Hitchhiking? Are you crazy?
If you’re anything like me, you were raised to think of thumbing the open road as an activity only for the opening scene of a bad horror movie.
But when I hitchhiked 500 miles across the UK in a day, exchanging stories with the friendliest, funniest, most genuinely awesome set of drivers you could imagine, I wanted to shout from the sunroof: try it, you’ll like it!
We’re talking adventure, freedom and a refresher course on the basic goodness of humanity.
But first, a public service announcement.
To Hitch or Not To Hitch
Hitching is something to do for it’s own sake. It’s NOT a fallback, or something to resort to when you don’t have the money, time, or additional options to get you from A to B.
You can’t be empowered when you have no choice but to rely on a stranger. Never put yourself in a situation when you’re feeling too edgy, desperate, or tired to make an informed decision about getting in someone’s car.
Think of it this way: If you really can’t get there any other way, stay home. Do it from a place of positivity, and you’re on the right track.
So, do you have enough cash to fold up your hitchin’ sign and take a hostel room for the night if you can’t reach your final destination? Enough time to enjoy hanging out at a service station for four hours, leafing through newsstand magazines and watching the uninterested cars whiz by? A mental map of the cab, bus and train routes you might have to take instead when thumbing doesn’t go your way?
Excellent! Then it sounds like the joys of hitchhiking are yours to partake in. Hop in, and buckle up for some…
Tips For A Good Hitch
- Buddy System
Would I do it alone?
Yes (and I have), but I’d also say hitchhiking with a friend is the way to go. And not just for safety, it’s also more fun.
The last time I took a long hitching trip, I was with a good friend I’d made on the road, who was also a seasoned hitchhiker. When she wanted to grab lunch, I held our spot on the sidewalk and watched the bags.
When I almost choked on my fruit snacks as our third driver announced she was an “Aura Healer” by profession, my friend effortlessly picked up the conversation so I could recover my composure.
- Planning ahead
Hitchhiking definitely has an air of effortless, spontaneous travel. But if you’re able to get ready for a hitching trip in advance, you’ll have an easier time.
Research your route, and bring a map so you can keep an eye on your progress.
Talking your trip up before you go can also help you feel more secure. I liked knowing that plenty of people knew where I was going before I hit the road.
And I was so excited leading up to the big hitch, I told plenty of people: fellow volunteers, neighbors, Facebook friends, even my 79-year-old housemate, who wistfully recalled the time he’d enraged villagers by thumbing a huge lorrie to a standstill in a four-way intersection, blocking traffic on all sides while he hoisted his bags into the cab. Nice.
- Give Me A Sign
Pair your best and boldest thumbs up with a cardboard sign bearing your destination. It lets drivers know where you’re trying to go without having to pull over to check. Bring a marker in case you want to change routes or strategies mid-stream.
And don’t be afraid to go big. Our massive placard that read “SCOTLAND, PLEASE” got plenty of jaws dropping and bursts of laughter from disbelieving morning commuters in Southern England… you want to go how far???
But in the end plenty of drivers headed in our direction were happy to take us as far as they could, and seemed to appreciate the audacity of our attempted distance.
- Know Your Place
Did you check into the local laws that apply to hitchhiking? In most places, hitchhiking is not illegal outright, but there are a lot of laws governing roadways and pedestrian actions. Lots of localities make it illegal to stand on the shoulder of a major roadway, or on a highway on-ramp.
While some people recommend international borders as a good place to find lots of cars slowed way down, there are also lots of police and heightened security here that don’t want anything out of the ordinary going on and might be more inclined to hassle hitchers.
Learn the local laws before you go, so you don’t end up on the wrong side of them. And remember: there are unwritten rules, too.
The vibe of a place can make or break your hitchhiking experience.
As a traveler in England, I soon discovered droves of twenty-somethings who’d hitchhiked all over their native land. The English have a real love for the underdog, so when they see a brazen but slightly self-deprecating traveler sticking their thumb out, it appeals to their sense of whistle-and-smile solidarity.
Hitchhiking is always a bit of a counterculture activity, but are you attracting good attention, or making your host country severely uncomfortable? Don’t be afraid to ask locals about it before you hitch. As a guest in their country, and hopefully their cars, be mindful of how your current locale feel about hitchhiking.
- Who’s Driving This Thing?!
This is the ultimate question.
The chance to have a genuine talk with a perfect stranger is what makes the whole experience of hitching such a blast. It’s a mish-mash of open-mindedness, compassion, friendship, trust and plain old faith in humankind – all packed into the simple act of driving down the street.
Don’t worry if you’re not the world’s greatest living conversationalist, even if you never get past introductions, just sit back, relax and enjoy the chat.
The great thing about hitchhiking is that you often bring out the best in your drivers. After all, the trust you place in them is the sincerest form of flattery. I’ve found drivers often become totally engaged in your journey, almost more excited to help you than you are to have a hitch.
On my Cross-UK Hitching Extravaganza, our first driver was a local churchgoer in a minibus, on his way to a Sunday service.
After we chatted, he ended up taking us 30 miles out of his way to a traffic light where he thought we’d have more luck hitching our next ride. He also gave us his cell number and asked us to text him when we got to Edinburgh. At midnight that night, we dropped him a line from our comfy Scottish couch. Five minutes later, we heard back “I told everybody about you today! We were all thinking of you, glad you made it safely!”
Nothing like the prayers of an English village – or just the genuine goodwill of a nice person – to propel your travels in the right direction.
If you’re excited to tap into the thrill of a true travel connection, I highly recommend hitchhiking. No matter how many miles you make it, a hitchhiking journey is the kind of enthusiasm fill-up that can fuel your passion for travel.
Which places have you found that smile on the hitchhiking traveler? Got stories about the crazy characters you’ve met cruising the open road? Write in and share your thoughts about thumbing.