Hitchhiking – Travel and See the World for Free


This week I learn all about hitchhiking. I’m curious about people who throw caution to the wind, stick out a thumb, and roll the dice on getting where they’re going without getting murdered. Do people hitch out of necessity or is there a thrill to it that we’re all missing? What about people who pick up hitchhikers? What goes through their minds?

Helping people

I’m generally up for helping people, whether it’s carrying things to their cars, climbing their roof to get something down, or changing a flat tire. I like to pay it forward, but we all have lines.

I’ve pulled over when I’m biking to check on people on the side of the bike path. But, I don’t know if I would pull over to help someone with car trouble on the side of the road, especially if it’s dark.

I justify it like when you’re out in public and someone trips and everyone looks around to see who will help. That’s actually a social psychology theory called Bystander effects, people are less likely to help if there are other people around – the more people, the less likely we are to help. The theory is that the ambiguity and the lack of group cohesion create a diffused responsibility situation.

Hitching is seems like an activity that is great candidate for bystander effect – everyone feels unidentifiable in their cars, there’s no relation between the cars so there’s no social shaming, and everyone feels someone else will deal with the hitchhiker.

But somehow, people successfully hitch rides all around the world from strangers in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve heard of people exploring countries and even continents for free just by hitchhiking. There are communities where hitchhikers report the best places to hitch from and they share tips and stories.

Where I thought hitchhiking was done out of necessity, it looks like the majority of the time it’s done for the act itself – meeting locals and getting as far as you can for free. It’s also a hobby that’s done all around the world, with some countries and cultures full on embracing it.

Hitchhiking around the world

Besides small variations in hand signals, hitchhiking looks the same around the world: you stand with your back to the direction you want to go and you stick out your hand with your thumb out. In Australia, you stick your index finger out. In some African countries, you put your palm up.

If feels like hitchhiking is illegal for some reason, but is it actually? Well, there aren’t a lot of laws that against it but there are certainly places where it’s illegal, mostly along highways, like the 400 series highways in Ontario, Canada.

In Europe, somehow not surprisingly it is not only legal it’s encouraged.

In Cuba, it’s actually mandatory for government vehicles to pick up hitchhikers. This one, I’ve seen in person. The idea is that they’re vehicles owned by the people.

Places with a higher rate of hitching tend to have low levels of private car ownership. Think of it as free Uber.

Some countries formalize it: there are usually designated areas and signs for hitchhikers to wait.

Is Hitchhiking safe?

In the US, hitchhiking was popular from the Great Depression till the 70s when a few things happened:

  • Travel got cheaper
  • There were more cars and more reliable cars
  • Faster, more dangerous highways
  • And a new found lack of trust for strangers

The move Texas Chainsaw Massacre is thought to have linked hitchhiking with violent crime. I know that any time I watch a movie or show that includes a hitchhiking scene, I get tense and wait for someone to rob or murder someone.

As a culture, our tolerance for danger changed – things we once thought as safe started to feel unsafe. It’s still happening today. I’ve gotten into dozens of arguments about safety and our kids. I never had a car seat growing up and now it feels like we’re transporting glass ornaments that need Formula 1 safety seats in the car.

The internet is fuelling a resurgence of hitching with communities and wikis.

How dangerous is hitching? It can’t be that dangerous if all the countries encourage it, right?

It’s not surprising that it’s hard to tell – getting good data is hard. How do you count hitchhikers, rides, and potential problems that come from hitching?

I only found two studies: one from the 70s from California and 80s study from Germany. Both basically said the something: it’s no more dangerous than any other activity. The majority of problems were disagreements or arguments.

They came up with a few safety recommendations:

  • Ask for rides at gas stations, not in the middle of nowhere
  • Refuse rides if something about the driver seems off or if they’re drunk
  • Hitch during the day
  • And the most effective tip: hitch with a friend.

Knowing all this, are you likely to hitch any time soon?

