Photo: MintImages/Shutterstock

The Hitchhiker's Guide To Hitchhiking

by Tim Patterson Jan 4, 2008
My mother always said she had only two rules for me in life: “Never ride a motorcycle and never hitchhike. That’s all I ask. Everything else is up to you.”

The first time
I rode a motorcycle, it took only five minutes for me to burn a hole the size of a grapefruit in my right calf. Mom drove me to the hospital. “Please, please don’t hitchhike,” she said.

But of course I did.

My first time was in the bed of a dusty pickup truck on a mountain road outside Vail, Colorado. “This sure beats pedaling uphill,” I thought, leaning against the frame of my mountain bike and watching the aspen trees breeze by.

The driver let me out at the trailhead and I sailed back to the valley on twisting loops of single-track. At the bottom, I stuck my thumb out again. I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve hitched rides with French hippies up the west coast of Japan, with Thai road engineers in the jungles of Cambodia and with park rangers across the Chic Choc mountains of Quebec.

Once, on the highway to Osaka, a taciturn man suddenly turned off on a mountainous back road and drove me into an abandoned gravel pit. I was praying for my mother to forgive me when he beckoned me out of the car and asked me to admire the beautiful sunset.

To Hitch Or Not To Hitch?

Hitching has always worked out fine, and led to memorable travel experiences. But am I pressing my luck? Are my mother’s fears justified? Is it really a good idea to stick your thumb in the air?

There are times when hitch-hiking is an appropriate means of transportation, and there are times when it would be extremely foolhardy to travel by thumb.

For strapping young males like me, hitching is fairly safe under most circumstances, but there is still a checklist of factors that are important to consider before soliciting rides from strangers.

Consider Your Location

In countries like Japan and New Zealand, where crime rates are low, people are hospitable and the standard of living is generally high, hitching is a very low risk activity. Just yesterday I met a young woman from Germany who told me all about her experiences hitching solo around New Zealand.

“Everyone couldn’t have been nicer,” she said. “Sometimes I would worry when the driver looked a little strange, but the oddest people were always the friendliest!”

Then there are countries like Cambodia, where most people live in poverty and the vehicles are often overcrowded and unsafe. It’s possible to hitch in the 3rd World – indeed, this is how many locals get around – but you should expect to pay for the ride, and only flag down vehicles that are relatively uncrowded and appear in good repair.

Even better, wait at a crossroads where vehicles tend to stop and approach the driver of your choice while he is getting gasoline or having a bite to eat.

Finally, there are countries like the United States, where hitching is safe in some places, but not in others. If you’re in a laidback mountain town, hitching is fairly normal, but the outskirts of larger cities can be dangerous, and trying to hitch in an expensive suburb will likely land you a ride in the back of a police car.

Are You Alone?

I do most of my hitching alone, but like I said, I’m a hunk of pure masculinity. Women can also hitch solo, and they’re likely to get picked up quickly, but they need to exude confidence.

Women can also hitch solo, and they’re likely to get picked up quickly, but they need to exude confidence.

Be mentally prepared to turn down sketchy rides and perhaps keep a bottle of pepper-spray handy, just in case.

In general, it’s a good idea to hitch with one – and only one – other person. A group of more than two people are unlikely to get picked up by anything except a public bus or Woodstock style hippie van.

With a trusted friend along for the ride you have backup in case things turn sour, and don’t need to bear the whole burden of interacting with the driver.

Why Do You Want To Hitch?

The act of hitching embodies many of my favorite elements of travel – going with the flow, adapting to situations on the fly and taking whatever comes with a smile and a laugh. The best reasons to hitchhike are to meet locals, get off the beaten track and give yourself up to the whims of the travel gods.

Ask yourself honestly why you are thinking about hitching. Do you want to save money? Do you want to chat with a stranger? Did the last bus of the week leave yesterday?

I find that hitching is rarely a good way to save money. Most of the time, I chip in for gas and often buy the driver a meal.

The best attitude is one of total openness – hitching for the experience, without a fixed goal in mind. If you aim for a specific city, or hope for a certain kind of ride you will be disappointed more often than not.

This is why it’s rarely a good idea to write your destination on a piece of cardboard – if you do so, only drivers bound for that place will stop, and you’ll miss out on potential adventures.

Thumbs Up!

So, was my mother right? When it comes to motorcycles, she knew what she was talking about. As for hitching, I’m not so sure. It’s a wonderful thing to talk with strangers, and it’s often rewarding to bum rides with them as well.

Hitching is a green way to travel – you’re creating an instant carpool. It also enables you to inject a little piece of spontaneous wonder into a stranger’s routine, fulfilling one of the most noble of a traveler’s roles.

The world isn’t such a scary place, and most people are friendly, generous and kind. Use common sense, trust your instincts, open yourself to the horizon of possibility and – if all seems right – raise your thumb up high.

You never know where it might take you. (Also be sure to check out this useful video on hitchiking techniques).

Have you ever hitched a ride? Is Tim’s Mom right to worry? Leave a comment

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