Updated: 8/18/18 | August 18th, 2018
My first experience with hitchhiking was in Belize. Back in 2005, I hitchhiked the entire country, as it was the most common way locals got around. If they were doing it, why not me? It was a lot of fun and much easier and safer than I thought it would be. Since then, I’ve hitchhiked around a handful of countries and met some interesting (and not so interesting) people. Hitchhiking is still a popular and common way many people worldwide get around, but it evokes a lot of fears and concerns, especially among Westerners. Today, Matt Karsten from expertvagabond.com shares his experience hitchhiking around the United States and advice about how you can safely do it too. Enter Matt.
It was a chilly and overcast day on the Oregon coast when I nervously stuck my thumb out on the side of Route 101. For the next 20 minutes, drivers passed me over and over again — most with looks of disgust on their faces. But I kept on smiling. Would anyone stop for me? Was I wasting my time? I wasn’t completely sure.
Eventually my persistence paid off, and a massive orange pickup truck screeched to a stop in a cloud of dust. A wave of excitement rushed over me as I jogged up to meet CJ and her dog, Trigger. My first ride!
Yet this was just the first of many such pleasant surprises on my journey.
CJ wasn’t going far, only to the next town. When I asked why she stopped, she explained that I looked relatively normal and that she’d also done some solo hitchhiking in Montana when she was younger. This would become a common theme over the next five weeks. Drivers will often stop for you to pay back kindness they received in the past.
Before I left on my mission to hitchhike across the United States from coast to coast, I was told that no one picks hitchhikers up anymore. They said that it was dangerous these days, and that the golden era of hitchhiking was, sadly, over.
But after five weeks, 3,500 miles, 36 rides (from both men and women), a motorcycle, a boat, an airplane, a freight train, and a tractor trailer, I can say that those people were wrong. If you’ve always dreamed of hitchhiking but are unsure of how to do it, where to begin, and how to stay safe, here are 14 tips to hitchhike smart:
Always look drivers in the eye and smile as they pass. Not in a crazy axe-murderer way, but in a friendly and personable way. Smiling is very important. Pretend the next car is a friend who is planning to pick you up. Try waving hello or holding your gaze expectantly as they drive past. You really only have a second or two to make a positive impression. Think of it as a drive-by job interview, with only your eyes, appearance, and body language to guide the other person’s decision. Smiling for three hours straight in the sun or rain despite a constant stream of rejection is not easy, but you’ll get better at it. If you look nervous or scared, you will attract the wrong type of people, so be confident.
No one wants to pick up a lazy, stinky-looking hobo. Dress in light or bright clothes. Avoid wearing black if you can. Don’t wear sunglasses (people need to see your eyes), and keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t smoke, drink, or sit down on the side of the road.
Additionally, many drivers pick up people who look similar to themselves. I was having a difficult time getting a ride on the border of Colorado and Kansas until I bought myself a cheap cowboy hat! Soon after that strategic purchase, a trucker couple from rural Tennessee pulled over and proceeded to drive me 1,200 miles over the course of two days, country music playing all the while.
Choose a Good Spot
Cars will not stop for you if they can’t do it safely. Interstate on-ramps are great because cars aren’t moving very fast and there’s usually room to pull over. Other good locations include intersections with stoplights or a stop sign and gas stations. The longer a driver can get a good look at you, the better. Keep an eye out for shady areas with protection from the sun, too. If you have Internet access on your phone, Google Maps in satellite view will show you where the best on-ramps are.
Hitchhiking out of big cities can be very difficult, and sometimes using public transportation to get to the outskirts is your best option. There are some places where it is almost impossible to get a ride, such as spots near sensitive government facilities (employees are forbidden to pick people up), prisons, or neighborhoods with high crime rates.
There are many reasons why people pick up hitchhikers. Maybe they’re bored and want to listen to fun travel stories. Maybe they were once hitchhikers and want to share their experience (and karma) with you. Maybe they’ll try to convert you to Christianity/Islam/Scientology. Maybe they need help staying awake on a long drive.
Providing good conversation is how you pay these people back for their generosity. It can also lead to a free lunch, drinks, or maybe even an offer to host you for the night. Ed the yacht builder was the last ride on my cross-country journey, and he spent his whole afternoon giving me a personal tour of the Maryland coast before taking me out for dinner and drinks at his favorite seafood restaurant.
Always pack enough food and water to last a day, in case you get stuck in the middle of nowhere. I like to bring a few bananas, apples, tortillas, tuna, refried beans, and maybe a package of cookies to share. A filtered water bottle will let you safely drink from rivers and ponds. Take a couple of dark-colored permanent markers to create signs, some sunscreen, a first aid kit, warm clothes, and a rain jacket.
