Did you know that you shouldn’t hitchhike because you might get picked up by a serial killer? Did you also know that you should never pick up a hitchhiker because they might be a serial killer?
I really want a buddy comedy flick where a serial killer ends up picking up another serial killer.
All jokes aside, hitchhiking is painted to be incredibly dangerous. Most of the time for no good reason: most of the people who I’ve met hitchhiking have been incredibly friendly and helpful, even going out of their way to get me to my destination, secure me my next ride or make sure I was fed and hydrated.
In Kosovo, a driver stopped at a gas station to buy me water, juice and snacks.
In Albania, a driver called his sister in Tirana to talk with me on the phone because he didn’t know any English.
In Germany, a driver – a rare woman – offered me her couch to sleep on for the night when it looked like I wasn’t going to reach my destination. (I declined but still.)
Hitchhiking is my favourite new hobby (to the great terror of my parents – sorry, mum!) but it does without a doubt come with certain risks. If you’re dreaming of following my footsteps (tyre marks?) and hitchhiking through Europe, read through these safety tips to prepare you for all that you might encounter.
Disclaimer: Since this is a guide to solo female hitchhikers, most of these tips will be directed towards them, but many of them apply to guys as well. And I don’t want to hear anyone complain that this post is vilifying men – the biggest threat to solo female hitchhikers are men. So go off.
Personal safety tips
TRUST YOUR GUT.
This is the most and foremost important tip I could give anyone. It’s not rude to dismiss a ride if you feel like something’s amiss; just smile and wave them along, you don’t even need to offer any explanation.
And to anyone saying, but hey, my gut just tells me I’m hungry: I thought I had no survival instincts either before last summer.
A few times I ignored my gut feeling and those ended up being the creepy encounters; I never had the same nervousness in the pit of my stomach with the other drivers who were total sweethearts. Listen to your monkey brain; it knows what it’s talking about.
This is not slut-shaming. It’s absolutely true that women get harassed on the daily, whether they’re wearing skimpy tops or burkhas; creepers gonna creep. Dressing modestly was more for my own confidence: I felt like I was doing everything in my power to message that I wasn’t interested in anything more than a ride, and I felt more comfortable being around strangers when I wasn’t showing so much skin. I did yield to shorts a few times; skinny jeans are freaking hot to wear in the summer.
Have an exit strategy.
What if something does go wrong, how are you going to get out of the situation? If the driver gets handsy, do you have the courage to slap him away? Is your backpack easily accessible in case you need to get off quickly?
I read somewhere that you should always ride with the backpack in your lap but especially on multi-hour rides I found that ridiculous and usually tried to put it on the backseat (rarely in the trunk if I could avoid it).
I also kept all my valuables – camera, phone, passport, wallet – on me at all times in a bumbag. I downloaded country-specific maps on Maps.me so that even if I didn’t have any internet, I could still get up-to-date map information and check that the driver is actually taking me the right way. (It also helps to determine best hitchhiking spots and to make sure you’re asking for lifts in the right direction.)
Oh, yeah, internet. If you can, get a local sim card with some data; having a connection to the outside world leaves you way less vulnerable in case you get stranded or need to call for help or just advice your friends on where you are.
Watch your body language
I’m a friendly rider, but I do everything I can to express that I’m just enjoying a nice chat and a view out of the window, especially if I’m alone in the car with a male driver. I don’t take eye contact – I doubt I could describe most drivers I’ve met -, and I place my cardboard sign on my lap or prop it up next to me so that even if he tried, the driver couldn’t really touch my legs or arms. I also lean into the window, and if I cross or rest my legs one way, I make sure to position them away from the driver.
Get into a relationship
I don’t care if you’re really taken: whenever a male driver asks me if I have a boyfriend, I always say yes. This might still not deter someone who is determined to harass you but most guys will drop the subject. Yes, I know, it sucks that we live in a culture where a man respects anther man’s “property” more than a woman’s right to say no – but when you’re hitchhiking, your main aims are to have fun and stay safe, and if a little white lie can help protect me, then I’ll take it.
