride in a snowy place)?
9. Look in the driver’s eyes briefly with a smile but don’t stare them down
Subtlety is king here. Looking the driver in the eye will convey your honest intentions, but stare too long and you’ll look like a serial killer. 1 Second is enough here, and you should still look at their general direction afterward. Most of the time they’ll be a glare on their windows; then just look in the driver’s general direction with a smile.
10. Don’t make any jokes about murdering or not being a serial killer
Writing “I’m not a murderer” on your cardboard sign can backfire easily since it might remind the driver that there are actually murderers with cardboard signs out there. Good luck turning that negative first impression around in 3 seconds. Don’t bring up the subject in the car either, it will make your driver hugely uncomfortable.
11. When a car stops, act like you’ve won the lottery
Act enthusiastically and gratefully (you probably will be anyway) by running up to the car with a big smile on your face. Chances are the driver is still watching you in his rear-view mirror, and it’s not too late for him to change his mind.
12. Don’t act like it’s your friend giving you a ride
When you arrive at the car that stopped for you, don’t just open the back door and drop your behind on the seat. Stay outside and ask the driver again if you can possibly ride along. It’s good form and gives the driver the opportunity to get a better impression of you from up close.
13. Sit in the front if you can
The driver is not your butler and you did not hitch a cab. Ask to put your bag in the back and take the front seat. It’s much easier to have a conversation this way and implies that you’re interested in the other person instead of just using them for a ride. If there is already someone sitting in the passenger seat, don’t try to sit on their lap.
14. Don’t offer to pay, you’ll only make things awkward
Your driver probably knows you’re hitchhiking because you are on a tight budget, or perhaps it’s simply your preferred way to get from A to B. Money shouldn’t play a part in your hitchhiking experience, unless the driver goes out of his way severely and turns a short ride into a 3 day road trip. Even then there is the chance that the driver was dying to get away from his wife, and you were actually doing him a favor by giving him a reason.
15. Don’t expect to get one ride straight to your destination
Ideally, you would stick your thumb out hitch a ride within 5 minutes taking you exactly where you want to end up. Although that has happened to me on several occasions, it’s much more often a collection of smaller rides that will get you there eventually.
In some countries, there is only 1 long highway from one city to the other, which makes it more likely you’ll find a ride soon. Sometimes there are endless turnoffs and roads branching out, meaning you would have to deal with a lot more cars “not going your way’. This is where points 16 and 17 are more than relevant.
16. Practice patience and hide your frustration
Patience is a virtue, and especially when it comes to hitchhiking. I’ve waited everywhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours for a ride. Do (try to) hide your frustration; a frustrated hitchhiker is an unsuccessful hitchhiker. Your face will (unknowingly) show signs of anger and despair and be honest: would you pick up an angry looking hitchhiker? It’s all about those 3 seconds you’ll have to “impress” the driver, so the best time to express your frustration is in between two cars.
17. Don’t take rejections personally
I’ve seen it all. People honking their horns, completely ignoring you, laughing sarcastically, shrugging, gesturing and, from time to time, actually pulling over. It sometimes feels like every one of the drivers is passing you because they don’t like you, as a person. Your level of confidence will plunge faster than at a speed dating session. Therefore, try to build up a shield.
People have their reasons for not picking up hitchhikers; bad experiences in the past (read: a smelly backpacker just who wouldn’t shut up) or simply too scared. Everyone knows all hitchhikers are murderers, right? Shield up and you’ll be fine. It might take a fake smile here and there, but it’s worth it if it gets you a ride!
18. In fact, embrace a rejection with a smile and a wave
A top tip from Magnus: Whenever a car just swooshes past me I wave and smile at it. Quite often that makes the NEXT car stop, because they see that I keep positive even in the face of rejection. This has worked so many times! I’ve also experienced that the car I tried to flag down in the first place apparently didn’t expect my happy waving and stops 50 meters down the road.
19. It’s ok to get out of the car if you feel uncomfortable
So, you got yourself a ride. The driver seemed to be ok at first, but 30 minutes in you have your doubts. His/her stories about obsessive nudism creep you out, and all you want to do is get out of the car. Don’t forget that getting a new ride is an option 🙂 Make up an excuse that makes sure the driver can’t offer to stay and wait for you; something like “I promised to ring my mom for 2 hours (from a phone box)” should do nicely.