Hitchhikers Guide To Hitchhiking

Have you ever looked despairingly, out of breath, as the last bus pulls away from the stop you’ve just run towards? Or shouted colourful swearwords as the traffic makes you just a few minutes too late to catch your connection? Chances are, if you travel around a lot, then both of these things have happened to you. When they do, it’s easy to think your plans are ruined and start looking around for a cheap hostel.

But there’s another way.

Hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking is a divisive subject. Ask one group of travellers and they’ll swear by it, never spending a penny on transport but instead working their thumb muscle mightily. Another group might go pale and tell you horror stories of dark nights, creepy drivers and large puddles of rainwater, through which the creepy drivers plunge and soak the well-meaning hitchhiker.

If you’re facing a 12 hour journey, a ticket fee which scoops out most of your meagre travel fund, or just a long walk up a cold and snowy mountain in the dark, maybe its time to pull off your glove, plaster on a smile, and stick out your thumb. Whether you’re a hitchhiking veteran, or a new recruit to the ranks, these 10 tips might just help you get into that car out of the cold.

Finding somewhere to put down your rucksack will save your back from potentially hours of carrying the weight.

I’ve picked these tips up through my own experiences hitchhiking through Scotland and France – with the right attitude, a good amount of positivity, and a decent pair of socks it can be one of the best ways to travel. I’ve hitchhiked up mountains near Bourg Saint Maurice in the French Alps, into the middle of Glasgow, and slap-bang in the middle of nowhere in Wales.

1 – Be Patient

The most important tip of all. Before you wheel out your best thumb, before you even find a place to stand, get into the mindset. You might be there for a long time; bring your headphones, or something else to do which won’t take your attention away from the road. The more desolate the road is, the longer you might have to wait. Of course, there’s no rule for how long; you might be lucky and hitch a life within the first 15 minutes, or you could be standing on that stretch for a few hours.

2 – Be Flexible

It’s a rare treat to find someone who’s going exactly where you’re going. Often, you’ll climb into a car, say hello to the driver and passengers, and then find out they’re only going another mile down the road, and you have to do it all over again. Or they’re going a bit further, but you might end up Dusseldorf instead of Hamburg. Being flexible with your plans (and upbeat about the prospect of having to repeat the process!) will really help.

Note: One way to get around this issue is to have a sign, a common tool for hitchhikers. Holding a piece of cardboard saying ‘Hamburg’ is a good idea if you ONLY want to go to Hamburg; any drivers going somewhere else will simply ignore you.

Travelling through South Scotland; the hills trap the sun and the wind sweeps down the valleys.

3 – Wear The Right Clothes

This one is a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s important enough to note down anyway. If you’re going to be (potentially) standing by the roadside for a few hours, experiencing all that the local weather has to offer, plan accordingly. If you’re lucky enough to hitchhike on a beautifully sunny day, grab a hat and some water to stave off the inevitable sunstroke. If your aim is to hitchhike up a mountain in the Alps at 11pm at night, maybe wear a few more layers than normal.

4 – Be Positive!

Every time another car sweeps past you, driving in a wide berth as if you have an infectious disease (or worse, driving through the puddle that you’re standing next to) then your faith in humanity will fall a little. I had no idea before I started hitchhiking that a large metal car could even be derisive, but somehow they manage it. You’ll start thinking it’s about we had another plague, you’ll make firm promises to yourself that you’ll never ignore another hitchhiker again, you’ll think of inventive swearwords for the arrogant local who just honked his horn at you. But then a car will slow, pull over and stop, and all your anger will be forgotten in a wave of good feeling. Perhaps, you’ll concede, humankind isn’t that bad after all.

A nice quiet road; less traffic, but the cars that do pass are more likely to stop.

5 – Pick Your Spot Wisely

However well-meaning the drivers that pass you by might be, they simply won’t be able to stop if you’re stood on a busy road, or by a turning, or in the middle of the motorway. Picking your spot wisely will increase your chances of success greatly; find a lay-by if you can, or a long straight stretch of road if you can’t.

6 – Don’t Even Bother With Cities

You won’t get picked up around cities; you just won’t. The sheer volume of cars, combined with the fact that most drivers are in a hurry to get somewhere, will dissuade most of them to even consider it. And with public transport being much more prevalent, the few drivers who do spare you a glance will just decide you can hop on a bus. If you’re in a city and need to hitchhike a long way, find a bus which takes you a few miles out of the city and start there instead.

Sometimes you have to just shrug, catch a bus, and head out of the city to somewhere a little… friendlier…

7 – Expect To Do A Little Walking

Often, as I said way up there, the car that picks you up won’t drop you in exactly the right place. Sometimes you’ll have to thumb a lift a few times before you get to where you need to go. And sometimes, you’ll get dropped off a few miles away from the right road to continue your journey. As much as hitchhiking is about not having to walk huge distances, you mustn’t be scared to shoulder that backpack and walk for a little in order to maximise your chances of getting another lift. Keep an eye on the nearby roads; if you can pick a spot which is on the direct road, rather than a spot on one of many possible routes, you’ll have more traffic (and therefore more opportunities) going where you want them to.

8 – Have A Back-Up Plan

Sometimes, the wind just doesn’t blow in your favour. It’s always useful to have a back-up plan just in case you can’t find any drivers willing to pick you up. Fixing a set time within your head for how long you’ll stand there with your thumb out is a good idea; usually a few hours is enough to make the most enthusiastic hitchhiker give up and pack it in. Sometimes you just have to shrug, pick up your rucksack, and head to the bus stop.

If hitchhiking wasn’t part of your plan, and you’re having to do it because there’s no more buses left, or you’re going somewhere that public transport doesn’t, then at least be aware of somewhere nearby that you can sit out of the weather and wait for morning.

The weather doesn’t always work in your favour. Get yourself some good socks.

9 – Be Friendly

Hitchhiking has something of a reputation. Amongst those who do it, there’s the horror story of the serial killer in the driving seat, picking you up and disappearing never to be seen again outside of a police artist’s sketch. But amongst drivers, there’s the opposite fear. That the strange person by the road will climb in beside them, pull out a knife and make off with their *ahem* jewels. The least you can do when your thumb is out is have a smile on your face, and if anyone does stop for you then greet them pleasantly and tell them about yourself. It’s very hard to rob someone when you know how many nieces they have. (I imagine; I’ve never tried myself.)

10 – Enjoy Yourself!

Hitchhiking can be so much fun! Even before you jump into the offered car seat, you’re out in the fresh air and (sometimes quite a lot of) weather, and you’re having an adventure! If someone stops for you, you’ll meet someone new, you’ll hear their story and listen to their music, and often you’ll find a connection with them that you never thought you’d have. Hitchhiking can be a blast!

Hitchhiking can get you around the world! (Budapest, Hungary)
Enjoying the sun on Arthur’s Seat after hitchhiking to Edinburgh, Scotland

Now grab your backpack, do some thumb exercises, and go and hitch a lift!

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