On that note, I did sometimes get propositioned. Most of the time it was very innocent: asking me out for a coffee or to hang out after the ride, but I always politely declined and felt safe doing that. If someone asked for my Facebook or Instagram, I just told them I didn’t have social media. I really appreciate the connections I had with the people I ride with and the stories I’ve heard, but it’s a connection I intend to cut as soon as I get out of the car, and you shouldn’t feel bad for doing that either.
Budget enough to get you out of an iffy situation.
If the night’s coming and you’re left on the road with a sore thumb, make sure you have a back-up fund to check yourself into a motel for the night or catch a bus instead of a ride. If you have a sleeping bag and/or a tent, you might be able to hide yourself in some bushes and overnight somewhere nearby – but as a woman, I would never do that. I’m not afraid to camp by myself in the wilderness, but the potential dangers in city areas are far scarier to me than any army of bears and wolves.
Three tips you’ll often hear but that I don’t personally believe in:
Only get in cars with women, couples and families.
Yeah, you’re less likely to get hurt than with a single male driver; however, women are less likely to stop for a hitchhiker than men are, even if you’re female yourself; secondly, in some countries – like in most Balkan countries – many women don’t drive.
If you start cherry-picking, you might be left without a ride and get stuck in the middle of nowhere. If it makes you feel safer, you can see if it works for you.
Carry a weapon.
First of all, carrying anything that could be classified as a weapon – a pocket knife, mace, whatever – is illegal in most places in Europe. Secondly – you’re more likely to hurt yourself with something sharp than cause any real damage to a man (?) attacking you. If you know some self-defence moves, fine; I also sometimes ride with my hiking pole in my hands. But in case a situation goes very, very bad, your best bet is to try and escape rather than fight.
Hitchhike with a buddy.
Getting rides is easier if you’re alone. And, anyway, I’m a solo traveller – I wouldn’t trust someone else to want to join my crazy adventures anyway.
Traffic safety tips
– because let’s be honest, you’re more likely to be hurt by a rogue driver than a blood-thirsty murderer
Pick safe hitchhiking spots
Hitchhiking on highways is illegal in most countries, and for a good reason – high-speed traffic is a real hazard to a pedestrian on the side of the road. Make sure your driver drops you off at a bus stop, a petrol station or a quiet junction. This is not only for your own safety but also to make sure that your next ride has enough space to pull over without endangering others.
Don’t hitchhike in the dark
You have to be visible for the cars to see you! In addition, hitchhiking at night might make you want to just get out of there as quick as you can, which in turn might make you lower your defences and ignore a gut feeling about a shady ride.
Wear your seat belt (if you have one)
So obvious, yet so often ignored. Sometimes by default – doesn’t seem like Balkan drivers are big fans of safety measures.
To end with:
Would I recommend hitchhiking to others?
The simple answer is no; the more complex one is I don’t know. Hitchhiking, while mostly safe, does put you more in harm’s way than regular travel on public transportation. While most people are good and helpful, I can’t vouch for every single person in the world. Sinister people – both men, women and couples – have been known to pick up hitchhikers in the past. If I knew I’d recommended hitchhiking to someone and then they got hurt, I would feel guilty.
Assess the risks and see if it’s worth it. Because if the question was formed a little bit differently and instead stated, Would I do it again? the answer would be an unwavering YES.
Hitchhiking might be risky. But so is driving a scooter, snowboarding, riding a horse, hiking, yoga, eating street food, going on a Tinder date, crossing the street and taking a shower.
Hitchhiking is perfect for anyone fearless who already has experience on travelling and wants to try a more radical, more adventurous way to experience the world. I had never felt bolder or more confident. Hitchhiking gave me a whole new appreciation to adventure. What started out as a trick to save money, turned into a meaningful life experience. Hitchhiking is one of the best things I have ever done, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you might just enjoy it, too.