Hitchhiking in Namibia, Africa
Hitchhiking in Namibia © Christiaan Triebert

10 Essential Tips to Improve Your Hitchhiking Game

I’ve hitchhiked in the US, Japan, Thailand, and New Zealand. Inevitably, there will always be that awkward encounter at rest stops and random intersections: the fellow hitchhiker who tries to dissuade you from sticking out your thumb.

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“Where you headed? I’ve been trying to get a ride for two and a half hours. Good luck, man …”

Most recently, in kiwi land, I was told this by a man wearing a shirt stained with McD’s grease and cutoff jeans, sporting an unkempt beard, bracing himself against an 80L exterior frame backpack, and holding a dirty piece of cardboard with his destination scrawled in black ink. It was hard for me not to laugh; I had been hitching at this particular location off and on for six weeks, and had never had to wait more than twenty minutes for a ride.

What’s the secret? How can you ensure a free ride down the road?

#1: Cleanliness is Next to Godliness

Clean shaven, clean clothes, and no traces of blood (yes, really) or sweat on your skin. I suppose lack of facial hair is open to debate, but I have a suspicion that drivers are more likely to pick up men who look like they’re on their way to officer training school rather than those who emulate ZZ Top.

#2: Lose the Sunglasses

Whether you’re sporting a cheap pair of frames you purchased an hour ago from a shady character downtown or a trendy set of Oakleys, it’s best to set them aside and let motorists see your face.

#3: Be Neighborly

This tip depends on the living situation, of course, but if you happen to be residing and hitchhiking in the same area, take heed of your presence in the community. Do you ever go for walks or runs in the morning or evening? Wave at motorists as they pass; perhaps they’ll remember you if you need a ride to the bus station later on.

#4: Limit One Bag Per Person

Try not to carry more than one piece of luggage. If you can’t travel without a full 60L backpack so be it, but the ideal hitchhiker is supporting a simple day pack or none at all. Your light load saves the driver the hassle of clearing out the back seat or popping the trunk — you can just rest it on your knees.

Hitchhiking Girl
A Particularly Bold Approach © lanuiop

#5: Have a Creative Approach

I’ve seen all kinds here — people wearing fake casts on their arms and legs; dressing up in costume; girls showing off their legs (classic); some physical gimmick like chasing after cars that hesitate or performing some gymnastic stunts. If you think anything will help you stand out, even the absurd, then go for it.

#6: Choose Your Location Wisely

If you need to start your journey from a major metropolitan area, consider walking or arranging transportation for the first 20-30 kilometers, ensuring you’re delivered in a rural area and less likely to catch people running errands and going to work.

Motorists need room to pull over; don’t assume they’ll just stop in their lane and halt incoming traffic to pick you up.

Check local hitchhiking laws. For instance, it’s illegal to hitchhike on the motorways of New Zealand (though not highly enforced).

#7: Make a Sign

Fifty-fifty shot here. Carrying a cardboard sign with your destination written in sharp bold letters might make it easier to find one driver willing to take you the full distance, but could also discourage those going only a few kilometers from making the effort to stop.

If you’re traveling in a foreign country where English is not the native language, it would definitely be a good idea to write “I can speak ____” in the local tongue. Drivers might want more than simply, “Roma? Ok, ok … (3 hours later) here … bye bye.”

#8: Consider the Time of Day

Rush hour traffic (7-9 AM, 4-6 PM) can leave you aggravated even if you’re not stuck behind two hundred cars and a construction zone. A parent who might enjoy conversation with a traveler in the middle of the day is less likely to let a stranger enter her car with her 10-year-old son, fresh from school. Blue and white collar workers usually want to get home and chill immediately following a long day of stress.

Hitching, Taiwan
Hitching, Taiwan © prufrock27

#9: Looking Pathetic Helps

Pity rides are all too common in the world of hitchhiking.

Somewhat of an exception to the luggage and cleanliness rules is playing the proper role of a hitchhiker — a traveler displaced and alone in this uncertain world of ours. Now imagine such a character in the pouring rain. Along a rural highway in the dead of night. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts when the outside temperature reaches zero degrees Celsius. A combination of the three would be ideal. Pity rides are all too common in the world of hitchhiking.

#10: You Are Not Special

Finally – never, never assume you are entitled to a ride. I know it can be frustrating to sit outside for hours in the rain or glaring sun watching car after car after truck … after horse-drawn carriage pass you by. However, if you start thinking “Why didn’t she pick me up? She’s going the same direction, and her passenger seat was empty,” then that resentment will simply build until you lose hope of making it to your destination, stop wearing a smile, and only stick out your thumb at every fifth vehicle.

Strangers grant you a privilege by taking the time out of their busy day and escorting you further down the open road. Don’t forget it.

