Before I hitchhiked over 14,000 miles around the USA (watch the 162 second stop-motion video), I was nervous about my coming trip, so I googled, “how to hitchhike.” The articles I found looked like they were written by fourth graders. Even worse… fourth graders who had never hitchhiked. Hence this post was born, from an actual hitchhiker.
If you have no experience hitchhiking and you want to get started safely, then this article and the hitchhiking video are for you. To really learn to hitchhike though, you are going to have to stick out that killer thumb of yours on the nearest road. In fact…
The only way to really learn anything is to do it yourself.
If you have no interest in hitchhiking, skip this article.
9 Steps To Hitchhiking Around The USA:
1. Know the Laws
Hitchhiking is legal in all 50 states, no matter what your grandmother or the local policeman tells you.
The Uniform Vehicle Code is the law that you will butt heads with as you hitch. Each state interprets it differently (Oregon is lenient and Massachusetts is strict). The Code is meant to keep motor vehicles safe and has restrictions on where someone can flag down a vehicle.
Basically, you are legally hitchhiking if you stick out your thumb from on-ramps or are on a two-lane road outside of town. Don’t walk on the highways either!
For specific information about a region, the online community of hitchhikers, Digihitch.com, has the best information about the laws in each state. Before you go, read about the state you will be hitching in.
*Extra Sauce: If you understand the laws, the police are more likely to leave you alone. Most aren’t aware of the laws and aren’t used to dealing with sane hitchhikers.
2. Get Your Mind Pumped Up
Be prepared to wait by the side of the road for hours and be looked at as the scum of the earth.
Hitchhiking is a great way to build up your inner strength. You are going to be taking a lot of shit. Look at it as a challenge when someone flips you the bird (about one in 500 cars will… more in Texas) or chucks a milkshake your way. The more you take it and let it go, the more it won’t bother you in the future. This is a priceless skill that helps in your career and your relationships.
Enjoy where you are… no matter where that is.
If you want to get somewhere cheaply, there are many other ways to do it. A happy hitchhiker is on the road for adventure. A happy hitchhiker has fun at a truck stop or singing songs by the side of the road. Bring an instrument, an iPod with some energetic jams, or just your thoughts to keep you company.
3. Dress Like The People You Want To Pick You Up
We are friends with people that look like us. We date people that look like us. AND we pick up hitchhikers that look like us.
I change how I look depending on my area. In small conservative towns, I’ll wear a flannel shirt and jeans. In liberal cities, I’ll put on a hip button-up shirt. Near hiking trails, I’ll make sure to bring out my hiking pole and my rain coat.
*Extra Sauce: A handkerchief around your neck can double as a liberal hipster uniform or a conservative working man’s attire. Plus, you get to wipe your boogers.
4. Pack Light
The lighter your pack is, the happier you will be. However, be sure to bring the essentials to survive anywhere you are dropped off.
A hiking backpack is the universal symbol for “I am traveling on a journey.” Travelers, outdoorsy types, and adventurers will recognize it. Bring that and pack it like you are heading out on a 3-day hiking trip. A few t-shirts and pants, more socks than you think you need, some underwear, a wool sweater, and be sure to include these essentials:
A. Small Tent
B. Sleeping Bag
C. 2 Jugs of Water
D. Long Underwear
E. Stocking Hat
F. Rain Coat
G. Light Coat
I. Suntan Lotion
J. Hat To Keep The Sun Off
K. Big Permanent Marker for Making Signs (the more colors the better)
Warning: Don’t pack anything that you would be devastated to lose.
5. Stake Your Spot
This the best way to increase your chances of getting a ride. Look for these 5 characteristics in a spot:
A. Plenty of room on the shoulder for a car to pull over.
B. Cars driving less than 40 mph (the slower, the better).
C. Near a stoplight or stop sign, so the driver has plenty of time to look you over and decide.
D. On-ramps with multiple truck stops and restaurants close by are the best.
E. Steady traffic passing.
6. Stick Out Your Sexy Thumb
A confident, happy thumb gets the most rides.
Stand tall, look drivers in the eye, and smile at the cars pass. Don’t smoke, drink, wear sunglasses, or sit.
The more you hitchhike, the more you will develop your own style of thumbing.
A friend of mine cuts out a large cardboard thumb, so it appears as if he has a long, mutant thumb. He gets some laughs and gets more rides.
An Icelandic friend of mine does a little bouncing dance as he thumbs. It gets the drivers attention and makes him look cold, which might incite pity in drivers getting them to pullover. Plus, it keeps him interested.
