A Rough Guide to Hitchhiking Part 1

Friday, September 9, 2011  at 1:32 PM
Written by: Chris Coulon.
Hitchhiking, contrary to popular belief is not as dangerous as Hollywood would have you believe.  It has proven for me to be a cheap means to get around and an easy way to experience the ever elusive “off the beaten track.”   I have hitched over a hundred times and nearly everyone I have ever been picked up by has made for interesting conversation and usually great tips for things to see and do in surrounding areas.
This next series of articles is a compilation of our experience on the side of the road and many of the strategies we have developed while hitchhiking.

Arriving in Strasbourg
Danalynn and I arriving in Strasbourg after a full day of Hitching across France

The process:
Traditional hitchhiking, or that most often thought of, is the act of simply attempting to flag down rides near a roadside.  Most commonly this is in the form of sticking a thumb out, usually pointed to your intended direction and clearly visible to passing vehicles.  While maintaining your internationally recognized hitching pose you may find yourself waiting anywhere from five minutes to over an hour.  When finally you do find yourself graced by the tell-tale signs of an approaching ride—look for flashing headlights, a light honk, a wave or most commonly a car slowing and pulling off just beyond you—grab your stuff and approach the vehicle.  At this point I usually like to wait for the driver to roll down their window or open the door, but sometimes you open the door yourself, to save a driver from having to lean across the car, and ask where they are headed. After an exchange of both destinations and distances you can decide to hop in or let it pass by (this transaction usually takes about ten seconds).  If all seems well and you decide to take the ride you are now well on your way to whatever destination you have chosen and hopefully in excellent company.  If not, much like fishing you may occasionally have to toss back a poor catch and recast.

Proper Positioning
Proper Form is Crucial!

Realities of Hitchhiking:
While I have never felt personally threatened or in any negligible danger, I feel it’s necessary to bring to light some of the less fun facts of hitchhiking.  The most noticeable of which will be the animosity some passing drivers feel they are personally responsible to show towards you as they pass.  This often takes the form of glares, rude hand gestures, honks or even yelling out their window as they pass.  It is important to remember that for every grumpy person there are likely ten indifferent ones and at least a couple decent ones.  And something that has always made me feel better about it, is that I would not personally enjoy a ride with any of these people anyway so it is actually reassuring that continue to drive by.

Danalynn in the Woods
Danalynn waiting for a lift in the Black Forest

Types of rides and what to Expect:
On the road you will encounter drivers of all types.  The vast majority of people that will pick you up are people who have done a bit of hitchhiking themselves and are often eager to share their own stories.  I have met everyday people on their way to work, farmers trekking their wares to market, mothers driving their children to college, religious people intent on sharing testaments, some looking for company on a long trip, sometimes people under the influence of one substance or another and even just concerned individuals who have stopped because they were worried about my own well being while hitchhiking.  The spectrum of people who will stop for you is great, nearly all of which in my experience have been decent and worthy of meeting.  But it is important to keep in mind that while you cannot control who stops, you are in full control of which rides you accept.

The most important decisive moment for hitching occurs in the first minute, after the vehicle has stopped but before you commit by getting in.  At this point you must become as a deer stepping out into a serene meadow during hunting season.  As such it is important to take in your surroundings, to attune to any abnormalities.  Is their car particularly messy?  Are there any lingering smells of intoxicants?  (Needless to say that if the window rolls down and you are greeted by a large cloud of marijuana laced smoke billowing into your face you may strongly consider the pros and cons of jumping in).  How does the driver look?  Are they well kept, shirtless, drunk?  Do they speak clearly and seem to be fully aware of their own surroundings?  These are all little clues that can be instantly ascertained in the few seconds it takes to walk up to the car and say hello.

Remember that keeping an open mind is paramount to not only enjoying and becoming a successful hitchhiker, but also for any form of travel in general.  Several of my rides that have begun in less than ideal situations, but they have become some of the most memorable and helpful.  On one such occasion, the couple that picked us up gave us a multi-hour ride, bought us dinner, put is up on their couch for the night and dropped us in an ideal location the next morning. 

Big red flags that I find most revealing are the smell of alcohol, are they slurring their words, can they make focused eye contact or are they showing any form of aggression?  In these instances (this has as of yet happened only once to me in my entire career as a hitcher) it is perfectly easy to just say never mind and walk away.

Once on a ride, you can expect to be engaged in a full conversation with whomever has picked you up (hitchhiking is not for the anti-social).  Often they will ask where you are from, where you are going, how long you have been travelling, etc… Keep in mind that if you are catching many rides in one day you will have these same conversations over and over again.  It is for this reason, among others, that I usually hitchhike with one other person.  Doing so allows us to trade off who does the majority of talking each ride.

Setting Out
 Camp's packed and we're off for another day of Hitching

This has been the first installment of a three part series.  For more information on where to hitchhike and the best ways to get a lift, catch our next article on Friday 16 of September.
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