Need to know: Hitchhiking
Although I’m now a seasoned thru-hiker, hitchhiking was my passion long before I started hiking long-distance trails. In fact, it was through hitchhiking that I discovered what thru-hiking actually was.
Back in 2011, I was hitchhiking from England to Iran, traveling along the coast of southwest Turkey with a friend. We were waiting for our next car when I spotted red and white stripes painted on a rock.
“What’s that?” I asked my friend.
“Oh, apparently there’s some trail called the Lycian Way here…” she said vaguely, shrugging.
And so we followed those markers for the rest of the day – after all, we had no place to be, and no schedule to stick to. From that moment on, I was hooked on hiking. I went on to walk the whole of the 500km Lycian Way in very unsuitable plimsolls. As for my friend, that was her one and only section hike: unlike me, she didn’t become obsessed with hiking.
So, why do I hitchhike?
I’ve been hitchhiking for around fifteen years, and I’ve taken rides in thousands of cars throughout Europe, the Middle East, and all across Asia. I first started hitchhiking as a necessity because I have always been nomadic, but had barely enough money to eat. Now my financial situation is more stable, and I don’t need to hitchhike, but it’s now a way of life for me. I see it as a normal method of transport – much like taking a train.
Hitchhiking renews my faith in humanity each time I do it, and this is my main reason for choosing this method of transport. Through hitchhiking I meet the kindest people: the arseholes usually just drive on past me (sometimes raising their middle finger or shouting obscenities out of the window as they go). Friendships are made between me and my drivers, stories are shared. I learn a lot about a country and a culture through hitchhiking, and I’m often invited into people’s homes to sleep or for food.
As a woman, I have hitchhiked hundreds of cars alone. People often ask me, “isn’t it dangerous?” and say to me, “I’d be too terrified”. Media horror stories of hitchhiking, or films of hitchhiker murders, play a massive role in making too many women scared to even try it. But the media never tells us about the thousands of happy hitchhikers who are traveling the world day in, day out, because these good experiences won’t sell stories. I can tell you from experience that the scaremongering around hitchhiking is mostly nonsense.
One other big reason why I started hitchhiking was because, as a woman, I didn’t want to live my life in fear. I saw men going off across Europe and Asia, hitchhiking alone, and I wanted to do it too. I didn’t want this patriarchal society – which tells women that we shouldn’t hitch alone, and even tells us that we shouldn’t walk alone at night – to dictate to me how I should act. And so I swallowed my fears and off I went. Of course, I was nervous at least the first ten times I hitchhiked, but the more I did it, the more the nerves faded away.
Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we live in a misogynistic world. A world where women are harassed, abused, and even murdered on a daily basis. But the answer isn’t for women to shut up and stay at home. We can still go about our solo adventures, knowing that the horror stories around hitchhiking are mostly just that – stories. But we should travel in the knowledge that just by being women, the minuscule incidents of harassment while on the road are far more likely to happen to us than to our cis male friends. If you’re a man reading this, it’s your duty to challenge this misogynist society. You can do this by calling out your sexist friends, and tackling difficult conversations with them that you might not want to have.
And why should you hitchhike?
Of course, the most obvious reason why a thru-hiker might choose to hitchhike is that it costs nothing. Getting to a trailhead of a long-distance hike often involves hours-long journeys. A trail’s official advice will be to take public transport or to pay for expensive shuttles. But to get to the start – and from the finish – of each thru-hike, I always hitchhike, even if I’m told it won’t be possible (it is always possible). I’ve saved hundreds of euros by hitchhiking to trailheads over the years.
For example, on the Larapinta Trail in the Outback of Australia, I even hitchhiked to each of my food-drop locations along the trail, dropping off the packages that would feed me as I walked through the desert. This saved me a ton of money.
Sometimes, hitchhiking will be your only option to come off the trail. And so another reason why you might find yourself hitchhiking is out of pure necessity.
But the biggest reason why you should choose to hitchhike is that you’ll meet amazing people, you’ll find out more about the region you’ve come to visit, and you’ll most likely have much more fun than if you’d taken public transport.
Of course, until you’ve done it a number of times, it can seem daunting. So here are some tips to help you out.
10 (practical) tips for hitchhikers
1. Use Hitchwiki
Hitchhiking can be as simple as sticking out your thumb (or waving your hand up and down, depending on the country you’re in). But there’s a lot of good advice to make your hitchhiking experiences easier and, most importantly, safer. Hitchwiki is your best friend. It is updated by hitchhikers, for hitchhikers. The website gives you lots of tips, such as how to actually hitchhike, how to find a good spot, when to use a sign, as well as telling you the exact spots in each city to hitchhike out of. Just search for the town you’re in, and it’s likely that a hitchhiker will have uploaded info on the best spots to hitchhike from.
2. Decide on your route: fast or slow
If you’re hitchhiking long distances and time is of the essence, take the most-used route. The routes with the most traffic are usually on highways between bigger cities.
If you’re traveling on a busy route and are passing a city halfway through your journey, it’s crucial that you don’t end up getting dropped off in that city. This is because you could add on hours trying to get out of the city again. Instead, make sure your driver puts you at a service station before she turns off from the motorway.
If you choose the busy routes, you’ll also get the opportunity to ask truck drivers for a ride. In Europe, there are plenty of truckers traveling from Germany to Turkey. I have hitchhiked many trucks over the years, but changes in insurance policies and truck company rules are making it more and more difficult. Many truck companies don’t allow more than two people in the truck, so if you’re traveling as a two, it is far less likely that you’ll get a ride with a truck driver. Of course, certain drivers will break the rules (such as Turkish drivers), whereas other countries (such as English truck drivers) will never pick up hitchhikers. To read more about hitchhiking trucks, see here. Bear in mind, though, that although they cover big distances, trucks are very, very slow, traveling at a maximum speed of around 60mph while cars speed past them.
