Hitchhiking: The Rules of the Road
Hitchhiking: The Rules of the Road
By: Christopher Williams
Food and shelter are the utmost things on a traveler’s mind, and sometimes, that does not leave any cash left over for transportation. How is it possible to travel without any money? Easy – hitchhiking is one of the cheapest methods of traveling. There are others such as walking and bicycling, but those may not always be possible, especially if long distances are to be traveled. The art of hitchhiking is something that must be studied and practiced, and in order to start out, the basics must be made clear.
Hitchhiking is the practice of soliciting a ride by standing at the edge of a road, facing traffic, with one’s thumb extended outwards or pointed upwards. Sound easy? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not. At times, this practice can also be a rewarding way to travel, and can help the traveler gain friends and contacts. Other times frustration sets in or dangerous circumstances are encountered. Drivers these days are more fearful than they have been in the past – they have been filled with stories of picking up murderers and being killed. This is a problem that must be tackled if a free ride is to be found.
The main way to ensure that a ride is obtained through hitchhiking is simple: the hitchhiker must look friendly and presentable. Someone who looks like a good person will be picked up quickly, while those who look disheveled and crazy will be passed up repeatedly. Caution goes both ways, since the hitchhiker must be cautious of whom he or she is picked up by. There is a risk of being picked up by a dangerous person or unsafe driver.
There are also places where hitchhiking is illegal, and attempting to do so will end up with a visit from the local or state police. While hitchhiking is largely within the realm of legality, in some places it is not. Some highways do not allow hitchhiking on highways, at bus stops, or near intersections. So before hitchhiking, laws need to be consulted.
According to several of the members of Dignity Village, a vagabond-friendly enclave located on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, the first step in preparing to hitchhike for the first time involves being properly outfitted and ready to walk all day, since rides may be hard to come by. Because of this, comfortable walking shoes are a must, as well as dressing appropriately for the weather. Keeping some money on hand in case of emergencies is also a good idea.
The second step involves some basic knowledge: hitchhikers need to know that buying a map of the area is a waste of money, because one can be found for free in the lobby of any public library or at most highway rest stops. Food and water must be carried, if possible, because gas station prices are less than a bargain. And, unless it is extremely hot outside, dress in layers because that is the best way to be able to adapt to all types of weather. If the weather becomes too cold, newspaper and plastic bags are a great form of insulation if nothing else is available. Newspaper is better than plastic, because plastic will make a person sweat no matter the temperature outside. However, plastic insulation is still better than freezing to death.
Corn Cob, one of the members of Dignity Village, makes sure to point out that hitchhikers should also not walk around with illegal objects, like marijuana pipes, just in case the police decide to stop them. Even if hitchhiking is legal in a city or town, the local cops might still crack down on people trying to do so, and it is best not to give them any reasons for provocation.
People who hitchhike frequently have a language all to themselves that must be learned. Entire volumes of books could be written on this subject, because there are numerous words and phrases that most hitchhikers use when speaking to each other. With that said, having good manners and a friendly disposition are also necessary, since many drivers will pick people up simply because they want to have someone to talk to. Being friendly and polite, along with always saying please and thank you, is very important.
Some of the things that a hitchhiker needs to always have on hand include a black marker (for signs), a flashlight, a pocketknife, sunscreen (always wear sunscreen), a hat, and always carry at least one clean towel. When choosing clothing, on top of sticking with seasonally appropriate outfits, wear bright colors that have high visibility because they increase the likelihood that a driver will stop and offer a ride. It is also recommended that a big backpack be carried in order to look more like a traveler and less like someone who is running away from someone else (or trouble.)
The three most important factors to follow when trying to hitch a ride are as follows: location, location, and location.
The best place to stand when hitchhiking is one that can be seen from a distance. This allows the driver time to make the decision to stop. Roads with a moderate amount of traffic are preferable, since too little traffic means that no one will drive by. Corn Cob warned that too much traffic is a bad thing, because people will just assume that somebody else will stop, and hitchhikers on busy roads are more susceptible to muggers. The ideal situation gives the driver at least thirty seconds to see a hitchhiker on the side of road, and has a traffic pattern where one car shows up as another one leaves.
“Catching a ride downtown never works,” Corn Cob said. Instead, take public transportation to the edge of town. Downtown is a bad place to hitch a ride because most of the people driving around in the city are not going very far. It is also hard to stand out because there are usually hundreds of people in the road and they wouldn’t stop, due to the heavy traffic.
Another rule to abide by when traveling a long distance is to never ask to get taken into the center of town. It will be extremely difficult to get out of the vehicle at the center of a major city, and sometimes untoward events can happen.
According to Corn Cob, hitchhikers should forget about trying to find a highway rest area because people have been spooked by the distrusting incidents that happen at them. At rest stops, people are at risk of being mistaken for a criminal. “It is also a good idea,” he said, “to not get dropped off at a highway rest area, because it will be hard to find the next ride.” Sometime this is not a big problem, because the rest stops are usually pretty close to the highway.
