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Hitchhiking 101: how to travel for next to nothing and make it a safe, legal, exciting experience

"Hitchhiking" conjurs up all sorts of images in our minds--images of dirty, stale-smelling vagabonds out to take advantage of us, of young travelers being abducted (or worse), or simply images of an era past.  Nowadays, few people would ever consider hitchhiking as a viable or desirable way to travel.  Most don't even realize that it's legal.

Contrary to many preconceived notions, hitchhiking can be a safe, positive experience, allowing travelers to connect with locals and form unexpected friendships.  Best of all for us budget-minded travelers, hitchhiking is free!  You might offer to chip in for gas, but in the U.S. and many other countries, drivers customarily do not expect anything more than your company.

Where is hitchhiking legal?  The law in California is vague, but in the United States, it is typically legal to solicit a ride on the shoulder of a road (including highways) wherever vehicles have a safe place to stop.  Digihitch, an online hitchhiking forum, provides an informative overview of hitchhiking laws in the U.S., with explanations of state-by-state nuances.

How do you hitchhike safely?  Anytime you get into a stranger's car, you put yourself at risk, but there are guidelines to help you enjoy a safer ride.  These tips, along with your common sense, can help you create a wonderful hitchhiking experience.

  • "If in doubt, turn down the ride."  This is Wikitravel's number one hitchhiking safety tip.

Before you get into a vehicle with any stranger, spend a moment chatting about where you're going and how far he or she can take you.  Use the opportunity to evaluate the driver and the vehicle.  Text message the license plate number to a friend, and let the driver know you're doing it.  Be confident enough to politely decline a ride if it doesn't feel right to you, and if a ride turns south after you're already in the car, ask to be let off at the next safe opportunity, or call the police if necessary.

  • Only accept a ride if you have direct access to a door, and check that it doesn't have an active child lock.

27-year-old San Francisco resident Virginia S. recently hitchhiked from San Francisco to Portland, via Route 101.  She made the 640-mile trek in under two days, with help from nine drivers.  "I only turned down one ride," says Virginia, "because there wasn't room for me up front, but there was no door in back."  Virginia calls her trip a success.  "A lot of people wondered why a woman like me was hitchhiking alone, but everyone was nice and I was well prepared, so I felt safe."  She even made a few friends with whom she expects to keep in touch--a pre-med student from Coos Bay, Oregon, and an old trucker named Dave who regaled her with tales of dodging the draft in Vietnam and hitching around Europe in the 70s.

  • Remember to be safe when you're standing or walking on the road.

Always face oncoming traffic.  Stand or walk on the shoulder only.  Wear bright colors, never hitchhike at night, and solicit rides only where there is space for drivers to safely pull over.

  • Semi-truck drivers can offer your best rides.

Truckers travel long distances, and they can often take you a few hundred miles--probably a good portion of your trip.  They are accountable to an employer, so you can typically count on them to be safe companions.  Often, they're just grateful for your company during the long haul.  "Dave and I traveled together from Willits to Port Orford," says Virginia of her 300-mile ride with the trucker who delivers live seafood from Oregon to LA.  "It was a six-hour drive.  We practically shared our life stories!"

  • If you're hitchhiking for the first time, try it with a friend.

The more seats you require, the longer it can take to find a ride, but you'll feel more secure traveling with a companion.  Always--no matter how experienced a hitchhiker you are--let a friend know where you're going and when you expect to arrive there.  If you're going on a long journey, check in periodically.

  • Be courteous and behave in ways that let your driver know he or she is safe, too.

Your driver is also taking a risk in welcoming you into his or her vehicle.  Help make it a good experience for him or her, too!

  • Last but not least, read up on hitchhiking and talk to others who have done it.

Digihitch and Hitchwiki are great resources to help make your hitchhiking trip a safe, successful, enjoyable journey.  Be prepared for an adventure, and enjoy the ride!

Comments

  • Diana 4 years ago

    I really like the tip about texting the plate number of a car to a friend before you get in. I also think it's good to regularly check in with your friends on a social media site. Many people still think of Hitchhiking as dangerous and will want to know you are okay. That is more about keeping your loved ones calm than keeping you safe. :)

  • Ron 4 years ago

    This is really good info, thanks. I hitchhiked to Arizona once from Washington, it took about three days. This is all stuff people should know before they get in a strange car.

  • Steve in Green Bay 4 years ago

    I'm officially out of excuses to travel!! Thank you!!

  • Hannah 4 years ago

    I'm pretty paranoid, but you make a good case.

  • Nikki 4 years ago

    As a paranoid female I never ever ever ever! considered hitchhiking as an option for me.. But these are all great tips to keep in mind and I might not be so against it after all! Thanks, B!

  • Dawn 4 years ago

    Good tips Bethany!!

  • Brandon 4 years ago

    This makes me want to read "On The Road" and hit the road. But I have a strange feeling that it may be much easier for female hitchers to find rides than men. Great article though. I'm officially inspired.

  • Mark 3 years ago

    I hitch rides all around the Coachella Valley (Palm Springs Area) in CA on a daily basis. Often I have to be to work (or a spot where my boss can pick me up) at 6:30 AM in the morning. As such, I always have to leave early. Sometimes I get rides right away (5-minutes), other times I have to wait an hour or more. It really depends on the time of day (commuters are more friendly), where I am (at a stop light is usually best) and what type of people live in the given area (rich people aren't as nice).

    There are many exceptions though. I've been picked up by a few old couples (80 years plus), single woman (some very pretty), a pair of Mexican ladies just back from shopping (they barely spoke english), a few gays (some of whom seemed to be checking me out just a bit too much), and even a mom with her two little girls. I never know whom its going to be. Yet its (almost) always cool.

    A few tips: I'm weird looking (Big-Big mustache and skater clothes) and I'm 42. I look everyone in the e

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