I did done a ton of solo hitch-hiking both during and after my PCT thru-hike — over a thousand miles and many dozen hitches. I learned a lot about hitching and from hitching and thought I’d share with you.
Before my thru-hike it never occurred to me to hitch-hike. Not only that but it seemed dangerous and rather taboo. But on a thru-hike it becomes not only necessary but mostly fun. And for me, I wondered not only why I had never done it before, but why not keep doing it? And so after my hike, I continue to hitch-hike.
Of course I’ve seen firsthand that it is easier to get a ride when you’re a female (or two or three females) on the side of the road. The minute you pair up with a guy it gets a little trickier. But there are things anybody can do to make it more likely they’ll get picked up.
- Make a sign. The sign should say in LARGE, bold letters what your destination is. People should be able to read it from far enough away that they have time to stop! Use dark ink on cardboard. Keep it simple and uncluttered, and obviously, legible. Prop up your sign so you can thumb, or figure out a way to do both. A second person can help share duty.
- Keep vibes good. Cursing at every vehicle that passes you will put you in a foul mood and it will show. It’s also crap for your car-ma.
- Smile and wave. Look fun and friendly. Don’t look like a grumpy psycho.
- Hold your thumb out, arm fully extended (but not into the road), thumb straight up. Don’t wait until the vehicle is upon you to put your thumb out — make sure it’s obvious you are hitching!
- Take off your hat and sunglasses, tie back your hair, and step out from under the sunbrella. Let people see your face and eyes! They need to be able to size you up quickly and easily.
- Put away your hiking poles, knife, ice axe, and take off your backpack. Sit it on the ground next to you, and have everything very ready to put in the ride. Keep your cash, cards, ID, and phone on your person (i.e. in your pocket or handbag).
- Stand somewhere that your hitch can easily pull over. Stand where there is traffic, and if possible, where there is also turn-on traffic, such as near a gas station, rest stop, or on-ramp. Always try to get the most exposure possible, and take advantage of slowed traffic.
- Stand, do not sit. Stand in a clear area away from poles and trees and shade that might block drivers’ view of you and your sign.
- Wear your cleanest and handsomest clothes. Wear your short shorts and show off your legs. Pack away your smelliest things and try to make yourself smell as nice as possible. Some hikers write “PCT Hiker” on their sign to distinguish themselves from bums.
- If you start to get frustrated that nobody is stopping, try my “peepee dance” trick. Bounce slightly at the knee as if you really have to pee, or actually, more like you are in a hurry to get to something important, like a funeral that started an hour ago. It’s really important you get a ride! Look a little bit desperate. Look like everyone so far has passed you and you’re reeeeeeally hoping this car will be the one!
- When someone stops, show respect for the person’s time and hustle to the vehicle!
- Introduce yourself right away, before you load your things. “Hi I’m REAL NAME. Thank you so much for stopping!” Don’t bother freaking out strangers with your trail name; they’re already nervous enough. Trail names are fun, but unless you know your hitch is PCT-savvy, this is borderline weird.
- Ask right away how far they are going, before you load your things. “How far are you going?” If they are only able to take you a fraction of the distance you need to go, do not hesitate to say, “Oh, shoot, thanks so much for stopping but I’m going to wait for someone who can take me all the way; I’d hate to be hitch-hiking all day.” Unless you are desperate for some reason, hold out for long-haul rides.
- Be considerate of where you load your things. Are they in reach? Does that freak out the driver? I’ve had drivers get anxious when I go to pull things out of my bag. Think about it: they might be worried you’re pulling out a weapon! Have the things you’ll need in hand, in a small bag, and reveal them early. Be very cautious about reaching into a bag while the driver is driving. It’s a bit cruel, and goes into dangerous territory, especially if the driver is high, high-strung, or unstable. Be cautious of putting your things in the truck bed or trunk, as the driver could just as easily drive off with them before you have a chance to grab them. Just be aware and make plans.