Of course, if you have time, you might choose not to take the busiest route. I often choose routes through the countryside, because people are friendlier and the journeys are far more beautiful. You might have fewer cars, but people are more likely to stop, too. But obviously, you will cover far fewer miles in one day doing this.
3. Decide on your technique: to ask or not to ask
When hitchhiking in Europe, most hitchhikers hitch the busy routes on motorways, hopping from petrol station to petrol station. They will ask for rides either by approaching people as they fill their cars up with fuel, or by waiting at the exit of the petrol station with their thumb out, or with a sign. It’s far quicker to directly ask people. An advantage of asking people is that you can choose exactly who you want to approach. The disadvantage is that you will sometimes have to talk to people who are rude to you, and very occasionally you might be told to move on by petrol station employees. You can read more about hitchhiking from petrol station to petrol station here.
Whether you’re standing at the side of the road or asking people at the petrol station, make sure you don’t look miserable. You’ll get a ride quicker if you make eye contact with drivers as cars approach you.
4. Leave yourself enough time
Hitchhiking is unpredictable: you need to leave yourself enough time because you never know if you’ll get stuck somewhere. Having said that, hitchhiking to the start of Corsica’s Mare a Mare Nord, and to the start of the Madeira Ultra trail, proved to be much quicker than if I had taken public transport.
Carrying a tent will give you peace of mind and ensure that you don’t stress about running out of time. It’ll also give you limitless options of where to sleep.
5. Hitch in the daytime
Don’t hitchhike when it is dark. Trust me, you’re far less likely to get a ride. You’ll also be putting your life at risk because you’ll be less visible to drivers.
My most shady experience while hitchhiking happened as it got dark. Ignoring my instincts, I took a car just as the sun was going down. As night fell, my driver went off-route, taking me down small dark roads. Luckily I managed to stay calm, spoke some of the local language and talked sense into him, and he drove us back to the main route.
6. Trust your gut
In that situation, I ignored my gut instinct. I knew that it was riskier to hitch in the dark, but I did it anyway. To the women reading this, perhaps the most precious advice I can give to you is to trust your gut.
If a car stops for you and the driver gives you a bad feeling, or if something feels a little off, don’t be afraid to tell him that you’re not getting in the car. Don’t be worried that you’ll offend the driver: after all, this is your safety that we’re talking about.
7. “Where are YOU going?”
When standing at the side of the road, I often don’t use a sign. Instead, I’ll just stand with my thumb out. This gives me more options to say no to a driver. So if my intuition has told me not to get into a car, I can just tell the driver that he isn’t going where I want to go.
If a car stops for me, and I ask where the man is going, and he responds with, “no, where are YOU going?” I will almost always refuse the ride. This sentence is often said by creepy men, and I’ll reply firmly, “no thanks,” and walk away from the car. If the driver calls after me, I ignore him and stick my thumb out for the next car.
8. Tackling unwanted advances
Patriarchy has taught women to be nice to men, but this is NOT our duty. You don’t need to politely giggle at your driver’s sexist jokes. In fact, some deluded men will see this as flirting, so I often tone down how smiley I am if I am driving with a man. I will, of course, be polite, but I’ll certainly be less friendly than, say, if I am in a car with a family. I’ll also steer the conversation away from whether I have a boyfriend or husband, or questions about why I don’t have a boyfriend or husband. Sometimes I will say that I have a partner, even when I don’t. It’s often a red flag if a driver wants to talk about partying or drinking, too, so I steer the conversation away from these topics.
Of course, your main aim is to stay safe in a car. So a useful tool for brushing off unwanted attention is to pretend that you don’t understand what a driver is saying. In Turkey, where I previously lived and have hitchhiked hundreds of cars, I would sometimes be in a car with a driver who would say something sleazy. I would then revert to not understanding what he is saying, saying in Turkish, “I don’t understand. I only speak a little Turkish.” After a few more tries to communicate his sleazy sentence, he would always give up in the end.
As terrible as this may sound, I also think about what I am wearing on a day of hitchhiking. I don’t think women should ever have to moderate how they dress for men, but for me personally, I feel more comfortable if most of my body is covered up. I ensure that I dress appropriately for the culture I’m in (for example, in certain cultures I wouldn’t wear a vest because it would show my shoulders).
9. Leave a car if necessary
You don’t need to politely smile at comments that make you feel uncomfortable, and you don’t need to put up with a man’s hand on your leg. I have firmly told drivers to stop the car when they have put a hand on my leg, or when they have made comments about sex. Every time, the driver stopped the car and I got out.
If you don’t feel confident doing this, you can tell the driver that you really need the toilet, and then when he stops, take your stuff out of the car and leave him. If you’re in a city, you can get out when the car stops at traffic lights. It is, of course, easier to jump out of a car if your rucksack isn’t stuck in the trunk!
There are a lot of blog posts about how to hitchhike safely as a woman. See here.
10. Remember that 99% of people are wonderful
It’s important to keep in mind that most people who stop for hitchhikers are the most kind, hospitable, and helpful in society. You’ll learn so much more about the place you’re in if you hitchhike. Like I said before, trust your gut, and if you feel good, accept that invitation to dinner, or that offer of a couch to sleep on. Hitchhiking will, at the very least, brighten a driver’s day, and it might even lead to life-long friendships.