Hitchhiking is not mathematics, but rather a strange science where two plus two often equals five or seven or as many people as one can fit squeezed in the back of a pick-up. It’s in the nature of hitchhiking to embrace uncertainty but this does not mean that it needs to be a risky enterprise; neither does one need to let things get totally out of control. There are simple rules by which one can make a hitchhiking journey safe and effective, reaching a desired destination with whatever resources one has at hand.
Knowing where you are going
It’s great to get lost, but even better to do so in the right direction. A good map may turn out to be a hitchhiker’s best travel buddy, a faithful companion. In the time of apps it is easy to get hold of detailed online maps, but we should not forget that a good road atlas on paper can take us far, even more when it comes in a language that drivers can understand. Staying awake, following route and watching for road-signs are the proper ways to put our maps to good use and make sure we reach anywhere at all.
The earlier one starts, the better chances one has to reach any destination. It’s just a matter of light. There is usually more traffic during the day than at night, and drivers generally like to see the face of the stranger they are picking up, so making use of daylight is pretty wise. Hitchhiking at night, while possible, requires some extra effort and dedication.
Choosing a good spot
Picking a good place to hitch is the key to success. Usually the best is to start at the end of town, at the entrance to roads with a good amount of traffic (ramps, roundabouts) or at the exit of a petrol station, TIR parking or roadside restaurant. The spot where you stand should be visible for drivers coming your way and have enough room behind you for cars to pull over. Choose a place where drivers won’t need to infringe any laws or can cause any sort of trouble if they want to stop for you; the safety of all parties should always come first.
It’s an on-going debate amongst hitchhikers whether a board is actually helpful or not. And the answers are inconclusive. It mostly depends on one’s preferences (hitchhiking style), on the region one is travelling and, above all, on what is written on the sign. It can be the number of the road one wants to reach, or the final destination, or even better some place half-way there. A message to the drivers like “I’ll clean your car” seems to work for a few people, and other things like “just showered” will at least make drivers smile. Whatever the sign reads, the crucial thing is visibility; write as big as you can and in contrasting colors (black marker over white paper or cardboard) and better in the local language. Some hitchhikers carry a re-usable white-board that lasts their whole journey. But having no pen or cardboard at hand won’t prevent you from hitchhiking, since a simple thumb up (or a palm facing down, depending on the country) will take you just as far.
The secret of effective hitchhiking is efficient communication. While the hitchhiking board is somehow secondary, some basic vocabulary is a must. Always carry basic words and expressions in the local language - be it learnt by heart, in printed sheets, saved in the phone or scribbled on your diary. Be clear to the drivers, tell them that you are hitchhiking, or carry a note explaining what your journey is about. Communication makes drivers comfortable, makes hitchhiking meaningful and often will help you get dropped at the right spot.
Hitchhiking is as wonderful as it can be tiring, lonely or frustrating at times. Long waiting hours, unbearable heat, frozen toes or lack of food may make the hitchhiker’s good mood decline over the day. But who would like to pick up a stranger in a bad mood? Staying positive, smiling naturally and sharing kindness are simple ways to earn somebody’s trust. Sometimes drivers that see you waiting patiently by the roadside even decide to turn back or may pick you on their way back. And in any case, smiling is free!
Trusting others, and trusting yourself
Hitchhiking is not as dangerous as Hollywood films may paint it, and almost all people along the road will share their good nature. It is a continuous exercise of trust that goes both ways, from the driver to the hitchhiker, and back. If by any chance a driver does not feel trustworthy (or if the person is drunk, or acting aggressive or flirty, etc.) there is no need to accept the ride. Declining an offer, firmly but kindly, is always much better than having an uncomfortable time in somebody’s vehicle. Even if things turn weird when already moving, the best is asking to be dropped off in the first place that is safe to stop.
The way is the destination
The road is generous and hitchhiking is a gift to the traveler, even on the sweaty and dusty days by the roadside. Whether we reach our destination on our desired date, or a day later, or with one week delay, is often secondary to enjoying the way and sharing this joy with the people we meet. Even while hitchhiking in a rush (for a competition, or to your sister’s wedding, to reach a border before the end of your visa) joy should be as much part of the journey as adrenaline. Hitchhiking is not free loading, so if one is too tired or annoyed, or simply bored to talk to his drivers, the best thing to do is investing some extra bucks in taking a bus and give oneself a break, nobody is forced to hitchhike all the time. Wherever your thumb takes you, and whatever the means of transport, enjoy the ride!