The distance covered may vary from a short distance that could also be walked, to a long journey involving many rides. Those who choose to hitchhike usually do so for one of two reasons: necessity (no funds, no transportation) or adventure (serendipitous travel, meet new and unexpected people)
Hitchhiking is forbidden in some areas, such as near prisons. In some cases, a local government may ban it altogether. Certain US states have created conditional bans, such as Utah, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Nevada; it is frequently illegal on the actual shoulder of Interstate highways, but usually not from the highway on-ramp (entrance).
To obtain a lift in many parts of the world, including North America, hitchhikers traditionally stretch out one arm and stick out their thumb. Car drivers understand this to be a sign that the person requests a lift. A hitchhiker may also hold a sign with the name of their destination. This is primarily for the benefit of truck drivers, so that the driver does not have to stop their large vehicle to find out where the hitchhiker is headed.
In some areas, other signals may be used. (This may be because the traditional gesture with the thumb has an offensive meaning in that region.) For example, in South Africa, a hitchhiker may show an oncoming car the back of his hand with the index finger raised, rather than the thumb. In Poland, the hand is held flat, and waved. In India, the hand is waved with the palm facing downwards. In Israel the sign is a stretched forefinger pointed toward the road.
Often nothing is given or performed in exchange for the lift, but some hitchhikers will contribute money for fuel and others will feel the provision of company on the trip is itself a worthy contribution. (This would not normally be the case when getting a ride in a commercial vehicle, such as a cargo truck.)
A hitchhiker may have several reasons to travel in this way, amongst them:
- not being able to afford alternative means of transportation;
- where no public transport is available and one has no own vehicle available; one can distinguish:
- because of social equality reasons (semi-force vehicle owners who would not normally use public transport to share the ride with the public by "bringing the bus to muhammad);
- because of ecological and political reasons (reducing dependency on fossil fuels);
- for the challenge of using limited resources to reach a destination;
- for the sense of adventure that not knowing where you will be at the end of the day presents;
- for the sheer and simple love of it (many hitchhikers are known to become pasionately enthusiastic about this mode of travel);
A mixture of the first two reasons is when the only alternative is an expensive taxi.
Car drivers may also have several reasons to give lifts, for instance because:
- they want companionship;
- they have hitchhiked themselves and know how hard it can be;
- simple good will;
- Requests for drugs and/or sex;
- a sense of social responsibility (e.g. sharing resources, filling single occupant vehicles);
Hitchhiking is often resorted to by stranded motorists or people without money or transportation such as the homeless while others engage in it as a passion or even sport.
Although most hitchhiking occurs without incident, it has a bad reputation with some people. Some criminals who prey on the good will of others to rob or molest have masqueraded as hitchhikers to procure victims, or picked up unsuspecting hitchhikers themselves. There is some dispute as to whether it is actually less safe to hitchhike now than in the past, or if simply more reporting increases the visibility of negative examples - see #Safety below.
This appears to be restricted to the western world however. For example, many eastern European governments firmly supported hitchhikers and in many eastern European and developing nations it is still a very mundane and ordinary occurrence, with hitchhikers a part of the ordinary social landscape, in some places crowding one another out waiting for rides.
Any number of urban legends are told about hitchhiking, in which either the hitchhiker or the car driver may take on the role of a bogeyman. For example, some stories have the driver as a ghost, or the hitchhiker as an escaped convict. The folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand wrote an entire book titled The Vanishing Hitchhiker, using the Vanishing Hitchhiker legend (references) as his prototype.
Chances of getting a ride
There are many things to consider that affect the hitchhiker's chances of catching a ride. Some of these include:
Traffic density: Catching a ride does of course depend on there being people to offer one. If someone is trying to hitchhike and only sees a vehicle go by every half-hour, it may be to their advantage to walk to a more frequently travelled road. There does however appear to be a maximum as well. Once the frequency of the traffic becomes too high, the chance of someone stopping actually appears to drop. This may occur for various reasons:
- Heavy traffic makes stopping more dangerous, so one may feel less inclined to do so;
- Often, areas with heavy traffic include a large number of local vehicles that are not going any significant distance;
- People may not feel as compelled to pick up a passenger if there are a large number of vehicles on the road, thinking that someone else will pick them up anyway;
Traffic speed: The actual speed of the traffic plays a major role in the chances of someone stopping. If a vehicle is moving at high speed, it takes considerably more effort to stop and then get back up to speed than it does if they are moving at a slower pace to start with. For this reason, one of the best places to catch a ride is immediately after an intersection or any other place where vehicles are forced to stop or slow down.
Road condition: In order for someone to stop and pick up a passenger, the road must offer a relatively safe means of doing so. Most drivers will pull over to the shoulder of the road if one is available. If there is no place for a driver to pull off of the road, then the traffic needs to be light enough that one can stop in the road without obstructing it.
