I would like to preface this article by saying that given the choice I would love to travel first-class all the damn time if I could. Hitchhiking is usually done out of necessity and (spoiler alert) is exhausting, takes a whole lot of patience and very very slow.
However, it feels way more rewarding to me than other modes of transport. First, that liberating headrush of leaving things up to fate. Then a serene calmness, and a trust that no harm will come to me. And then finally, the bliss of receiving the kindness of a stranger to take me closer to where I’m supposed to be. Also, it’s a free ride, yay!
If you do it right, it’ll start to feel less like a pain in the butt.
KNOW WHERE TO HITCHHIKE
Common sense will tell you not to do it in urban areas. Chances are, you’re going to inadvertently flag down a taxi, or someone’s going to suggest that you take the bus.
Do it in places with little to no public transport, or where said transport (I’m looking at you, European trains) between cities or states cost way too much for the humble backpacker budget. I usually find myself hitchhiking in rural, country-like areas, or at the edge of town. Interestingly enough, I find that there’s an inverse correlation between the numbert of cars on the road and the amount of time it takes for someone to give you a lift. The fewer cars there are on the roads, the faster you’re likely to get picked up. I think it’s the bystander effect in action, or the “someone else will do it” mentality. Hitchhiking in an isolated place like the Azores Islands was way easier than in the bustling city of Geneva, Switzerland. Go figure.
BE PREPARED FOR THE JOURNEY AHEAD
It goes without saying that you should know, at the very least, the general direction of your destination. Drivers are not going to make a detour for you, nor act as your personal tourist information counter. Keep in mind they will only give you a lift at their convenience. It also helps to know the exact road that will take you there. You might be
It also helps to know the exact road that will take you there. You might be staring at four roads heading north, but only one of them might reach your destination. If you’re heading to a major city, there’s likely to be a major expressway which goes that way and plenty of drivers heading the same direction to give you a direct ride. However, destinations that are a little off the beaten track tend to require more planning and more hitch-hiking. You might need to connect a bunch of different major and minor roads which could mean tediously getting on and off a few rides.
I highly recommend planning in detail your journey beforehand; knowing the shortest route to your destination will save you a lot of time. Do make sure you have a map on hand for this, of course!
Knowing where you’re going will also help you prepare for the journey. I had once hitchhiked from Italy going up into France, not realising that the route crossing the border would bring me to the Alps, where the altitude was higher and the temperature a lot cooler. I didn’t have a thick enough sweater and turned into a popsicle for a bit.
Depending on the distance you’re going, do also make sure you’re well stocked with food, water, and anything else that would help you not die.
MAKE YOURSELF VISIBLE
It doesn’t hurt to be extra eye-catching to grab the attention of the drivers. Do wear something light-coloured or bright. I once found myself at the side of the road at twilight in a black jacket and soon realised it was a terrible decision. Not only might errant drivers potentially run me over in the dark, the chances of getting a lift are significantly lower if they can’t even see me.
The traditional practice is to stick out your thumb in the direction you’re going, but some countries unfamiliar with the custom might not understand the gesture. If that’s the case, try flagging your arms up and down – the universal sign for “slow down.” The rapid movement is also a lot more attention-grabbing than a static thumb in the air.
I find that holding up a sign really helps with getting a faster ride. Do make sure your sign is written in large, legible letters, and if you’re not in an English-speaking country, it might help to write your sign in the native language. If you’re headed towards an obscure destination, write the name of a better-known location in its general vicinity, somewhere more people are likely to be going towards.
Hitchhiking can take a lot out of you, but you just gotta suck it up – and smile! I was taught by a seasoned hitch-hiker to carry myself in a way that made me seem friendly. He suggested I directed my smile and gaze towards the driver’s seat, and “telepathically” relay my plight to the driver. “Please…” he would repeat to each passing car, even though none of them could hear him, sometimes even making the prayer gesture with his hands. Dramatic…
I’m sceptical about that telepathic bit, but I reckon eye-contact creates a connection that would inspire pity in the heart of another human. It also signals to the driver that you’re chill, you’ve got nothing to hide, and you’re definitely not going to brutally attack them in a quiet street.
While it’s easy enough to put in your request when a car pulls over, the real challenge for me comes when I have to walk up to a person and beg. It happens when I might’ve been dropped off at a rest-stop or a gas station to try and find someone else going in my direction. It makes more sense to personally ask drivers in the vicinity for a ride, instead of re-starting at the side of the road, and leaving it up to chance that someone might stop for you.
Anyway, walking up to a stranger and asking them point-blank for a favour can be pretty nerve-wracking. Again, you just gotta bite the bullet. Do make sure you’re friendly, polite and gracious, even if they don’t agree to give you a lift. Sometimes I do feel like crying but I think that might be emotional blackmail.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
Voluntarily going into a stranger’s car goes against everything I was ever taught growing up. No doubt it seems to have an element of danger to it, if only because we as a society prefer to err on the side of caution. The reality is far safer, but it doesn’t hurt to remain on your guard.
Listen to your intuition; if alarm bells go off in your head, if you feel an uneasiness in your stomach, if something just feels off about a certain car, do not get into it. We still live in a world where men behave in predatory ways, and solo female travellers – myself included, as with many women I’ve met on the road – are still harassed and victimised in many infuriating ways, and being alone means that it’s up to us protect ourselves.
If I have one word of advice for fellow female travellers, it’s this: Your instincts will never fail you. Best believe in this as powerfully as you can, and it will manifest. There’s a reason why we choose to travel alone, despite the perceived dangers of being a solo female traveller. It’s to get out of our comfort zone, to learn how to take care of ourselves again and to trust that deep Inner Wisdom present within every woman.