A USB car charger and external battery for your mobile phone is a good idea too. They’re perfect for listening to music, checking Google Maps, or calling for help in an emergency. A lightweight camping hammock or bivy sack will help you save money on accommodations. I frequently camped in the woods on the side of the road or behind churches on my trip.
Use a Cardboard Sign
A simple cardboard sign indicating a town nearby helps a lot. Keep it short and write in large capital letters with a Sharpie marker. It needs to be readable at a distance from a fast-moving vehicle. Use destinations that are relatively close (within 20–50 miles), and you’ll be more likely to score rides. You can then negotiate longer ones inside the vehicle if the driver is going farther in your intended direction.
Funny signs work well too. A few successful ones I used were: “Free Cookies,” “Won’t Kill You,” and “Rabies-Free Since June.” That last sign was funny enough that Dan, a retired theater actor and pharmaceutical executive, had already driven to the next exit when he changed his mind and turned around to come get me!
You can find cardboard for signs at any gas station or fast-food restaurant, either by asking inside or by opening up the dumpster in the back.
Choose Your Ride Carefully
You are under no obligation to get into every car that stops for you. Is the driver in a good mood? Are they looking you in the eyes? Are they sober? How many people are in the car? If you don’t feel comfortable accepting a ride, thank the driver and say no. Make up an excuse if you have to. Pretend to be sick, or explain that you’d rather wait for a longer ride. Trust your gut instincts. On my own trip, I only turned down one ride. I was in a sketchy neighborhood (prostitutes were walking around in the middle of the day), and the vehicle that stopped was a truck packed with four young guys, with the smell of weed pouring from the windows. They were also only headed to the next exit. Odds are good I would’ve been fine, but the situation didn’t feel right and I decided to wait for a better opportunity.
Use Common Sense
Always wear your seatbelt, and if the person starts driving erratically, stay calm and polite but ask to be let out at the next safe pullover spot. Avoid hitchhiking (or picking up hitchhikers) at night. Not only is it very difficult to stop on the side of the road safely after dark, but it’s also much harder to see pedestrians at night. Not to mention, people are much more likely to commit crimes under the cover of darkness.
Hitchhiking is definitely a mental challenge. You’re putting yourself out there in public while engaging in an activity that isn’t considered mainstream. You’ll be judged by everyone who passes you, often in a negative way. People will laugh, flip you off, yell, honk, rev their engines, or maybe even throw things.
Stay in Control
Predators prey on weakness and insecurity. Don’t make yourself an easy target. Dress conservatively and steer sexual topics to something unsexy. Make it crystal clear you’re only interested in getting to your destination, and nothing else. Maintain an aura of confidence.
Keep your valuables on or near your body so if you must escape quickly, you don’t lose them. Avoid putting your bag in the trunk if possible, so the driver can’t take off before you can grab it. Snap a quick photo of the back of the car with your phone before you get in, then send it to a friend or your Twitter account. Once inside the car, find a moment to call a friend and tell them where you are and where you’re headed so the driver can hear you doing it.
Try to avoid talking to your driver (or hitchhiker) about politics, religion, race, or other controversial subjects, at least until you get to know each other a bit and can gauge how they might react. You don’t want to provoke them into becoming angry or emotional while behind the wheel. If they attempt to start a conversation on these topics, try to change the subject or give boring/vague answers to their questions until they lose interest or you feel comfortable talking about them. This is how I responded to Captain Kitty Litter’s overly racist remarks and questions. Even though I disagreed with his views, I just kind of nodded along and let him talk.
Hitchhike with a Friend
If it’s your first time hitchhiking and you’re particularly nervous about it, try hitching with someone else who’s done it before. This is a fantastic way to learn the ropes and get more comfortable. While it might be more difficult to get someone to stop for two hitchhikers, it will always be a bit safer. I’m not saying not to go alone, but if you’re worried about safety, hitchhiking with a friend might be a good way to start out.
Expect to Wait
My average wait time while hitchhiking across the United States was about an hour. But there were some days when it took 2–3 hours or more. You must be prepared to wait in one spot for at least a few hours. However, there were also many times when I was picked up after only 15 minutes. You just never know how long it will take.
If you’re in a particularly bad spot, it might take days to get picked up, which happened to me once outside Denver. I spent two nights in a motel waiting to get out of there. Are you getting sick of waiting? Maybe take a break and go do something else to break up the time. Having camping gear with you can help in these situations too. Walking a few miles to the next exit or catching a taxi to a better location are also options.