What’s it like to hitchhike

Let’s find out what it’s actually like to hitch a ride. I went to Quora to find out, here’s what I learned:

The first time I hitchhiked with friends, I–being an isolated American at that time–felt like I was doing something exceedingly dangerous and patently illegal (much to the amusement of my comrades). I also remember being afraid that they would see someone who was obviously a foreigner and maybe not want to stop, but they always did. Fact is, we usually got picked up relatively quick–within five or so minutes–and the driver was usually willing to accommodate a slight detour to our location.

Overall, it’s safest and easiest if you are two people, of mixed gender, and it’s clear from looking at you why the driver should pick you up and what you are doing.

Hitchhiking culture changes strongly from country to country. Unsurprisingly, it’s most common in poorer countries where cars are rarer and public transit is not well developed or is very slow. In Central America, lifts are very common. I never waited more than 30min, if that, even on rural roads. Watching beautiful Honduras greenery whip by from the back of a pickup is one of my favorite trip memories. In Israel and Lebanon, I hung out at junctions and talked to drivers to ask if they were going in my direction. In LA and San Francisco, I stood in my hiking clothes with my backpack by my feet and one of the first 5 cars usually pulled over.

LPT: IF you are inclined to pick up someone who is hitchhiking, ALWAYS tell them you’re only going a few miles.

Hitchhiking horror stories

Ok, so overall it looks like hitchhiking is pretty safe and common, and there are common sense tips out there. But what about horror stories – there’s gotta be some truth behind all the scary movies and warnings from the 70s, right?

This time, I took to Reddit and surprisingly it took a while to find any horror stories.

I’ve been travelling with my thumb (or sign) up for 15 years now and the bad experiences are less than seldom.

One theory is that those people aren’t around to tell their stories. I kept digging and generally found stories about people who harassed hitchhikers or who were suspicious, but nothing like the movies.

When I did find stories, I had to keep in mind that the majority of scary stories about hitching are folklore and most likely fiction. With that in mind, here are few stories:

A 19 year old girl and boyfriend hitch a ride in a pickup. The driver hits on the girls and makes her uncomfortable. The boyfriend gets upset and demands to be dropped off. They go to the flatbed to get their things and when the girl is in the back of the truck, the truck takes off. She has to jump out.

It’s the 60s. A man in his 20s is hitching with his girlfriend. It’s getting late and they get picked up by a decent enough driver. The driver asks if they’re hungry and if they want to stop at a 24/7 diner. The hitchhikers agree. The driver takes them to the diner, which isn’t 24/7 nor is it open. The driver gets out to check but goes to his trunk. The man gets out of the car and sees a rifle in the trunk. The man takes out his own pistol and tells the driver to leave them.

And to end it, here’s a pretty famous story:

In the late 70’s, my Uncle was studying medicine at the University of Chicago. After a morning class, he decided that he would hitchhike back home to Lincoln Park on the North side instead of pay for a taxi. A man drove up in a Plymouth Satellite and offered my Uncle a ride. The man looked normal and seemed friendly…lighthearted even, so my Uncle got in the car and they started driving towards Lake Shore Drive. However, once they got there, the man drove South on Lake Shore instead of North, towards Lincoln Park. My Uncle told the man he was going the wrong way and to turn around and head North. The man looked at my Uncle, put his hand on his knee and said, “No son, you are coming with me” and smiled darkly at him. My Uncle froze in panic, and when they hit traffic near the South Shore, he quickly unlocked the passenger door and ran away without looking back.

A year or two later on a cold December day, my Uncle was having coffee in a cafe with my future Aunt when he caught something on the TV that made his blood run cold. He saw the man that had picked him up from school that day the year before. He had been arrested for the suspected rape and killing of over 20 young men and boys. The man on the television was John Wayne Gacy. And he had removed the door handle off the passenger side door to prevent the men he picked up from escaping.

Unlike climbing Everest, I think I would try hitchhiking, especially in Europe. I think it would be a cool experience to meet locals and see countries in a more authentic way.

I am an optimist though and believe the best in people – I also use the Find my Friends app a lot and would broadcast my exact location at all times. You know, just in case.