- Assess your surroundings. Look for things that could be used as a weapon against you… or by you. Look for door locks, will you be able to unlock them ad lib? Remember windows (and other things) can be smashed with hiking pole tips. Put on your seatbelt.
- Ask permission before eating or smoking. Try to keep your language clean. If you stink horribly, go ahead and apologize. Stay off the topics of religion and politics.
- Give clear directions.
- Remember that the driver is likely a little scared and nervous. Most people that pick up hitch hikers have hitched themselves, many have read or heard “Wild,” and some of them just have a death wish. Thing is, they will likely be chatty. You might not even need to say a word. They might get confessional and tell you an awkward story. The way I see it is, I’m getting a free ride — they’re getting free therapy. Just listen.
- If you didn’t thumb the ride (i.e. if you are on a shuttle) and especially if there is a tip jar on the dashboard, put money in it! Don’t be a cheapskate.
Never be afraid to NOT get in someone’s vehicle.
- Remember just because it’s their vehicle and they’re stopping doesn’t mean you have to get in. If for any reason you get a bad feeling about the vehicle (bad bumper stickers, expired plates, low air in the tires, evidence of drugs or alcohol, an unbearable odor that isn’t you, weird pets, bad hair, just a feeling, etc.), DO NOT GET IN THE VEHICLE. A classic excuse is the fumble where you suddenly realize you forgot your phone at the hostel or market and “I’m so glad I remembered! Have a nice day, thanks anyway for stopping!”
- Watch traffic. If you see a vehicle go one way, then turn around and come your way to pick you up, it’s creepy. Unless the driver seems immediately PCT-savvy (as in like, “Heeeeeey hiker trash! You goin’ to the Andersons? I’m shuttling!”) and really cool, turn down the ride.
- Keep a mobile device in hand, and be connected. Go ahead and photograph the driver’s license plate before you get in the vehicle. It doesn’t matter if they see you, just say you’re emailing it to your mom because you told her you always would. And then really do email it to someone who cares. I’ve had times when I’ve gotten nervous with a driver and gotten my device out and started tracking GPS (to make sure they were taking me where I was hoping to go) and sending emails; it pays to be connected.
- Remember there is a LOT of scary criminal activity near the PCT in California, especially along the major freeways (10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, etc). Interstate 5 is also a major trafficking route (humans, drugs, guns, you name it). Freeway rest stops are extremely unsafe for single women. And just when you thought you were safe, forest roads can present the possibility of sketchy run-ins especially with drunk hicks shooting guns for fun and folks running illegal marijuana grows. Keep your wits about you. If you see activity that spooks you on the road, stay in the woods! I once hesitated to cross a forest road in Washington because men were shooting guns. When I approached I whistled loudly; they were in their trucks and gone in seconds, leaving behind a cloud of dust. Hm.
- Drivers will offer to take you home, feed you, let you have a room, a shower, etc. It happens a lot. Feel free to say no. Use extreme caution, then again, often this is a great opportunity to make really interesting new friends. This summer a hitch near Julian, California suddenly veered on the road and took me and another hiker to his home, offering us gold. My friend looked at me with the, “What’s the worst that could happen?” look, which was hilarious. Though home was a hovel and the yard littered with beer cans, he did indeed reward us both with vials of gold after showing us his magnificent rock collection.
- Drivers will occasionally stop and say they’ll drive you, but only if you pay. This is EXTREMELY rare, and sort of against the whole “ethic” of hitch-hiking (if there is one). If it were me, I’d tell them thanks but no thanks. It’s a strange behavior to encourage.
- Male drivers will often say sorta creepy and skeezy things to females without realizing it, and/or on accident, because they are nervous. Traveling as a solo female I am sensitive to this. It happens a lot, but nothing comes of it. Yet. I would give the guys one “get out of jail free” card, but definitely stay alert.
