Hitchhiking. The word itself brings back thousands of memories.
I remember hitchhiking through The Sahara desert in Morocco late at night, getting a ride in the back of a lorry with a bunch of street performers in Mexico or traveling across Jamaica with a family who later invited me to spend the night in their house.
For the last ten years I traveled around 20 countries hitchhiking more than 40 000 kilometers, living beautiful adventures with nothing else than my thumb, an unfailing patience and a warm smile. I can't even begin to describe how this way of traveling has shaped me more than anything else in my life. The countless stories I exchanged with total strangers and those long hours spent gazing into the distance with the road zooming by feeling absolutely free brought me right where I am today.
In my opinion, everyone should hitchhike at least once in their life. It's a unique experience to stand on the side of the road, test the limit of your patience and learn to keep a smile while doing so. There's nothing quite like putting your trust in a stranger with whom you're sharing stories and a few kilometers.
Hitchhiking is not for everyone and I know a lot of people think it's dangerous. I wouldn't say it is since I've never had a bad experience in ten years of hitchhiking. Being well-prepared and following basic guidelines will ensure that you too can live this experience safely and to the fullest. This is why I wrote this article, to give back to this form of travel that I cherish so much and to help and inspire you to do the same one day. I hope this article captures the essence of what I learned after ten years of sticking my thumb out on the side of the road...
First things first - Don't be in a rush
If you are in a hurry, hitchhiking might not be your best option. This way of traveling is as random as it gets. Of course, there are a lot of ways to speed things up ( I'll tell you more about this later) but relying on the generosity of strangers requires patience and more importantly, the realization that those drivers don't owe you anything. Remember, it doesn't matter how long you wait, the ride will come eventually so no need to fret and sweat.
Get out of the city and head in the right direction
When it comes to hitchhiking, a lot of it is common sense. I usually take a bus or some form of public transport to get out of the city and as close to the highway as I can. If you're too close to the city, you might get a lot of local traffic that won't bring you far. Make sure you're at the right exit of the city and have a map with you in case you have to cover a long distance.
Where to hitchhike from
I usually try to find the last gas station before the highway. Not only is it a place where you'll have the opportunity to talk with the drivers, it's also the perfect place to hitchhike from in countries where hitchhiking is illegal on the highway. Be aware that this is not always the case in certain countries, such as Italy, where the gas stations are considered as a part of the highway. We had to find out the hard way during our hitchhiking journey through Europe.
People stop in gas stations and when they get out of their car, it's the perfect opportunity to approach them and strike a conversation. Walk up to them casually (never from behind, the last thing you want to do is give them a fright), smile, introduce yourself and explain where you're going. Don't give up if one driver turns you down, there will be another one. Talking with drivers allows them to have a good look at you and see that you're not some crazy lunatic.
If you continue hitchhiking overnight, gas stations also provide a great source of light and it will be a lot safer than standing next to the highway, not to mention having access to hot coffee and cookies while you're waiting for your next ride. This is especially pleasant when you're hitchhiking in winter.
Pay toll stations
Toll roads are usually the fastest way to get to your destination in bigger countries. One of their advantages is that the drivers need to slow down their cars to pay the fee to use the road. I like to hitchhike before the toll station where I'll usually stand with a sign. Once the driver has paid, he will accelerate and he's less likely to pick you up if you're standing after the toll booth so always be in front of it.
Stand at the entrance of the highway
If you can't find a gas station or a pay toll station, the entrance of the highway will be a good option. The key here is to position yourself where drivers will see you from far away and where they will be able to stop easily without putting themselves in danger. Avoid being pushy and too aggressive while hitchhiking and always make sure your bag and luggage is in sight so drivers can know immediately whether or not they have enough space in their cars.
