Rough Guides writer Greg Dickinson has hitchhiked in seven countries, flagging down over fifty cars, vans and lorries over a distance of 3000 miles. Here are some of his top tips on how to make the most of a hitchhiking adventure.
Hitchhiking is a disastrous mode of transport. It’s reckless, unpredictable, and at times downright nerve-wracking. But for anyone who enjoys meeting new people, eschewing the usual coach routes and – most of all – saving cash, it is also a wonderful travel option. It exposes you to the kind of spontaneous experiences that all the best travel tales are made of (Jack Kerouac didn’t invest in an annual Greyhound bus pass, after all).
In my travels I have shared a cramped driver’s seat with a chain-smoking Danish man, accidentally crossed the entire length of Spain (I was under the impression we were going 20 miles down the road to Pamplona) and hitched a ride with a very charming satan-worshipping lorry driver, whose cabin was filled with ornate skulls.
It may seem daunting, but after the thrill of your first lift you’ll be dying for the second. So build up some courage, find a mate, pack a rucksack and get ready to stick your thumb out. Here’s my guide on how to hitchhike:
There are a few items which could be the difference between a fun hitching trip and a miserable one. First and foremost, pack some comfortable shoes to walk in. You will inevitably end up hiking for miles to find an appropriate hitching spot. Another essential is, of course, a decent foldout map to help figure out where in the world you are and where prospective drivers are heading. Finally, bring something to create a makeshift sign out of (preferably something wipeable, like a whiteboard or the back of a poster) and plenty of marker pens to scrawl where you want to go – whether it be “Bordeaux” or simply “Sud!”.
In the words of Phil Spencer, it’s all about location, location, location. There’s no use sticking your thumb out on a motorway slip road or a quiet country lane. The ideal spot is an out-of-town road where people are likely to be travelling longer distances. Position yourself on a long, straight stretch with plenty of room to stop – many drivers take a few moments to make a decision, pull over, and then reverse down the hard shoulder to pick you up. Some hitchers note down the number plate and car model at this point for peace of mind.
There are other subtle ways to improve your chances of catching a ride. Smiling, wearing colourful clothes and holding up a clear sign are all effective, and having a light load of luggage is more appealing to drivers than a mountain of tents and 80-litre rucksacks. No luggage at all is equally off-putting. If you’re getting desperate for a lift, a more direct method is to ask people for a ride at a petrol station; if you’re polite and aren’t too pushy it won’t be long before somebody gives you the benefit of the doubt and lets you in.
The advantages of travelling with a friend are obvious – safety in numbers, of course, but also for the vital companionship during lonesome hours spent on the roadside. I’ve only ever hitched with at least one other person, and we always text someone back at home once a day to let them know how we’re getting on.
The rest comes down to common sense. Avoid getting dropped off on dangerous roads or in the middle of nowhere, keep your mobile phone charged, avoid hitching in the dark and, here’s the big one: choose your lift wisely. If the driver seems irritable, intoxicated or creepy just don’t get in the car. I’ve foolishly encountered all three and always wished I’d stayed on the roadside and waited for someone normal. One particularly shaky encounter was in northern Germany, where a wired Romanian van driver picked us up only to reveal he had been awake and on the road for 24 hours. His maniacal conspiracy theories and erratic driving were only amplified by the non-stop, 6-hour repeat of Culture Beat’s 1993 hit song Anything.
Charity hitchhikes are becoming increasingly popular in the UK and are a great option for first-time hitchers. As well as being a good opportunity to fundraise, wearing a charity T shirt is likely to attract the attention of drivers; everyone loves a good cause, and charity affiliation will make you seem non-threatening. Most charities will also provide printed letters explaining the hitchhiking event in different languages (useful if trying to blag your way onto a train, for example), and an online tracking system so parents and friends can see where you’re up to. Jailbreak and Link organise annual hitches from the UK; these are primarily aimed at students, but more and more charity hitchhiking events crop up every year.
A hitchhiking trip is inherently chaotic. Don’t bother planning a set route, because you won’t stick to it. Don’t pre-book accommodation, because you’ll only end up cancelling and staying somewhere a hundred miles away. And don’t be overly ambitious with your endpoint – leave plenty of time to reach wherever you’re travelling home from. There’s nothing worse than having to swallow your pride and cough up for a journey after so many free lifts.
There’s a lot to think about when embarking on a hitchhiking trip, and every hitcher has their opinions on the dos and don’ts when on the road (there is, for example, an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of the ‘sign-writing’ method that I’ve advocated). But the most important thing of all is to embrace the chaos. Hitchhiking is not a way of getting from A to B, but rather a blindfolded caper from A–Q via a load of squiggly, accented letters you’ve never dreamt of before. Enjoy the ride!