Why would you even try hitchhiking? Well, there are many reasons. First of all, it's cheap, and we as volunteers don't have too much money to afford private jets, right? Secondly, it's fun: there's no way I'd meet a drug dealer in Belgium, an ex-military with a few rotations to Mali, Afghanistan and Irak in the Netherlands, a nuclear station operator, and many other unordinary people. Third, it's very deep - there is no other way to see a new country so clearly, as speaking to its people while driving through it.
Some would say: "Have you lost your mind? It's so dangerous!'. They're not completely wrong - there are dangers in the world, it's true. But traveling by any other means of transport can be dangerous as well. Life is dangerous, friends. But here I will share some tips I have gathered through my hitchhiking experience. I have to say a few things beforehand:
- I'm not an expert in this. I wish I had more chances to travel by hitchhiking, but so far I only did something like 8000 kilometres in 6 countries. Therefore, my thoughts are relevant, but not necessarily 100% precise.
- It's fun, but it's also hard. If you don't feel confident about it - then don't try it.
So, let's start, shall we?
0. Yes, that's the point number zero - it's the fundament for any hitchhiking trip. You must have a plan. Of course, all those stories when people say: "Well we were sitting in a bar and then someone said we should hitchhike to Spain - so we packed our backpacks and went there" sound pretty cool, romantic and adventurous. And they are not probably true. Even if they are, however, it doesn't' mean you will succeed the same way - most likely, without any preparation you won"t even get out of your city. If you really want to go somewhere, you need to know what's your destination and where are you going to start. You have to know if you're going to use any other means of transport at some point, and if so, you have to book them in advance. You have to think about where are you gonna sleep and what are you gonna eat during your trip. You have to think of the distances you can manage in one day and the directions you take to reach your planned points. Otherwise, your trip is going to turn from an adventurous dream into a disappointing disaster.
1) Know your plan for the day. Your trip can be long, and there are not so many chances you'd go more than 400 kilometres in 1 day. Therefore, you will have to travel a few days in a row, which means, every day needs its strategy. You need to know the roads, which suit you the most, the fastest way and some cities in between your location and desired destination. It would be much better to have an internet connection to access google maps or some offline map on your phone. Without it, you risk going in the wrong direction just because some kind driver decided to pick you up and take you wherever but where you want to go.
2) Choose your position. To start hitchhiking, you need to stop a car, and you can't just do it right around the corner. First of all, hitchhiking inside the cities is usually a very bad idea - city drivers mostly go around the city and not used to pick up strangers. Resources like Hitchwiki Map can give you some advice on where you can start and how can you reach the starting point.
Then, you have to find the proper place. It should be somewhere where it's not forbidden to stop and park (in Germany, for example, it's forbidden to stop on autobahns, therefore you can't catch the cars there and should use gas stations). Ideally, it should be safe for you but you also must be visible for the drivers so they can notice you in advance and realize that you want to be picked up. There should be enough space to safely stop the car. The bad place is somewhere at the corner of the roads, 10 meters from the turn where cars are driving by 100km/h without any space to park the car. A good place is worth walking a few kilometers, a bad place is worth refusing a quick lift for some 10 kilometers in the middle of nowhere.
3) Shine bright like a diamond. Mostly, drivers are going to pick you up because they feel sorry for you or because they want to talk to you. If you look like a nice, friendly person - there are many chances you're gonna be picked up. If you look tired, desperate, angry, dirty and unfriendly - why would someone stop for you? Remember, drivers risk as much as you do when they let a stranger or two inside their car, so you shouldn't look dangerous to them. The only case when you probably should look helpless and desperate - is an empty road under bad weather: it can make those few drivers passing by feel really sorry for you and take you at least to the nearest big road or gas station. But you don't have to be always pleasant to the driver, especially when he or she behaves unpolite. Remember, it also goes about your safety, so if they tend to threaten you in any way - draw the line and try to get out of the car.
4) Speak up. Drivers usually love to talk. Don't worry if you don't know what to talk about - one way or another, you will find the topics. Find out, what your driver does for life, where he or she is going and why, ask some questions about the road, their cars or their hometowns. Don't be afraid to start the discussion - it's much more interesting than just agreeing with everything your driver says. If you feel, however, that the driver doesn't want to talk or listen to you, don't be irritating. Falling asleep in the stranger's car can be not only unpolite but dangerous - do that only when you hitchhike with someone else.
5) Mind your safety. When the car stops for you and you feel like you don't trust the person - don't go with them. If you are to shy to refuse directly, you can make up any excuse - pretend that you've misunderstood the map and you have to go another way. Anyway, it's better to be a bit ungrateful and unpolite and refuse a lift, then sign up for a trip with a maniac, right? Think twice before going in the back of a truck or a cargo car - you can't escape those easily in case the driver decides to go somewhere you don't expect. It can also be dangerous in case of an accident - remember to fasten your belts, even if your driver doesn't. The best option is to travel with someone else - in this case, you can be much more confident, and one of you can sometimes fall asleep while the other's talking to the driver and watching the road. Don't hesitate to ask the driver where are you going if you think that something's wrong or ask the driver to calm down if he/she drives like in the "Fast and Furious". After all, if you don't feel comfortable, you should always ask the driver to stop at the first possible point and look for another car.
6) Find proper companions. Traveling by hitchhiking is hard both physically and mentally. Your partners in crime should be ready to get tired, walk a lot, wait for a long, be hungry sometimes, fight through harsh conditions, etc. You should be as well. Your perfect partner won't start wining when something goes wrong and should also share your interests and follow the same goals in the trip - then you both can agree on walking 5 kilometers extra to see "that castle I saw on google maps". So take only those you're sure about with you, or don't go for long trips with those you're not so sure about.
7) Be flexible. Sometimes you have to adapt to the circumstances and possibilities - if the car which goes somewhere you didn't plan, but would like to go - why don't you agree, especially when your plans for the day are not 100% precise? Sometimes you'd probably have to sleep under the sky or spend the whole day on sandwiches. Sometimes even though everything seems perfect you wouldn't find a car for hours. In cases like this, you have to think of other options you have and try to change your plans. It's always good to have some extra free days planned so you won't miss something important. You should also remember that in some 10 kilometers there can be a great failure waiting for you - so brace yourself!
This way of transport is not for everyone, but if you're brave and ready enough - go and try it! Later, you will know much better what to do, where to wait for the cars and how to organize your trip. You will know which roads are the best, which countries have which rules, you will know that truck drivers are slow but very friendly and generous, and people with fast cars really like to show off with their driving skills. Nobody knows how is hitchhiking going to be for you. but one thing I know for sure: once you've tried it, you will never forget it. And when else you should try it, if not now when you're young and adventurous?