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Successful Hitchhiking

This reviewer gives hitching one thumb up. Photo by Mary Reed.

You’re four miles by foot from your car and it’s getting dark. You’ve shredded your bike tube and you’re 50 miles from home. You’re just plain lost, but you’ve found a road. The one-digit solution? Your thumb.

The key to successful and safe hitching is, apparently, there isn’t one. “Very few specific factors affect how you get a ride – it’s mostly random,” says Duncan from Ohio, who has logged 20,000 miles hitchhiking or train jumping (Duncan declines to give his last name). However, there are methods for increasing your odds of getting picked up.

Select a good starting point. People in cities aren’t usually going long distances, but the edge of town – city or small town – is a good place to start. Even if you’re barely in the front country, there are better places than others to pick up a ride. “If the highway’s not working, go to a busy gas station,” Duncan advises, “Your ratio of getting picked up then (is better) based on the face-to-face conversation, where they can see that you’re not a psychopath.” Ditto the parking lot of a trailhead or put in. Approaching someone for a ride works better than sticking out your thumb. Which leads us to …

Stick out your thumb. “The thumb is the universal signal that everyone understands,” Duncan says, allowing that a big handwritten sign with your destination is a good idea, too. If your destination is hundreds or even thousands of miles away, consider writing a closer destination so you don’t scare off people who might think they have to take you the whole way.

Dress for success. Some advise that you dress like the kind of person you want picking you up. Duncan doesn’t think there is a correlation between what you wear and getting a ride. He does point out, however, that for women it’s extremely important not to look like a sex worker.

Other than that, anything goes. “Ratty is sort of what people expect; that’s in the box of ‘hitchhiker,’” Duncan says, “If I’m dressed up, they’re like ‘Why is this dressed-up guy by the side of the road?’” Nonetheless, if you’re standing there with your bike, your backpack or your boat, it’s reasonable to expect a fellow cyclist, backpacker or paddler will sympathize with your plight (or adventure) and pick you up. Duncan says he never has a problem getting picked up with his bike.

Talk to your potential ride. “Try and talk to the person before you get in the car,” Duncan says. This is easy enough, since you need to determine if they can give you a ride to where you’re going. Be sure to ask where they’ll let you off so you don’t end up stuck in the middle of nowhere. “Just try to make a quick judgment, (get) a quick feel for the person,” Duncan says. If you’re not prepared to turn down a ride because you’re uncomfortable with someone, you’re not ready to hitchhike.

Use the buddy system. Duncan says the chances of getting picked up alone or with more people are about the same. But, he adds, “Hitching with a friend is definitely better for morale.” It beats standing by yourself on the side of the road for hours. If you’re a woman, you will be more secure if you hitch with another person. Duncan likes to play this betting game: each person thumbing it guesses how many cars will pass until one stops to pick you up. Whoever is closest to the actual number wins.

Obey the law. Except on highways, hitchhiking generally is not against the law. That said, some people complain when they see hitchhikers and cops will respond to those complaints. Other cops just don’t want you on their beat and will give you a free ride to the edge of their jurisdiction. It’s important to obey the law, including drug laws (don’t carry any), since there is a real chance you will get stopped by law enforcement. Generally, Duncan says, they just ask for your ID (be sure to have it on you) and leave you alone.

Is Hitchhiking Safe?
The Bureau of Criminal Statistics does not keep records on crimes associated with hitchhiking. Virtually no academic studies cover the topic either. Hard and fast numbers on the safety or danger of hitchhiking are just not available. Whatever the dangers, they are greater for women than men. Most experienced hitchhikers consider it safe and most who are too afraid to hitch think it is dangerous. This article does not advocate hitchhiking, but will hopefully help you do it safely and successfully if you find yourself in need of a ride.

Try this tip: Before getting into a vehicle, call or text a friend from your cell phone with the license plate number. Do it conspicuously so the driver will know.