How to Hitchhike

The four commandments of hitchhiking

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1. Thou shalt hitch during the day

Let me start by saying this: hitchhiking at night isn't worth it. When the sun has set, your day of hitching has ended. Accept it. Where you are is where you are going to spend the night, unless you are willing to walk or take public transport somewhere else.

Pedestrians on the road at night are at a far greater risk than during the day. Drivers are more likely to be tired, and you are more likely to be difficult to see. Hitchhiking often requires you to stand in positions where drivers may not expect to find you, and trying to use street lamps to make yourself more visible will often mean standing closer to the road than would be considered safe during the day time. You may also be at increased risk of having to deal with drunk drivers.

With less light to see you by, drivers will find it harder to make a considered judgement as to whether or not they would like to let you into their vehicles. If you solicit for rides near roadways during the night, some drivers may get the impression that you provide illegal services of some kind: law-abiding citizens will be less likely to pick you up, and less than law-abiding citizens may expect more than you are willing to give in return for picking you up! Darkness also makes it harder for you to make a good judgement about the people who stop for you, as vehicles are not generally well-lit from the inside.

Obviously, these things aren’t an issue if darkness falls when you are already inside a vehicle. When this happens, however, you must have an increased awareness of your surroundings. Keep track of where the driver is taking you, and try not to get out of the vehicle in industrialised areas or urban areas that are in a state of disrepair. When you exit a vehicle after darkness has already fallen, finding a safe place to eat and sleep can also occasionally be slightly more difficult.

There are a lot of problems that you just don’t have to deal with if you make the simple decision to stop travelling an hour before the sun goes down. If you do decide to hitch at night, however, remember to stand a couple meters behind whatever light source you're standing under to ensure that your features don't cast ominous shadows across your face.

2. Thou shalt have good judgement

Hitching can be hard work, a little scary, and require a lot of social energy. And there’s almost nothing more refreshing than cold beer on a hot day, followed by another one to boost your courage, and third to loosen your tongue. We already know that, as a hitchhiker, you’re the kind of person who is willing to operate outside of the rules of mainstream society; so what could be the harm in taking a little marijuana with you (medical, of course) to ease the tedium of standing on the side of the road for hours at a time? And it would be a shame to let all this cocaine just go to waste…

Unfortunately, the use of narcotics, both legal and illegal, will to some extent reduce your ability to make good judgements. Bad judgements can very quickly turn any safe and enjoyable experience into a dangerous one – and this is particularly true with hitchhiking. The side effects of common narcotics can also be very unpleasant in the context of hitching: strong urges to go to the bathroom, paranoia, reduced abilities to be coherent or understand others, increased lethargy, or even strong desires to keep moving can all easily spoil the fun of hitching.

This is not an anti-drugs rant. Actually, if you have particularly strong views against drugs than you may want to consider not sharing your opinion while you’re on the road. Many people will make the assumption that hitchhikers are open-minded when it comes to drugs. It’s not unusual to be picked up with the expectation that you’ll share a little weed, and it’s not uncommon for the occasional driver to be under the influence of something themselves. The idea of picking up hitchhikers often quite appeals to drunks and it’s not beyond some truckers to extend their operational distance with the use of illegal stimulants. In these situations it’s up to you to notice before you get into the vehicle, and, failing that, make a decision whether or not to remain in the vehicle once it becomes obvious. Some drugs impair the driver more than others and some drivers behave more erratically on narcotics than others. You have to make a judgement. Speaking of which, people who are under the influence will often try to share with you at some point – for me, the slight loss of rapport that comes from not accepting their offer is worth knowing that I will not get carried away and lose control of the situation.

In most cases, remaining sober and being discreet about what you carry will ensure that hitching is a positive experience for everyone. Bear in mind that in some countries, even just having an open container of alcohol within reach of a driver is an illegal offence – and it would be very poor form to repay the kindness of someone who has picked you up with a criminal charge.

3. Thou shalt respect road safety rules

I can appreciate that some readers may be beginning to suspect that this hitchhiking guide was actually written by their mother. Those readers should consider themselves lucky that their mothers were giving them such good hitching advice. Also, tidy your room.

Most people who have never hitchhiked focus on “stranger danger” as their main cause for concern. We’re familiar with roads, we know what it’s like to be in a vehicle, we don’t generally worry that we’re going to come to harm as a result of travelling by car – even when we’re driving slowly past an accident and craning our necks to see how bad the injuries were.

However, in my opinion, the most significant risk you take when hitching is the risk of bodily harm as a result of failing to follow proper road safety. There are very few studies that we can use to compare your risk of injury from road accidents to your risk of being a victim of crime from hitchhiking. Both of the only two credible studies into the risks of hitchhiking – a 1974 Californian highway police study and a 1989 German federal police study – concluded that the actual risk of being a crime victim as a result of hitching is much lower than is generally perceived, and not particularly higher than the risk faced by normal citizens. On the other hand, there were 185,540 reported injuries in road accidents in the UK in 2013 alone. Unfortunately there are no modern studies investigating the dangers of hitchhiking, perhaps because victims of crime while hitchhiking are few and far between.

So worry less about the drivers, and more about the cars. Road safety permeates every aspect of hitchhiking, and you should always be conscious of the risks you take by putting yourself in close proximity to traffic. See "finding a spot" for more detailed advice, but the basics are as follow: don’t unduly distract drivers, either while you’re on the side of the road or inside their vehicles; give drivers plenty of time to see you – don’t hitch immediately after a blind turn, for example; and make sure vehicles are able to stop and start safely when picking you up – this means they must have plenty of space, and that roads with a speed limit greater than 50mph/80kph are generally inappropriate for hitching.

The most important thing is to just be aware of the very real danger that hanging out on roads represents – don’t let familiarity lure you into a false sense of security.

4. Thou shalt pay it forward

I’ve already mentioned that one of the most beautiful things about hitchhiking is that you gain something without taking anything. The vehicles you ride in are on the road anyway and the increased gas usage of an extra person is negligible. Even so, if you want to be a good hitchhiker you have to give something in return for your ride. There is an unspoken contract that you agree to when entering someone’s vehicle: they will take you closer to your destination, and you will provide them with good company. It’s a fair exchange.

If you get into a vehicle and immediately fall asleep, or you don’t make conversation, or you get into an argument, or you act inappropriately, then you are not holding up your side of the deal and it is no longer a fair exchange. Once you are in the vehicle, you have one job: to make the driver and any passengers feel as comfortable as possible, and then to entertain them for the length of the journey.

I think about this responsibility through the paradigm of “pay it forward”. Essentially, if I leave someone’s vehicle and I feel like they’re going to be even more excited to pick up the next hitchhiker they see, then I know that I’ve successfully provided them with good company. If I leave someone’s vehicle and they’re less likely to pick up the next hitchhiker, then I have failed. The great thing about this rule is that it not only provides immediate positive experiences for individual hitchhikers in the short term, but it also makes hitchhiking easier and more enjoyable for everyone in the long term too. Make a conscious effort to leave your drivers in better condition than you find them.

These four commandments are the fundamentals of being a good hitchhiker. Following them will improve your experiences of hitchhiking and reduce some of its inherent dangers – although the danger, of course, will never be entirely eliminated. Now that you understand what constitutes good hitching etiquette, it’s time to learn the specific methods and strategies that will make you a successful hitchhiker.