You will almost certainly never need to use it, but packing a weapon of some kind to help with self-defense is always a good idea. I like to bring pepper spray along with me. When Captain Kitty Litter started telling me about the time he threw another hitchhiker out of his moving car, I subtly placed one hand in my pocket where pepper spray was hidden (just in case). Luckily I never needed to use it!
My experienced hitchhiker friend Shannon carries a stun gun openly on her belt (this can be illegal in some states). However, a simple pen shoved into the ear or eyes of an assailant should work in a pinch too. In my opinion, a knife should not be your first choice for self-defense unless you’ve been trained to use it, as it can easily be turned against you if the situation takes a turn for the worse. Please note that using a weapon is an absolute last resort — only use it when communication doesn’t work and you honestly fear for your life.
Is Hitchhiking Safe?
Hitchhiking has become progressively more rare over the years. Irrational fears about hitchhiking are brought on by paranoid horror stories promoted aggressively by the news and then turned into movies by Hollywood. Bad news is what sells, so that’s what we’re exposed to. I’m still waiting for CNN to do a story about my successful hitchhiking adventure, but I’m not holding my breath. I had a wonderful time, met great people, and nothing bad happened. It’s not sensational enough to be considered news.
Based on my own experience and after listening to other people’s hitchhiking stories, it’s likely that some weirdos will pick you up. But rarely will it result in a dangerous situation. Out of 36 different rides during my own adventure, I had maybe two or three “odd” (socially awkward) drivers.
I was told countless times that hitchhiking would be dangerous. While it’s smart to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, in reality you don’t have to worry about these horror stories too much. Most of the people I met while hitchhiking were friendly, fascinating, and full of entertaining tales. But that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.
While hitchhiking is not nearly as dangerous as some people make it out to be, there is risk involved. If you choose to engage in this activity, you are accepting those risks. Crimes are committed against hitchhikers from time to time, as well as against drivers (although much less frequently).
If you ever feel threatened or uncomfortable once you’re already in the vehicle, first ask the driver to stop and let you out at the next exit or gas station. Make up an excuse if you want to. If the driver still fails to stop, remind them that you sent a photo of the car and plate number to friends. In an absolute emergency, you can always grab the steering wheel or handbrake and cause a small accident. Remember, only use these techniques as a last resort, when you genuinely fear for your life. Even small accidents can kill you or someone else. It’s not something to take lightly.
One Final Legal Note
Hitchhiking in the United States is legal. The confusion lies with the United States Uniform Vehicle Code. The law states:
“No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride.”
Sounds illegal, right? Yes — until you read its definition of “roadway:”
“That portion of a highway improved, designed or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk, berm or shoulder even though such sidewalk, berm or shoulder is used by persons riding bicycles or other human powered vehicles.”
What does that mean? It’s illegal to stand directly on the road (for obvious safety reasons), but standing on the side of the road, the shoulder, or a sidewalk is fine.
Each state also has its own laws, though, and a few specifically ban hitchhiking. These include New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wyoming.
However, getting caught hitchhiking in these states doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll go to jail. Police officers may stop and question you, give you a warning, or fine you. In fact, hitchhikers may experience this from authorities even in states where it is technically legal, due to ignorance of the law or boredom.
Hitchhiking will definitely be a challenge. But it will also open your mind, build your confidence, teach you patience, and introduce you to new friends. There’s something magical about the open road and the uncertainty that comes with sticking out your thumb with no plans.
You could meet a friendly schoolteacher who’s never picked anyone up or an ex-con with hilarious stories to share. Or maybe you’ll meet the inventor of the Ultimate Pancake Sandwich. I was picked up in fancy Land Rovers, an airplane, a boat, a motorcycle, and a car held together with duct tape. You don’t know who will stop, if anyone will stop, or how your day will unfold when someone eventually does. That’s what makes hitchhiking so special. It’s the unknown.
It’s an absolute roller coaster ride full of emotions: thrilling one minute, then completely discouraging the next. But in the end, hitchhiking might just be one of your most memorable or rewarding travel experiences, as it has been for me. I’ll never forget the feeling of accomplishment I experienced when jumping into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of my long journey.
Useful Resources for Hitchhiking
To locate accommodations while hitchhiking, you can use Couchsurfing.org to meet local people willing to share their homes with strangers in exchange for interesting conversation. You will surely be able to provide some after a few days of hitchhiking.
Matthew Karsten has been vagabonding around the world since 2010. Addicted to adventure travel and photography, he’s on a mission to inspire your next journey with entertaining stories and images from his travels. Read more about his five-week hitchhiking journey across America at ExpertVagabond.com.
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