10 years of experience – Everything you need to know about Hitchhiking

10 years of experience – Everything you need to know about Hitchhiking

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 in the distance with the road zooming by feeling absolutely free brought me right where I am today.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - hitchhiking in Mexico - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Mexico – 2009

 

 

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…

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - hitchhiking in Canada - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Canada – 2010

 

 

 

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

 

Gas stations

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - Hitchhiking in winter in Georgia
Hitchhiking in winter in Georgia – 2016

 

 

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - hitchhiking in the USA - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in the USA – 2010

 

 

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - Dress nice and smile - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Georgia – 2017  – always smile!

 

 

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - What to take - Journal of Nomads
our backpacks

 

 

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Ireland – 2015

 

 

Hitchhiking etiquette

 

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!

 

Hitchhiking in Turkey - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Turkey – 2016 : making a zillion of new friends thanks to speaking the language

 

 

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.

 

Hitchhiking around the world - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Turkey – 2015

 

 

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.

 

 

 
Don’t forget about travel insurance!

 

 

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.

 

A complete guide to hitchhiking and staying safe on the road (10 years of experience) - Journal of Nomads
Hitchhiking in Turkey – 2016

 

 

If you want to read more hitchhiking tips and stories, visit our Hitchhiking page or watch the videos of our hitchhiking journey around the world.

 

 

 

10 years of experience - Everything you need to know about Hitchhiking - Journal of Nomads

 

Follow Nicholas Danis Bertrand:

As a master language learner,I travel the world fascinated with words and expressions from distant cultures.If you would ask me what weighs more in my backpack, it would probably be my phrasebooks.

  • Hitchhiking used to be such a popular thing in the US a generation ago, but you don’t see it much any more. I don’t think I would feel safe doing it because of all of the horror stories you hear… or maybe it is the horror movies I watched growing up. You do have some great tips to make it a positive experience. Kudos to you for being so adept at hitchhiking.

    • Thank you Lee! Hitchhiking isn’t so popular anymore because of the fear spread by the media (and horror stories 😉 ). I truly enjoy doing it and I’ve learned that there are still so many good people out there and that we shouldn’t be afraid to get in the car with strangers, as long as we use our good judgment.

  • Rachelle Gordon

    What a thorough guide! I’ve pinned it for the future and can’t wait to try hitchhiking myself. I’ve picked up a few people before and am always on the lookout. I agree with Lee – you don’t see a whole lot of hitchhikers anymore.

    • Hi Rachelle, it’s so great to hear that you pick up hitchhikers! Have you met any interesting people so far?

      • Rachelle Gordon

        When traveling on St. John, we picked up a local and she tested us to lunch and gave us the skinny on a locals-only beach and how to access it. So cool!

        • Hey, that’s cool! We love it when local people pick us up and show us around but it seems that it has also its advantages to give local hitchhikers a ride 😀

  • Claire Summers

    This is such an interesting post with some really great advice! I must admit I’ve hitchhiked twice in my life…once on new years eve dressed as a clown drunk (no taxis haha) and a few weeks ago in Mexico accidentally. I didn’t mean to hitchhike but I was stuck out in the middle of nowhere contemplating my bad life choices that brought me to this place stranded with little money. Then this car pulls up and asks me if I want a ride! I could see it was a family in the car so didn’t think there was any danger. I have really enjoyed the experience and I think I would consider doing it again. I do feel much more vulnerable as a woman though I must admit.

    • Hahaha, was it hard to get a ride when you were dressed as a clown? I think if you would do that during daytime, it would scare people :D. Hitchhiking in Mexico is so much fun and very easy! I loved hitchhiking there and the people are super friendly! My girlfriend often hitchhiked by herself but she also mentioned a few times that she feels more vulnerable as a woman. She hitched rides with men but she recommends to only get rides with families or female drivers if you don’t feel 100% comfortable hitchhiking alone.

  • AMIT AGRAWAL

    Hitchhiking is so exciting and I have never tried this. I thought it would be risky but after reading it cleared my doubts and would try out the fun and adventure. So I want read now about you, what is the most funniest part you experienced in hitchhiking. Lovely post.

    • Thank you! I have many funny and great stories but meeting new people is the thing I enjoyed most!

  • Sonja Thomson

    This is a really informative post for people thinking about hitchhiking. As a female traveller I don’t think I’d ever feel comfortable doing it on my own but I have with a friend once on a small island in Canada, so we felt relatively safe as the locals do it too! We still ended up being picked up by the most random person and I still tell the story haha. I’d consider it again in the right circumstances.

    • If you don’t feel comfortable hitchhiking by yourself, then it’s always a good idea to find a friend that wants to accompany you. It’s so much fun to get rides with random strangers and yes, it gives you many stories to tell 🙂 There are still so many good people!! Hope you had a good time during that ride 🙂 My girlfriend used to hitchhike alone and she recommends women to only get rides with families or women if you don’t feel comfortable hitchhiking by yourself.

  • Fairytale Studios

    10 years of hitchhiking across 20 countries. Man you would have had some great experiences. And its great that you have summarized all your learnings right from what are the best places to get a ride to how to defend yourself. It is a complete account on hitchhiking. Thanks a lot for sharing this

    • I have met many amazing people during the past 10 years and have some great stories to tell 🙂 That’s why I wrote this guide, to motivate other travelers to do it at least once in their life, just to experience what it is like!

  • Abhinav Singh

    I have not tried Hitchhiking yet. I am skeptical about it.
    However, reading your blog clears some of my doubts. I am sure 10 years of Hitchhiking
    left you with indelible memories.

    • Hi Abhinav,
      I understand that not everybody would like to hitchhike, there are many different ways to have an amazing travel experience. Hitchhiking happens to be my favourite way of traveling and visiting countries as it brings me in close contact with the local people from whom I learn a lot and it’s an adventure on its own! I definitely have a lot of unforgettable memories 🙂

  • This is the best post that I have read about hitchhiking. Well, I am not sure I am prepared to try this but I find it quite interesting. More than travel stories, I am sure you always return with bagful of human stories. I like the part where you say ‘Dress the part and smile’

    • Thanks Manjulika!! That’s why I love hitchhiking so much, it’s not necessarily about the destination or places you visit, but the people you meet from all around the world and learn from them! 🙂

  • TeacakeTRavels12

    What a great experience! Feels like your a PRO now in Hitchhiking. Thanks for the share.