*The guy in the chapter picture is a guy I met in Romania by the name of Daniel. Hopefully he doesn't mind me posting him here.
On Christmas Day 2012, I was in Târgu-Mureş, Romania at a couchsurfing party along with another American I had met while I was there. At this point in my life I had never hitchhiked and the idea of doing so had never seriously occurred to me. This was the time in my European misadventure, however, that I was beginning to run out of the money I had saved up before starting the trip, and thus was becoming more and more interested in learning new methods of pinching pennies.
The timing of the Christmas party turned out to be perfect, as the Romanian host was some sort of hitchhiking-couchsurfing veteran. I don't know if he came up with the idea (probably not), but he was definitely preaching it: that one can travel intra-continentally more or less for free with the combination of couchsurfing and hitchhiking. If someone planned out their couches and destinations accordingly, he could hop from couch to couch across any number of countries from free rides of those picking him up. Sound crazy? That means it's good enough for me! I was hitchhiking within the next two days.
And thus it was in Romania that my hitchhiking experiences began.
Since then I feel like I'm a member of a secret travel-for-free club. It's not secret because the members keep their lips sealed — it's secret because, for whatever reason, no one wants to believe it. Any time I mention hitchhiking to the uninitiated (or even couchsurfing, for that matter), they immediately freak the fuck out about psychotic chainsaw-wielding rapists in flannel jackets strung out on meth and twitchy murderers with large kitchen knives always within hand's reach. If I am ever successful at getting a person past these fears, I get some long-winded and vituperative bellowing on how hitchhiking culture doesn't exist anymore, how no one would pick me up, and many other explanations appearing for all purposes to be logical and well-founded.
However, without fail, when I ask these people if they have ever hitchhiked before, the answer invariably comes back negative. Not only have these people never hitchhiked, they haven't even heard from anyone who has. Every “expert” on hitchhiking I come across doesn't have a single drop of empiricism on which to base their expertise.
Which is why I've written this article. I am by no means claiming to be an expert on the subject, but I do have a few drops of empiricism to draw from. I'm here to officially say that all the nay-sayers have their heads up their asses and there is a world of opportunity laying before anyone interested in such a mode of travel.
The reason I said that I'm not an expert when it comes to hitchhiking is because I haven't actually hitchhiked that many times. However, the reason I feel I have the grounds to say anything about the subject is that the distance I've hitchhiked is rather large. Most of my hitchhiking experience has been on 400+ kilometer trips made within single days, often involving having to catch four or five rides on the way. I've hitchhiked in Romania, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia with huge success, often not even being able to speak the language of the person giving me the ride. From what I've been able to garner, no matter what the locals in any given country say about the “hitchhiking culture”, there is always a number of people willing to pick up hitchhikers.
My Strategy (for journeys involving hundreds of miles or kilometers)
Taking the advice from the hitchhiking guru I met in Târgu-Mureş, I developed a method which I like to call "island hopping". Odysseus, on his way home from Troy, found himself on one island after another, having in-depth and riveting encounters with all sorts of crazy and unique individuals that he would never see again upon leaving each island. Hitchhiking long distances is a similar to this; chances are you're going to have a deep philosophical conversation with the person giving you a ride and you're never going to see or hear from them again. Basically, hitchhiking is the chance for you to live out your own epic poetry.
In the days leading up to when I want to travel, I sit down with a map and plan out which cities would be the best to travel through on the way to my destination. I look for main highways passing through large cities, as these will provide the highest net car-flow and highest chances of people going in my direction. I make a rough estimate on how long it will take me to reach a destination (I've found it usually takes about 60% more time to get somewhere than if you were to just drive there yourself) and I plan my couches accordingly. I then make signs with the names of each “island” written on them in big block letters so they can be read as far away as possible.
Often a driver will go out of his way to bring me to where he or she thinks is the best place to pick up the next ride, but if I'm not feeling confident on the best place to stand, I head on over to the hitchwiki, where I can find a conglomeration of information from hitchhikers all over the world in various languages. I can simply type in the name of the city in question and find specific directions on how to get to road going in the direction I want.
Lather, rinse, repeat. This can be done as long as there are roads to drive on and you have the proper paperwork to appease any guards at border-crossings.
In the wake of what I said before, it needs to be pointed out that safety is still a huge priority. Sound decision making and wisdom are in call when it comes to the final decision of whether or not to get into someone's car, as well as knowing when to get out of it. I myself have never had to turn down a ride or get myself out of a hairy situation, but it should go without saying that personal discretion needs to be used. If, after having exchanged a few words with the person offering you a ride, you for whatever reason feel uneasy about the situation, don't get into the car.