What to do if your driver drops you off in the middle of a city
Now that may be a problem depending on the time of the day that your driver drops you off. If it's early, try to find some public transport that will get you as far from the city center as possible and closer to the highway leading to your destination. If it's getting late, then Trustroots and couchsurfing are two great websites to find free last minute accommodation. Cynthia and I always make sure that our driver is not going to drop us in a city unless we have to be there. Getting out of big cities can sometimes be really draining and complicated so we avoid it as much as possible.
Dress the part and smile
Hitchhiking is all about giving a good impression. Remember that you only have a few seconds to catch the attention of a driver when you're standing on the side of the road. You'll only have a few seconds to inspire trust so the way you are dressed and look is critical.
So before you start hitchhiking, take a moment to analyze your appearance and put yourself in the shoes of the driver. Try to dress a nicely as possible and avoid torn shirts.
Smile and above all make eye contact. When I see a car coming I immediately try to make eye contact with the driver. I smile and do my best to look as kind and friendly as possible. See it this way: entering someone's car is like entering his or her home. The driver will prefer a clean and nice passenger over a a dirty and grumpy one.
What should you bring?
Since it's impossible to know for sure where you'll end up at night, always make sure you're ready to camp. Have a tent, a sleeping mattress,a sleeping bag and some food and water with you just in case. And remember that a backpack is easier to carry than a trolley or a suitcase on wheels.
It's also practical to have a road map of the country in which you are traveling. The best ones are those that show petrol stations, service areas and toll stations. This article on Hitchwiki has a great list of recommended maps and online apps that you can use to hitchhike around the world.
A cardboard sign indicating the next town will help a lot. It's important that you write on it in thick capital letters with a black sharpie to make it as visible as possible. Avoid putting down a destination that is too far away. If you write a destination that is relatively close (within 30 miles) you're more likely to get rides. If you want, you can negotiate a longer ride with the driver once you're inside the car.
Nice big pieces of cardboard can be found almost anywhere. I usually find some in the dumpsters of gas stations and restaurants or I simply ask the staff. They are usually more than happy to help.
Read the hitchhiking stories from our overland journey from Ireland to Alaska here!
Apart from being well dressed and presentable, there are a few more things that you have to consider when hitchhiking.
Should I sleep in the car?
I get this question very often and the answer is quite obvious. You should avoid sleeping in the car as much as you can unless you're hitchhiking with someone else. Cynthia and I take turns so there's at least one of us that is always awake. Many drivers will pick up hitchhikers to hear their travel stories and share some of their own. Being awake is a way of giving back to the driver who just picked you up. Keeping your eyes open will also help you find the exit or the road on which you need to be dropped off.
If you hitchhike for more than a day in a row as I often do, then it's totally normal to feel exhausted. If you can't help it and you're eyes are closing, ask the driver out of courtesy if it's okay to sleep and let him know that he can wake you up anytime he wants to.
Always thank the driver
At the end of your ride always thank the driver. It doesn't matter if it was a short or a long ride, it's important to make your drivers understand that you're very grateful for the service. Always remember that they are doing you a massive favor by giving you a ride. It's important that you leave them on a good note and as a friend, not as a stranger. I make a habit of always giving a good warm handshake to my driver and wish them a nice journey after we exchanged all kinds of stories.
What if there are already hitchhikers on the road?
If there are already hitchhikers on the road, you should always stand behind them. No one likes to wait for a car for hours just to see someone get a ride right in front of them after 5 minutes. Compare it with waiting in the store to pay for your shopping. You wouldn't like it if someone wouldn't wait for his turn and stepped right in front of you. So rude!
Learn the language of the country you're visiting
This is the one piece of advice that will completely transform your hitchhiking experience. When I started studying the languages of the countries I was visiting, my whole traveling experience transformed. Not every driver will speak English and learning their language will show your appreciation for their country and their culture.
