How To Hitchhike: Tips From An Experienced Traveler

When I first got started hitchhiking I had no idea what I was doing. After racking up tens of thousands of miles throughout the continental United States, I came away with not only quite a few experiences but also quite a few techniques that I wish I had known when I got started. I’m writing this post so that I can help others who are brand new to hitchhiking, to save them time and headaches that I struggled through.

I’d recommend doing a quick search on the internet to get some brief background on hitchhiking if you’ve never read about the absolute basics before. There are plenty of beginner’s guides that will serve as good primers, but I hope to go a bit further than that in this article. Keep in mind that despite all the information I can share with you, there is one simple fact that remains…

To truly digest and understand anything at an expert level, you’ll have to go out there and get some real-life experience.

This post really has to do with nothing more than hitchhiking, so if you’re planning to get around by planes, trains, and cars you might not find much useful information here.

Guide to Hitchhiking Across The United States:

Step 1: Get Familiar with Local Laws

None of the states within the US prohibit hitchhiking, despite what you may have heard from your friend’s mother’s great-aunt’s former roommate

There are some legal guidelines that you will encounter that will help you with your journey though, and they are contained in a document called the Uniform Vehicle Code. However, it is up to the individual states to implement it specifically, and you’ll find that some treat it with a bit of a heavier hand than others. The point of the law is to keep people safe, and basically it gives guidance as to different places where drivers can stop on the side of the road to pick you up.

Two easy things you can take away from this – don’t travel by foot on the freeway, and make sure you’re flagging potential rides down on roads where it’s safe for them to stop – preferably a bit removed from the city.

It’s fairly easy and convenient to find the specific rules relevant to where you’re traveling, just take a poke around the internet to get started. Make sure to look into your current locale specifically.

Bonus Points: The authorities far prefer dealing with people who know the ropes. If you know your stuff, you’re much less likely to have any significant trouble with them.

Step 2: Ensure You’re In The Right Mental State

Make no mistake, this isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to need to be patient and prepared to handle angry stares from passer-byes.

That said, it’s actually a fantastic method for improving your level of stoicism. People are going to give you a really hard time. Make a game of it everyone someone shows you their middle finger (which happens a few times per thousand cars, with potentially increased frequency in certain states) or hangs their rear out the window as they drive by. As you get used to this type of behavior you’ll get more exposure to being made fun of, which will make you stronger in the long run. It’s actually a good exercise for you both emotionally and spiritually.

The present moment should always be embraced dearly, and there are no exceptions.

Traveling on the extreme side of affordable can be approached in many ways, and hitchhiking is definitely not the most comfortable. What hitchhiking has to offer is the chance to see the open road for what it is. If you can have a good time in gas station parking lots, alone or by yourself, then perhaps hitchhiking will be a good fit for you. Bring a notebook, some music, whatever suits your fancy and settle in for the long haul.

Step 3: Be The Person You Want To Get A Ride From

It’s no secret that we tend to surround ourselves with people we feel comfortable with. We life people who look similar, and it’s no different when it comes to hitchhiking.

I’ll dress to impress depending on where I am. If I’m in a posh metropolitan city I might wear a nice colored shirt and shorts of vibrant color. In the South, a thick, casual button-up and clean pants is often a better approach. Be creative, but remember you’ll have to work with what you can carry. More on that in a minute.

Bonus Points: Think of things that can serve dual functions while on the road. A nice hat can take your outfit to the next level, and also keep the sun off your face when it’s out in full force.

Step 4: Be Conscious of What You Pack

You’ll be a lot happier if the bag you’re carrying around doesn’t weigh you down. Of course, you’ll still need the important stuff to stay alive throughout your travels.

The benefit of carrying your bag with you is that it’s like a beacon indicating you are traveling on the road. Others who have a sense of wanderlust themselves will take notice. Make sure you have a bag for your belongings and fill it with the items you’d need for a few days in nature. A couple of pairs of clothes should do the trick, with the exception of bringing more socks than you might expect to use. Always have something warm to wear. Beyond that, here are some things you’ll want to consider strongly.

  • A minimalist tent that can be packed away easily
  • Some form of blanket that also packs away nicely, a sleeping bag is perfect
  • Plenty of water
  • A pair of extra-warm undergarments
  • A warm hat
  • Wet weather gear
  • A lightweight jacket
  • A small and portable flashlight
  • Powdered sunblock
  • A brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face
  • Writing implement so that you can make signs

Note: I strongly advise against bringing anything that you’d get upset about losing.

Step 5: Claim Your Territory

As they say, go to where the fish are. If you get this right from the start your odds of success improve dramatically. Here are some tips:

  • Go somewhere where a car can comfortably and conveniently stop.
  • Cars traveling at slower speeds will have an easier time stopping – keep an eye on speed limits (as well as actual driving tendencies).
  • Somewhere where a driver already has to come to a stop will give them more time to consider picking you up.
  • Places that encourage people to pull over already are also a good bet.
  • Choose somewhere that is heavily traveled.

Step 6: Thumbs Up!

Smile and stick that thumb out there to increase your odds of success.

Look like a happy, proud person and try to connect with drivers as they pass by. Avoid doing things that make you look like a deadbeat.

As you get more experience with the practice you’ll fall into your own way of holding yourself.

Take a stab at being funny in a way that is different. Maybe you can get one of those big foam thumbs that people get at sporting events. More realistically though you’ll have to be creative with the materials you have on hand.

