he lectures start the moment that I tell someone that I hitchhike. It’s like watching a movie reel play out in their eyes: machete-wielding psychopaths and bodies in car trunks reflect in their pupils. Then there’s the inevitable question: “Does your mum know that you hitchhike?”
My first hitchhike was born out of necessity. At age 20, I worked in a rural France town. The closest train station was an hour’s walk away, and trains ran (at best) a couple of times a day. To keep any scraps of what had been an energetic social life at my city university in the U.K., I resorted to thumbing it to the nearest city. Far from being isolated in my rural bubble, I made friends, saved money (of which I had precious little at the time), and got to practice my halting French on long-suffering drivers. Ever since, I have continued to hitchhike (albeit with less frequency). Now that I drive and own a car, I often pick up hitchhikers.
Hitchhiking comes with risks, and as much as it pains me to say it, the patriarchal society that we live in dictates that those of us who do not identify as cisgender men are at a heightened risk. That being said, after a decade of (largely) successful hitchhiking, here’s what I’ve learned.
4 Reasons Why I Hitchhike
Usually, it’s out of practicality. I regularly hitchhike to or from the start of a hiking trail. These are often in remote locations, devoid of public transport connections, and, unless your hike is a loop, taking the car just doesn’t make sense.
It’s also convivial. I’ve met so many interesting people hitchhiking that I wouldn’t have necessarily crossed in my day-to-day life. As a travel journalist, the more I diversify the people I meet, the more story ideas I’m likely to stumble across. I regularly get ideas for articles through a chance encounter hitchhiking.
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When I was a student, one of the most significant factors was cost. As fuel prices and train and bus fares continue to climb at a rate disproportionate to our salaries, will we see many more people thumbing it? I wouldn’t be surprised.
The final reason is that it’s greener. The driver that picked you up is making that journey anyway, and there’s nothing more depressing than seeing a line of traffic made up of cars all occupied by one person. Carpooling can be planned, but it can be spontaneous too.
How I Hitchhike
I plan my starting spot carefully. Getting out of the cities is the hardest part of any journey, so I take a bus to the outskirts. I stand somewhere where I’m visible and where drivers have space to pull in. Lay-bys or service stations just before the entrance to a highway work well. I don’t hitchhike from a bus stop–people will just assume that I’m waiting for the bus.
I dress appropriately. It pains me to say this because, in an ideal world, one could go hitchhiking wearing nipple tassels and suspenders if we wanted, and no one would say we were “asking for it,” but that’s not the world we live in. I stay reasonably covered but comfortable, and try to look clean. Drivers are less likely to pick up a hitchhiker who looks as though they’re going to stink up the car.
I like to think I bring good humor to a ride, and I’m always ready to have a chat. Many people who pick up hitchhikers do so because they want to talk, so stories are your currency. I find it’s poor form to fall asleep as soon as I get in the car, not to mention dangerous if I’m alone. Hitchhiking is a two-way exchange.
Safety comes in numbers, so I’ve considered hitchhiking in a pair. Any more than two riders, though, can significantly reduce the number of cars with space to pick up hitchhikers.
This is the most important thing I do: Make a sign! Drivers are much more likely to stop if they know that they’re going the same way. I make it big, visible, and within achievable distances. For example, if I’m hitchhiking from my home in Lyon, France, down to Nice in the south, it’s a distance of almost 300 miles. This can put people off for two reasons: a) they’re not going all the way, or b) if they hate my company, they’re stuck with me for 300 miles. I’d start off with a sign saying “Valence” (60 miles) and update my sign as I travel south. A sheet of cardboard, a marker pen, or even a whiteboard are invaluable.
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I’ve done it: With my choice of language, I’ve reinforced the preconception that hitchhiking is DANGEROUS. Sadly, it can be. I’ve been picked up by people who have made me uncomfortable or made unwanted advances, and that’s not a risk I want to gloss over. However, there are steps that I take to minimize the risk.
I always tell someone where I’m going and what time I hope to arrive. I make sure to articulate this to the driver too, and tell them that I’ve sent their license plate number to a friend.
I don’t get in a car if I’m not comfortable. I’m a great believer in trusting your gut. If you get a funny vibe, it’s better to politely decline a ride for a fleeting moment of awkwardness rather than compromise your safety.
I never hitchhike in the dark. I find trusting my gut is difficult if I can’t see who is picking me up.
I keep my valuables on me. If I have to make a speedy exit, I want to make sure that I have my phone and wallet on my person.
If you don’t feel comfortable, ask the driver to stop so that you can get out. Waiting a while for the next ride is a small price to pay for feeling safe.
Not ready to hitchhike? I understand it can be risky, and it’s not for everyone. Another option is to check out carpooling sites. You’ll save on money and emissions and probably meet some really interesting people as you travel. Look up Blablacar, Share Your Ride, Waze Carpool, or local Facebook pages for lift-sharing in your area. Most sites will also have driver ratings from previous passengers for added peace of mind.