Hitchhiking 101

travel to iran
I celebrated by hitchhiking...

The first time I stood on the side of the road I was scared shitless.

I was a relatively shy kid and the idea of throwing my backpack into some unknown person’s car and then asking them for something for free, a lift, made me feel uncomfortable.

Still, I was far more scared of remaining in England, of getting a job I hated to pay off a mortgage for a house I didn’t want and so I stuck out my thumb.

hitchhiking

My first ever lift was an older Polish lady who drove me nearly fifty miles out of her way to drop me near the coast where I caught a ride on a boat headed to France. Sensing, perhaps, that I was a little uneasy, she talked none-stop.

She told me about how she used to hitchhike a lot as a girl in Poland but had not seen anybody trying to hitchhike before in England. She asked me where I was going and I remember answering ‘further than France’ but thinking ‘I have no idea’.

hitchhiking

Hitchhiking is a fantastic experience and one of the oldest methods of Backpacker travel out there. There is something intoxicating about rocking up to a lay-by, sticking out your thumb and seeing where the road takes you.

My first hitchhiking journeys in Europe are still some of my fondest travel memories… I didn’t take a phone, just half a dozen books to read, and I camped most nights. It was simple. I enjoyed the daily routine of waking up, cooking some beans on my stove and making my way to the road to try and catch another ride going further East.

Fast forward nine years and I’ve hitched on four continents whilst travelling on a budget of $10 a day. I’ve racked up tens of thousands of miles and caught hundreds of rides. Hitchhiking has been a highlight of my travels and I’ve had some incredible experiences that have only been possible because I was hitchhiking.

I hitched from England to Africa, from France to Romania, from Albania to Azerbaijan; multi-month hitchhiking expeditions that forced me to step out of my comfort zone, to meet amazing people and to get to grips with the local culture. I met my future wife in Iran and we fell in love whilst hitchhiking across the country together, crossing into Pakistan and then India – all through the power of thumb.

Hitchhiking in Iran

Hitchhiking in Iran

Hitchhiking is, simply, one of the best ways to get around the globe and to actually connect with amazing people whilst travelling. Some of the most interesting, unbelievable, shocking and inspiring conversations I have experienced have been with random folks who have picked me up.

Hitchhiking has been around for decades and was first made popular in the times of the hippies. As a kid, I read On The Road by Jack Kerouac (a hero of mine) and was inspired to try living the hitchhiker-bum life myself. Hitchhiking is perfect for broke backpackers as it’s a free way to get from A to B…

So, how exactly do you hitch a ride? Are there any good hitchhiking websites you can check out? Is hitchhiking legal? Read on amigo to find out everything you need to know about hitchhiking…

Hitchhiking in Guatemala

Hitching a ride in a pickup in Guatemala

Top Tips for Happy Hitching

Be flexible, be happy: hitchhiking is a great way to save money but you have to realise that hitchhiking often makes it impossible to plan when and where you will turn up. You need to be flexible, enjoy the ride and accept that sometimes you will have to wait a while to get picked up. If you look approachable and happy you are far more likely to get a ride, make sure you are not wearing sunglasses or a cap covering your face, eye contact is key!

Take lots of pens: I am a fan of big, simple signs (usually with just one word such as ‘South’ or a road code like M6) when hitchhiking and although you can often find cardboard or other junk to use as a sign, you need to have a pen handy.

Take the right equipment: If you are hitchhiking any real distance you must be prepared to spend the night under the stars. Sometimes drivers will offer you a place to stay in their house but you cannot rely on this, take a tent or a camping hammock and make sure you have lots of warm gear as well as a good map. Check out my detailed breakdown on the best tents to take backpacking.

If camping, invest in your gear: If you are going to be camping out regularly, I strongly recommend investing in a sleeping pad – you can often make do without a proper sleeping bag but a decent mat will keep you warm and save you from aches and pains. You should also definitely have a headlamp.

hitchhiking

Setting up camp for the night after a day of hitching

Use your imagination: You can hitch literally anywhere in the world, obviously some areas are more dangerous than others but it can be done. There are no limits to the number of awesome adventures you could have hitchhiking.

Pick your hitching spot carefully:  I tend to go for a lay-by on a long straight road or a service station. If you are not getting picked up do not be afraid to walk down the road a bit and find somewhere better to hitch from. Basically, you need to find a spot where drivers are naturally forced to slow down. There is some great information on choosing a good hitchhiking spot here.

Be polite and friendly: Once your driver has pulled over, run up to them – do not make them wait. Thank them for stopping and find out if they are going in the right direction, even if they aren’t, make sure to say thanks properly before they leave. Once in the car shake their hand and tell them your name as well as asking theirs. A lot of the time drivers pick up hitchers because they are bored and want a distraction, they will probably expect you to make small talk with them.

Do not do anything in the car, e.g. eating, smoking, rolling down the windows, without first asking the drivers opinion. Try to negotiate where you will be dropped off before you arrive, you do not want to end up in a dodgy area or the middle of a big town when you could have found yourself on a nice straight road instead. For more information on hitchhiking etiquette check out Hitch The World.

