Everyone thinks they’re an expert when it comes to where you should hitch from. Sadly if they have never hitched then they have no idea! The amount of times a driver has assured me they knew a perfect hitchhiking spot and then gone and dumped me in the center of a city, leaving me with a wave and thumbs up as if they’d just left me in hitchhiker paradise. Don’t listen to those who have never hitchhiked, they know shit all.

Location rule number one: Get out of urban centers.

It’s common sense really, that oh so rare of things with the misleading name.

Simply find yourself a patch of road that has a moderate flow of traffic moving at a reasonably slow speed, and has room for them to pull over. Voila! That’s a spot hitchhikers sell their left nut for. Or more accurately walk half a day for.

First we shall deal with standing by the road with your thumb out, and then we graduate to the fine art of soliciting rides from people who are trying to ignore you.

The Road

Preferably long and straight with ample room for a vehicle to pull over at the shortest possible notice. It must be a spot where traffic is travelling at a reasonable speed 50-60kms is perfect, nothing more than 80kms though.

Visibility is vital.
The driver has to have a minimum of three seconds to see you and decide you’re safe to pick up. This is why the speed is important, if they only see you at the last minute then they will be well and truly past you before they can even contemplate pulling over. Not to fear though, I’ve had a surprising number of people turn back for me (going incredibly far out of their way) they all said it was because I smiled at them and they felt guilty leaving me hanging by the road. I can’t stress enough the importance of smiling, wear your smile everywhere.

The type of location you choose will depend on what part of the world you are hitchhiking in. For example, I would be mainly using service centres on motorways if I was hitchhiking through Western Europe, but in Australia or Canada I would generally be standing out by the road. In some countries there are actual designated hitchhiking spots just like bus stops, such as Trempiyada’s in Israel and Liftershalte in the Netherlands.

That first ride can take the majority of your energy, once the ball is rolling life generally flows with abundance. If you begin hitching from a small town then that’s perfect, you merely have to walk to the edge of town to a spot where traffic can pull over and stick out your thumb.
Sadly most journeys begin in cities. This complicates things.

When I’m in unfamiliar cities Google Maps is my best friend and will come to be yours too.
The night before the hitch I peruse the roads snaking in and out of the city and work out which one I want to get on. The beautiful thing with Google Maps is you can zoom in close on satellite setting and get an idea of what the road and surrounding terrain looks like. Sometimes, within urban areas, you can even get a street view. Websites such as Hitch Wiki and Digi Hitch offer area specific advice and I suggest you check these out. I tend not to like them because they are cluttered and messy, overflowing with information, often useful information but too much of it. Be wary, it is easy to read too much and begin to feel overwhelmed, hitchhiking can look like a daunting task when reading instructions on how to get to a specific spot posted on Hitch Wiki. I much rather have a glance at Google Maps and find a good spot for myself. But those websites definitely have their uses and I highly recommend you check them out.

When looking at maps you are looking for the beginning of the highway on the edge of town, some roads leading towards it, on ramps, or petrol stations and service areas. In Europe there are quite often little paths to the back of Service centres on the highways (they can be almost impossible to get to otherwise). I like to get public transport as far as the line goes and hitch from there. There is no point in trying in the centre of a city, even if it is the right road, chances are most of the traffic is only heading a short distance and will not pick you up.

So you have managed to extricate yourself from the lecherous tangle of cement and smog and found that little patch of paradise on its periphery. Congratulations, that’s most of the hard work done, and probably enough walking and waiting to have sent the weak packing. Now you are in prime position staring at the meandering traffic shuffling toward you like a herd of bison. Your thumb is cocked, your chest pumped, your sunnies stuffed in you bright blue shirt and your eyes are scanning the luminescent windshields ready to burst with a winning smile.

The poor driver never really stood a chance. They lock eyes with you and in that quarter of a second their brain absorbs your beaming face and open posture, well kept appearance and backpack on the ground. The location you are hitching at has a wide shoulder, the empty space beckons to the driver.

Yes, much of hitchhiking is luck (landing a ride with the Swiss volleyball team who shelters you in their alpine chalet keeping you warm with back rubs and mouthfuls of chocolate coated nipples…wow, my imagination has gotten away from me again) but I’m of the school of thought that believes luck only visits when provoked. Therefore I influence and manipulate as many variables as I can in my favour, then stand back and smile smugly as lady luck rushes into my life.