I point at drivers at they pass… not rudely, but very friendly and casual. Almost saying, “Hey there friend, how about a ride?” Works like a charm.
7. Choose Your Ride
It is your choice to get in a car or not… choose wisely.
When a car pulls over, you have a few seconds to determine how safe this ride will be.
Ask the driver where they are going to buy some time and get a read on them. As they are answering, ask yourself a handful of questions:
Is the driver looking into your eyes as they speak? This is a good sign that they have nothing to hide.
Does the driver answer openly without hesitation? The driver should be able to explain where they are going fluidly. If they hesitate, this is reason to be concerned.
Do they appear happy and calm? Stressed, angry, or demanding drivers are more unstable to ride with (and less fun).
Are they a little suspicious of you? A typical driver will ask you where you are heading and why. Be ready to answer their questions honestly. It is a good sign if your driver is suspicious of you. If they are to excited to get you in the car… look out.
Does your gut feel relaxed getting into the car? There is a lot of talk about trusting your gut feeling about a ride. This is true, but if you are new to hitchhiking, your gut is going to be saying, NOOOOO!!!, even if Mother Teresa pulls over. Over time, your guts will relax and you will learn to listen to them. A good rule of thumb for beginners is to ask yourself, “Do I feel very resistant or am I scared to get into the car?” If you are, then don’t get in.
If You Want To Decline A Ride, Here Are A Few Handy Excuses:
“Oooohhhh (look dumbfounded)… I forgot something back in the last town…. Sorry about that.”
“Ughhh (look like you are about to hurl)… something I ate back there isn’t sitting right… I better go back. Thanks anyway!”
“I was actually hoping for a longer ride (no matter how far they are going). Thanks anyways!”
Then shut the door and walk away.
*Remember: It is your choice to accept a ride and there will always be other rides.
8. The Ride
Leave the driver better than you found them.
Every driver picks up a hitchhiker for a reason. Some want to talk, others want to give back some karma they have received, and others want to hear about an adventure (because their life is BORING!!!). Figure out what your driver is looking for and give it to them (unless they want sexual favors… keep those for yourself!).
I typically lead the conversation, asking them questions, and focusing the conversation on something they are interested in. Use this opportunity to learn about something new and get excited about it (I know way more about semi truck maintenance than I care to admit).
Other drivers will want to know about you and will admire your bravery. “Soooo… why are you hitchhiking?” is a common question and so is, “Has anything dangerous happened?” Share stories from your travels and why you chose this form of travel. It is up to you how much personal information you share. In some cars you will feel at ease right away (like when cute, little old ladies pick you up) and in others you will always want to keep your guard up (like when con men pick you up). Use your level of comfort as your guide.
9. Getting Out
Early on in the ride, figure out where the driver is going and where you will be getting out.
Always insist on getting out somewhere safe. Gas stations parking lots are good or choose another hitchhiking spot, so you can continue on your way.
*Extra Sauce: A smartphone will come in very handy here. Google Maps is my best friend when hitchhiking.
Saucey Safety Tips:
1. Tell friends and family your plans (maybe not your grandma though). Plan a time you will call and stick to it.
2. Text the driver’s license plate to someone you trust… or at least pretend to.
3. Dress conservatively. No skin!
4. Sit tall and exude confidence.
5. Don’t be afraid to say, No, to anything you are not comfortable with. Look them in the eye and be firm.
6. Keep a pen in your pocket. If shit really hits the fan, jab that sucker in their ear.
*Remember: You are a bad ass, son of a gun. The very small percentage of people looking to take advantage of a hitchhiker will be looking for easy prey, which you are not. You are a confident rockstar that will make them regret they were born, if they so much as look at your wrong.
I’ve never had anything dangerous happen in all my rides and if you follow these suggestions, the odds are in your favor too.
Experienced hitchhikers, Kinga and Chopin, have two simple universal laws of hitchhiker, which are helpful as well.
1. If there’s a road, there will have to be vehicles on it.
2. Sooner or later one of them will pick you up.
For more info, check out these other rockin’ hitchhikers who have had success:
Niall Doherty recently hitchhiked 1,141 kilometers through 2 countries as he wages war on thoughtless living and travels around the world without flying.
Ludovic Hubler hitchhiked around the entire world and has some epic tales.
Juan Villarino has been hitchhiking since May 2005 and wrote a book about his journey through the Axis of Evil.
Happy hitchhiking and be sure to let me know how it goes for you.
Are you thinking of hitchhiking and have a question that I didn’t answer? Please ask in the comments below.
If you enjoyed the article, pass it along to your friends who share our interest in hitchhiking. They will appreciate it.