BY: TIM O’NEAL
The allure of the open road is strong for many of us. Crisscrossing the country (or the world!) with nothing but a backpack, catching free rides from strangers, is a romantic notion. There are a lot of practical things to consider before leaving your comfortable home behind and embarking on a hitchhiking adventure. Here is a list of ten things you should think about to help ensure a safe and fulfilling journey.
1. How much time do you have?
Hitchhiking is going to take longer than hopping in your personal vehicle for your trip. Everyone knows that, but it’s still important to consider just how long you have to make your trip. Are you suppose to be at your brother’s wedding a thousand miles away in three days, or do you have three weeks and no specific arrival time?
In most cases, it’s going to be something in between. Knowing this is crucial because a sure way to ruin your trip is to be stressed out the whole time about being behind schedule. One of the major benefits of hitchhiking is being free of timetables.
2. Where are you going to sleep?
Without knowing for sure where you’re going to end up each day, it’s nearly impossible to plan ahead for sleeping arrangements. Looking at it from the other direction, if you do plan ahead for sleeping arrangements you’re confining yourself to a schedule that may produce more stress than it’s worth.
It’s entirely possible that you’re not going to make it to a place before dark that has a cheap enough hotel. Having a sleeping bag and being prepared to find a secure place on the ground is inevitable. For first timers, it may be an unpleasant surprise to be dropped off at a crossroads without shelter for several miles. For many seasoned hitchhikers, this is all part of the magic.
3. What are you going to pack?
There are tons of things you might need while hitchhiking, but you’re going to have to carry each and every one of them for the entirety of your trip. It’s best to stick to the essentials. A sleeping bag is considered critical for many. Location, distance and duration of travel, and the season are all important elements of this decision. If you’re staying in the same region and not facing drastic weather changes you may get away with fewer clothing options. Otherwise, you’ll need to plan for all sorts of weather conditions.
Aside from packing a bag you can manage to carry, having a smaller bag is advantageous for getting a ride. You’re more likely to be picked up if the driver doesn’t have to clear extra space in the back seat or get out to pop the trunk. It’s also comforting to be able to keep your bag close in case you feel the need to exit the car quickly.
4. What will you eat on the road?
Access to a kitchen may be a rare thing. Since thrift is one of the purposes of hitchhiking, eating every meal at a restaurant might not be an option. Stocking up at grocery stores when you can is a great idea, but you don’t want to end up carrying things you’re not going to use. Keep it simple and focus on snacks high in nutrition like nuts, dried fruit, and bread or tortillas.
5. How will you carry water?
Water is extremely important, of course. If you plan to be in well populated areas that aren’t extremely hot, this will be easier to plan for. If you’re traveling through an expansive desert, knowing how much water you need and how you’re going to carry it is absolutely crucial. Possibly the worst threat to a hitchhiker is being stranded without access to clean water. Take this seriously and have a good plan.
6. Travel with a group?
There are obvious advantages to traveling with a partner. Standing at the side of the road for a couple of hours is much more tolerable if you have a friend to pass the time with. The downside is that it might make it more difficult to catch a ride because of space constraints. A solo driver might also be reluctant to pick up two passengers. One possibility is to travel with a partner but decide to allow yourselves to be separated. You can always get in touch down the road.
7. Sign or no sign?
There is some debate about the benefits of holding a sign with your destination printed on it. It can help the driver to know if they can be helpful. On the other hand, if the driver can’t get you all the way to your destination they may pass you by. Even though getting a few miles closer might be a big deal to you, a driver might not understand that and pass you by because they can’t take you all the way.
It’s also important to consider whether a driver has enough time to read your sign before speeding past. There’s even the risk that they will mistake you for a panhandler and keep driving. It turns out the old fashioned thumb might be the best way to go.
8. What kind of map?
You need a map (and the ability to read it), no doubt. The more detailed the better but you don’t want something large that you have to unfold every time you want to look at it. Electronic mapping applications are handy for this, but if you’re relying on that alone you need to make sure your device is always charged.
9. Can you afford to pay for a ride?
For many, this goes against everything hitchhiking is about, but it’s worth putting some thought towards. If you can offer anything to thank the driver it might be helpful. In some countries in eastern Europe hitchhiking is extremely common, even among locals, but there is an expectation that some small compensation will be offered. You can find out from fellow travelers what the local conventions are.
10. Do you have a specific destination in mind?
Most of us, when we leave home, know exactly where we’re going. That’s the whole point of leaving home. Imagine for a moment that you don’t have a specific destination. Think of the freedom offered by taking a ride, even if it’s not in the direction you expected. It could open your trip to serendipity and experiences you never expected to have. You would be living the saying that, “The journey is the destination.”
While there is a lot to consider before departing on a hitchhiking journey, it’s really no different than any other mode of travel. In many ways, it’s much simpler. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice and the rewards can be spectacular.