In your experience, what are the best countries for hitchhiking? Share your tips and stories with us below!

  1. Hey,
    I hitched all of Mexico. I’m a blonde female, which is stupid if you do it alone. However, I always did it with a couple of other travelers, usually guys! We would get picked up, mainly in pick ups and they’d sit in the back and me in front. Like I said, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but at the time it seemed so.

    Plus, I learned my Spanish on those very long trips. Mexico is huge, and we always got picked up by men. So they were very eager to help and patient.

  2. I once saw a guy hitchhiking in Banff National Park (Canada) right at the exit on to the Trans-Canada highway. Not too unusual, except he was playing the BAGPIPIPES very loudly as he slowly paced the side of the road. He was going the opposite direction as I was. Don’t know if he got a ride.

  3. I just got back from hitch hiking around Europe. As far as I know it is fairly common to hitch hike around there and don’t know if it is any different in the States.

    The Clean shaven thing was a toss up. If you can shave do it but as long as you are waring half way decent cloths you should be alright. Also smelling half way decent is a plus. I had people pick me up after hiking a few miles on a trail along the coast and was smelling pretty ripe, and yes don’t wear sunglasses. It just makes you look that much more shady and I know if I was going to be picking someone up I wouldn’t be picking up shady people.

    Signs are your friend in a place you don’t speak the language. I found out that most people in Europe speak better English then they or others might think.

    Location location, in Europe they have a great motorway system. They have survice stations all over the main roads and it always pays to get dropped off at the one BEFORE big cities instead of in. There is nothing more frustrating then having to pitch your tent in a gas station because you spent all day trying to get a ride and no one going out of town. Also look for an area where traffic is bottle necked as they leave the station. That just makes that many more people see you and more likely to have that one person stop for you.

    Looking pathetic is a life saver too. I had just been dropped off at a station and was finding a place to write my next sign when a car full of girls drove up and offered me a ride, they could clearly see my huge pack and they still stopped with 3 people in the car and a full trunk.

    I guess I should wrap this up, or start a new article. But if your new to hitch hiking this pretty much has all the basics covered. Good write up.

  4. I tried hitchhiking once, didn’t really pan out the way I had hoped. But these tips are very helpful. I already have the looking pathetic part down.

  5. i hitched in Belize. It’s pretty common practice there. I’m not sure I’d hitch in America though….or that i’d pick someone up there either…

  6. I disagree with some of the advice here, especially the claim that the best bag is a simple day pack. A lot of my drivers have told me that they would not have taken me had I not had a large backpack that shouts “world traveler, not local drifter”.

    For essential tips to improve hitchhiking, I’d recommend getting the “Practical Free Travel” booklet published by the Academy of Free Travel. Anton Krotov and his circle have been hitchhiking the world as a way of life for well over a decade, and their tips work. I laughed when I saw the writer of this article boast about his 20-minute waiting time, for after spending time at the Academy of Free Travel base in Cairo last winter, my waiting time is now around 5 minutes.

    1. Hey Christopher,
      Do you have a link for the ‘Practical Free Travel’ guide booklet?
      My friend and I are going over to Europe and we’re planning to do a lot of hitchhiking, only thing is we’re new to the game. Would really be useful to have a booklet to carry around with me.

  7. Strangest ride I ever managed hitching was in an ambulance. We were a group of four in a small town getting supplies while hiking the Apalachian Trail, 2 guys, 2 gals. Best hint for getting a ride is to hitch with 2 pretty college girls. :)

    1. My two cents worth for increasing your chances of getting a ride would be…if you are walking along a road and come across an abandoned vehicle (car, truck, farm tractor, etc.) parked along side the roadway, don’t hesitate to park your bag just beyond the vehicle and start hitching at this point. My plan is a little misleading, but I hope to create the image as a stranded motorist playing for driver’s sympathy. This has worked out good for me, but I’m always upfront to the driver before I get in. (Use your discretion.)

  8. Turner,

    Great Article!!!

    I agree with a lot of the advice. I’m planning a hitchhiking trip around the US & from what I know it is all about looking “harmless” and also Location location. The slower people are going, the better. Accessibility, if they don’t have to put much effort into picking you up, then you have more of a chance. Good luck on your travels.

  9. I think you forgot the most obvious tip of them all. Bring a female! Not to be sexist, but its just an all out proven fact that you get more rides quicker if you have a girl with you.

  10. Safety first, not to be sexest, but I think it’s fairly well accepted that females should not hitch alone. Also not to be too dramatic, but many people have disappeared by accepting rides from strangers.