Presentation: The way a hitchhiker presents themselves is another major factor in how likely they are to catch a ride. Usually, someone's chance of catching a ride is far greater if they look clean and non-threatening. Standing in the well-lit place offers drivers a good chance to look at you before stopping. Showing one's destination (by holding a sign for instance) will also help. In the case of a longer journey, having backpack visible tells drivers that you are a serious backpacker, not a local, seeking to get a short ride. (this is important in less developed countries, where hitching complements regular public transportation)
Weather: A little bit of rain or other precipitation can work in the hitchhiker's favor, since many drivers will feel sorrier for the hitchhiker. Too much, however, can hurt the hitchhiker's chances, because drivers will be less eager to have a wet passenger getting their car seats wet or muddy.
Hitchhiking in literature
The writer Jack Kerouac immortalized hitchhiking in his book On The Road. The road has a fascination to Americans; countless writers have written of the road and/or hitchhiking such as John Steinbeck, whose book The Grapes of Wrath opens with a hitched ride. Roald Dahl wrote a short story called The Hitchhiker, in which he uses the idea that you can hear fascinating stories when giving people a lift to introduce one of his trade-mark eccentric characters. Another lesser known author, a lifetime hitchhiker named Irv Thomas, incorporates hitchhiking into his writing perspective and lifestyle [Innocence Abroad: Adventuring Through Europe at 64 on $100 Per Week], as well as recounting his hitchhiking travels [Derelict Days] in a memoir. Douglas Adams postulated on interstellar hitchhiking in his cult classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
An avid researcher into the phenomenon of hitchhiking, Bernd Wechner , has compiled an extensive literature on hitchhiking comprising many hundreds of works from newspaper articles, to research papers and books. A good body of this work is scanned and can be shared electronically with other researchers. The beginnings of a project to make this library available on-line to researchers (in as far as copyright owners permit this) appears on-line . The scanned library has been converted to text with OCR software, but volunters are required to adopt individual works, proof read and copy edit them, for re-publication on-line. Contact Bernd Wechner for further information .
The safety of hitchhiking varies from country to country. It's rumoured that the most dangerous country for hitchhiking in Europe is Poland. In the United States, where hitchhiking had been a fairly common means to travel from one location to another well into the 1970s, especially among younger people, the practice has greatly declined in the past several decades to the point that is extremely rare to see people hitchhiking in the US today, in part because of the supposition that it is unsafe.
There have been very few efforts to objectively study the safety of hitchhiking. Two notable efforts include:
California Crimes and Accidents Assciated with Hitchhiking, Operational Analysis Section, California Highway Patrol (CHP), 1974 Conclusion: the results of this study do not show that hitchhikers are over-represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers. When considering statistics for all crimes and accidents in California, it appears that hitchhikers make a minor contribution.
Anhalterwesen und Anhaltergefahren, BKA-Forschungsreihe, Sonderband, Wiesbaden, 1989 Conclusion: The current study has demonstrated, that the potential danger while hithchiking is significantly lower that it is estimated to be and therefore the sharing of rides by and with strangers can very well be included in transport planning.
Neither work was highly publicized. The authors of the German study, easily the most recent and comprehensive study suggest very real efforts to suppress and discredit their results. Such is the apparent strength of the conviction that hitchhiking must be unsafe, that objective evidence is anything but popularized and lauded.
In summary: there is a dominant belief that hitchhiking is dangerous, but every effort to find actual evidence of this danger objectively has been unable to do so.
In Poland, during the communist regime period, hitchhiking was institutionalized. Many people would have a formal document for recording travels and they would give the driver confirmation that the travel occurred. Soviet Union instituted coupon system that benefited the driver. It was probably similar in other communist countries. Hitchhiking was likely considered much safer in Poland at that time. In Cuba, truck drivers are still obliged to pick up hitchhikers. And in Romania hitchhiking is so much part of the culture that it's often hard to get a lift due to the intense competition.
In Eastern Europe, especially Lithuania and Russia hitchhiking turns into adventure sport. There are Hitchhiking clubs with regular gatherings, hitchhiking schools, competitions, hitchhiking gear, etc. From 1992 to 1993 Russian hitchhiker Alexey Vorov made a first trip around the world, hitchhiking by cars, planes and boats.
- Tips for hitchhiking at Wikitravel
- Worldwide Database of places for Hitchhikers
- The Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend
- digihitch.com - A hitchhiking culture portal
- Board for offering and setting up rides in advance
- Vilnius Hitch-hiking Club - leading hitchhiking community in EU
- The Art of Travel - Hitchhiking
- Suite101 : Hitchhiking
- The Neglected Art of Hitch- hiking: Risk, Trust and Sustainability by Graeme Chesters and David Smith (2001)
- Trampstop - Hitchhiking in Germany
- Hitchhiking Mailinglist
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to North America
- Mini-Guide to Hitchhiking The psychology of thumbing a ride
- Hitchhiking from England to India Free, full-length book