Getting into a car with strangers is something that makes many people cringe – the fear of the unknown has the power to overwhelm the logic in a split second and even the thought of it seems too dangerous to consider. I used to be the same – however, I have been a happy hitchhiker for past three years and I swear to my favorite hiking boots that I have never had a bad experience, ever.
Many Most of my friends would never try to go from place to place using their thumb as a free ticket, however, ever since I´ve tasted the feel of the wind in my hair while watching the landscape running by from the back of a truck, I´ve wanted to hitchhike all around the world. This is my basic, hopefully helpful guide for those of you who want to try out hitchhiking for yourselves.
I will digress a tiny bit here. Last week a friend of mine shared a story of how she had to suffer through hours of silly racist talks (including the question “why are you dating a German? Are Slovaks not good enough for you?” – no kidding), ethnically based insults and ruthless driving on a car-share ride back home. On the other hand, I have hitch-hiked in Cambodia, Mexico, Colombia, California and Slovakia but have not had a single negative experience.
I know many people who use a car-sharing service regularly. If you are not familiar with what car-share is, it is basically a system joining together the community of people who commute to various places and wannabe passengers who need a ride – instead of taking a bus or a plane, many people in need of a ride now share the costs of gasoline and small space of a car with strangers for a few hours in order to get to their destination. What am I trying to say with this comparison?
The answer is simple: whether you will suffer through a ride with a raving asshole or with a trucker dad who makes sure to stop on the road to show you the view and ends up inviting you for a lunch doesn´t depend on the means of transport you have chosen at all. Rather it depends on your luck. If you know your dates, car sharing can be very convenient and I am not trying to shed negative light on it.
I am also far from saying that hitchhiking never brought trouble to anyone – there is some probability of violence and accidents striking upon you no matter where you are and what you are doing – but you can be sure of one thing: the drivers who take hitchhikers in their car are normal people. They are the same kind of people as you and me; they could be an elderly couple with three dogs riding in a van, a young woman with a trunk full of detergent, a shop owner on his way to the store who rides his brothers car full of cheap wine, a mechanic who went to pick up a fluffy white watchdog puppy (and guess what, you get to hold it), a former mayor of the village you are headed to, a perfume seller, or even a minister of agriculture who can speak Russian and has traveled to Prague to buy a helicopter long time ago. All of these have actually happened to me – and if you don´t take my word for it, go try for yourself. I am sure you will end up meeting some peculiar folks.
Sure, I hear you saying, but I am alone!
I hear you. I am a young woman and I know your worries very well; that is why I mostly hitchhike with my husband. I´ve only gotten a ride on my own twice (in Thailand; once on a motorbike, from a guy riding to the temple with his son – it was the kids´ birthday – and the second time from a mobile sausage seller in Ayutthaya who took me around all the village before he dropped me off at the temple that I was looking for) but there are other women who are more intrepid than me. I knew a girl once who has hitchhiked all over Latin America and even hitched a yacht!
Another amazing travel writer, Elisa from Revolution on the Road, has been hitchhiking in the Balkans and volunteering in a refugee squat in Greece lately. I have been reading her articles avidly for many months by now and was obviously curious about her opinion on this topic. And so I asked her to tell me about her experiences hitchhiking female&alone:
“The best hitchhiking experience I’ve ever had was in Shkoder, Albania,” Elisa starts her story. “A car stopped, driven by a middle-aged fat man that didn’t speak any English – only Albanese and Greek. At first there was a misunderstanding, because he thought I was going to pay him, and when I could finally communicate to him that I had no money and that he could drop me off in the next petrol station, he decided to take me anyway. I thought: “Shit, how are we going to get through a two-hour ride if we can’t communicate?” But we could. With gestures, onomatopoeia and a weird mixture of Spanish/Greek/English/Italian words, he told me about his family and I told him about mine. And we ended up playing an improvised game which consisted on my making animals’ sounds and him saying the name of the animal in Albanese and Greek so I would learn. Of course, I don’t remember a single one. But we laughed and laughed, and I gave him a big hug when we finally reached the center of Tirana and said goodbye.”
What does feminism have to do with hitchhiking?
“It always amuses me that those who find feminist ideas “extreme” are usually the same people who tell me that what I do (getting in the cars of strange men, or being hosted by them) is extremely dangerous because “any man could rape me”. Even though I’ve learned self-defense techniques and always take precautions, not getting in a man’s car just because he is a man is basically conveying that all men are potential rapists. So feminists hate men but at the same time all men are dangerous? No, I believe each human being is different, because my enemy is not men, but the heteropatriarchy. And these convictions have taken me into cars in the Netherlands, Croatia, Hungary and Albania, always leaving a wonderful memory behind.”
If you still don´t feel safe going alone, simply get a friend. If none of the people you know wants to hitchhike, look for somebody in a hostel or in a Facebook travel/hitchhike group. (Yes, Facebook travel groups are a thing.) You might be surprised about how many people are actually up for such adventure but worried to set off without a friend who has their back.
It will probably be easier to autostop if you are a male-female couple, or two women, than if you are two men, but everything is possible. Especially in countries where hitchhiking is a piece of cake (such as Cambodia); people will laugh at you for what you are doing on the road (probably thinking that you got lost from the tourist flock) and then take you for a ride. Fellow travelers from The Whole World Or Nothing have just tried hitchhiking for the first time in Thailand and so I asked them how did it go. Sarah and James told me this:
“Yes we did a bit of hitch hiking this week! It’s the first time we did it intentionally (we had to hail a ride once in Argentina when our bikes broke but that hardly counts!) and it was such good fun. It was a great way to meet local people and even though there was a language barrier we managed to make friends and have fun with them. I must admit, we had read that hitch hiking was quite common here so we knew that people would probably be more open to it, but even so it was amazing because it saved us a nice bit of cash and we travelled over 100km in total!”
