It was a November morning in Canterbury, England in 2009. Rob and I were standing on the side of the road, shivering in our charity-shop jumpers, our colourful, inherited-from-the eighties backpacks adorning the pavement by our feet. We held out our thumbs hopefully to the steady stream of traffic passing us by. Most ignored us. Some honked their horns or shouted incomprehensibly from hastily wound-down windows. After a little while, perhaps fifteen minutes of waiting, a car stopped. A single woman in her thirties; a nurse. Laughing, we got into the car – our adventure had begun.
That was my first hitch-hiking experience. I had always been fascinated by the famous adventures of hitch-hikers like Jack Kerouac and Christopher MacCandless, but hitch-hiking had always seemed to be a relic of the past, something interesting and enjoyable which simply didn’t fit in with modern day life – like listening to music on a gramophone.
My illusions were shattered when I met my friend Rob in the first few weeks of university. He’d been hitch-hiking around Europe since the age of seventeen and he quickly educated me in the ways of travelling by thumb. Since then I’ve hitch-hiked tens of thousands of miles across North America and Europe, and I’ve even written a guide to hitch-hiking – Rules of Thumb: How to Hitch-Hike and Live on the Road – aimed at novice adventurers who want to learn what Rob taught me.
Hitch-hiking is a wonderful, satisfying, and mostly-safe means of travelling the world, but, amongst those who’ve never done it, its reputation is tainted by the fear of weirdos, rapists, and thieves. This reputation is ill-deserved. Here are the essential things you should know before your first hitch-hiking adventure.
1. The dangers of hitch-hiking are not what you think they are.
Hitch-hiking works because both thumber and driver have to make a mutual positive judgement of each other before starting a journey together. Because people suspect of others what they know of themselves, those with potentially strange motives tend to assume the same of you and are less likely to give you a ride.
Conversely, those who are genuinely kind and generous are much more likely to pick you up. It’s always your choice whether or not you get into a vehicle, so (unless you have very bad judgement) it’s rare to find yourself travelling with anyone who is anything less than exceedingly friendly and good-natured. Crimes against hitch-hikers are uncommon enough that no governing body in the world bothers to track them.
However, hitch-hiking does carry an element of risk. You spend most of your time on the roads in areas where drivers aren’t expecting pedestrians. By trying to attract the attention of drivers, you partially distract them from the important task of operating a rather large and dangerous piece of heavy machinery. Worldwide road deaths per year number in the millions. This is the true danger of hitch-hiking. Learning and following proper road safety is vital.
2. There are many ways to hitch-hike.
Most people imagine hitch-hikers as sun-burnt, foot-sore individuals walking along the roadside with their thumbs out, but this is not a good way to get a ride. Few drivers will pick you up when you have your back to the traffic and they can’t see your face, and you’ll exhaust yourself walking distances that would have been covered by car anyway.
Of the many hitch-hiking techniques, two are particularly useful. The first involves standing by the side of the road, facing traffic, somewhere easy for vehicles to stop. This is my preferred technique, as you don’t bother anyone who isn’t interested in being part of your hitch-hiking adventure.
The second strategy is to hang around rest stops, gas stations, or car parks and directly ask people to give you a lift. Although it takes a bit more guts, you’ll usually find a ride quickly and there’s more opportunity to judge drivers before you get into their car.
3. You probably won’t spend your whole time hitch-hiking, and that’s okay.
The nature of hitch-hiking means that you often get dropped off on the outskirts of a city, and then have to get to the other side before you can start soliciting for rides again. It’s very hard to get picked up within a city or town, as most of the traffic will be making short, local journeys. Sometimes the road systems around a big city will be too difficult to hitch and it’s worthwhile to take a bus to a nearby smaller town. Occasionally you’ll end up in an airport or at a ferry terminal where security staff might politely ask you to not hitch-hike. This means you’ll have to either walk or take public transport for at least these parts of your adventure.
4. You have to choose: fast roads big cities, or slow roads small towns?
One fundamental choice you have to make at the start of each day is whether or not you’ll try to move between big cities on fast roads or small towns on slow roads. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and your journey will be radically different depending on which you choose.
Fast roads are more dangerous to hitch on, more polluted, and more stressful. You’ll get to big cities easily, but then have to spend time and money travelling through them before you can start hitching again. However, you’ll travel faster once you have a ride and you’ll probably need fewer rides to get where you’re going. You also have the option of travelling between gas stations and asking people directly for rides. This is a good strategy if you want to go a long distance fairly quickly.
Slower roads are much easier to hitch, are usually more beautiful, and you can relax a lot more. Small towns are easy and enjoyable to pass through, you’ll generally have friendlier encounters with the locals, and it’s usually pretty easy to find somewhere quiet and safe to camp for the night. On the downside, people will be travelling shorter distances so you’ll need more rides than you would on faster roads. It will take much longer to get where you’re going, but it’s not about the destination, right?
5. You should be ready to sleep outside
As a general rule, a direct car journey of 4 hours will take about a day of hitch-hiking. If your journey is longer than that, you should be prepared to sleep outside. Hoping to book yourself into a hostel or hotel every night is expensive and your afternoons are wasted searching for a place with a vacancy.
Some hitch-hikers try to incorporate couch-surfing into their journeys, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll reach the location of a potential host and you might have to give up journeys that would have taken you much further. Other hitch-hikers rely on asking to stay with people each day, but this is even riskier: when you don’t have an alternative, you might feel pressured into accepting the hospitality of someone against your better judgement.
The solution is simple: carry a sleeping bag and a tent or bivi bag, and look for a little patch of quiet countryside to bed down in each day. Obviously, free-camping carries its own set of risks and safety rules, but the freedom you gain from being able to begin and end each day in a place of your choosing will greatly enhance your hitch-hiking adventure.
Hitch-hiking is at the same time infinitely simple and satisfyingly complex. There are a million different ways to approach it, but these five points should leave you well prepared for your first hitch-hiking adventure.
Christopher Drifter is a 24 year old traveller from the UK. He has taken several major trips across North America and Europe, covering more than 13,000km via public transport, borrowed vehicles, and hitch-hiking. He is the author of Rules of Thumb: How to Hitch-Hike and Live on the Road.