The Hitchhiking Culture
Hitchhiking is the act of asking strangers for free rides in their vehicles to get to your destination.
This is usually done by standing on the roadside and showing the universal hand signal, i.e. sticking your thumb out, either pointing upward or in the direction of travel. Some hitchhikers may also carry handwritten cardboard signs denoting their intended destinations.
While hitchhiking was common practice in the past, these days it has declined and is often perceived as dangerous for both the hitchhikers and drivers. Some countries, like Singapore, have outright banned it.
However, there are still many places in the world where hitchhiking is legal and popular, such as in poorer nations, where many people do not own cars and public transports are infrequent. Cuba has made it mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers if there is space in the car.
And in many countries in Europe, such as the Netherlands, Poland, and Israel, there are even designated waiting locations for hitchhikers.
Why Do People Hitchhike?
There are various reasons why people hitchhike and why drivers pick them up.
Some people hitchhike because they have no other choice. Hitchhiking is indeed the cheapest way to travel (in some countries, it may be customary to pay for rides, but in most parts of the world, it’s free).
And some people choose to hitchhike because:
- It’s a great way to meet people. Making friends with locals is one of the best ways to make your travels more meaningful. You’ll get a different perspective on the place and gain a better insight into the culture, politics, etc. You’ll also get to practice the language.
- It helps boost self-confidence. Let’s face it — it takes a certain level of courage to get into a stranger’s car. Overcoming your fear and people’s prejudices makes you stronger mentally, and if you succeed, you will feel like nothing is impossible.
- It provides an element of surprise. Some people live off the thrill of the unknown. When you hitchhike, you never know what interesting character you’re going to meet, when you will arrive, or where you will end up. There’s so much possibility of adventure.
Is Hitchhiking Dangerous?
Being part of the backpacking community has introduced me to so many hardcore independent travelers who swear by hitchhiking as their favorite mode of transportation.
And I have massive respect for them, especially women who hitchhike solo, like
- Iris from the Netherlands, who has hitchhiked solo through several continents,
- Alyssa from Canada, who, as of 2012, has hitchhiked for over 50,000 kilometres, with her last known location in Afghanistan, and
- See, a fellow Malaysian solo traveler who hitchhiked through 7 countries in the span of 7 months.
However, hitchhikers — especially female ones — are often judged harshly and even blamed if anything bad were to happen to them because they ‘brought it upon themselves’. While it’s true that there are risks involved (just like everything else in life), statistics show that hitchhiking is not as dangerous as most people think.
The most important thing is to never let your guard down and always be prepared for worst-case scenarios.
My Earlier Attempt at Hitchhiking
The first time I attempted hitchhiking was in Australia in 2012. I was broke as hell and was trying to hitch a ride from Melbourne airport to the city center.
I didn’t have a cardboard with me on which to write my destination, so I simply stood on the roadside and very self-consciously stuck out my thumb. After two cars passed by without stopping, I gave up. That was too much rejection for me to handle in one day.
In the end, I walked back to the airport and took a bus.
After that incident, I gave hitchhiking a wide berth. Apart from the obvious safety concerns, I was also extremely embarrassed about standing alone on the roadside, facing the oncoming traffic.
And then there was also the problem of not knowing what to do and how to behave if I did get a ride. What should I talk about? Where do I look? What if the driver doesn’t speak my language? What if he/she finds me boring?
For some reason, I always feel super awkward being in an enclosed space with another person, even if it’s a close friend — which is why I avoid going on road trips or taking the elevator if I can help it.
Being a passenger in anybody’s car — especially if I’m the only passenger — makes me feel like it’s my responsibility to keep the driver entertained in return for giving me a lift. Now that’s just something that I don’t excel at.
So, although I was still intrigued by the idea of hitching rides with strangers, I let my social anxiety get the better of me.
My First Successful Hitchhiking Experience
Several Years Later…
Of all the places that I could think of for my next hitchhiking attempt, I never thought it would be India. Because let’s be honest — although I have met many kind souls in this South Asian country, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s not the safest place for solo women to travel, let alone hitchhike.
But that was where I had my first successful hitchhiking experience, albeit unintentionally (because I didn’t actually stick out my thumb).
I was going to Auroville from Chennai, and the bus driver had dropped me off at a junction, where I had to walk the rest of the way.
It was only around 4 kilometres, so I didn’t really wait around for a ride, as I figured it might actually be easier and faster if I just walked. So, walk I did — only slowing down to look behind me whenever a car was coming.
Less than a kilometre later, a tractor slowed to a stop ahead of me. The driver turned around and asked me if I was going to Auroville.
I shouted, “YES!”, and he motioned me to hop on.
I was practically jumping for joy. Not only was I hitchhiking for the first time, I was doing it in India, and on a tractor! The driver introduced himself as Kannan. It was not the most comfortable ride — I had to hold on to his seat to keep my balance, what’s with my backpack and scarf and all — but boy, was it fun!
I stayed in Auroville for one night, where I learned more about this unusual place. If you’ve never heard of it before, Auroville is a ‘universal town’ in Chennai, where people from various countries live together in a cashless, self-sustaining society. Religions, political views, and nationalities do not play a role here.
The next day, I walked on the same road to go back to the highway and catch a bus to Pondicherry. It was baking hot. I was hoping to bump into Kannan again, but luck didn’t seem to be on my side that day. None of the cars stopped.
