Thumbs Up: How to Hitchhike
and not end up in a shallow grave beside a Caltex servo
A good story never comes from things going to plan. Granted, some terrible stories arrise from things not going to plan too. Which is why I jump on any opportunity I can to stick my thumb out. Not to say that hitchhiking is a recipe for disaster, it’s just not the most secure way to travel. I’ve piled rucksacks into strangers cars across Europe, Canada, Australia, India and Iceland. I’ve had meaningful – and somewhat questionable – conversations with firefighters, monks, grandmas, grandchildren and miners along the way. Apart from a few sticky situations, I haven’t had any rides that I feared for my safety, just the occasional 3hr car ride with a conspiracy theorist or a drug dealer named Mike with an airbag compartment full of buds
Is it safe? It’s not as safe as other forms of transport but it’s certainly more fun. If you live your whole life wrapped in bubble wrap, you’re not going to have many stories to tell your kids and you’ll probably have a midlife crisis and buy a yellow mustang when your 50. Live a little.
Hitchhiking is just an excuse to meet interesting people and travel. And it’s free. I’ve met amazing people hitchhiking, some ex-hitchhikers, most are just interested to chat with a stranger. I’ve had drivers invite me to family dinners, drop me an hour out of their way to make sure I arrived at my destination safely and one time, a guy got angry at me when I offered to buy my own lunch, he insisted, strongly. I’ve learnt about different cultures, professions, philosophies and religions from sitting next to a stranger for a few hours.
It’s amazing how much people will open up to you when you know nothing about each other. I guess it’s the perfect situation to dish your deepest secrets and obscure thoughts. You’re likely never to see each other again. I think people find comfort in that. Sharing feelings and ideas that they might not tell those close to them. It’s like therapy, but cheaper and somewhat questionable.
There is definitely an art to hitchhiking. It’s occasionally disheartening, most of the time it’s challenging and it’s always unpredictable. But there are certainly a few tricks to get a ride and not end up in a shallow grave beside a service station.
Hitchhike Safety Tips
Don’t put anything in the boot
If you end up in an argument or disagreement over the last Star Wars movie or you have insulted their shit taste in music and your driver is looking a little tense. The last thing you want is for them to hold your belongings randsome. Don’t put your bags in the boot of a car, sit with them on your lap. Yeah, it might be a little uncomfortable and they might insist you put your belongings in the back but it’s much better than losing all of your shit.
Be a conformist
If you had a dentist appointment, you wouldn’t tell the dentist that their office paintings look like cat vomit or mention their receding hairline. Because, they have the power to make your time pretty miserable. Hitchhiking is kinda the same. If you encounter a crazy far-right satanist, the best thing you can do is sit there and agree while they try and convert you. I had this once. Except he was a wacked-out Christian preaching the end of the world and the power of the illuminati. There was also a bunch of shotgun shells at my feet. I held my bag close and agreed with everything he said.
Bring a friend
This isn’t always possible but if you can, hitch with someone else. It might make it a bit harder to get a ride but at least you have someone by your side. If you don’t have anyone to hitch with, just text someone to let them know where you are and where you are heading.
Don’t hitchhike at night
It’s pretty obvious. If your stuck, wait at a service station or curl up in a ball and sleep in the bush.
The turn down
Judging people by their looks and what car they drive is a dick move in normal day-to-day life. But when it comes to hitchhiking, first impressions are pretty important. You are likely going to spend the next few hours with this person and you want to try and eliminate as many possible chances of them being a tweaker/murderer. If a driver pulls over to give you a ride and you don’t feel comfortable with the way they approach you, tell them that you’ll get a ride with someone else. Just make up an excuse, like you have already arranged a lift with someone on Gumtree and you’re just waiting for them to arrive. When you start getting desperate is when you start making mistakes.
I’ll often get drivers pick me up who have never picked up a hitchhiker before. Which is why it’s important to give them a good experience so they will continue to pick people up, like me, in the future. Having a solid small talk game and a couple jokes up your sleeve is always handy. Otherwise just ask the driver about their lives. It’s surprising how much people will open up to you when you just ask. You’ll likely never see each other again so you can talk about things that they wouldn’t usually tell people. I’ve had some deep, cathartic conversations over the years with people I have never met before and will likely never see again.
This is up to you. If you are in a position to shout lunch or a coffee, do it. If you can chip in for fuel, that always helps too, especially on long trips together. I have had more people offer me food and coffee than I have bought for others, but I always offer.
Don’t push it
Just keep in mind that the driver you are with has their own life and they aren’t an Uber. Ask them to drop you off at a spot that is the most convenient for them, not you, even if it means you have to walk for a few minutes or get another ride. It’s better than guilt tripping your driver into taking you out of their way.
Getting a Ride
No one wants to share a car ride with someone who looks like they’ve spent the past few days sock wrestling wombats. Try and wear clean-ish clothes and pack a can of deodorant – standing by the side of a road in the sun makes you a little funky.
Make Eye Contact
Don’t wear sunglasses or a hat. Look at the driver in the eyes as they approach and crack a smile. Maybe do a little dance if you want. But try not to distract the drivers too much, some drivers are pretty stupid and will veer towards you.
Sometimes you’ll have to pile into the back of a nissan pulsar with 2 small children on their way to soccer practice. It’s kinda awkward asking the driver to put one of their own children in the boot so you can have a seat for your bag. So pack light.
Make a sign
Generally, people can’t be bothered picking up a hitchhiker because they think it will be out of their way. Which is why you need to strategize your sign destination. For example, my friend and I hitchhiked for the Gold Coast to Sydney. Each stop, our sign would say the next major town/city, not our final destination. When we hitched from Coffs Harbour, our sign read, Port Macquarie. Make the sign easy to read from a distance.
This is were a lot of hitchhikers get unstuck, especially when your in a new town or city. Pick a spot that is easy for a driver to see your sign and have enough room to pull over. Try and find a spot where cars are either stopped or driving slow. Just after a set of traffic lights or a petrol station is perfect. Don’t wait on the side of a highway or an on/off-ramp or obstruct traffic. If you have a map, find the work out the best driving route to your destination. Otherwise just ask a local or a petrol station.
Hitchhiking is fun. Leave yourself a couple of days spare in case you don’t get a ride, pack some snacks and a sleeping bag. Thumbs up legend.
(If you want some hitchhiking inspo, check out Thumbs Up from back in the OG Vice days. David Choe and his cousin hitch from Mexico to Alaska and then across China. And read the book Into The Wild, or watch the movie.)
Illustrations by icon8