- Asking to be let out of a car is a tricky thing. I’ve discussed the art of evacuation with many people, but nobody I’ve talked to has ever done it before. I’ve never done it before, but have wanted to. The special intimidation of being a woman in a man’s car, enduring whatever sort of torture he’s laying down and being afraid to ask to leave, is another story. Worse comes to worse, just start by asking to stop to use the bathroom, or say you forgot something and will need to hitch back, or just demand to be let out.
- Don’t hitch high or drunk and don’t get high or drunk with hitches. This is just a no-brainer. I’ve seen the rule broken, but it’s not one I would break myself as a solo female hitcher.
- DO NOT HITCH AFTER DARK. Just don’t do it. It’s such a bad idea for so many reasons. Make it a standing rule and stick to it, OK? For me?
- Don’t burden a hitch with your problems. If you are starving, lost, lonely, bored, horny, or just losing your mind, try to keep it to yourself. If you are carrying illegal drugs, it’s not really cool to burden a hitch with that, either.
- Don’t make a bad name for other thru-hikers or hitch-hikers. Just keep it fun and light as possible. Most likely your hitch will be delighted with your tales of adventure. You have inspired someone and made them glad they picked you up. Good car-ma!
Hitching is made to sound illegal in the states along the PCT, but the basic law is this: don’t hitch-hike on a roadway. The law is there for your safety. Hitch from a sidewalk or a parking lot or rest stop, and you are legal. Hitch-hike on a shoulder or dirt, and you might be illegal depending on the officer. That said, I have never been stopped hitching in Oregon, California, or Washington and have in fact been passed by several state troopers with my thumb out, standing on asphalt.
Some vehicles aren’t really worth thumbing for, and those are: semis, tractors, delivery trucks, fire trucks, police vehicles, buses, RVs, fully-loaded vehicles, vehicles with children in them, and vehicles driven by solo females. All these are very unlikely to stop for you, so maybe save your energy.
If a driver points, sometimes he is indicating he will be stopping up ahead for you. But most often he is giving you the sign language (also indicated by a pinching gesture) that he is turning off the road shortly or only going a short distance. Be thankful for drivers who communicate because most drivers would rather ignore you (and it will make you feel small after a while). Smile and wave.
Look to your right occasionally. Sometimes a car will have stopped and not even be noticed!
Hit roads during peak traffic times. Some passes get more traffic when people are headed to and from work, or on weekends and holidays. If you have a difficult hitch ahead, sometimes it’s helpful to time your approach.
A lot of hikers on the trail means a lot of hitch-hikers, sometimes at the same time. I’ve heard of as many as five hikers getting a ride at the same time, but it’s usually best to be in pairs. Pairing women with men is popular as two women will have great luck and two men will have poor luck. But don’t necessarily think any female hiker owes a guy to be his “ride bride.” Remember that guy might be slowing her hitch mojo way down. From a female perspective, this can get really, really annoying. I’ve sat hitching for an hour plus with a man who glommed on to me, knowing fully I could have been picked up in minutes if left alone. And yes, I resented him for it.
If you get to a road crossing and there are many people hitching, you can walk up or down the road but either way, it might be considered a “dick move.” Being downwind of hitching hikers gives passing drivers time to consider, feel guilty, and they will likely pick you up. Heading upwind of hitching hikers allows you first dibs and might be seen as icky, too. I have walked far upwind solo in order to have time to up-sell my friends to a driver and get her to pull over for my friends, too. (Yes, I am the ultimate Yogi.) I’ve also been left behind by hiker friends getting a ride, slamming the door and driving off just as I hit the road behind them. Irritating? Yes. But oh, well.
Sometimes there is sign-sharing in groups of hitchers. The first group uses a hitching sign and then leaves it for the next group to use. Last group carries it out (leave no trace).
Ultimately, everyone gets a ride and I don’t think anyone actually stays sore about who got a ride first. Just do what you gotta do. It’s not a competition and as far as I know there are no rules. Just be polite, fair, and share.
Good Luck and Happy Hitching!
Hitch-hiking is a fun and economical way to travel, and a great — practically cosmic — way to meet people. I hope you enjoy it, too!