The first time I Thumbs Up for Hitchhiking when I was 19 years old and my motorcycle had broken down in a rural location; it was the back of beyond. It was already late at night and I was about a 40 minute walk from the nearest village. To add insult to injury it was absolutely hammering down with rain and blowing a gale, although this shouldn’t have been a problem because I was wearing full bike gear.
Except, that really was the problem. I started tramping up the hill but I was weighed down by the weight of my leathers, my helmet and a small back pack. The worse thing was that I was wearing a pair of heavy army surplus leather boots that were two sizes too big and they made walking impossible. It was with a beating heart that I finally succumbed to temptation and stuck my thumb out as a car approached me. I had no great expectations that he would stop, given what I must have looked like, but he did. I apologised for getting his car all wet and muddy but he waved it away and told me he had passed my bike up the road and figured he’d be coming across its rider sooner or later.
It was a heart-warming first experience. That guy virtually drove me back to where I lived and the next day I was able to get a lift back to the bike and get it started. So if my experience was that easy and that safe, why does hitch-hiking have such a bad reputation?
Well, unfortunately it does have a reputation as being dangerous. Indeed, if you do a quick internet search for hitch-hiker murders you will come across plenty of those across the globe, including Australia, USA, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK, but statistically it probably isn’t any more dangerous to hitch hike than it is to cycle.
The concept of hitch-hiking is a simple one and has probably been going on since time immemorial. I bet the guy who invented the wheel was flagged down every time he set foot outside his front door, because in places where transport is rare, hitch-hiking is positively encouraged, and Cuba is a good example of this! Yep. Hitchhiking is easy. All you have to do if you want to hitch a lift is stand somewhere where the traffic flows past you and is able to stop, with your hand out in a recognized gesture and presto! You’re hitching. In the Western world, your hand extended with the thumb up is the gesture people understand but it can vary by country. In Africa you extend your arm with the palm up and in some Middle Eastern countries it is customary to point at the road.
In a few countries, most noticeably China and Hong Kong, Burma and Singapore, it is illegal to hitch-hike unfortunately. It is also outlawed in half of the states of the USA, so before you hitch in the US check the regulations for where you’re going. It is legal everywhere in Europe, although these days it is very rare in the UK. You need to always remember to stand where pedestrians are allowed to be and where cars can legally and safely stop. In some countries in Europe, especially The Netherlands, there are actually signs at designated areas, where you can wait for a car to pick you up. How civilized!
There are some really simple tips to remember if you do fancy hitch-hiking somewhere. I would say it can be really hit and miss, so think of it as more hiking than hitching if you know what I mean. Make sure you are fit enough, and aren’t wearing army boots that are too big for you, so that you can walk all day if you really have to, in the direction you want to go. I know that last tip seems obvious but you would be surprised! Anyway, if you’re prepared to do a lot of walking then you will be ecstatic when you get a ride!
Plan a destination that you are heading to and take a map. If you allow a few days to get there (as long as it’s not on a different continent or something) then that will give you an idea of how tough hitchhiking can be. Learn from me and have layers of clothing that are suitable for a variety of different weather situations. You really don’t want to be stood on the side of the road looking like a drowned rat and trying to get a lift while every car that zooms past sprays you with surface water. Not good.
In terms of the safety aspects, you’re a grown up, so you understand that if you are on the side of the road trying to hail traffic you are putting yourself in danger of a collision. Wear clothing that can be seen. Carry food and water. Avoid hitching at night. Night has a tendency to brink out freaks, while people are more likely to be under the influence and everyone is a lot more fearful.
Try and take the details of any car that you accept a lift from; car make, model, colour and registration number are good. Text or email that to a friend. Before you get in the car have a conversation with the driver and if you feel at all unhappy about the situation say ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Ask him where he’s headed before he asks you. That way you can always say you’re not headed that way. If there’s any hint of drink or drugs in the car, back away. If the car is full of people, especially men, decline and wait for the next offer. Try and keep your luggage with you, rather than in the trunk, just in case you have to get out in an emergency. Split your money and travellers checks between your pack and your person, keeping money in several hiding places on your body. Don’t fall asleep.
Where women are concerned this is even more important. I would always recommend women travel with a friend, either male or female and make sure you are never split up. The woman gets in the car after the male and exits first so that it cannot drive off with just her. If you are two women I guess you’ll have to dive in together! If you are travelling alone and a man picks you up, and it almost certainly will be a man, talk about your husband and children and his husband and children. It doesn’t hurt to wear a ring on these sorts of occasions. As a woman travelling alone, you must know that men are going to get the wrong idea so please stay as safe as you can. If you start to feel uncomfortable at all, stay calm and polite and get out as fast as you can.
For those of you that are considering picking up hitchhikers consider your own safety. There is safety in numbers so if you have someone else in the car with you, picking up one other or a couple should be perfectly fine. If you have children or the person you are picking up has children this should be OK too. Take some time to consider the hitchhiker though; are they clean? How much luggage do they have? Do they have pets? Are they really alone? Can you stop legally and safely? If you are happy, that’s great, if you are unhappy, shake your head and drive away.
Anybody can hitchhike; any age, any creed, any colour, any culture. It calls people from all walks of life and isn’t simply reserved for students and drop outs and young people on gap years. You could argue that in the most civilised of countries it is safe and encouraged, and so it should be. It’s green and economical and it reduces the amount of cars on the road. From the first time I experienced it, I was hooked. It gave me a feeling of freedom and in these days where travel is so sanitised it really does give you a feeling of adventure and exploration.
Give it a go, but stay safe!
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