How to Hitchhike

Planning your route

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Depending on how much time you spend walking to hitching spots, how quickly you get rides, how many rides you take, and how indirect your route ends up being, it will take you considerably longer to hitchhike a journey than if you had gone directly by car. As a general rule of thumb, hitchhiking takes double the amount of time that normal driving would. I therefore consider that every 4 hours I would spend in a car on a direct journey will take about a day (7-8 hours of travel) when hitchhiking. 8 hours of active hitchhiking per day is a relaxed pace that doesn't leave you too exhausted – and it gives you time to enjoy the places you travel through. If you choose to travel at a faster or slower pace then change this rule accordingly.

As we’ve discussed, spending an entire day on a 4 hour journey is not an insignificant loss of time, so the first step to your route planning should be to explore the alternatives. Look up, in hours, the time a direct route would take by car, divide by 4 to get the number of days it will take you, and then use that to calculate the cost of food and shelter. Remember that on long routes you’ll probably want rest days. Then compare that number to the cost of taking a bus, train, or flying. If the numbers are close, don’t forget to consider that hitching is a high-quality travel experience, whereas taking a bus, train, or flying will probably be pretty boring.

If hitchhiking the route still seems worth it, then you can start planning your route. One principle of hitching is that it is easiest to catch a ride from the outskirts of a city. However, it's also easiest to get dropped off on the wrong side of the city (where your ride enters to finish its journey) which means you have to make your way to the opposite side to start hitching again (where vehicles exit to continue their journey). This means that larger cities are easier to get to - but then more time must be spent crossing to the other side.

There are therefore two main strategies when it comes to hitching:

  1. Move between large cities on fast roads
  2. Move around large cities, between smaller towns on smaller roads

Moving between large cities is good for travelling very long distances. You're more likely to get rides that take you further, and faster roads mean less time spent in the vehicle. However, psychologically it can be more draining – faster roads mean more dangerous hitching spots and a higher commitment to your rides. You can't get out just anywhere on the highway. Getting on to the fast roads can be tricky, but once you're on the road you can hitch between rest stops for a slightly easier journey.

Hitching through most capital cities is not recommended – they are so large that you'll spend a considerable amount of time and money crossing to the other side, and it's generally cheaper and faster to take a longer route around them.

Moving between smaller towns is much more relaxed, and takes you through much more beautiful scenery. However, you'll be taking shorter rides on an indirect route on slower roads, which significantly increases the amount of time it will take to go the same distance. If you're not in a hurry or if you're going a short distance, however, it's a much more enjoyable experience. Hitching spots are closer together and easier to find; walking from one end of a town to another takes maybe half an hour – perhaps you take a moment to sit and drink a coffee as you pass through. It's always nice to spend more time in forests and fields and less on the barren and polluted main roads.

Planning is the same whichever strategy you decide to use. First you must identify the main roads you’re going to be travelling on, as well as the main towns and cities that you’ll pass through along the way. Look for the simplest possible route between yourself and your destination – not necessarily the shortest. Jumping between popular destinations may be faster than taking a direct line.

When you’re actually on the road, you’ll want to take the longest rides possible to minimise the time you spend moving through the settlements themselves. If your starting point or destination doesn't have much traffic passing through it, you should explore the public transport options between those places and the nearest big town or city as a backup plan.

Route planning example

Here is an example of how I planned my trip from Manchester, Tennessee to Boulder, Colorado. First I used google maps to get the fastest direct route by car. This gave me a travel time of about 18 hours, so I planned for 5 days of hitching. Given that I had a tent and was willing to sleep outside each night, I calculated my cost of shelter at $0. I wasn’t really sure how much my girlfriend and I would spend on food, but the alternatives were the greyhound ($175 each) or flying ($230 each), so as long as together we spent less than $75 per day on food we would be saving money. This seemed very likely.

I then looked at which roads we would need to take. The American interstate system is perfect for this kind of journey – all we needed to do was take the I24 north, then the I64, then the I70 west. Three roads for a 2000km journey is about as easy as it gets. I then identified the big cities that we would pass through on the route. They were, in order: Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver. This was also good news – with only four major cities on the route, a far greater proportion of traffic would be going longer distances. The more cities you have to pass through, the more time you’re probably going to spend on the road. If I had been travelling somewhere with a much higher density of cities (as in Europe), I would have looked for towns and cities near my route that I might end up going to as a compromise, but that was not required for this journey.

Next I identified the road closest to my location with the most traffic going on to the I24 north. This is where I planned to look for my first hitching spot. Because we were hitching from a large festival, I was hopeful for three things: that there was the possibility that there would be at least a handful of people driving all the way from Tennessee to Colorado, that those people would all be taking the same route, and that they would be very likely to pick me up. In human psychology, ‘the bystander effect’ refers to the tendency for people not to act when they believe that there are others that could also act – for example, there might be many witnesses to a crime, but nobody calls the police because they expect somebody else to do it. ‘The bystander effect’ also works in reverse – a person is much more likely to act when they think they are the only ones who are going to do so. This is why doing the whole trip in one ride became my ambitious Plan A. If that failed, I would try to get to St. Louis, and if that failed, I would settle for Nashville.

Once I knew my route, I spent some time researching the legality of hitchhiking for each state I would pass through (Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado) so that I would be prepared in case I had to deal with the police. I also identified the locations of any 24-hour Walmarts on the route, as these are generally close to main roads and they let you sleep for free in their parking lots.

You have much less to worry about if you are planning a journey that is less than 4 hours of hitching by car, but you should still follow the same process.

  1. Calculate how much time the journey will take (1 day of hitching = 4 hours of direct travel by car).
  2. Calculate the cost of hitching and compare to the alternatives.
  3. Decide whether you will take fast roads between large cities, or slow roads between smaller towns.
  4. Identify the exact roads you will try to take.
  5. Research the major cities and towns that lie along those roads, and maybe a few options for shelter, food, and public transport. Also consider any local laws regarding hitchhiking.
  6. Identify which road you will look for your first hitching spot on.

If you have access to the internet, you may wish to use to help plan your route. This website is filled with information about hitchhiking. Most usefully you can find specific advice for hitching through popular locations and there is an interactive map with user-submitted recommendations showing both the good and bad hitching spots for many major towns and cities across the world.

It’s important not to over-plan when hitching. The chances are high that you’ll end up going off route, and you’ll have to be comfortable with adapting to that. A roadmap is very helpful, as is a phone with GPS, but neither are totally necessary. If you’re lost you can just make use of the knowledge of the people who offer you rides. So, as long as you know which major roads and cities are on your route, you can just say “I’m going to X” and the driver will tell you whether or not you’re headed in the right direction – and if you’re in a bad spot, more often than not they’ll take you to a better one.

You don’t need to know every little detail about places for food or where you can sleep. You may want to remain ignorant of the law, seeing as you’re planning to break it anyway (I prefer to have some idea). At the end of the day, all you need is enough information about your journey to allow you to improvise effectively. Embrace the fact that you can’t plan the specifics.

It’s going to be an adventure.

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