This time last year I hitchhiked over 3000km from Sheffield to the Arctic Circle. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
The hitchhike took me six days and involved a total of 30 lifts through 8 countries. It was extremely hard work and, aside from the glorious scenery, involved a colossal amount of frustration, physical endurance and sleepless nights. So I’m offered some tips for fellow hitchhikers – or those who are thinking of hitchhiking for the first time – to help improve your chances of being offered lifts and having a more enjoyable experience.
1. Take advantage of services stations
If you only stand by the side of a road you’re likely to spend many long, frustrating hours hitchhiking. People will not stop for ny number of reasons: they can’t read your sign, they can’t stop safely, they see you too late etc. So you’ll vastly improve your chances of getting lifts if you can talk to people face to face. Service stations are perfect for this. You can approach people as they go in to pay for their petrol.
2. Talk to everyone
This may seem obvious but I was alarmed to meet many other hitchhikers who would just stand with their thumb out and wouldn’t dare approach people directly. The more people you speak to the quicker you’ll be offered a lift. The worst that can happen is that someone says no, and even if they can’t offer a lift they may know someone who can or advise you of a better place to hitch. So talk to everyone you meet. Literally everyone.
3. Ask a question which requires a ‘yes’ answer first
The use of a bit of positive psychology will get you a long way! Get yourself to a service station on a busy road or motorway i.e. where traffic is only going one direction. Before asking someone for a lift, ask them “Are you traveling to [the next town/city]?”. Their response can only be ‘yes’ unless they tell you a bare faced lie. Once they’ve said ‘yes’, they are now far less likely to say ‘no’ when you ask them for a lift. This technique works a treat and really helped me to get lifts more quickly.
4. Travel light
Hitchhiking can involve a lot of walking to find suitable hitching spots so you’ll want your load to be as light as possible. I found myself stranded in a tiny town called Venlo on the German border and must have walked over 6 miles to find a spot with a busier traffic. I did pack light but found myself wishing I’d streamlined my packing even more. Traveling as light as possible also gives you more space to carry food and water – you never know where you’re going to get dropped off and when you’re next chance to stock up will be remember.
5. Look presentable
Okay, you are not going to be looking your best while travelling with a backpack and possibly camping too. But making yourself look as presentable as possible will vastly increase your chances of getting a lift. Many of the people who gave me lifts said they felt reassured because I was wearing decent shoes (clean walking boots), a smart jacket and carried a proper sign, not a scruffy bit of paper. Which leads me onto my next tip…
6. Buy a whiteboard
You chances of getting a lift are always going to be higher if you have a sign to show people where you are traveling to. If not, people have an excuse not to stop as they can assume they cannot help. But what type of sign, and what should it say? I bought myself a wipe clean whiteboard so I could experiment with different signs at every hitching point. If one place name isn’t working, try something else or simply a direction. I was never left scrambling around to find some scrappy looking paper and the whiteboard also provides high contrast so it’s much easier for drivers to see. I can’t recommend this enough. It was probably one of the best fivers I ever spent!
7. Give yourself plenty of time
I found that the added pressure of racing against the clock made my own hitchhike very stressful (I’d only given myself seven days to get to the Arctic). I was behind schedule for the first four days so never felt like I could relax and enjoy the journey until I caught up time in Scandinavia. So give yourself plenty of time for your hitchhike. Then you can spend time enjoying your surroundings in the evenings – and travel into towns and cities to visit tourist sites (something I regrettably wasn’t able to do).
8. Don’t be picky
You will undoubtedly sometimes have to wait hours for a lift. It’s therefore important to get yourself into the mindset that you won’t be picky when a lift is offered. Appearance, whether of the lift giver themselves or the car they drive, is so often deceiving. Some of the warmest, friendliest people I met on my trip were those who ad the most dishevelled of appearance or drove the most banger-ish of cars. After all, think how many drivers form the wrong impressions of you just because you are hitchhiking…
9. Have an excuse ready
As important as it is not to be picky about accepting lifts, it is also essential that you have a good excuse ready to get yourself out of a lift quickly if you really get a bad feeling about someone or feel unsafe about their driving. You could always say “Oh, you’re going to X? I’m going in the wrong direction!” or “I’m really tired – I think I’m going to set up camp for the day.”
10. Embrace the unknown
Hitchhiking is an excellent way to travel in an environmentally friendly and low cost manner. But, more so, it is an adventure! You never know who you will meet, or where you will end up. As a hitchhiker you will often receive offers of hospitality which can allow you to experience a country’s true culture beyond the tourist trial. So embrace the unforeseen opportunities that present themselves as these may end up being some of the most memorable moments of your trip and are what truly make travel one of the most rewarding experiences in life.
I hope these tips help you hitchhike more successfully so as you travel you can benefit from meeting warm and wonderful people, acquire local knowledge of an area and gain a real, genuine insight into a country’s culture.
Here is a short video of my own hitchhike from Sheffield to the Arctic Circle – an experience that will live long in my memory!
Click here to read more about my experience including the highs, the lows and the safety of hitchhiking.