Utilise online resources: My favourite hitchhiking resource is Hitchwiki as it has a fantastic database of quality hitching spots for all over the world. It really is a fantastic website and I highly recommend using it to help plan your route or to get advice if you are stuck somewhere. Another great place to get decent info is the hitchhiking forum on Couchsurfing.

Stay safe: If someone gives you a bad vibe do not get in the car with them. At the risk of annoying feminists everywhere, I am going to voice my opinion that women should avoid hitchhiking alone. A boy and girl combo will get the most lifts. If you need to find a hitchhiking buddy this is relatively easy thanks to Hitchhiker Facebook Groups. For general travel safety tips, check this out. 

hitchhiking

Hitchhiking amigos in Pakistan

Is hitchhiking legal?

Hitchhiking is legal in most countries, including the USA, but you can get in trouble if you try hitching from somewhere stupid – like a motorway. In general, avoid trying to flag down cars that are travelling super fast and instead find a gas station or laybay where cars can easily stop to pick you up.

Is hitchhiking fun?

Hell yes, it’s simply the best way to get around if you are broke and is possible pretty much everywhere… Happy journeys amigos!

Get decent insurance

Hitchhiking is for everybody… even if you have no money, this is a way to get on the road and head out on an adventure. If you have a small amount of money, invest it in decent camping gear. If you have a bit more than a small amount of money, do get travel insurance – it can save you a fortune if you end up injured or sick abroad and if you’re a long term nomad it’s a sound investment.

 

Yay for transparency! The links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you buy anything, I’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only link to stuff I’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps me keep the site going.


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17 Comments

  • Thanks for the tips! Never tried hitch hiking before but will try soon

  • Great article! Really enjoyed reading it!

  • Omega says:

    Hey Will! I’m a single female, age 21. Would you say hitchhiking as a single woman is a general rule anywhere you go, or would it be safer in some countries than others? For example, I’ll be backpacking across Spain and Iceland this summer and am weighing my options for traveling on a budget as a solo traveler in those countries. This is my first long-term venture, although not my first backpacking trip. I’ve backpacked a number of times in the wild hinterlands of Oregon, USA.

    P.S. I’m becoming quite a fan of yours, the more I read your articles.

    • Will Hatton says:

      I know a lot of ladies who have hitched solo and had no problem – I think it depends which country you pick but if you use your initiative and trust your gut, you should be all good 🙂

  • Omega says:

    *not hitchiking as a single….

  • Marty says:

    I hitch hiked all over the US back in the mid 70s through 80s during every season, winter, spring, summer and fall and the absolute dumbest thing any human being can do it to hitch hike in the northern US in the winter. I can’t begin to say what exactly kept me from becoming a solid frozen block of flesh on numerous occasions, but I did survive it. If you ever do catch yourself in sub freezing cold especially at night don’t be afraid to call the police and ask for a jail cell for the night. The truth is most cops would rather put you up in small town jails overnight than have to investigate a dead body report that they could prevent especially since all the calls are monitored.In bigger cities you can always fake being obnoxiously drunk for the trip to the drunk tank which still beats freezing to death 100 out of 100 times.

  • Marty says:

    I always kept some kind of weapon on myself such as a pocket knife. No guns of course.
    Sometimes just the mere presence of a pocket knife clipped to your belt is a deterrent to would-be thieves and general trouble makers not to mention the ability to fend off wild dogs along the way. I was attacked twice by packs of wild dogs and they are out there. They’re looking for dinner and you don’t want to be on the menu.
    A good sharp knife of course is also a darn handy tool to have for any number of reasons if for no other reason than opening a can of spagettios when you’re hungry..
    Get a good quality, sharp knife with a good quality sheath and hang on to it.
    If you’re ever stopped by police make sure it’s in plain sight at all times so there’s no confusion about a concealed weapon. I’ve had to explain the wild dogs story with police more than once.

  • Marty says:

