The do’s and don’ts of hitchhiking

About a year ago I tried to hitchhike for the first time. At the time I was in Australia, and had already been travelling in the cars of strangers by means of rideshare. I would look on a website called Gumtree to find people who would be driving to and from certain places, and they would take me along to share the costs of gas and of course to have some company. Up to that point, I had been lucky and even found a couple who took me along on their road trip from Sydney to Uluru to Byron Bay. In Byron Bay it suddenly got a lot harder. There didn’t seem to be any people driving up the coast, so I would either have to wait for someone to show up, or buy an expensive hop on hop off bus ticket for a bus that would take me a long way but wouldn’t give me a lot of options. I was a bit torn until a girl who worked for a tour operator suggested to go hitchhiking. I decided to just give it a try, and ended up hitchhiking for the remainder of the time I spent in Australia (and a few times in Malaysia).

Of course, hitchhiking was a bit scary at first. I didn’t know what kind of people I would meet, and I knew I would have to decide whether or not to get in someone’s car in a very short amount of time. The tour operator girl did give me some advice to start off with (which will be a few of the do’s and don’ts below), so I knew the basics. Of course, experience made me more and more comfortable with the idea of travelling like this and I actually think it was an amazing experience. That’s why I want to give anyone who is considering to go hitchhiking a little advice, so you too can give it a go!

Don’t: Start unprepared
Do: Use Google Maps or something similar to figure out your route

Something that happened to me a lot is that someone would tell me the place they were driving to and I wouldn’t have known the place if I hadn’t looked at the map before. Knowing places around your route allows you to realize how far someone can take you and, of course, if it’s actually in the right direction. At least try to remember the biggest ones so you can ask if X is near Y. Another thing to prepare is the distance you want to travel in hours. Don’t just guess you might be able to make it somewhere, but actually use the route planner to see how long the drive would take if you would do it in one go. Doing that will allow you to estimate how long it will take you to get somewhere, after you add a bit of time to account for the actual waiting on the side of the road. The shortest time I’ve waited was no waiting time at all (someone saw me get out of a different car and offered to take me further), the longest was about 45 minutes (just after sunrise when there weren’t many cars on the road yet). I generally had to wait about 5 to 15 minutes to get a ride, but I was always aware that it could take much longer.

Don’t: Wait forever
Do: Change position

Of course, you don’t want to wait too long. The only reason I waited that long one time was because there weren’t any cars around. If there are cars and they just don’t stop, it might just because of your position. Position is extremely important! You need to be in a place where people can see you from a distance (so they can slow down and take a look at you before deciding to stop – they have to trust you too), and the car needs to be allowed and able to pull over to let you in. If a lot of people drive past you at tremendous speeds without even glancing towards you, you might just be in the wrong spot. You have two legs, so if this spot doesn’t seem to work, walk a kilometer or two to find a better one. Another thing is that people who drive in cities generally need to go somewhere in that city, so try to position yourself somewhere along the road that people use to leave the place. If that is too far, definitely accept a ride that will bring you to the edge of town. Once you’re there it gets much easier! Keep position in mind when the driver drops you off too, so you won’t have trouble getting the next ride if you need another one.

Don’t: Use a sign saying where you want to go
Do: Point your thumb up (and be vague about where you’re going until you feel safe)

This may seem a bit odd, but using a sign actually has two big disadvantages. Firstly, the driver may not pull over because they aren’t going exactly where you want to go – even though they might be able to take you half of the way. I have actually seen it happen myself while I was travelling to Arlie Beach and the lady who picked me up didn’t stop for someone with a sign saying Arlie Beach. She just assumed the guy wouldn’t want the thirty minute ride she could offer (even though she was giving me a ride not much longer than that). It could of course also go exactly the other way, with someone stopping because they are going to the place they saw on your sign, but it’s better to assume that most people are not going exactly where you want to go. Furthermore, holding a sign means you won’t have a (great) excuse to refuse a ride if someone tells you they are going exactly where you need to go. Being vague and saying you’re traveling ‘North’ instead of to a specific city will allow you to ask the driver where they are going. If you don’t feel safe for whatever reason you can just say you’re not going there, and wave them goodbye.

Don’t: Feel like a car pulling over means you have to get in
Do: Be cautious and use excuses if you don’t feel safe

That last comment is a very important one, but to some people it isn’t as obvious as it seems. If someone offers you a ride and you don’t feel safe, it doesn’t mean you have to take it anyway. Most people who pull over are extremely nice and generous, but the chance remains that you get that one creep in the mix. After the driver slides down their window, take the time to look in their car and pay attention to the way they behave during the little conversation you have. If something makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s better to refuse with a bad excuse (such as “Oh, I’m not going there, but thanks anyway!”) than to go against your gut feeling and get in the car.

Don’t: Refuse a ride worth an hour of your trip if you need to travel six
Do: Accept any ride that gets you (much) closer to your destination

Another important point some people tend to forget is that you don’t only have to take rides all the way to your destination. I have already mentioned taking multiple rides to get somewhere a couple of times in this text, because it’s actually something that happens a lot. If someone can take you quite a bit of the way, or even just to a better spot (as I mentioned before), accept it! If you are closer to the place you want to go, the chances of someone going there will be much higher. Of course you shouldn’t take every ride in the right direction. If you need to travel 200 kilometers and someone offers you a 5 kilometer ride while you’re already standing in an amazing spot for people who want to travel further, you may not want to take it.

Don’t: Assume you’ll be able to do a day’s ride in one day
Do: Have a backup plan

Last but not least: if you want to travel a very long distance, don’t assume you’ll be able to do all of it in one day. It generally doesn’t happen a lot, but if your estimated travel time is about 10 hours and you only have 12 hours of daylight left, it might be smart to have a backup plan such as a hostel in a place along the way or simply a tent to sleep in on a rest stop near the highway (which is often allowed). That being said, always bring enough food and water in case you have a bad day and won’t be able to visit a shop along the way. Be prepared, be cautious and have fun!

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