When thru or section hiking a long distance trail, backpackers regularly hitch into and out of towns for purposes of resupply and R&R. While there is obviously no surefire formula to hitchhiking success, there are certain tips and techniques that can help improve your odds while making your way to and from the trailhead:
1. Location, Location
Look for spots where drivers have plenty of time to check you out and enough space in which to stop safely.
When leaving town don’t be lazy. Walk to the outskirts of the built-up area; stick your thumb out on the way just in case.
Gas stations situated on the edge of towns potentially represent a good option. You can either ask folks directly for a ride whilst they are stopped or alternatively try your luck as they are heading back out on the road.
When making your way into and out of small towns, often your best chances of a hitch will be in the early morning or late afternoon when motorists are commuting to and from work.
3. First Impressions Count
When out on the road, your hitching window of opportunity (i.e. the time in which the driver decides whether or not to pick you up) usually lasts about five to fifteen seconds depending on the nature of the road. The onus is upon you to make the most of it.
- Lose the sunglasses. Generally speaking, people want to have a good look at who they let into their cars.
- No hands in pockets, eating, drinking or sitting down.
- Make sure your backpack is visible; hiking poles are a nice touch if you have them. Basically try to differentiate yourself from a homeless person/vagrant. Not that there is anything wrong with being a vagrant; they just don’t tend to catch rides as quickly as hikers do.
- When vehicles come towards you, look folks in the eye in a friendly, personable way. Be positive. Even if you are dead on your feet after a long day on the trail, the reality is that motorists are a lot more likely to pick up a happy looking hiker than a Donny or Debbie Downer.
4. Try not to “vehicle profile”
There’s no denying that a hitchhiker’s bread and butter are vans, old pickup trucks, 4WD SUV’s and cars that have at least 15 years and 150,000 miles on them. Indeed, in some 27 years of regularly hitchhiking around the globe, I’m not sure I’ve ever been passed by a VW Beetle……….I think I might be like 17 and 0.
That being said, you never know.
Over the years I’ve been picked up by Mercedes, BMWs and once even scored a ride on a yacht sailing down the Beagle Channel……..from a Scottish/Australian couple no less! In other words, don’t let your game slip just because the passing vehicle doesn’t fit the profile.
5. Smaller is Better
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but it never ceases to amaze me how many hikers on long distance trails regularly hitch in bunches of three or more.
The key to consistent hitchhiking success is maximising your chances, and less people means you can fit into more types of cars, as well as representing less of a potential threat.
Same goes for the size of your backpack. If you are sporting a smallish pack you improve your odds of getting a ride with folks that are driving compact cars and/or who’s vehicle may be filled to the brim (i.e. You can easily rest your pack on your knees; no need for them to rearrange their stuff in order to fit you in).
6. Make a Sign
I go back and forwards on this one, but overall I think a simple cardboard sign can help. Keep it short and write in large capital letters with a black marker pen. It needs to be readable at a distance from a fast-moving vehicle.
7. Be Creative
If you have been waiting a long time and passing cars are few and far between, it may be time to try something different. My long-time go-to move in such situations has been “two-hands together in prayer mode, combined with a dopey smile.” Pitiful, I know, but you do what you have to.
If the driver still doesn’t look like s/he is going to stop, be sure to give them an “oh well, shrug of the shoulders smile” (Note: Different to the dopey smile) as they go past. You may be surprised; once they’ve had a few seconds to think about it, it is by no means uncommon for motorists to turn around and give you a ride after all.
8. Make an effort to clean up
There’s no denying that some people (e.g. fellow outdoorsy types) will pick you up no matter what you look like. However, these folks aren’t always driving by when you need them to be. By looking semi-presentable, you improve your chances of getting rides with the all-important “swing” motorists (i.e. the ones that could go either way).
The other important factor in making an effort to clean up comes down to common courtesy. Folks that pick you up are doing you a favour. Not the other way around. The least you can do is reciprocate by making an effort to minimise hiker odour (i.e. wash or wet wipe your face and armpits. Put on a windshirt or rain jacket).
By doing so, you not only potentially improve your chances of being driven right to your intended destination (see below), but you are also indirectly aiding future hikers that follow in your hitching footsteps.
Think about it; if you gave a ride to a couple of hikers reeking from a week of trail grime, would you be inclined to pick up the next group you see standing by the roadside? The reality is that many people would not.
9. Not All Rides are Created Equal
Never be afraid to turn down an offer if you don’t feel comfortable with the driver that has stopped (e.g. drunk, creepy, etc). Trust your instincts. Eventually someone else will come along.
There are lots of different excuses you can make in these situations, but I prefer the direct approach. On the three occasions in which this scenario has happened to me, I simply thanked the driver for stopping and declined the ride.
10. Basic Precautions
Keep your valuables on your person at all times (i.e. wallet, passport, phone).
If you are by yourself, be wary of throwing your backpack in the trunk of a car. Chances are it will be fine, but over the years I’ve heard more than a few stories about trusting solo hitchhikers, that have helplessly watched as their “benefactors” have raced off as soon as they alighted the vehicle.
My personal favourite was from a British mate of mine who once got picked up by two elderly eastern European ladies. He said they had been super friendly and had even shared homemade cookies with him during the ride!
11. The Extra Mile
Ok. You’ve managed to score a hitch. That’s the hard part out of the way. Now you’ve got to make a positive impression.
Good conversation skills and the ability to quickly sum up the driver (i.e. Are they looking for someone to listen to them? Do they expect you to provide the entertainment? Are they simply helping you out?) can potentially mean the difference between being dropped off at your desired landing-place, or being left a couple of miles from that point on the motorist’s originally intended route.
12. Patience & Productivity
The reality is that hitchhiking can sometimes be a waiting game. Being frustrated or worried has never helped a situation.
If you’ve ticked all of the above boxes, the best you can do is stay positive, patient and make the most of your time. Catch up on your journal, write some emails, go over what you need to get done in town. Maybe even metaphorically step back for a moment or two, and think about how fortunate you are to be spending half a year of your life hiking and camping in the wilderness.
Embrace the wait.