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  12. i hitched in Belize. It’s pretty common practice there. I’m not sure I’d hitch in America though….or that i’d pick someone up there either…

  13. I hitched off & on for 3 yrs in 1990’s. 40’s Female. I learned many years ago to read the energy of a person and of their car. I would wait and step to the road when it felt right. Longest wait was 30 minutes.
    Wore white men’s dress shirt with baggy jeans. Black small duffel, blk tote bag, black jacket with lots of pockets. Ask if the driver has a story or wanted to hear one.
    Last hitch was 1700 miles, second truck past.

  14. I’ve hitchhiked with a dog and guitar and rarely had bad luck. I also road the rails and it was a trip and a half. If you’re interested in more check out the book I wrote about my adventures on Amazon. com or Barnes and Noble or Borders. The book is titled “Thumb Flagging”, by Jerome Peterson

  15. Hitching in Germany is incredibly simple, once you get on the Autobahn. Getting there is the complicated part, but I had no problems going from Hamburg to Berlin, Dresden, etc (single female). I highly recommend signs, since Germans are incredibly efficient, and unless you tell them where you want to go, almost nobody will stop for you. Tip–the first 1-3 letters on a license plate tell you where a car is from (and about half the time, where it’s going)

  16. I did a race with 12 people hitchhiking accross Canada a few years ago. We had a hostel international sponsor and and waited for people at each major city before moving on. took 10 days to get everyne from halifax to vancouver (including a few days of drinking,naked body searches, and dead birds, and underage pornostars. Im in Japan at the moment… was thinking of trying to get people on board for a race from shanghai to paris next year. or maybe not a race but rather a mass exhibition. Anyone have a guess on how long we would need? also anyone else interested?

    1. I am at the hopeful start of a trip here from B.C. Canada…be interesting to chat with you.

  17. well i dont know much about hitchkking but in my opinion you need to be a woman, good curves would help as well, in spain where i came from they did on TV a programme, kind of Big Brother, about travelling htchkking from Moscow to Beijin, and they all were couples, guess who won….a couple of beatiful women

  18. These are indeed fine tips for the traveller. They are so easy that it’s easier to forget these details. Thanks to formulate these tips in a nice post. Will keep it handy and use it for my next trip, if i am going on one…..

  19. hostel valencia, i think you´re right. there is a study: “Increasing the bra-size of the female-hitchhiker was significantly associated with an increase in number of male drivers, but not female drivers, who stopped to offer a ride.”

  20. Interesting tips, personally I’m too lazy to put the thumb out, but you wrote some good stuff. Just to add and I guess it means anywhere but hailing from Kiwi-land myself I would be really careful about whose car you’re getting into. The stats are high in NZ for overseas hitchhikers that have disappeared or encountered problems.

  21. I just got done hitch hiking around the US for two months. I had many people tell me I was the first hitch hiker they have ever picked up, because I was clean cut and carrying a large pack. They figured I was out doing something, rather than trying to just run away.

  22. good advice mate. I hitched around the UK, NZ, Austalia, Spain and Fiji for 4 years with my girlfriend. I think that a larger pack is better than a smaller pack, have one that shouts “world traveller” not one that says you are too lazy to walk from one side of town to the other. Familiarize yourself well with where you are waiting, everywhere you get dropped off be prepared to spend the night there if neccesary. There are some odd people out there but odd people don’t mean dangerous, be sure to distinguish between the two and trust the odd ones, surely thats part of why your hitching – to meet different people. Smiles and a good attitude tends to get you through most things. We did get arrested in Austalia though, but it wasn’t our fault, honest!

  23. I am planning to hitch-hike from Leicester UK to Constantia, Cape Town to celebrate my 80th birthday.
    Planned route is via Channel Tunnel. Munich, Vienna, Sofia, Istanbul, Ankara, Jordan, Suez, Khartoum, Nairobi, Pretoria, Jo’burg.
    Any suggestions?
    Mike Howitt
    PS Last month hitched Leicester to Salcombe (260 miles) as a trial run. Also a few years ago did Cape Town to Port Elizabeth (475 miles)

  24. Hey, thanks for the advice ive never hitchhiked before but am planing oin starting in a few days from Banff National park to Jasper then hopefully to Vancoover. Any tips if i have a snowboard? whould this make it harder?

  25. I hitched right from the airport car park in Nantes, France. Got a lift with a couple heading 50 kilometres in my direction and ended up staying at their house for a couple of hours and getting a lift with the delivery man all the way to Quimper! Made 250km in about 6 hours. I had a little sign with Quimper S.V.P and that seemed to do the trick!

  26. Interesting post on one way of travel that is not used as much anymore. Hitching in the U.S. used to be one of the top three options but has since moved down the list several stops and is now rarely tried even by college kids. Great on the environment and also adds to the experience ten-fold.