    A few other things that I always thought important whilst hitch hiking..Don’t get in the dumb habit of collecting pretty rocks along the way. Before you know it your backpack will be filled with rocks and rocks get heavy.
    Keep plenty of thick, dry socks and comfortable heavy shoes..
    Something to keep your arms warm in cold weather is to cut holes in the ends of sleeves in a sweater or hoody to hook around your thumbs. It keeps the cold from drifting up your arms..I still do that to this day. You can do the same thing with old socks and it’ll keep your arms warm.
    While you may or may not do any cooking along the way it’s still not a bad idea to have a can or two of Sterno handy for creating heat and a can of lighter fluid can be really handy for starting fires when it’s been raining..It goes without saying to have a few new disposable lighters on hand as well.
    A canteen full of fresh water is always a must have item, but don’t try to carry too much water. It’s worse than carrying rocks after a certain point.
    It’s up to you, but I learned to avoid hopping freight trains because I was on one when it detailed. Luckily I was hanging on the right side of the train when it tipped over. Yikes!
    If you can avoid it try to be rested before standing too close to the roadway if you can. More than once I found myself nearly beyond reason being tired and sleepy and almost stepped in front of moving vehicles. It might seem like you wouldn’t do it, but there were times when I was on the road for 5 days straight with no sleep and didn’t think straight. Make sure you get the necessary sleep and be alert. I’ve ended up cars with some real shady characters just because I was too tired to really care. You don’t want to be waking up after it’s too late.
    While you can’t anticipate every possible scenario of everything that can go wrong you can plan ahead.
    Be alert of your surroundings at all times and don’t be too willing to trust everyone. There are rotten people who will take advantage of your situation of being alone. Even though you might have very little money on you there’s still a certain amount of people who will want to separate you from whatever meager resources you might have. It’s ok and even noble at times to help out a stranger down on their luck, but don’t even hint that you have money in your pocket. I always kept the lions share of my money well hidden on my person and kept a small amount easily accessible. If you’re going to give someone a dollar for something to eat that’s fine, but never ever let them know that you have more money anywhere on you. Always make it appear that you too are broke even if you’re not. In other words, don’t walk around wearing a sign that says ROB ME!
    If you’re going to drink try to plan ahead. Don’t be sloppy drunk on the wrong side of the tracks. There’s not many worse feelings than waking up hung over only to learn all of your worldly possessions have been stolen by your last drinking buddy..They probably won’t have the moment of conscious and give it all back when they sober up. I woke up in a small town the mountains of Montana with nothing but the clothes on my back and every penny to my name gone..heck of a hangover that day.
    No matter how alluring hitch hiking might seem the romance of the whole idea can go south really fast if you let your guard down for even a moment. Being absolutely broke with just the clothes on your back in the middle of nowhere with no friends to help isn’t exactly my idea of a hell of a lot of fun. I’ve been down that road more times than I want to remember so play it safe, plan ahead and stay as alert as you can.
    Hitch hiking can be a lot of fun and you can meet some wonderful people along the way, but it can also very easily become a nightmare you don’t want to remember.

  • Ross says:

    Never wear sunglasses when you’re getting picked up. You will seem more trustworthy if people can see your eyes!

  • Quentin Henderson says:

    I really enjoyed reading these posts; now aged 65 I’ve been reguarly hitchhiking since I was 16; Last summer (2017) from Caithness to Kent, UK, a mere 700 miles. I was inspired to start my hitchhiking ‘career’, by a cousin who hitched from Scotland to Jersusalem in the late 1950’s !

  • Marty says:

    My thumbing days are over for sure with a terribly arthritic hip. I can’t imagine trying to run up a hiway ramp with 70 pounds of gear on my back to catch up with a ride these days, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted.
    Plenty of people like hearing the stories I have to tell of my past, but I worry about some of them. A few romanticize about the freedom of the whole thing and want to put on the blinders thinking none of the bad things could ever happen to them and most are people who have never had to deal with any real hardships in their lives.
    Hitchhiking can be a lot of fun, but you can run into some very difficult situations with next to nothing in resources and have to be willing to imorovise and eat things you wouldn’t ordinarily even think of putting in your mouth. Hey, I ate fried sea gull which if you’ve never tried it tastes a lot like chicken, but only after it was left out in the garbage in the hot sun for a week…It’ll keep you from starving, but not something you want on a regular basis. It’s really gamey..
    I’ve eaten from dumpsters out of desperation so it’s not all fun and games all the time..
    Basically what I’m saying is to be ready to improvise at a moments notice if things go south really quick and be prepared to defend your own life.
    You’re out there alone and there are people more than happy to exploit that. I guess my idea of fun isn’t quite the same as most people’s idea of a great time and not much scares me anymore. I can’t really say the same thing about the rest of the people in my life.

    • Marty says:

      Just to clarify, there are a few places I would gladly avoid and go 1000 miles out of my way to stay out of. Experience can be a great teacher, but you have to be willing to learn from it. If you’re forced to defend your life it might just mean that the local law might want to have a nice long chat with you about that incident.. I’m not leaving any details, but I will say I got lucky and got out of town never to return for love or money. LOL

  • Quentin says:

    PS from Quentin on Nevis. Hitch hiking wearing a kilt always helps. With my kilt I once hitched from Aylmer, Quebec to Grimshaw, Alberta (crossing 3 other Canadian provinces in between) over 4 nights & 5 days.

  • Carolin says:

    I strongly disagree with the “woman shouldn’t hitchhike on their own” argument. Over the course of the last 10 years I have solo hitchhiked more than 35000 kms in Latin America, Europe, Australia and Asia and only once I felt in danger due to sexual harassment. Travelling as a single woman or even as a pair of two women is often much faster than going with a male companion, especially in countries like Argentina or Colombia where people are reluctant about picking up male hitchhikers because of fears of getting robbed. However, it is true that in countries where women are normally mainly caring for the family instead of leading an independent life I had more of these “do you have a boy-friend?” “Why wouldn’t you consider having a boy-friend in … (insert country you’re travelling)” conversations then in Northern or Central Europe. But if you don’t freak out, this is a nuisance (or something to laugh about afterwards;) rather than a real danger.
    Especially in Latin American countries with a high crime rate I even felt to be safer as a hitchhiker than a “normal” tourist, because people normally assumed that I had no money and therefore thought it wouldn’t be worth the hassle to try and steal from me;)

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