How to Hitchhike

Hitchhiking in the cold

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Chris Drifte
Chris Drifte
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Don't underestimate the cold. Hitchhiking in cold weather, or hitching in winter, is a much tougher ordeal - and mistakes that would be small in warmer weather can have serious consequences.

But that doesn't mean you can't hitchhike home for Christmas. There's plenty you can do to make travelling through wind, rain, and snow a more comfortable experience.

Dressing for cold, wet weather

Hitchhiking can involve walking long distances along the side of the road, as well as hours stood on the side of it. Dress in layers so you can adjust your clothing depending on your activity. Wear more layers while you're not moving, and fewer when you are. Sweating into your base layers will dramatically reduce your comfort levels, so this should be avoided as much as possible. I always aim for a wardrobe adjustment after about 20-30 minutes of walking. This means that the heat generated from my movement is accounted for and I sweat as little as possible. This heat will disappear rapidly without movement, however, so you should immediately put layers back on as soon as you stop.

Finding the fine balance between too sweaty and too cold takes some practice, but is easily learned over the course of a day or two. Open and close zips, add and remove hats and gloves, or even stop and start your physical activity in order to stay inside a comfortable temperature zone.

If the driver has their heat on full blast, remember to take your coat off before you get into a car - it might be much more difficult to do so with your bag on your lap.

The different types of layers

The types of layers you wear are important. Generally you'll want to have a base layer, mid layer, and outer layer.

Base Layer

Do not choose cotton for your base layer in cold weather; it will soak up sweat and keep it close to your body - perhaps cooling you down to dangerous levels. Synthetic materials are a much better choice, as they wick away moisture and retain their insulating properties. I prefer a long sleeved shirt of either marino wool (as it doesn't get too smelly) or polyester (cheaper, but much smellier).

Mid Layer

The purpose of your mid layer is simply to trap air and improve the overall insulation of your clothing system. There's no need for anything high-tech here: a fleece jacket, wool jumper, thick shirt, hoodie, or whatever else you have in your closet will probably work. A down jacket is great, but they can be expensive. Be aware that the type of down will affect the jacket's properties in different weather - cheaper synthetic down will dry faster and you keep you warmer if it gets wet, but isn't as warm or durable overall.

Outer Layer

The outer layer is less about keeping warm and more about protection from the elements. If there's no wind or rain, you probably don't need to wear it unless it's very cold indeed. Even though it's often the item that stays in your bag the most, in my opinion it's the one worth investing the most money in. I use a lightweight breathable wind-proof/water-proof jacket, which keeps my mid layer dry and cosy without taking up a ton of space while not being worn.

Dry clothes

Being cold or wet is uncomfortable; being cold and wet is deadly. It's essential to carry a second set of clothes to wear if the primary set gets wet from rain, sweat, or the jerk who just drove through the puddle you're standing next to. If you don't want frost bite, don't wear wet socks or gloves in cold weather for long periods when you're not actively moving. Sometimes I'll change into a dry shirt even if I'm only stopping for a few minutes, and then put the wet one back on when I start walking again. It doesn't feel great, but it's better than having two sets of wet clothes.

Once your clothes are wet, take any opportunity you can to dry them. Socks and gloves can be dried via body warmth in your sleeping bag. Larger items of clothing will need to be hung somewhere warm.

Hitching in winter

It's hard to hitch in the dark, and in winter the nights are long and the days are short. Plan your journey accordingly - with some careful strategy you can maximise your travelling hours. Moving is a good way to stay warm, so if I'm sleeping outside I'll generally try to do any long hikes in the coldest hours, from 4am-8am. This can work out well if you've been dropped off on one side of the city and need to get to the other side.

If a ride is going to come to an end around sunset, I'll often prefer to get out a little earlier and use the last hour or two of daylight to get another long ride that can take me further and keep me warmer even as darkness falls.

Bad weather can make it harder to see hitchhikers on the side of the road, so bright clothing and clear lines of sight are as important as ever when hitching in winter.

Sleeping in the cold

It's important to keep your body, especially hands and feet, as warm as possible when sleeping in the cold. This generally means having some sort of shelter - whether that's a tent, a bivvy, or a tarp - or finding a source of heat such as a campfire or public building.

The earth will steal all your heat, so always put something between you and the ground if you're going to be touching it for a long time. Even if it's just a few layers of cardboard scavenged from the recycling bin. If you're in nature, making a bed from dry grass can significantly improve your quality of sleep. Of course, carrying an inflatable or foam sleeping mat is the ideal solution here.

Don't fully submerge your face in your sleeping bag. You'll exhale moisture when you breathe, which could reduce the loft of your sleeping bag and therefore its warmth. Or, if you can't stand how cold your face gets, I've heard of some travellers who have used snorkles to allow them to keep warm without breathing inside their bag. Not something I've done myself but I can see how it might work.

Temporary measures

I've done most of my hitching without any technical gear, but it definitely wasn't comfortable when it got cold. Learn from my experience: don't put plastic bags in your boots over your socks to "waterproof" them -- they'll just fill up with sweat instead. Don't sleep inside large plastic bags for the same reason - it's better to find shelter or just put them on top of your sleeping back like a blanket.

You can use a towel or a sheet under your outer layer if you need the extra insulation. You can also use them in your sleeping bag if it's not warm enough at night.

If you're cold and you can't put on more clothes or go somewhere warmer, get your heart rate up with jumping jacks. If you have a stove, pour hot water into a metal water bottle wrapped in a towel, and keep inside your mid layer for a few minutes. If you don't have any source of heat, put your hands into your armpits to keep them warm.

Noticing when things are going wrong

I once had the bright idea of swimming in the ocean in Washington in January. At first it was freezing, but I forced myself to stay in for a few minutes and suddenly it didn't feel so bad. A few minutes more and I was surprised at how warm I felt. In total, I spent around 15 minutes in the icy war. When I started running back to my friends across the long beach my legs stopped working and I fell face-first into the sand. It took me an hour of sitting in a van with the heat turned up to max before I started shivering. Turns out, one of the first sympotoms of hypothermia is feeling warm.

I'm not a medical professional, so I don't want to publish medical advice here. But make sure you research the symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia, as well as what to do if you start showing early signs of them.

Spreading festive cheer

Hitching in winter does have one advantage: the holiday spirit can make people more likely to pick you up and help you out. If you're the kind of person who likes to dress up, prompt festive feelings by wearing a santa hat, reindeer antlers, or a red nose. But remember that not everyone celebrates the same holidays and December can be a very lonely time of year for some people too. Be sensitive in the topics you discuss with drivers - asking them how they'll spend Christmas isn't always a safe direction to take the conversation. Nevertheless, that doesn't mean you can't embrace the spirit of the season by spreading your own positivity with each ride you take.

Contribute your thoughts

If you're an experienced winter hitchhiker and you've got something to add to this article, let me know at I'd love to add your thoughts.

Words by
Chris Drifte
Chris Drifte
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Chris Drifte travelled the world on a shoestring budget for the better part of a decade before writing Rules of Thumb, sharing his hitchhiking advice with thousands and earning ★★★★★ on Amazon.