  27. Always make sure you have a weapon within easy reach if needed that you carry on you.

  28. Very Interesting post. I usually did when I was on travel alone. Once I picked up a guy from India and enjoy tour of 30 days. I never forget those days & I cant get back those days again because I married him so I cant. Anyways nice post.

  29. hitchiking in Australia is incredably easy I hitched rides home from work all the time. I even met my girlfriend while hitching. I do look normal and always smiling to make it easy

  30. Dunno if my last comment was posted, but anyway I also would recommend moving or something-walking, eating, juggling, or anything like that to show people you do similar things they might do, like walk. Or eat.

  31. I’ve been wanting to try hitchhiking for a while now, and I finally got the chance to do so in Israel. I was just with one more female friend of mine and the two of us had no problem getting fast and friendly rides all the way from Haifa to Eilat. We even got rides from the highway (#6) and although the fast traffic was scary, people did pull over safely at the shoulder.
    Although I know people in Israel are often hesitant about getting rides from Arabs, the one that we rode with was perfectly civil and sweet, so I would say go with your gut feeling.
    Also, a couple of people offered to join us on different detour adventures.. so unless you’re *interested* in them I advice to pretend to have a schedule and refuse any such offers, making it clear that you want to be dropped off and nothing more.

    All in all, we got to meet several really interesting people and had an amazing time!
    Definitely will be trying Canada next :)

  32. Hitching in UK is not bad, but choose locations well. Motorway service areas are the best, use a sign if a choice of routes ahead. Don´t try to hitch from the city centre, get bus or train out to the edge. Roundabouts are your friend! Take a map and have some idea of where the next best spot will be.

    Much of Europe is also OK. Germany very good, Belgium and Holland OK, France is tricky at the ports, but OK once inland. Switzerland good, Italy harder, Greece is good.

    A lift will normally come fairly quickly if you look “safe”, but occasionally, you might have to bite the bullet and catch a local bus a few miles up the road.

    Overall, great way to travel and meet the real people of the countries you go through

  33. Hey, sounds like a lot of great tips. I am a single girl, planning to go across Canada this summer. Any tips for safety? I heard of getting the drivers licence plate number and asking if they mind if I send it to my boyfriend. Is that a good idea, or is that causing to much of a pain to them? What does any experienced hitchhikers think bout that?
    Great tips though, thanks.

    1. From Canada also. I have hitched quite a lot around the western provinces of Canada and I have always found you will know if that is appropriate or not. Not saying it is not a good idea ..but you typically will find that your gut will be overwhelmingly in tune with the persons energy and you will just know..not really needing to resort to that..if you feel like you should do that..then don’t get in.

  34. Great tips- especially the last one about not being special…or maybe you are special, just like everyone else. The fact the driver stopped to give a lift is a huge gift and anyone who asks for more than that from their ride is ruining their “road karma”.

    I’ve got many years hitchhiking under my belt, mostly in the U.S., Mexico and Venezuela. In the states, hitchhiking went well, just make sure the ride is taking you through the other side of the city and not dropping you off in the middle. That was probably one of the best things I figured out after a couple times walking for sometimes hours on dangerous roadways to get out of a city.

    The only time I’ve ever had to resort to looking pitiful was when I was hitching with two other guys along 1-10 to CA. When we got to Barstow, we had been there for 3 days. Sleeping by the side of the road, getting up to hitch, sleeping by the side of the road, well.. you get the picture. We didn’t have enough water containers to trust walking out into the desert. At our wits end on the 3rd day, we all were standing on our knees with our hands in a prayer sign held up to the sky. Finally, a fellow pulled over and we jumped into the back of his pickup.

    Carrying a light load is also helpful, who wants to be bogged down with a heavy pack?

    I loved hitchhiking and as a woman, I never really had too much problems. I was very aware of my surroundings at all times and stayed away from bars or drinking.

    Great seeing articles like this out there are reading that there are still people enjoying hitchhiking. There’s nothing like it in the world.

  35. Haha! I know that moment when you see or talk to the guy that waited for a ride for hours in the same place you got picked up in less than ten minutes!
    I hitchhiked all over Europe, a bit in South America and for three months only taking a bus twice in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan and always found hitchhiking to be faster than waiting for a bus. Love it!
    Anyway love the advice I just started a blog and also had some hitchhiking tips and advice. Check it out: http://www.broketravelers.blogspot.com

  36. A sign that says ‘anywhere’ isn’t a good idea, it will make the drivers question you and also think everyone else could stop for you. A more specific sign is better, get personnal with the driver.

  37. I’m not sure I would even think about hitchhiking – I think a new post titled, how to spot the person wanting to give you a lift isn’t a murderer :)

  38. Hey,
    Thank you for the useful and interesting advice!
    Has anybody got any experience of hitching with a dog in tow? My boyfriend and I are planning a very long and very slow trip by foot and possibly some hitching.

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