I don´t think anyone sets out for a grand adventure with the thought, “I hope I end up stranded in the middle of nowhere”, rolling around in the back of their head.
However, this is the exact scenario you may find yourself in should you decide to forego the beaten path of traditional tourism and head out for the uncharted recesses of our planet.
And before you pipe up with the predictable, “I´d just rent a car” response, here is something to consider: There are places on this planet SO remote (despite some of them being well traveled), that renting a car either isn´t possible or so expensive, you´d literally be better off buying a car. (Patagonia is a good example)
Bottom line: It´s a LOT easier to end up without a ride than you think.
This concept is almost unfathomable to my fellow Americans, whose knack for over planning everything (Hey, I´m no exception), leaves them mystified at the concept of being stranded.
But what about busses?
Bus travel is definitely the most reliable way to get across millions of miles of grey area, but they don´t always take you the full length of your journey. Sometimes they aren´t even available in the places you want to travel. (Rural Bolivia is a perfect example)
So then we are left with the time honored tradition of hitchhiking.
A method long used by that sign weilding, thumb shaking crew of die hard travelers who won´t be deterred from exploring the hidden corners of our little blue world.
So what do you need to know before scribbling a hand made sign and tying up your hobo bindle on a stick?
Here´s what I learned from hitchhiking across Africa and South America.
- You may be waiting longer than you think. Be prepared.
I have friends who literally waited 12 hours for a ride while working their way down the famous Ruta 40 in Patagonia before someone stopped. (Thankfully, I got luckier during my time there)
The road traffic outside towns and cities in some places can be very thin and pre-paid tour operators usually won´t stop to pick up hitchhikers. So that leaves you dependant on regular busses, which may only pass through a couple times a day, and civilian road traffic.
Chances are if you´re hitching, you probably already have the gear to “go to ground” on the side of the road if needed. Regardless, plan to have plenty of water and snacks on hand because you may be waiting for….a….while. Having the right kind of gear to withstand sudden incliment weather is also important.
You may even be stuck sleeping on the side of the road. Like I said, be prepared.
Also, start walking in the general direction you want to travel while waiting for a ride. That way you´ll be making progress toward your destination while living in road limbo.
2. Not every ride is worth taking. Trust your instincts.
If someone pulls over and offers you a ride, assess the situation before slinging your pack into the backseat. This is especially important for women and solo travelers because both are appealing targets for predators.
It´s been my experience that it´s usually men who stop for hitchhikers (sadly), but that doesn´t mean they´re all creepos. Though having only dudes in a car can make lady hitchers pretty nervous.
And rightly so.
I usually take rides from either older or solo traveling men and I always choose to sit behind, never next to them when possible (much harder to pull a weapon on someone if they are behind you). Being in an open flat bed truck is even better since you can jump out and make a run for it even easier if the need arises.
I also do a quick visual scan of the front and back seat before climbing in. Do you see any weapons, chemicals or anything that could easily be turned against you? (Note: You have to be very quick when doing this assessment, it´s rude to keep your ride waiting.)
Everything looks good? Then all aboard!
These easy and quick steps have kept me safe and also out of the wrong vehicles. Though keep in mind, if you follow these steps and still don´t feel right about a ride being offered, just tell them you made a mistake and want to go in a different direction (somewhere they´re not going) and walk away.
Instincts save lives so be sure to listen to yours! Do that, take precautions, and hitching is no big deal.
3. It´s dangrous AF to hitchhike in some places. Talk to locals first!
An excellent example of this is a highway in Honduras, colorfully known as ruta de la muerte (a.k.a., the road of death), for the number of murders and carjackings that occur on it Every. Single. Day.
So before heading out into the horizon brandishing a cardboard sign that says “Bogota or Bust”, be sure to talk to locals wherever you are staying and find out if it´s even realistic to hitch to your next destination.
Locals will be your best source of Intel and for the love of God, don´t take any push back on your plans as a personal challenge to your level of badassery. That´s how people end up dead or missing.
90% of backpackers have absolutely zero experience with armed robbery or combat situations. So check your pride if locals tell you the route isn´t safe for hitching. They´re just trying to help.
4. Follow the rules for road etiquette.
Believe it or not there are general rules for hitchhiking that show good manners to the driver and anyone who stops to offer a ride.
- Be ready to go before someone pulls over! I´ve come across hitchers who have their packs open and crap strewn everywhere, cooking lunch, etc. This is fine so long as you don´t expect anyone to wait for you. When a car pulls over, be ready to move.
- Offer a little something to the driver at the end of the ride. People who pick up hitchers certainly don´t expect much, but offering a few bucks for gas to your driver shows gratitude and may even gain you an offer of a place to stay or useful recommendations upon reaching your destination.
- Take the space the driver offers you. If a driver pulls over and tells you to hop in the dirty open bed of their pick up truck, don´t be a jerk and ask if you can ride in the cab. They may be uncomfortable with having a stranger riding in the car with them, or have other equally valid reasons. Unless the weather is terrible or you´ve suffered an injury, you´re not in a position to dictate the terms of your ride.
- Know your signs. Sticking your thumb out is perfectly aceptable in many places, but it´s not universally known and can even be insulting in some cultures (A thumbs up in parts of the of the Middle East and Morocco is the same as giving someone the middle finger). When in doubt, using your first finger and point out away from your body (in the general direction you plan on traveling). It´s the safest bet, when in doubt.
5. Be ready for awkward small talk with a smile.
Some drivers are talkers, especially ones traveling solo down lonely stretches of rural roads for hours on end. If you end up with a talkative driver, be polite and make small talk for a while. Even if you´re not in the mood. It beats standing on the side of the road, right?
Also, never tell someone you´re alone or have been traveling alone. Always make sure they know someone is meeting you at (name a place in your destination). Even if it isn´t true.
6. Ladies…do NOT tell drivers your BF or Hubs is meeting you somewhere.
The idea of telling strange men we have a bf or husband meeting us somewhere or even wearing a “fake wedding ring” is tired and dangerous advice these days.
Men world-wide are clued into this scam and automatically asume you´re lying when you nervously mumble something to the effect of; “Yeah, my boyfriend is meeting me in the next town”, while you casually spin a fake engagement ring on your finger.
If you´re a solo traveling woman in a scenario that requires you to explain this, tell them your brother or father is flying in and meeting you tomorrow at (name an actual hotel or hostel in your destination). Then proceed to give a short, excited explanation about how you´re looking forward to this awesome trip with (brother, father, bestie from back home, etc.). Not only do the additional details give credibility to your story, but also, family and friends are more plausable to people who inquire and will likely come looking for you. This is a much more effective, updated version of the “fake boyfirend/husband” story that works well.
Even if you have a bf or husband, use this alternative instead.
In many cultures, it´s unthinkable to let your girlfriend or wife travel alone, so you´ll be considered a liar, even if you´re telling the truth.
Stick with what works and leave the fake bling rings at home.
Well, there you have it! As I often say, simple stuff saves lives and also makes what could be a potentially miserable situation more tolerable.
Hitchhiking can be a fun and interesting experience, it just requires a little more forethought than your normal travel arrangements.
You certainly won´t be short on entertaining stories when you meet up with friends at the pub!
Until next time, keep wandering folks. Just be smart about it.