One exception to the rule lies in commercial rest areas on toll roads. These rest areas are safer, because they have paid staff on sight and they make sure that nothing bad happens. “In order to stay on the property,” he said, “it is advisable to buy a small item, like a CB radio, to avoid being considered a trespasser.”
Corn Cob believes that the absolute best place to hitch a ride, above all others, is on a public highway on-ramp. Many locations, like Northern California and Seattle, for example, offer bus stops on highway on-ramps. This is a viable option in case another ride is not found without a particular time period.
Hitching a ride at night is next to impossible. The best time to hitchhike is earlier in the day when traffic is more common and when people are less likely to assume that they might be picking up a dangerous criminal. It is better to make camp at night and wait it out until morning.
A big cardboard sign is actually one of a hitchhiker’s greatest assets. The reason for this, is that it is the best way to make a first impression, and also a great way to give them some pertinent information, such as the destination.
According to Corn Cob, learning that some words should be written in larger print than others is important. For example, the word “North” should be written bigger than the information of exactly where “North” the eventual destination is.
It is recommended to avoid writing in a destination that is very far away. There are many reasons to do this. For one, a driver might be more willing to offer a ride if it is not too far. But most importantly, agreeing to a location that is on the way to the final destination can be used an excuse to leave the car if things turn uncomfortable. But, if things are going well, then a further location can be negotiated. The best distance to ask for is around the 100 mile mark.
Another sign-making tactic involves foregoing the destination and instead, writing something funny, like, “I DONT STINK”. A hitchhiker who does this will be perceived as funny and someone who is entertaining. Once this is accomplished, always stay happy and in character, even if people react meanly. Other humorous ways to get a ride involve holding signs upside down or hiking around with a large, unusual, boisterous object, for example, a giant squeaky wheel.
Corn Cob said that, “a military-style sack from a Military Surplus Store will get interest and sympathy from drivers.” These items are cheap compared to brand new backpacks from outdoors stores like REI, plus they can take a beating and will last a lifetime. Corn Cob suggests giving a little white lie when the driver asks about the military bag. Rather than telling the truth or claiming to be in the military, say that is a gift from a relative. This erases the driver’s suspicions about picking up a potential military deserter.
Hitchhiking, believe it or not, has an informal set of rules that should be followed. In order to be a successful hitchhiker, abide by these as much as possible:
- When hitchhiking, wear a white shirt, or something that is light, like beige. It implies cleanliness and is far easier to see.
- Don’t forget that the driver has only a split second to notice someone standing on the side of the road. A great place to stand near is a highway sign because drivers have a better chance to focus in time to stop.
- Do not attempt to walk around in areas that are not pedestrian-friendly. Stay around and try to find a ride.
- Carry all belongings in either a briefcase or a duffle bag. Drivers are more likely to pick up a person who looks clean and neat than one who is dirty. Always keep everything clean in order to keep appearances up.
- Always use signs. A yellow lightweight plastic sign material is ideal, and strips of black electrical tape make great letters.
- The most important thing to remember is that successful hitchhiking is all about appearances.
How to Choose the Right Ride
The most important part of hitchhiking involves knowing which ride to choose. While instincts will go a long way, there are a few other tenets that should be followed, including:
- Rather than wait to hitch a ride for a long time, accept an offer from a car that is going in the opposite direction. The opportunity to get dropped off at a better spot and make progress from there is better than standing in one place for hours.
- Think ahead and make sure to get dropped off at a good area to find another ride. Usually the person will comply and not stop in the middle of nowhere. But that’s not always the case, and there is always a risk. That’s just a part of hitchhiking
- When it is possible, attempt to make an agreement with the driver, rather than end up in a bad place where muggings have occurred or where it is too hard to find another ride.
Since it is truly impossible to truly know which rides is good to accept and which ones will not turn out so well, abide by these safety rules:
- Always remember that not everyone who offers a ride will be safe to ride with. There are many criminals who prey on hitchhikers, so this must always be remembered. When in doubt politely decline the ride.
- A good thing to do before getting into a car is to note the make and model of the car. Also note the color and the license plate number. Write this information down and, if possible, text this information to friends and family.
- It is better to travel with a partner.
- It is more dangerous when riding with many people.
- It is advised to be cautions of sexual advances, regardless of what gender the driver is.
- Since rear doors have child locks on them, always sit in the front passenger seat. Check to make sure the child lock is off if the back is the only space open.
- A hitchhiker should never lose contact with his or her bag of belongings. It will need to be quickly grabbed if things go sour. If the bag is locked in the trunk, then it may never be seen again.
- Valuables should not be carried in the bag, and should be put in different pockets so that they are spread out.
- The police are not the friends of any hitchhikers, even if the laws say otherwise.
- It is illegal to walk on some roads, and doing so can end up with an arrest, a ticket, a verbal warning, or a citation. Generally, freeways are illegal and can be unsafe since the cars are driving at high speeds.
In order to find out more about hitchhiking, check out these websites that are dedicated to the art of finding a ride: