Hitchhikers often debate about whether to use a sign to signal possible rides your destination.
What to write
- Think well about what place or text to put on it: use well known places, and sometimes also road names can be used or more humorous phrases ("I don't stink", "On va pas loin") - (A sign saying:'ANYWHERE!' might get people laughing but that doesn't mean getting picked up)
- Use contrasting colors: black on brown cardboard is not very good readable for passing drivers, black on white is far more readable
- Use the same font as the route directions for clarity. Orderly signs suggest orderly people - but epic rides won't depend on that!
- Write only the initial letter in capital. The human brain detects a word not only by combining a few letters, but also by recognizing the different ascenders and descenders (the heights of the different words). When writing only in capital letters you lose this advantage. That's why street signs respect the upper and lower case.
- In general, signs are useful when going out of a city, from which many roads start or if, for example, you have a junction 15 km ahead and you do not want to walk, thus writing to the junction.
- Often a big sign just saying please works wonders. People fall for the politeness if you can't get them to stop with a destination sign.
- Know your car number-plates, and you can get away with just writing a few letters - like HRO for Rostock, Germany. (see: Shortcuts)
- If you're bad in handwriting (like EliasExplores), ask people if they can write signs for you. Workers at petrol stations are often surprisingly good artists.
Often, you might use shortcuts because they need way less space on your sign. The sense of this depends on what kinds of shortcuts you use. If you just shorten a long name to a shorter, but still logically understandable one (like "Amsterdam" to "A'dam", for example), this is certainly a good idea. In some countries, you could also use the license plate shortcuts to put on a sign, e.g. Germany or Switzerland. This can also be a disadvantage - sometimes only regional+local people know them, especially if they don't really seem to make sense on the first look (like "HH" for Hamburg)
Use your nationality on a sign
If you're hitching in a foreign country, it might be a good thing to express your nationality on your sign. Drivers will think you're more interesting, or will feel sorry that someone who lives that far off has to stand by the road in his country. Also, compatriots will be more likely to pick you up.
For example, Nathan and Bob, who hitched through France had great help writing '2 belges' on their sign. guaka was successful with a sign "from Holland" in both New Zealand and in several parts of the United States, once by a Dutch girl living in Santa Cruz, most people were happy to pick him up just because they thought Holland was cool (oh and one guy was smoking weed in the car).
How to fabricate your sign
Make a sign of a large sheet of brightly colored paper glued to a sheet of cardboard. Cover this with self adhesive transparent book wrap. Now you have a re-usable sign which you can use with a whiteboard marker and clean again with a small towel.
If you have a chance to plan a long hitchhiking trip in advance, some find using an erasable white board as a sign to be very useful for making big, clear and reusable signs. This sign can be used a lot of times without being cleaned with alcohol, and is resistant to wind and water.
Another possibility is to make a sign out of two small white boards that children use at school. Just join them with enough string so that you can fold those boards like you would close a book. The benefits compared to a single white board are that this sign takes a smaller place when folded (so it fits better in your bag), and that you can write your destination in advance without it rubs out in your bag.
Reusable sign combined with map
If you're hitch-hiking long routes (ex. Europe), you can make a reusable sign on bad side (white) of the map. Cover the map with self adhesive tape, and you will have: a waterproof map and reusable sign. For easier cleaning use whiteboard markers.
Waterproof, dust-proof document bags
Make use of waterproof, dust-proof document bags. There you can store many sheets of paper and signs you can reuse. Nothing falls out, you could hang them somewhere and you can use both sides of the folder to have two signs at once. Ortlieb is one company that produces good ones.
Pad of plain A4 paper
Buy a pad of plain A4 paper, and use it inside a waterproof, dust-proof transparent plastic folder that you can find in most stationary shops. When writing, insert something under the page to stop the pen ink (or India ink) running through to the page underneath (a document bag is good for this). With a pad of paper, you can quickly flip through pages to find the sign you need. Also, the pad can be a great souvenir of your journey.
