How to Hitchhike

How to get rides

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Once you’ve found your hitching spot it’s time to start soliciting rides. Take your bag off – you’ll look like you’ll take up less space in the vehicle, and you’re going to be here for a while anyway. Put your stuff somewhere nearby but out of the way of anywhere vehicles might want to stop. Some hitchhikers like to make sure their bag is visible to traffic so that drivers know they are travellers, rather than locals, and therefore probably have much better stories to tell.

Now you can start to hitchhike. The symbol for hitchhiking is universally recognised in western cultures: hold your arm out straight and form a ‘thumbs up’ sign with your hand. Make eye contact with drivers as they come near and give them a friendly wave and a smile. Try to look as though you are having the best a time a person can have while waiting on the side of a road.

(If you're travelling through a non-western culture, do your research on local customs and hand signals. In some countries, for example, the “thumbs up” sign reputedly translates to “up yours”!)

Accepting or rejecting rides

When a vehicle stops for you, pick up your bag and run over to the window. Make eye contact with the driver, smile, and say: “Hi, thanks for stopping, where are you going?”

Listen carefully as they reply and make a mental judgement about their appearance and the appearance of their vehicle. If you are willing to accept the ride, thank them and get into the vehicle as quickly as possible. Otherwise, say something like “Thank you, but I’m looking for a ride that takes me further,” or “That’s too far out of my way” and move away from their vehicle.

If you’re rejecting the ride because you feel uncomfortable about the person, but you’ve already told them where you’re going and therefore can’t lie about it, it is still possible to decline politely by saying something like, “Sorry, my parents/partner asked me to only accept rides from couples/women/etc.”

Remember that you don't owe them anything just because they stopped, and you don't necessarily need to come up with an elaborate excuse just to refuse a ride. Thanking them and moving away from the vehicle is usually enough.

Using a sign

Some hitchhikers consider a sign to be vital, others think it completely unnecessary. By communicating to drivers exactly where you’d like to go, you greatly increase your chances of getting a ride to that place – but you may miss out on potentially-useful offers that don’t go directly to that place. It’s always a good idea to have some cardboard with you to make a sign if you decide you want one.

A sign is most useful when your hitchhiking spot has a lot of traffic that isn't going in your direction, such as at a roundabout, or at an intersection that leads on to the road you want. In this situation, having a sign prevents drivers who aren't going your way stopping unnecessarily.

To make a sign, take a thick black pen and some cardboard and write in large, thick lettering. As a test you should place the sign a short distance away and see if it is still readable. Exactly what you write is up to you, but generally you should keep it short. Good choices might be the name of a city you want to arrive in, or the name of the next main road you want to take. If locals have a nickname for a town or city, you may have increased luck using that. If you are in a foreign country, consider writing the name in the native language.

On longer journeys I usually take a large piece of cardboard and fold it in half or into thirds. Now I have 4-6 different spaces to write on, and I can use a combination of techniques and adapt to changes of plan easily.

Other props

Sometimes hitchhikers like to bring other props with them, and there are various superstitions about what can increase or decrease your chances of a ride. If you're travelling in a foreign country, waving the flag of your home country might increase your chances of being picked up by expatriates or people who can at least speak your language. Musical or sporting equipment will emphasise the common ground you share with others who play music or sports. Top hats, funny wigs, and other costume ideas might increase your novelty appeal. There are even tales of hitchhikers carrying unnecessarily heavy or bulky items as a sort of sadistic challenge – such as the guy who hitchhiked Ireland with a fridge. Whether or not these props work are up to you to decide. Personally, I prefer to carry less in my backpack.

Sharing hitching spots

If you’re hitching from the same spot as other people, keep some distance between each group so that drivers won’t be discouraged from offering a ride. Ideally only one group should hitchhike at a time, with the others resting away from the roadside and not putting themselves at risk or distracting drivers unnecessarily. Of course, there's nothing wrong with asking a driver who stops if they'll consider helping the friendly sunburnt fellow sitting a few steps down the road as well. Some might even consider it good manners.

Dressing the part

How you choose to present yourself to drivers may have an influence on who you get picked up by. It’s probably not worth altering your appearance from how you usually travel – hitch hiking isn’t a job interview – but making an effort to look neat and approachable generally results in a greater quantity of higher quality rides.