As much as I just ranted about how much it irritates me when hitchhiking “experts” talk about how the “hitching culture” doesn't exist in whatever area or country anymore, it must be noted that some countries and cultures in the aggregate view hitchhiking much differently. The best example of this I know of is ex-communist Europe. During communism, the countries there were so poor in resources and work ethic that there was no way (and possibly no desire) to fully provide the population with vehicles. The government media arms dealt with this by encouraging people to pick up hitchhikers. I spoke with a girl from Poland during my sheep herding escapade who told me that her father, who was lucky enough to have a car in Poland at the time, kept written record of the hitchhikers he gave rides to because there was some hitchhiking point system, which could be used to request certain things from the government. If I remember correctly, the girl's father was able to get a refrigerator from doing this for a couple years. Yea. You know your country's poor when...
Anyway, my point is that in ex-communist Europe, it's totally acceptable and non-strange to go hitchhiking and drivers don't think much of it to pick you up. Now, while I haven't hitchhiked in Italy, I have heard from some people who do hitchhike that if you're male, no one is going to pick you up. Italian men apparently are too macho to aid another guy, and generally misogynistic enough that if you're a girl hitchhiking in Italy, you probably don't want to be picked up.
But! You never know until you try. Just keep in mind things will change from culture to culture.
The Hard Part: Getting Someone to Stop (and my algebraic breakdown of it)
Alright, so this section is the point of the whole article. The whole mythos of hitchhiking boils down to one simple problem: getting a car to stop for you. There are all sorts of things to worry about and deal with when hitchhiking; talking with the driver about where you're both going, getting a feel for the safety of the driver, keeping up a decent conversation during the ride, talking the driver into dropping you off some place useful, etc. But if no one actually pulls over next to you, you're not going to have to worry about any of these things.
As I'm a mathematically-minded person who likes to break down and analyze the components of things, during hitchhiking I often found myself mathematically analyzing and breaking down what goes into a person deciding to pull over for me. If the illogical mess of garbage-reasoning I get from people about why someone shouldn't hitchhike isn't bad enough, listening to someone go off at the very mention of picking up a hitchhiker is like being serenaded by a banshee. But this raises a very serious question: how do you get someone to stop for you? The former problem is easily dealt with by ignoring the person freaking out at you and going hitchhiking anyway, but what do you do about a driver's inhibition to give you a ride? How do you determine your chances of a car stopping for you at all?
After much deliberation, here's what I came up with:
X = A * B * C * D * E
Each of these variables breaks down even further. I'll go over them one at a time.
Prime Variable A = number of cars that pass by you in a certain amount of time
This variable includes:
Variable B = % of A driving in your direction or to your destination
This variable includes:
Variable C = % of B that will stop for hitchhikers.
This variable includes:
Variable D = % of C that will stop for you (i.e. the psychology of the driver stopping).
This variable includes:
Variable E = % of D that can stop for you (i.e. the physics of the driver stopping)
This variable includes:
That's it. All these variables basically fall into three groups:
The controllable variables (A, B, and E) are pretty easy to take into account, modify, and get the hang of with a little practice and some preparation.
The uncontrollable variable (C) is obviously, well, uncontrollable, so there's no use in worrying about it.
The big deal here is variable (D). If you do everything else perfectly and screw up variable D, you're probably not going to get a ride. If you nail D perfectly and screw up everything else, you may not get a ride, but you will probably be able to figure out quickly WHY you're not getting a ride (no cars driving by, no place to stop, standing on the wrong side of the road, etc.) and easily fix it. It's all about what you can communicate to the driver in the 5-10 seconds he has to see you, make a decision that he likes you, make a decision to stop, then be able to stop and pick you up.
I cannot emphasize the usage of a sign enough. This communicates two things to the driver. The first is, obviously, where you're going. The second, that you're organized enough to plan out what you're doing, giving you less of a creepy vibe. Remember, the driver has merely seconds to decide whether or not to pull over, and the slightest inhibition can eat those seconds up. So even after deliberation the driver decides he does want to pick you up, it might be too late because he has already driven past you. This also applies to your destination; the driver wondering if he's even going in a useful direction for you also eats up those precious seconds, and you holding a sign communicates immediately to the driver whether or not he can give you a ride in the right direction.
If your destination is a long ways away, consider holding two signs at once. For example, when I was hitchhiking from Vienna to Munich, I knew there was a chance that someone was driving straight to Munich, but I also knew that there was a better chance that someone was driving just to Salzburg (Salzburg is on the way to Munich). So I just drew up both a Salzburg and a Munich sign and held them both at the same time at the freeway entrance in Vienna. This let everyone know that my final destination was Munich, but if someone was only going to Salzburg, I would take that, too.
If you're interested in actual experiences, in one of my stories I wrote a detailed description of my 8-hour hitchhiking adventure from Vienna to Augsburg, which you can read here. For a shorter hitchhiking escapade, check out the beginning of my Slovenia story.
Now go forth and begin your hitchhiking adventures, and let me know if this article helps you in doing so.Back to Vyst's commentaries.