Hitchhiking 101

Hitchhiking is the world’s greatest form of travel. It is a safe, easy, and cheap way to get to where you’re going – just make sure you aren’t in a rush. It’s essentially a free version of Uber or Lyft.

I grew up in New Jersey where we were taught never to pick up hitchhikers, and certainly never to hitchhike ourselves. As it turns out, NJ is one of a handful of states where hitchhiking is actually illegal.

how to hitchhike
Carmen & Joel hitchhike into Jackson, WY at the end of the Wild West Trail in 2018.

My first experience with hitchhiking came in the summer of 2018 during my time on the Wild West Trail. There are a number of places where hitchhiking is the preferred method of getting into town for resupply, as walking in these instances would have added redundant miles.

During this time I hitchhiked dozens of times and covered hundreds of miles. Though I did meet a lot of interesting people, I never felt like I was in danger. The real danger comes from being on the side of the road or highway, not from getting into cars with strangers.

Actually, the real danger is living in fear; strangers are just friends you haven’t met.

What amazed me the most was how easy and reliable it was. Sure, I’d usually wait a couple of hours (once, on a particularly remote section in Montana, I had to camp overnight until I found a hitch in the morning), but someone always picked me up. All I had to do was stick out my thumb.

People and police departments, will try and discourage it by saying things like “nowadays it’s too dangerous to hitchhike” or “years ago it was okay, but you can’t do it today”. Those people are wrong. There has never been a safer time to be alive, and people are overwhelmingly and generally good, despite what you hear on television. Why do people still watch that crap?

It’s also worth noting that most of the time that I was doing this, I was dirty! I smelled and I looked crazy. I don’t think I would have picked me up, but people always did.

7 Hitchhiking Tips

  1. Smile Hitchhiking

    Yes, this makes a difference. You want to project yourself in a positive light. Nothing projects positivity quite like a smile.

  2. Wave To People

    A smile goes a long way and so does a friendly wave. People make a split second decision on whether or not to pick you up, so give them as much positive body language as possible.

  3. Hitchhike During The Day

    For safety reasons and because you are more likely to be picked up, you should only hitchhike during the day – the earlier the better.

  4. Carry A Sharpie Marker

    You never know when you’ll need to hitch a ride. There’s nothing worse than finding a cardboard canvas on the side of the road and having nothing to write with. Which leads to the next tip…

  5. Make A Sign

    Having a sign can make all the difference. Make sure that it is legible and brief enough to read in a few seconds. If someone sees that they are headed in the same direction or going to the same town, they are more likely to help you get there.

  6. Stand Up Straight

    Don’t slouch over or sit down as you wait for potential rides. Stand up straight with your shoulders back and observe how you are treated by people. Take some pride in your appearance and people will have more respect for you and will be more likely to pick you up.

  7. Make It Easy

    You’ll want to make it as easy on your potential rides as possible. After all, they are doing you a HUGE favor. Have a clear destination in mind and make sure your bags are packed and ready to go. Position yourself in an area where it is easy and safe for potential rides to pull over.

“Is it hard to hitchhike?”

No, it is not hard to hitchhike. The hardest part, you could say, is working up the nerve to stick your thumb out on the open road. Once you make the decision to hop into a stranger’s vehicle, the rest is waiting until someone decides to pick you up. In hitchhiking, and in life, patience is a virtue.

The hardest place for me to hitchhike was actually inside of Glacier National Park (where it is completely legal). While the park itself is host to unparalleled natural beauty, it attracts a lot of people with no real sense of adventure.

There are actually a number of tourists who find themselves hitchhiking in the park because they missed the last shuttle bus. Those people, however, are probably cleaner than you and usually have an easier time finding a ride amongst other choosy and uppity National Park tourists.

Don’t fret, and remember: the amount of time it takes to find a ride may vary, but someone will ALWAYS come along. It’s amazing.

Hitchhiking Dangers

The most dangerous thing about hitchhiking, by far, is standing on the side of the road. Cars drive on roads, and cars are dangerous to pedestrians. The easiest way to stay safe while hitchhiking is to be aware of oncoming traffic.

Hitchhiking on the Idaho Centennial Trail
Headed to Fairfield, Idaho! (What’s wrong with this picture? Leave a comment below.)

Of course, we would be remiss if we failed to mention the human element on this topic.

Although rare, people can be dangerous. If someone stops to pick you up and your gut says “don’t go” – then listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right about a particular ride, politely decline. You can always use the excuse that you’re simply headed in a different direction.

When it comes to people, it is best to avoid those who are obviously drunk or on drugs. Substance abuse can make a person erratic and unpredictable, which is the last thing you want when you are in the passenger seat and they are behind the wheel.

Anecdotally, the #1 issue hitchhikers have reported, in terms of human danger, is when they get picked up by someone who is obviously drunk or under the influence of drugs. Avoid those rides if you can, as someone else will always come along.

“Is Hitchhiking Illegal?”

While it is not illegal at a federal level to hitchhike, it is illegal to stand in the road. Regardless of legality, you should not stand in the road for obvious safety reasons.

Some states have laws against hitchhiking, ostensibly related to safety. It is illegal to hitchhike in New York, New Jersey, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, & Pennsylvania. (Did we miss a state? Leave it in the comments)

From experience, the cops in western states and rural areas don’t seem to enforce laws against hitchhiking. I have been passed on the highway by cops in Idaho and Wyoming while I was clearly hitchhiking and they didn’t bother with me. That being said, don’t stand in the road when hitching, and if you are stopped you can always feign ignorance of the law or say it’s an emergency (because maybe it is). 

Hitchhiking Synonym

Thumbing it” or to “Thumb it” is another way to say “hitchhiking”, as in “I’m going to stick out my thumb and get a ride”. 

And boy, has thumbing it gotten me some epic rides! Here’s a quick list of some of the most memorable rides from Wild West Trail 2018:

  • There was the retired couple from California who drove me a hundred miles while making the case for abstaining from sex until marriage.
  • The young Forest Rangers who picked me up on their way to a concert and gave me a beer.
  • A gentleman picked me up and offered to sell me his .357 magnum; when I asked if it was legal, he replied: “this is Montana”.
  • A retired smoke jumper from Alaska picked me up as he was leaving a reunion in Idaho.
  • Salmon river rafting guides who passed me once and decided to turn around and come grab me!
  • The Service member who drove us into Fairfield, ID after a long morning of sitting on the side of the road. His sidearm tucked under his leg the whole ride.
  • A woman who left a cushy corporate existence to work on a therapeutic dude ranch for U.S. Veterans – she picked us up twice, and gave us a half bottle of fine whiskey!

They all had their own reasons for picking me up – just as I had my own reasons for needing a ride. My interest in them was eclipsed only by their interest in me. I traded stories for rides, and other stories. Humans helping humans in a way that would make r/HumansBeingBros proud. If you put it out there, it’s amazing who will answer the call of your thumb.

Questions or comments about hitchhiking? Did we miss something? Leave your comments below.

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