How Not to Get Killed on The Road

Why hitchhike? If you have a car, it may seem you have a pretty good reason not to. If you're not a motorist but there's a good local bus service, perhaps this is enough reason not to stand by the side of the road with a hopeful expression on your face. But if none of this applies to you – and I know there must be a fair few of us out there – you may find the following useful.

There are benefits, of course: it's cheaper, more interesting and better for the environment to share a ride. Often I've hitched when I could easily have taken the bus, and if you've got the energy it's always more rewarding to go under your own steam (sort of). So, how do you get a ride?

First, The Spot. Stand by the side of a road. This may seem elementary, but many think they can walk along with their backs to traffic and a hopeful thumb extended; unless your neighbourhood is extremely friendly, this won't work. Pick your spot with care: if traffic moves too quickly they won't be able to stop for you, and the same applies if there's nowhere for them to actually stop. Ideal places are just after a junction, roundabout or traffic light (I know you North Americans have different names for these things, but I'm sure you know what I mean) with an extra lane unused for them to pull in.

Next, Posture (stay with me folks). Those who jump around and still get picked up are a minority, so put out your thumb with an open posture and look friendly. This is particularly important – if you wear a scowl, keep turning to talk to your friends or look like you murder kittens in your spare time, it will be slow progress (especially with the last). Try to make eye contact with each driver you see, and accompanying this with a hopeful smile will likely help things along the way. Also, unless it's minus something serious outside, No Hats (I once waited a whole day wearing a beanie and an innocent smile only to be picked up and told I looked like a convict).

Your Group is also important. If it's you and you only, all well and good, though see below for dangers. If you're a couple or two girls, congratulations: you have reached the optimum group dynamic for hitching. Two guys or more... can be done, but with more difficulty. Increasing the numbers any more, adding dogs, axes or that shifty friend who can't keep from pacing up and down: figure on waiting awhile.

Lastly, the Drop-Off. A much neglected art, this. Where you ask to be set down is key to getting your next ride – personally I like motorway / freeway service stations as – if they're big enough - they allow a great volume of traffic to pass at a relatively slow speed. Either way, don't trust the driver. Unless they used to hitch and seem to know what they're talking about, make sure you request somewhere that fits the requirements listed for The Spot. Or are close; hitching is, after all, improvisation.

Many people point to the dangers of hitching, and it is true there are some risks inherent in being picked up (or picking up) a stranger. But I've been doing it for a number of years and have had no problems, and know many people who have the same story to tell, including female travellers who have done it by themselves. With a little common sense, it's entirely possible.

One thing about sense is that it's not always that common... so let's have a look the basics.

  1. Never be afraid to turn a lift down, and if you're a woman alone be very careful about getting in the car with guys by themselves. Personally, I've never turned down a ride, but the rules are different for guys, and nobody claimed this was fair.

  2. Have a backup if you feel uncomfortable with someone – this can be a story that you need to use a toilet and will catch the next ride, or a knife you take out and subtly play with on your lap.

  3. Have confidence: those who carry a don't-mess-with-me kind of air generally don't get messed with [note to larger guys: this does not mean squaring up to every driver that stops for you].

And remember: this is a largely safe activity. I once heard the number of people who die putting on their trousers each year is greater than those killed hitching. No, I don't know how you die putting on a pair of trousers. Perhaps while standing at the top of the stairs? Juggling knives? Hmmm.

Hitching is a fun activity, and I've met some of the most interesting, generous and sociable people of my life this way. Yes, there's sometimes standing by the side of the road for long periods of time, but the pay-offs – free, sociable travel that's good for the environment – are well worth the effort.

A Disclaimer: do please check the laws where you are. In England it's illegal to actually be on the motorway to hike (though friendly police can actually be a good ride sometimes), and the same is true for many states (and inside City Limits) in the US. In Spain: good luck.