Lifelong Vagabonds home banner

The Galaxy's Guide to Hitchhiking

6 July 2016 | Mri Grout

The first time I hitchhiked it was out of necessity as the motorbike I was previously tagging along on died in the middle of the Australian outback. All of those horror stories I’ d heard about serial killer drivers kinda went out the window given I was stranded in the hot desert sun with no water; so when some rickety old, white van with no windows finally pulled up, I eagerly got in and believed his whole: the bars between the driver and the back are totally just a campervan thing and not a make-shift prison for hitchhikers.

And when he didn’t, in fact, turn out to be one of those serial killers and the bike ended up being too expensive to go fetch, Chris and I began to hitchhike out of our continued desire to see Australia...and well, you know, to get back to civilization. For though Alice Springs might be the capital of a territory, it is seriously in the middle of freaking nowhere.

So what hitchhiking tips did I learn when I made my way across Australia and then later western Europe that would be important enough to make it into The Galaxy’s Guide to Hitchhiking? Well...

1. Stand on the Right Side of the Road

Brilliant tip that, isn’t it? Haha.

2. Lols, Just Kidding. Back to Explaining Hitchhiking Tip Number One

man hitchhiking in AustraliaRight, so I don’t mean ‘right’ as in ‘left and right,’ but ‘right’ as in pick a good spot to hitch from. Your goal is to have drivers see you for as long as possible so that they have time to think about picking you up and THEN some time to actually stop. A lot of drivers have told me that by the time they decide whether or not to pick up a hitcher, they’ve already driven past and can’t be bothered turning around. Sometimes people do, but a lot of times they don’t; so make sure you’re standing in a place with a good line of vision for however long it would take a car to stop at their current speed.

Another deciding factor in choosing the ideal hitchhiking spot should be that mentioned speed; the slower traffic is, the better your chances at getting picked up. Not many people want to risk slowing down on a busy and fast road. Roundabouts for example, are brilliant places to hitchhike from (by one of the exit lanes and not in the middle of them, obviously); motorways though, not so much. Also, for the latter it’s actually illegal in a lot of countries so there’s that.

Then, you need somewhere where cars can safely pull over – well, unless you’re in France; the French don’t really seem to care about this… Though rgardless, I would still recommend picking such spots there too simply because of the safety aspect of it. No point getting a possible ride, only to have it end up in a crash. The hard shoulders at the side of roads, slip-lanes into rest areas, or just flat grass they can drive onto are all really good choices.

2. Look the Least Crazy as Possible

woman zombieAppearance is everything when hitchhiking as a stranger has to make a quick decision on whether or not someone is trustworthy enough to be let into their car. A lot of people only think about the possible danger to hitchhikers, but drivers can also be at risk (though I’ll spare you the horror stories; you’ll hear them often enough when you start hitching anyway). So you want to look as less threatening and weird as possible.

One sure way of doing this is to put one bag in front of you so you can easily be recognized as a backpacker as not many (or any?) serial killers will bother carrying around a huge bag. That might not be the real reason this works, but regardless, I have tested both ways and hitchhiking as a backpacker is lot easier.

Another way of getting ‘immediate’ trust is to have your eyes clear to see and your face smiling. You want to portray someone open and honest, so no wearing sunglasses or face coverings and maybe even trim your beard. I’m not saying it’s impossible to hitch with/without doing these things, but if you dress like someone a granny would feel comfortable picking up, you’ll get lifts faster.

Oh, and try to wear bright colors if you can to increase your chances of being seen before it’s too late.

3. Carry a Hitchhiking Sign Saying Where You Want to Go

hitchhiking thumb and sign tattooIt can simply read ‘north,’ be a bit more specific but still fairly broad like ‘Germany,’ or even a bit more specific than that and say, ‘Berlin.’ However, don’t name a small town when you’re still hundreds of miles away because people in that area have probably never heard of it.

Now some people will tell you you don’t need a sign when hitchhiking and fair enough; I’ve hitched loads of times without one. However, while you’re figuring out that the guy who pulled over isn’t actually going where you want to, all of those cars that passed in the mean time could have been potential lifts.

Granted though, there is an argument about the safety aspect of not saying where you’re wanting to go ahead of time. The reason behind this is that you can talk to the driver and get a feel for him/her; if you don’t like what you see then you can use the excuse of ‘oh, I’m trying to go the other way; thanks anyway.’ It’s the ‘I-don’t-like-confrontation’ way out, which I totally support as I’m one of those people myself. However, to that I say write something generic. IE: north or the name of a country.

4. Mimic the Driver

And no I don’t mean that annoying kids thing we all pulled to irritate our siblings or parents or friends or whoever. I mean, if they don’t want to talk, then don’t try to force a conversation. If they do (which most will), then great, but if not just sit there in silence. It’s awkward, yeah, but not nearly as much as annoying your ride can be.

Oh, and be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again and for a few ‘what if I was a murderer?’ scenarios (especially the latter when in Australia; they have my kind of humour).

5. Text ‘Your Cop Dad’ or ‘Worry-wort Mother’ a Description of the Driver

This can actually be a friend or whoever, but potential killers or rapists will be less likely to act if they know they have a higher chance of being caught. Now, given that this blatant show of mistrust can be taken as an insult and make the ride really awkward, I always use the ‘my mother’s a real worry-wort and if I don’t do this, she’ll call every police station in the area and maybe even the national guard or whatever that country’s homeland army is’ excuse. Most drivers will give an understanding nod or laugh and that’s that.

Other tips on how to be safe when hitchhiking are:

  • Keep all of your valuables with you at all times. Don’t put anything in the trunk you’re not willing to lose.
  • When exiting the car, get out with everything you have if possible (obviously, you can’t do that if you have a bag in the trunk), but don’t get out first and then reach in for the rest. Speeding off with all of your stuff is an easy way to rob someone.
  • Never accept food or drink, especially if it’s unpackaged. To be able to politiely turn down such offers without looking too paranoid, keep some snacks and a bottle with you when you get in the car.
  • NEVER BE AFRAID TO TURN DOWN A CAR. Or get out of it along the way. Trust your gut and if something feels off, then get out. In the two years I’ve hitchhiked across both Australia and Europe, I’ve only ever turned down one ride and it was after I’d already been standing there for hours in the rain. A few minutes later, the car came back with the offer of a ‘shower at his house just over there...’ I trusted my gut and for that, who knows what kind of bullet I dodged. So never be afraid to turn down a car. If you have to sleep there for the night, so be it (though walk a bit away so less people know where a potential victim is sleeping).

Hitchhiking is a brilliant way to get around the world. You meet some awesome people, end up in some crazy (the good kind) places, and truly experience what it’s like to have an adventure. Yes, there are times when you hate it (like when the 100th car passes or those minutes turn into hours), but it’s a very unique way of seeing the world and I would really recommend trying it at least once. Also, you know, it’s free, so a great saver on tight budgets. ;)

[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Have any horror stories that you want to share? :D Or just any other hitchhiking tips not covered here? We’d love to hear all about them in the comments below!