So many times I got invited to a meal or to visit the family of my driver and sleep in their house because I spoke their language. At one point in Turkey, Cynthia and I got approached by the police while we were hitchhiking. When they heard we could speak Turkish, they were very surprised and wanted to know more about us. After talking for about five minutes, they invited us to have a tea in the police station so we could tell them more about our hitchhiking journey. Very soon we were surrounded by their colleagues who also wanted to hear our stories of how we hitchhiked from Ireland to Turkey and what our next plans were. There we were, drinking tea and entertaining a whole police corps with our stories while they were all listening very attentively!
What can you do to stay safe
Hitchhiking in itself is very safe but if you still feel a bit nervous after reading this article, follow these tips and you should be fine.
Avoid talking about religion, politics or race
It's always better to avoid these subjects unless you feel comfortable with your driver. If you driver decides to approach these subjects, try to steer the conversation in another direction, change the subject or ask him to drop you off.
A few years ago, I was hitchhiking with a friend in Louisiana (USA). We didn't have to wait a lot and the rides were coming one after the other. It was getting pretty late and we were debating whether or not we should continue hitchhiking when a big pick-up truck pulled over. Not even fifteen minutes into our ride, our driver started asking aggressively if we were Christians. To avoid trouble, we said that we were and tried to change the subject but then he started raising his voice and asked us to prove it by citing passages of the bible. He was getting angry and became more and more aggressive. He then pulled out a small hand gun and started swinging it in the air while calling us liars. My friend and I looked at each other. It was obvious by the look on our faces that we didn't feel comfortable with this guy anymore. So we asked him politely to drop us off at the next exit and surprisingly he did without any problems. It was a strange situation that could have escalated but we stayed calm and everything turned out fine.
Hitchhike with a friend
If you feel nervous, try hitchhiking with a friend or with someone who has done it before. You'll be able to instantly learn the best tricks and techniques if you hitchhike with someone who has already been doing it for a while. It's true that it might take longer for you to get a ride but it will definitely be a lot safer. Also it will make great stories to remind each other of years afterwards.
Know basic self-defense or carry a weapon to protect yourself
I doubt you'll ever be in a situation where you have to defend yourself against a driver but it's always better to be on the safe side. If you have any bad feelings concerning your ride or if you feel that your driver is up to something dodgy, just ask him kindly to pull over as soon as possible. Although I totally trusted everyone I had a ride with so far – except for that crazy guy in Louisiana - I always carry a knife with me. Pepper-spray can also be an option if you're not so comfortable with the idea of carrying a knife. Just be careful as it's a double-edged sword when you're inside of a small space.
Don't hitchhike at night
This is an advice to take very seriously. For one, standing on the side of the road at night is very dangerous. Drivers cant's see you very well from a distance and there is a big chance there will be a lot more drunk drivers at night. Also, creeps come out at night and that's the time when people are most likely to commit crimes. Unless the driver turns on the light in his or her car, it will be impossible for you to assess and analyze the body language of the person you're getting in the car with. My girlfriend and I always stop hitchhiking before it gets dark. This gives us time to find a nice place to pitch the tent not too far from the highway.
Never accept a ride from a drunk driver
If you get the faintest smell of alcohol as you are about to enter your next ride, immediately say no to the driver and resume hitchhiking. If you're already in the car when you notice that your driver is drunk or impaired, make a polite excuse and ask him to drop you off at the next exit. Don't do like we did in this vlog. That's a bad example.
Enjoy the ride
And finally, the most important tip I could give you is to simply enjoy the ride. Hitchhiking is not only about moving from point A to B but it's also about sharing a very privileged moment with someone. Odds are you would have never met this person otherwise so be polite, thankful and make sure you're leaving a good impression for the rest of the hitchhiking community.
During my last 10 years of traveling around the world, hitchhiking has been my greatest teacher. It taught me to be humble and patient. It made me realize that no one owes me anything and that I should be grateful for everything that comes my way. A lot of people have this fantasy of finding their spiritual teachers in India. Try hitchhiking instead. You'll realize that we can get the greatest insights in life simply by waiting on the side of the road.