A sign is a tool used by a Hitchhiker to communicate information to drivers. Signs typically - but do not always - directly inform the driver of the hitchhiker's desired destination. Hitchhikers often debate about whether and how to use a sign. This article is meant to compile many of the best tips so you can develop your own technique.
When to not use a sign or not
To use or not to use signs is one of the main points of debate among hitchhikers. There are a lot of factors to consider in whether a sign is a good idea.
- Do you have time and materials to make a good one?
- Are people going to be able to read it?
- Is it going to be easier to just talk to drivers?
Consider this: the driver must read the sign; 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 decide to stop sooner.
At petrol stations and rest stops
Some hitchhikers rely on gas stations and rest areas and advise talking directly to people rather than using signs. This can be more effective at big crowded petrol stations, like at petrol stations on motorways in the United Kingdom and Germany. This obviously won't work if you don't have some mastery of the language (perhaps with an intriguing accent). Some hitchhikers think that 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 use these stops with signs, for example, by hold up a sign near the entrance instead of approaching people. This can be less intrusive and reduce the likelihood of being kicked off property. When using a sign at stops, the techniques from this articl on what to write generally also apply. For more info, see the articles on gas stations and rest stops.
Easier to decline rides
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.
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.
With significant local traffic
Sometimes local traffic won't stop for someone travelling a long distance, because they don't realize that every little bit helps. Many hitchhikers abandon signs in these situations. There are, however, various techniques for different types traffic (see What to write
What to write
What you write on the sign should depend a lot on what kind of traffic you're seeing. Generally, a good idea is to use the shortest abbreviation for a place that is well known by the most traffic. You can often determine where vehicles are registered by reading license plates
The most obvious thing to write is the place you're going. This is most effective if you're already on a major route there with little local traffic (more drivers traveling long-distance). The place or abbreviation needs to be well-known to the drivers at your location.
A route to your destination
From a branching road, writing the name and possibly direction of the major highway to your destination can be more effective. Sometimes getting to the motorway can be half the battle, but once there, you'll have access to the long-distance traffic you need.
For example, to get to San Francisco from Los Angeles, you first need to get to I-5, which is on the far western side of the city. If you can't find public transportation, hitching with a sign saying "I-5" will be most effective because it will signal to people going to the western side of L.A. as well as long-distance drivers going to San Fran, Sacramento, or San Diego
A town closer than your destination
This technique is useful for distance travel on highways with lots of local traffic. If you see lots of local license plates for local traffic, with little traffic going all the way to your destination, this is a good technique.
Consider that the drivers are also thinking, "Oh, I'm not going to <destination>. I'm only going to <locality>. I'll let someone else pick him up." The trick here is to write the next locality on the sign. This encourages the local traffic to stop. Even people who are going a few towns further than the place on the sign will now also stop, because they know they can drop you off on the way. Once you mention you are actually going to your destination, drivers typically take you as far as they're going. Since locals are going to be more familiar with how well-known place names are, it's a good idea to ask your driver what's a good town to put on the next sign. Since you'll be making many signs rapidly with this technique, it's a good idea to carry lots of cardboard or a reusable sign.
A city farther than your destination
A similar but less common technique is to put a major, better known city, even though you aren't travelling that far. The conditions required for this to be effective are rare, but not impossible: you must be going to a local place, but going there on a major long-distance thoroughfare. If you become reasonably certain that the traffic is mostly distance and may not be familiar with the town you're going to, switching to a sign for a distant city can be the right move.
If your direction is clear and you are just seeking to get somewhat further on that road, a sign telling rough (and short) distance is very helpful. "20 km" works the best from User:Duffajfka's experience, you often don't need to write another sign for your next ride and it can get you to surprising places while keeping the confidence aspect in comparison to not having any sign at all. Be aware about the local perception though, for example "KM" means the currency in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a mile is understood as 10 km in the Nordic countries, and around Moscow the number of kilometers is generally understood as one from the centre of Moscow, not from your own location.
You don't have to write a place on your sign to use a sign effectively.
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.
You can always put something funny, like "I don't stink" on you're sign, if you're feeling silly. A sign saying "ANYWHERE!" might get people laughing, but might not get you picked up. Sometimes, goofy things you write on your sign can discourage stopping, for example if you're perceived as a drifter or mentally ill.
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.
How to write
Visibility is important, because you want the sign to be read from far away. That way, drivers have time to make decisions. Faster traffic requires bigger signs. Keep these things in mind:
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)
Airport abbreviations can also be used in some circumstances. "PHL" makes a great sign to get to Philadelphia, but if you're near the city, people will think you want a lift to the airport. Some airport abbreviations are not widely understood, such as MSY in New Orleans.
- 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.
- 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.
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 (e.g. 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 scavenged 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!
Sign use by country/region
The two- or three- letter code on the first part of license plates represents the region where the vehicle is registered... and also widely understood by the average German and used frequently by German hitchhikers on signs. Not every German knows the abbreviation for every locality, but it would be fair to say that the typical German knows all the major German cities as well as the abbreviations in the local region.
For destinations with many foreign drivers it's probably better to write out the full name. For example, there are always plenty of Polish drivers on the way from the Netherlands or Belgium that pass through Berlin, but might not understand what "B" is.
Here are some examples:
- HH for Hamburg (the first H means Hansestadt)
- B for Berlin
- M for Munich
- H for Hannover
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 naming dispute may lead to some tension among you and drivers if you write what they view to be the wrong one.
The two-letter state abbreviations are widely understood across the country. However:
- Some Americans might confuse the the M-states that aren't nearby (MS,ME,MO,MT,MN,MI... it can be confusing.)
- Oklahoma, abbreviated as OK, might be perceived as just saying "OK" if you aren't near it.
- Hawaii is abbreviated as HI, but if you're hitching there you probably don't need a sign. See hitchhiking_on_boats.
- "LA", Louisiana can be easily confused with "L.A.", Los Angeles
Many states are also less-frequently referred-to by a three-, four-, or five-letter abbreviation. They're widely understood too.
- Cali. or Calif.
- Ala. or 'Bama
Some long city name abbreviations:
- New York can be "NYC"
- Los Angeles can be "L.A.", but don't get confused with LA, which is ]]Louisiana]]!
- Philadelphia can be "Philly" or "PHL", but don't get confused with the airport. (See the section on Airport abbreviations.)
- Oklahoma City is "OKC".
- Kansas City is "KC".
- San Francisco is "SF".
- New Orleans is "NO" or "NOLA", though these aren't always understood outside the southeast.
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...
I, Dr.Keith developed the technique for using signs with local traffic (I'm probably not the only one) while tramping from Folkstone to Brighton in August 2011. After having no luck with a "Brighton" sign, I started using smaller, more local place names, to great success.
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).