It’s probably a good idea not to wear sunglasses, or hats or scarves that obscure your face. Women might consider dressing conservatively to avoid unwanted advances. Wearing bright colours might improve your visibility on the road, and bear in mind that you could travel through different weather conditions over the course of the day.

Ultimately, you’ll probably get rides no matter how you’re dressed – but taking care in your appearance may reduce the time you spend waiting for them.

Common hand signals from drivers

Occasionally a driver (or their passengers) will return your thumbs up signal with a hand gesture of their own. It almost always means that they’re not going to pick you up, but it is worth knowing what they're trying to tell you.

Twirling, upward pointed forefinger

The driver is turning around and therefore they are not going in your direction.

Forefinger pointed left or right

The driver is near their destination, or turning off soon, and therefore they are not going in your direction.

Both hands held up with palms exposed/thumb and forefinger held close together

The driver would love to pick you up, but there is some reason that they can’t – probably a lack of room in the vehicle.

Thumbs up/peace sign

The driver approves of your method of travel, but not enough to pick you up.

Middle finger/other obscene gestures

The driver has poor social skills and acknowledges that they would not be enjoyable to share a vehicle with. However, they wish you luck with the next one.

Use these hand signals to make judgements about your hitching spot. If a lot of drivers are turning off or turning around, perhaps you have chosen a road that doesn’t have much useful traffic and you should move further along if possible. If a lot of drivers want to pick you up, but can’t, you’re probably having bad luck in a good spot and it might be worth staying longer.

Non-roadside hitching spots

The road isn't the only place you can hitchhike. You may find some success at bus stations (ask the bus driver if you can ride for free), airport drop off points, petrol stations, car parks, or just by talking to people on the street.

When you're hitchhiking from a place like a petrol station or car park, you have two choices:

  1. Wait at the exit with a sign.
  2. Approach people directly.

It can be effective to use both approaches simultaneously if you're travelling with a friend. Try to stay in sight of one another or you risk missing out on rides with people who stop at the exit, but don't want to wait for you to search for your friend. Be prepared for the vast majority of people to reject you if you're approaching them for rides. The trick here is to ask as many people as possible and be as friendly as possible. Don't be afraid to approach people who are sitting in their vehicles. Sometimes a driver will see you asking other people and then actually come up to you to offer a ride.

You'll also find that, as you go about your day enjoying the places you're visiting, people will often notice your large backpack and carefree attitude and strike up conversation. It's not uncommon for these friendly conversations with strangers to turn into impromptu rides – so feel free to tell people the broad details about your hitchhiking experiences and where you're hoping to get to next. As always, use your judgement and, if you're going to camp outside, don't tell anyone where you're planning to do it.

Unsolicited gifts

In countries where pan-handling is common, some drivers may mistake your request for a ride for a request for charity. This might come in the form of money, food, or other gifts.

In my opinion, such gifts (when given freely) represent extreme kindness on the part of the driver and it is bad form to reject them and deny a person their chance to perform a generous act. Kindness and generosity towards strangers should not be discouraged in this world. What you do with the gift is up to you. If it’s something edible and you’re hungry, you can eat it. If you get money and you aren’t truly in need, consider passing it on to the next homeless person you see.

Staying motivated

Standing by the side of the road waiting for a ride can be draining. Every vehicle that passes can start to feel like a personal rejection. But the more miserable you look, the less likely drivers are to decide to pick you up. Making a conscious effort to enjoy yourself and stay motivated will vastly improve your experience.

Singing songs, dancing on the spot, talking out loud to the cars, practising your world-class mime routine, or simply having a pleasant conversation with your hitching partner are all good ways to stay motivated while looking like you’re enjoying yourself. Food and sleep are the main fuel of motivation, so try eating a snack or taking a nap if you catch yourself lagging.

Remember, it only takes one person to decide to give you a ride – you’ll get one eventually.

When you really get stuck

Occasionally the time it takes for you to get a ride is longer than the time you're willing to wait. When this happens it's worth trying to hitchhike public transport instead. Walk to the nearest bus stop and ask the bus driver if you can get on for free. You'll be surprised how often this works, especially if you're female. Trains are another option, but it's much harder to avoid paying for a ticket and the fines can be high for getting caught without one.

It's not the end of the world if you do have to pay for a bus or a train, though – travelling to the next town over is normally enough to change your luck, and these short, local journeys are rarely expensive. Pay attention to the stops, however, and make sure you get off near a good hitching spot, or you risk wasting a lot of time hiking back the way you came.