Or perhaps you can invoke a feeling of pity, and make it look like you’re freezing cold. Alternatively, you might look quite excited at the opportunity to ride in their amazingly awesome car. Anything you can do to get the driver’s attention.

As cars drive passed you all is not lost, you have one last chance to gesture to them and get them to pull to the side. Make sure to stay happy and friendly, being rude won’t win you any points in this game.

Step 7: Take Your Pick of The Lot

When you finally get a lead, the game is not over. In fact, it’s just beginning. Remember to stay in control of the situation.

You’ll want to size up your potential driver before you get in the car, and you almost certainly won’t have much time.

A great way to slow the situation down and have some time to interact with the driver before you get in is to find out where they are headed. Use these few precious moments to size them up as best as you can.

Do they seem genuine? Are they making eye contact when they talk to you? If so, it’s a fairly good indication that they aren’t messing with you.

How are they answering you, are they stumbling on their words? Your potential ride should know where they are headed like any sensible driver. If they can’t rattle it off, get your guard up.

How are they holding themselves? If they seem agitated, panicked, or even just bossy you might find some highly volatile interactions down the road. Best to be avoided.

You should expect them to be skeptical. They are picking up a stranger on the side of the road after all. You’d expect them to be asking questions about where you’re headed, where’ you’re coming from, and why you’re hitchhiking. Don’t be put off with these questions and make sure to answer politely, truthfully, and with a smile. In the event that a driver is begging you to get in the car, something must be up.

Most importantly, trust your instincts. I get it, when you’re first getting started you’re always going to be put off by the idea of getting a ride from a complete stranger. Your mind races with all of the things to go wrong. With a bit of experience, you’ll be able to distinguish your own discomfort with the situation from genuine, instinctual fear of the situation. If you actually scared to get into the car then the decision is simple – don’t do it.

When It’s Time To Say No, Try These Easy Ways Of Going About It:

  • Search your pockets and then appear overcome with exasperation. Say something like “Oh no, I forgot something back in the city… Thanks but I have to go get it.”
  • Put on a look of illness. Try, “Woah, my stomach isn’t feeling well. I better head back to my friend’s place and deal with this. Sorry to bother you, and thanks for the offer!”
  • Or the old standby, “Ahh, I need a ride for the long haul (it’s not important where they are headed). I appreciate you stopping anyway!”

What you do next is simple – close the door to the car and head in the other direction.

Keep in mind: The decision as to whether or not you get in the car is up to you. This isn’t your only option, and more cars will come your way.

Step 8: All Aboard!

Make sure you give something back by adding value for your driver.

There’s a reason that a driver has made the effort to stop and give you a ride. In many cases, they just want the conversation. Sometimes they just want to give back because either they’ve been in your shoes before or they’ve received help in a similar manner. Perhaps they just want to hear about your interesting story because they have had enough with the same day-to-day schedule they’ve been living their whole life. Find out what their motivation is and do what you can to satisfy it (of course if they are looking for something sexual in nature, try to find something else you can offer).

My favorite way to go about it is to take the lead in speaking. Ask about them and let them speak when they want to, but try to keep the conversation directed on a topic that will fulfill their desire. This is a great time to get some free education and truly dive into it (I never thought I’d have such a thorough understanding of trucking routes, but life takes its own course).

Sometimes your benefactor will be curious about your life and will think you’re pretty awesome for how you’ve chosen to live it. They might ask why you’ve chosen to travel as a hitchhiker, and if you’ve encountered any sticky situations along your travels. Give them the great stories you’ve gathered in your experiences and let them now what drove you to hitchhiking as your preferred method. Of course, you’ll have to decide how much you want to divulge about yourself given the scenario. Sometimes you might feel like an open book, while other times you might be on guard the entire time. This is another time where it makes sense to default to your instincts.

Step 9: Time To Disembark

As soon as you can in the trip, get clarification on exactly where your driver is headed as well as where you’ll be dropped off.

Get them to agree to drop you off somewhere that you won’t be deserted or in danger. Somewhere where you can pick up another ride is a good bet, or somewhere with a bathroom, some food, and a phone is also safe such as a gas station.

Bonus Points: If you have an iPhone or something similar for the trip it can be a complete godsend. Just make sure it stays charged and try to get dropped off where you have decent signal.

Important Tips for Staying Safe:

  1. Keep people you now and trust in the loop with your travel plans – and make sure that the people you choose will be able to help you in case of trouble. Arrange a phone call and make sure not to miss the scheduled time.
  2. Send a message to a friend indicating your driver’s license plate just in case. If you can’t for any reason, make it seem to the driver as though you are doing so.
  3. Wear clothing that is not suggestive in any way. Try to stay inconspicuous.
  4. Be proud of yourself and have a strong, confident presence. 
  5. Prepare to say “no” to anything that just doesn’t feel right. Stay strong and assertive.
  6. Keep something to defend yourself in your pocket for when all hell breaks loose. It can be as simple as a pen. 

Keep in mind: You’re an awesome, smart, quick, strong, dirty fighting motherf@#$er. You will not go down without a fight. In the incredibly unlikely event that the person driving makes even the slightest inkling of an attempt to take advantage of you, you will make their life a living hell and then some.

I’m thankful that I’ve never found myself in any particularly dangerous situations, and if you still to the guidelines above I’m fairly certain you’ll have luck on your side in your travels.

Good luck out there. Keep your wits about you and stay safe, and report back with your incredible experiences.