Print your sign
If you have access to a computer with a printer, you can make a quality hitch sign easily then. Since most languages read horizontally, set the page orientation to be landscape but with a size twice long as a normal A4 sheet. For a place name no longer than 9 letters, you can set the font size from 200 to 500 points to fully utilise the page size in one line; longer place names can be wrapped into two lines. Using a tiled printing software, you can print the long page to two sheets. Cut off the short tiling margin of one sheet and glue two sheets together, find a cardboard of same size and use four paper clips to pin the paper onto it, a lightweight wind-resistant hitch sign is ready to use. You don't need a waterproof sign, if you don't hitch in the rain or underwater. The plastic bag idea in previous tips will reduce contrast and introduce reflectivity. In case of that it rains, just wrap your hitch sign with the cling film from kitchen and it will work fine.
Use found materials
If you already have a lot of baggage you probably don't want to carry around another square meter of waterproofed cardboard in your backpack. Use what you find and what you can put in the next garbage can!
Don't leave your sign lying around
Some people argue that leaving your sign lying around on the street gives hitchhiking a bad impression. Make sure to take your sign with you and only dispose it in a garbage can (ideally one for paper and cardboard).
On the other hand side, some hitchhikers make sure to leave their signs behind for following hitchhikers to use or at least to see that they're not alone in the world...
When not to use signs
If your destination is really far away, writing it discourages drivers to take you nearer. E.g., if you are in Perpinyà, and you write Valencia in your map, it is unlikely that drivers heading Girona, Barcelona, Tarragona, Castelló... will stop, leaving you hundreds of miles nearer to your destination.
Some hitchhikers think it could be better not to use signs at big crowded petrol stations where it's up to you to ask people, like in the United Kingdom and Germany on motorway petrol stations (and speaking fluent English/German). It's not very likely that holding a sign will help if you can already clearly state where you want to go (and even show it on a map) and that you are hitchhiking.
Others always have a sign. To show it to people while their still in the car and then ask them when they pass by to pay for their petrol. If they don't understand what's written on it they also ask. And I already have it with me when getting out of a car, so people sometimes ask me right away if they can take me... So it's definitely good to have it. It doesn't have any negative effects so why not use it?
Cons of using signs
To use or not to use signs is one of the main points of debate among hitchhikers. In this paragraph, you'll find some (allegedly) negative things about the usage of signs.
One reason not to take a sign is if you want to have additional leverage in declining offered rides, especially as a woman hitchhiking alone. If someone stops you ask first "where are you going?" Even if they are going exactly where you want to go, if you are not comfortable with them, tell them the ride is not going to work, but thanks anyway. Ditch the sign, they will stop without it. A good compromise is to have a sign with the road name rather than your destination, this allows you to ask which direction the driver will be going.
Another reason against using a sign might be this: The driver must read it, then he's got to work out if goes in the same direction and finally he's got to decide if he likes your face and if he can stop somewhere... but then he realises that he's already passed you and that he is now 500m away from you... so he will decide to drive on! If you just use your thumb, the driver only has to decide if he likes you and if he can stop his car in this place. Whether he is going the right way or not, you can determine when he stops.
Also, the driver might see the faraway destination city on your sign, and although he doesn't want to go there, he could take you to a place in between. Most drivers don't realise how helpful they could be with these extra kilometers, so they drive on.
If you are an adept of the ultra light packing philosophy, you might not want to drag along a few extra square feet of cardboard. But then again, you're likely to find discarded cardboard anywhere you go.
Examples for Germany
Signs for hitchhiking through Germany: Write the following letter(s) on a card board sign when hitchhiking in Germany, because thus people can easily understand where you want to go to. It's always the number plate sign of the city you want to reach. For destinations with many foreign drivers it's probably better to write out the full name, e.g. there are always plenty of Polish drivers on the way from the Netherlands or Belgium towards Berlin, they might just not understand if you only put a big B.
- HH for Hamburg (the first H means Hansestadt)
- B for Berlin
- HRO for Rostock
- M for Munich/München
- DD for Dresden
- H for Hannover/Hanover
For more cities and districts check the list at Wikipedia.
Examples for Ireland
Signs for hitchhiking through Ireland: Flying signs for Irish placenames (appears alongside their English placenames on road signs) may net you some success, though this may lead to drivers expecting you to converse in Irish.
If hitchhiking into Derry/Londonderry, stick with your thumbs. The Derry/Londonderry naming dispute may lead to some tension among you and drivers if you write what they view to be the wrong one.