Some roads are illegal to hitchhike on, check in with your local authorities website, or ask around. It’s generally only illegal if you are considered a traffic hazard, or if you get caught. Also depends greatly on the mood the police are in at the time, so be friendly and apologetic if they do pull over for you. Don’t hold your thumb out when you see the police, if they do pull over you can say you’re waiting for an organised ride share. I’ve been picked up by police in Japan, Germany, France and Canada, and helped out by Officers in many other countries, they were all positive encounters except for one in Quebec where I got a fine for hitchhiking, mainly because he was in a bad mood.

Two young Polish girls I met hitchhiking around Europe, hopping from one service center to another.
Two young Polish girls I met hitchhiking around Europe, hopping from one service center to another.

Petrol stations/service centres

Hitchhiking from petrol stations has some huge benefits over hitching by the road, and in my opinion is the best place to start if you have never hitched before.

Here are the pros:

  • Added safety. You choose the drivers rather than them choosing you. You have the luxury of observing a driver before approaching them, generally you can tell if they are a freak or not. You’re also in the vicinity of other humans, a public place, rather than alone by the road.
  • Access to amenities. There are toilets, food, phones. Service centers can be a great place to sleep. Also the bins out back are a potential wonderland of cardboard, that useful travelling tool, and out of date food, if you’re that way inclined.
  • Shelter. It can get pretty grim waiting by the side of a deserted road in the peak of summer, or winter for that matter. Hitchhiking in the rain is miserable work. Some people believe rain makes drivers sympathetic, maybe, but I think it makes drivers view you as if you were a wet dog rolling in mud by the road. No way you’re getting in their sweet ride. The awnings and picnic areas of Service Centers provide great shelter when needed the most.

There are a few different ways to hitchhike at service areas and petrol stations.

I pick a target after checking people’s number plates, which indicate where they’re from, a hint to where they’re going, and assessing the vibe I get from them. I approach from the side or front on (people are on guard when someone engages them from behind). Be polite and courteous, use your smile and open body language showing you have nothing to hide. Greet them and ask them if they speak English or where they are going?

If they reject you don’t get angry, keep that smile and thank them for their time, wish them a safe trip and move on. Often, if you handle the turn down well, people will change their mind while in the store, seeing you get rejected by others helps. This is why you approach them while they are filling up their car, before they have entered the store. It gives them time to change their mind. Approach as soon as there is an appropriate opening. The longer you linger in the background umming and ahhing the less likely they are to pick you up. Approach them before they realise you are hitchhiking and put up their shield of indifference. This will also help your nerves, dive straight into it and your fear will disappear.

On the road drivers can say ‘the next car will pick them up’ easing their conscience with this statement and driving on, there’s no accountability. They don’t see the hitcher getting turned down by car after car for the next hour.
At the petrol station they do.

Hitchhiking at service centers works especially well in countries where they don’t speak your native language. Foreigners have a greater ‘cute’ factor and are less threatening. Especially when you speak a little of their language, get yourself a phrase book and get to work.

Many hitchers don’t like approaching drivers at service stations, and that’s their right. I understand, it can be nerve racking and at times terrifying. If you don’t want to impose yourself upon others or you just can’t work up the energy to speak, then head out back and rustle up some cardboard from a recycling bin. Here’s where a permanent marker comes in handy (refer to Hitchhiking Inventory for more useful hitchhiking items). Scribble the name of the town or city you are trying to get to, if your destination is thousands of kilometres away then choose a major town closer to you, but still on the way. Also, in some places it is more common to write the number of the motorway you are hitching on, adapt to whatever is the most common for where you are. Stand with your sign by the service center entrance and smile to those who come and go.

This is a less efficient hitchhiking technique, but still works if you make eye contact and smile, a small greeting never hurt anyone too.

Use leverage, have other drivers looking out for you. Get talking to people even if they’re not going your way, they may speak the language better and find someone for you, or they may be a local who knows someone heading your way.

If that fails or you don’t feel like talking walk to the service area exit and set up there with your thumb out.

Mix things up, anything and everything works, find your niche.

Location Summary:

  • Get out of large urban areas and cities
  • Find straight stretch with good visibility (driver needs a minimum of three seconds to make their decision)
  • Must have plenty of room for vehicles to pull over
  • Traffic moving at slow speed
  • Google Maps
  • Approach people at petrol stations without hesitation
  • Handle rejections well, they may change their mind
  • Use cardboard from recycle bins to write your destinations/motorways name/number
  • Use leverage, get everyone looking out for you
  • Smile and take it easy