Hitchhiking across America is one of the most authentic and immersive travel experiences a person can have. You meet people – lots of people. You meet people you never would have come across, and get to know them in a unique way while seeing the country.
But getting those people to stop can be hard: they have to make a split second decision to let an unknown person spend several hours inside their car.
I recently took an extended hitchhiking trip from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon, and then down the California coast via Highway 1. It was an incredible experience.
The idea for a cross-country trip stuck in my brain like a burr, and when an open week arose, I jumped. It was the best, cheapest vacation I’ve ever had. For the price of a bivy sack and a loaf of bread, I cruised through some of the most incredible American landscapes and lived more memorable times in a week than in most of the other trips I’ve taken.
At this point I think I’ve almost perfected my hitchhiking skill set. I get picked up quickly, seldom waiting a full 10 minutes.
So if you already have the burr in your brain and know your ‘Why,’ here’s the ‘How.’ Here are 14 tips I’ve learned from my experiences, other people, and the Internet too.
Tips for Hitchhiking in America
- Look fun, not homeless
This is key. Your driver has about to 15 seconds to see you, decide if they want to pick you up, and then pull over; presentation is paramount. Your clothing, face, destination sign, and perceived body odor are all calculated in the flash of an eye.
Try to look more like REI, and less like a druggie. Wear bright colors that don’t show dirt too badly (because you are dirty), and have a nice backpack with you, not a black plastic garbage bag or a suitcase. Try to maintain an upbeat demeanor that promises a fun time and a good story about how they picked up a hitchhiker.
I personally think avoiding sunburn is a good thing. If you’ve slacked off on the sunscreen application, you’re going to look like you’ve been outside forever – and look like you smell like you’ve been outside forever. Also, make yourself a nice, neat sign…
- Have a destination sign
This lets your ride know you have a plan. Maybe it’s not a very good one, but at least you know where you want to be. A simple thumb in the air means you just want to be anywhere other than where you are, which is kind of sketchy. Try making a sign with bold, crisp font, one that reads well from a distance. Choose a large destination city that’s a few hundred miles away. People who aren’t actually going there know where it is and that they can get you halfway. If you specify a particular obscure spot, you’ll get nowhere.
- Look them in the eye. Smile.
Passersby want to know who it is they’re entering into a relationship with for several hours, and nobody likes a grouch, or a psycho killer. Smile and look right in the driver’s windshield, which is to say his or her eyes. Look friendly, be friendly, and don’t wear sunglasses. It’s important that they get a read on you, and it’s harder to get a sense of a person without making eye contact. I had sunglasses and stood there squinting anyway, because this is the all-important tip. Eye contact. Smile.
- Be a good guest
Maybe being a good guest just wins you karma for your next hitch, but it’s important to be pleasant for your driver once you’re picked up. I mirror the driver’s desire for conversation (or easy silence), and avoid intruding or talking politics.
Those things said, give of yourself. People need authenticity, and this rare, disposable friendship is a perfect outlet. I sometimes found people telling me their life stories, or how they made some big mistakes in their marriages and that it took a lot of time to earn the trust back. Wow. An automatic genuineness emerges because there’s just no reason to impress or bullshit people when you know you’re only going to know them for an hour and a half.
- Throw up in their car
Don’t throw up in their car, but if you’re in a sketchy situation, it could be a good scare tactic. It’s nice to know that this option exists in the case of an ultimately bad scenario. There are some pretty strange, sick, not-sober, and otherwise mean people in the world, but they all have one thing in common: they don’t want vomit in their car. If necessary, feign nausea. They’ll let you out. Say you need to sit and you’ll catch another ride, or just start walking in the other direction.
- Last in, first out
Your bag would ideally be the last thing to enter a vehicle, and the first item to leave, lest that vehicle go speeding away with your bag. In reality, this is awkward and hard to orchestrate, particularly with trucks. I open the passenger side door and leave it open while I wrestle the bag in back.
- Let someone know what car you’re riding in
Some people say to take a picture of the license plate of the car you got in and text it to a friend. I think this is overkill, and weird, lawyerly first impression. You could also text a friend if you find you’re uncomfortable with the ride, paying special attention that the driver knows you’re doing it. Say your mom wants to know where you are and what type of car you’re in at all times. Explain she’s paranoid.
- Stand in the right spot
Pick a place where lots of traffic is moving slowly, and assuredly headed in the direction you are. Freeway on-ramps with a nice shoulder work well.
- Travel by interstate, not small highway
People on the interstate are usually headed a long way fast, while smaller highways carry less traffic headed shorter distances. Even if a route looks much shorter, it can be disastrously slow. Trying to hitchhike across 300 miles of the Great Plains in 20-mile increments between farms could take days.
- Use technology
A smartphone is like cheating, but cheating is good. A maps application can help you predict where heavy traffic is headed and what spots might be good. Zooming in to Google Earth can even inform you if an on-ramp has a good shoulder. You can ask for a preferable drop-off point rather than find yourself where there’s no shoulder.
- Use your instincts
If something doesn’t feel right, act accordingly. Having the ability to assert boundaries without regard for politeness or other people’s feelings is appropriate in some situations: just don’t get in the car, or say you want to get out of it.
- Be male. Or don’t.
I would generally advise women against throwing themselves into situations wherein strange men control their whereabouts, but some women choose otherwise. Several different women picked me up, and a couple of them had hitchhiked solo. But they both seemed like the type that could firmly assert boundaries. A bookish-looking girl picked me up out of Humboldt County, and surprised me when she said she was a stripper headed to a pole-dancing competition. She had hitchhiked before, and would have had no problem setting boundaries with men or telling me to get the hell out of her car.
- Make a clean exit
Let the driver know where you want out, preferably somewhere that will make it easy to hitch your next ride. Then check where you were sitting! If you lose your phone, you’re screwed. I almost left mine in the foot well of a semi, and it’s not likely that I could have reconnected with the driver to get it back. In the stressed moment of jumping out at a red light, it’s easy to forget something.
- Have faith in people
You’ll quickly learn that the people who pick you up are saints, not psychos. Don’t believe the anecdotes that represent only 0.000001% of all hitchhiking experiences. You’ll find yourself in some awkward situations, but it’s very unlikely you’ll come across a dangerous one if you use your head. Hitchhiking affirms people are good, and that they want to help.
Have fun, and safe travels!
Author Bio: Jack Bohannan is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado