The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hitchhiking

In light of heading out for yet another hitchhiking trek of hundreds or thousands of miles across South America, I’ve decided to write a tutorial or hitchhiking guide to follow.  Over the years and across the continents I’ve learned that there’s no way to predict exactly what will happen once you put your thumb out, but I have figured out how to make life easier for myself while on the road.

All you really need to hitchhike is your thumb and a little bit of patience, but there’s some tools that make your trip infinitely easier and safer.  Every country is different – Germany is super easy to hitch while Spain is not so great, but there are some general rules that hitchhikers can follow.

Number one is ¡STAY AS CLEAN AS YOU CAN! It’s tough, but you should do your best to, at least, look clean – no one wants a dirty hippie in their car or truck.  My rides have frequently commented on the level of cleanliness and beardedness of certain hitchhikers and their gear, stating that it is one of the biggest reasons not to pick someone up.

mountain road, highway, south island, new zealand, queenstown

Safety First (for your parents’ sake)

Ask where the person is going – I find it’s better to ask the person where they are going. Then you know they have a destination and you can plan your route.

Scope them out – You’d be surprised how much you can learn in just a minute interaction.  Sketchy people look/sound sketchy usually.  Look what’s in the car, who is in the car, the condition it’s in, etc.

Cars with Groups – Generally one or two people in a car is good, especially if one of them is a woman.  With multiple guys, I tend to be a bit more weary and I wouldn’t suggest getting in cars with them.  Personally I have and I’ve regretted it.

Getting dropped off –  Know where you want to be dropped off. If you’re looking for another ride, a gas station is always best because there’s usually food/people/more vehicles.  Once you arrive at your destination see if they can leave you at a bus/metro location so you can get somewhere else.  Trucks usually stay on the outskirts.

Learn to Turn Rides Down –  This is almost always really difficult to do, but some cars you know you shouldn’t get into because of the people and others just aren’t going far enough.  Getting a ride that leaves you in a bad location is much worse than staying in a good location and waiting a bit longer.

Don’t Go Home with your Ride – Um, duh.  It’s not a good idea to have  your hitchhiking ride take you anywhere besides where  you want to go.  You might miss out on dinner, you might miss out on a mini-adventure and you will fall way behind on your hitch and get left out in the dark.  That being said, I have gone off on little side trips with rides, eaten out with them, and even stayed at this Italian man’s house because he was very upset that I planned to continue hitching into the night (I only did it because he had a baby seat in the car and kept talking about his family/food/rowing team).

Hitch in Groups:  It’s much easier to hitch alone, obviously, because there’s only one person to accommodate.  However, there is safety in numbers and it doesn’t hurt to have someone to talk to all those hours standing on the side of the road.

italian highway, autostrade, roma, rome, roadsign

Essential Items to Bring (they’ll make life easier anyway)

SnacksLet’s face it you can never predict how long you’re going to be on the road or if there will be somewhere to get food. This is especially true if you have any dietary restrictions. A lot of times drivers will offer you something, but don’t count on it! Trail mix/nuts/granola bars are always a good bet – lots of calories (yay protein!) in a small package. Dry fruit is good too, but a lot of times you crave something fresh; for these times I’ve found apples, carrots, and cucumbers travel remarkably well. Hard-boiled eggs, bread, and peanut butter are also great.

WaterFor the same reasons as the above. It’s super important to stay hydrated even if you might have to go to the bathroom more often. Water is the essence of life.

MapsThis will help you figure out where you are and where you need to go. It’s especially important if you don’t speak the language in the country you’re hitchhiking in. Most people will manage to figure out where you want to go by pointing. Maps vary from country to country – the best ones point out distances between places and where gas stations are located. Often times locals will suggest a certain route and a map can help you figure out whether or not their advice is sound. Everyone thinks they know what your best options are – I’d say it’s about 50-50 as to whether they do or not so trust your own instincts!

Sunscreen/HatAlways bring sunscreen, you will get burnt standing on the side of the road! Hats are a good way to keep the sun off your face and keep your scalp from being crisped.

Cardboard/MarkersIt’s not always necessary and I’ve managed to get plenty of rides without them, but having the ability to make a sign can really help you out. What to write on your sign is a whole trick in itself, but it’s good to have markers and some spare cardboard in case you want to adjust your sign. You can find cardboard almost anywhere so you might as well use it.

Water protection/plastic bagsFor yourself and your backpack. People might feel sorry for you standing out in the rain, but that doesn’t mean they want a wet you and your stuff in their vehicle. If you haven’t bought a waterproof covering for your bag or a raincoat for yourself you can always go with the ever versatile trash bag. Having extra plastic bags in various sizes is always useful.

Tent/Shelter – I have yet to follow this piece of advice myself because hitchhiking was never something I planned directly for until now. In fact, I just bought myself a little one-person tent. You are way safer inside a tent somewhere than on the side of the road and you’ll actually manage to get some decent sleep this way. A single person tent is small/light enough to easily fit into your gear and is can be acquired for less than $50. If you find yourself on the side of the road in a place like Colombia you can ask locals if you can pitch your tent in their yard – it’s extra safety and chances are they might even invite you inside.

Talk the Talk

Obviously you’ll have a much easier and more enjoyable time if you have the language skills to communicate with the person giving you a ride and help you avoid unnecessary problems. Even though the old thumbs up is fairly universal these days, you should know what they call ‘hitchhiking’ in the country you are in so you can explain what you are trying to do (hacer dedo, pegar carona, autostop, etc…).  I highly recommend learning at least a few key phrases that will help you communicate with a driver.

Essential Phrases 

  • Hello, my name is… (or some introduction)

  • I’m from….

  • Where are you going?

  • Can you take me to…/Can you drop me off/leave me…

  • Do you know where there’s a bus stop/metro/gas station?

  • How far is it…

  • Thank-you!

  • I need a bathroom.

You can likely learn everything you need to know in less than fifteen minutes.  I’ve found that hitchhiking is one of the best ways to practice a foreign language because usually the people who pick you up don’t speak any English.

road trip, film still, california

Additional Resources

One of the most useful resources that I’ve found on the web is the Hitchwiki, a collaborative effort that has info on where to hitch in and out of many cities and interactive maps.  It’s probably the most extensive hitchhiking guide on the internet. Some countries are documented extensively, telling you which bus to take to whatever industrial park location to get out of town, while many still need to be filled in.

Even for places with no data, you can usually get a ride by just going to the outskirts of town or the last gas station, just use Google maps or ask locals how to get there. Generally people don’t know, but it doesn’t hurt to ask people if they know where a good spot to hitchhike is.  At least they’ll know which direction you should head.



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