However, after about two kilometres, when the traffic had thinned out a little, a motorcyclist passed by. A few minutes later, he was back, and asked me where I was going. I said Pondicherry, and he said he was going the same way.
To this day, I’m still amazed to think that he had turned around just to give me a ride. He didn’t simply drop me off at the highway; instead, he drove me all the way to Pondicherry and dropped me right in front of my hostel.
To get there, we had got lost, and gone back and forth a few times before we finally found the place. And yet, the motorcyclist, who introduced himself as Tamil, refused any payment. He even offered to take me sightseeing that day, all free of charge, which I unfortunately had to decline.
What an amazing person. What an amazing experience.
Now, I’m beginning to see what hitchhikers mean when they rave about hitchhiking.
How to Hitchhike Like a Pro
I’m not a pro hitchhiker myself, having only inadvertently scored rides twice. And being a shy and timid person, I don’t think hitchhiking will ever be my favorite way to travel. But I may give it another try in the future, just as a personal challenge.
These are some tips I found on the internet on how to hitchhike like a pro:
- Find out where you can hitchhike. In some places/countries, it is illegal and can get you arrested, so make sure you check beforehand.
- Wait near the city outskirts. Drivers in the city center are often going in all directions and mostly for short distances. You should wait near the edge of the city just before the highways.
- Make a large clear sign of your destination. This is to help filter out drivers who are not heading in that direction, and also confirm to the ones who might otherwise be unsure if they could help you.
- Look presentable. Nobody will be too eager to pick you up if you look like you haven’t showered for a week, or worse, if you look like an escaped convict.
- Pack light. The sight of multiple backpacks plus the entire content of your house might deter drivers from picking you up.
- Stand in a convenient and safe place for vehicles to see you and pull over. You may be doing everything right, but if you wait in the wrong location, cars may not be able to see or stop for you.
- Wait near slow-moving traffic. On roads where cars are moving too fast, the drivers may not have enough time to decide to stop for you.
- Ask people at gas stations. Sometimes, the reason drivers don’t pick up hitchhikers is because it feels too random and dangerous. Approaching people at gas stations gives you more time to establish a connection and convince them you’re not a serial killer.
- Make strong eye contact with passing drivers. This also helps you create a connection and makes the drivers feel like you’re specifically asking them for help.
- Smile! Drivers usually pick up hitchhikers because they want company and some pleasant chit chat. So, don’t look like a sourpuss.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Hitchhiking is a game of chance. Things may not always go your way. It’s important to stay positive and not lose faith.
- Be prepared to walk. It’s called ‘hitchhiking’ for a reason: you’ll get a ride if you’re lucky, otherwise, you hike.
- Don’t forget to bring the essentials, like a raincoat, a jacket for cold weather, and enough food and water.
Safety Tips for Female Hitchhikers
As female travelers (and as women in general), there’s always that added risk of sexual advances or aggression, especially when most of the drivers who will stop for us are likely to be men. Being in a moving vehicle that you have absolutely no control over can make you feel powerless.
While I neither encourage nor discourage you from hitchhiking, here are some tips to consider if you ever decide to try it:
- Avoid hitchhiking in unsafe places/countries. This is subjective, but I wouldn’t recommend hitchhiking in countries that are known to have high crime rates or cases involving violence against women.
- Don’t hitchhike at night. In many places, you may be mistaken for a sex worker looking for work.
- For the same reason, don’t wear revealing clothes.
- If possible, hitchhike with another person.
- Look and act confident. Bad people often look for easy prey, not someone who will fight back.
- Choose your ride wisely. If a driver looks drunk or stoned, don’t get in! It’s safer to go with a single female driver, a couple, or a family, instead of lone male drivers or a car with several men. However, a lot of female hitchhikers do ride with male drivers. Trust your instincts on this one.
- Don’t be afraid to turn down a ride if something feels off. Remember, you’re not obligated to accept a ride. You can make up some simple excuses or pretend that you’re heading to a different destination than theirs.
- Take note of the car license plate number, its make, model, and color before you get in. Snap a photo of the car and send all of this information to a friend. You can let the driver know that you’re texting a friend their car plate number as a safety precaution.
- Sit in the front passenger seat if you can. Rear doors often have childproof locks on them, which stops you from opening the door from inside. If you have to sit in the back, check that the child lock is deactivated before you close the door.
- Keep your backpack with you or within easy reach, in case you need to make a quick escape. At least, have some of your valuables with you — in or under your clothes — especially your travel documents. Keep them in different places, so that if you lose one, you don’t lose them all.
- Always stay alert — never fall asleep in someone’s car, so don’t hitchhike when you’re tired (or tipsy!). Otherwise, you may not notice when the driver suddenly takes a different route.
- Know where you’re going. Have a rough idea of the highways and roads leading to your destination, so that you know the driver is not making a surprise detour.
- Consider carrying pepper spray or something similar for self protection.
- Have some conversation topics ready. Talking about your family and asking questions about theirs will turn you into a regular person in their eyes. They will be less likely to assault you if they feel like they know your family personally, and you know theirs.
- If you feel unsafe during a ride, try to get out of the vehicle at the safest opportunity. Ask to be let off early or fake motion sickness.
- In a worst-case scenario, you can grab the handbrake or steering wheel to cause a minor accident. But only do this if you truly believe your life is in danger, as even small accidents can be fatal.
Have you ever hitchhiked during your travels? Is it something you would try? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.