Read Sarah´s personal account of how travel changed her style – Heels to flip–flops: Turning From Working Professional to Travelling Tramp
Now that you are reassured and ready to go, here are my simple tips for making this run smooth.
You wouldn´t go to the opera wearing sweatpants, would you? (If you answer yes, you are probably wearing your sweatpants everywhere and therefore this point doesn´t apply to you.)
Don´t wear uncomfortable clothes; I suggest:
- shoes you can run with,
- pants to protect your legs from scratches
- t-shirt that covers your shoulders
- colorful clothes makes you easier to spot
I know this sounds like it is about avoiding the danger of a pervert suggestions – however, it is not so. You might have to run with all your stuff to get into the car quickly; it is difficult to climb into the back of a truck if you are wearing a miniskirt and also, sometimes the sun is not exactly your best friend – avoid sunburn and cover your upper arms, or at least apply sunscreen. I always carry a big shawl in my purse so that I can hide in its shade whenever necessary. The bottom line is to be comfortable – although I advice you to wear pants, I mostly wear a long skirt which is a lot fresher and more comfortable for my eczematic skin.
You should have your stuff in a single bag so that you can easily fit in someone else´s car. They are probably not expecting you so their car might be full of random objects and you´ll often end up with your backpack on your knees. Don´t carry too much stuff around – pack lighter and smarter. Have a jacket nearby in case of bad weather.
Show your face
Take off your sunglasses and your hat when you are standing on the road. Let people see your face and preferably make eye contact so that you give them a chance to trust you. Obviously, if it is 40 degrees in the shade, you will want to keep your hat right where it belongs – protecting your scalp. As for normal glasses, I don´t take those off. I actually think dioptrical glasses might make you look even more inoffensive and that is exactly what you need.
Show your hands
Your thumb is your ticket, so use it! Let all the drivers know you want a ride – fancy cars mostly won´t stop for you, but sometimes you get lucky. Don´t give up! In a different way, letting people see your hands is another way of reassuring them that you are a safe bet. It is not only you who is worried about getting there safely – the drivers are also concerned about the possible danger a hitchhiker can turn out to be.
Choose the right spot
The best place to get a ride is near a gas station. Some places (like Mexico) you can go around, introducing yourself to all the drivers and asking them where are they headed – that way you will end up with a ride very quickly. (Mexico is a great place to hitch hike in general.) Other places – like Slovakia – it is better to just stand and wait for someone to stop for you.
Choose a place with enough space for parking and stand slightly in front so that you give the driver a chance to slow down and stop. The ideal spot is somewhere where the cars are forced to go slowly, like when there is a speed bump or a cross-section with traffic lights. Make sure the drivers can see you – avoid standing behind bushes and boards. Sometimes a bus stop can be a good choice as well.
Always carry a marker
It is relatively easy to get a piece of cardboard, however, they will probably not be selling thick markers on every gas station. The bigger your cardboard sign and the thicker the letters, the easier to read. Take care and write your sign nicely – it says something about yourself.
Be friendly & share
You are hopefully not the last hitchhiker this particular driver takes in. Remember, you don´t pay for the ride with money but with being a good company. Try to strike up an interesting conversation, or at least be respectful and polite. Perhaps offer the driver some of your food, get them a soft drink, or gift them a little souvenir if you have any. (We usually carry some wooden earrings that my husband makes – female drivers love them and male drivers always appreciate a small present for their girlfriend.) In short, be friendly and try to make the right impression. Behave as if you were on a party and your friend just introduced you to someone you don´t know. Think of it like this; based on their experience with you, the driver will decide whether or not to give somebody a ride the next time.
Make sure to avoid entering highways; it is illegal in many places for logical reasons – pedestrians can disturb the attention of drivers which can lead to dangerous situations and accidents. Besides, the speed limits are way too high there and the traffic too quick. A rest-place or a gas station is a better bet. Be sure not to stand in the road – stand on the side where they see you but don´t risk hitting you.
As I said, if you are not confident enough, you might want to share the road with somebody else; however, even that can sometimes work out badly. I have never run into any kind of problem with my drivers – they were mostly kind, friendly, funny, generous people. Not all of them are up to be your best friend immediately, sometimes there is a language barrier, however, if you feel unsafe or like you can´t trust the person, preferably don´t even get into the car. You might want to be wary and sit in the back of the car. Also you might want to (pretend to) call someone, telling them where you are and what exactly are you doing, or even send a message. If you are in a country known for its machism, perhaps you want to hitchhike with a friend or pretend that you are married. I have never done none of that and as I said, never had any problem, however, my experience is not universal and it is possible that you run into trouble. (Which reminds me of the horror stories of girls getting fingered by a passenger sitting next to them on a bus. How many times have you taken a bus and how many times something bad actually happened? Apply that to hitchhiking too.)
Hitchhiking is a great way of traveling and mostly results in fun experiences – nevertheless, as always when with strangers, you should use your common sense, avoid talking about intimate topics (you don´t want to give the wrong impression) and most importantly, trust your gut.
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What is your experience with hitchhiking? Did you ever encounter problems with a driver? Do you have any other tips, tricks and ideas to make it smoother? I will be beyond happy if you share them in the comments section!
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