I am a very open minded sort of person and I enjoy connecting with people from all walks of life. Hitch-hiking is something I have a lot of experience with, which I feel is a bit of a taboo subject, which in and of itself, can make it more dangerous then it needs to be.
Old childhood friends, who are now parents, contacted me recently over the concern for the 18 year old brother who had not been heard from for a 24 hour period while hitch-hiking in northern BC on highways that have a reputation for people going missing. Those circumstances were unique and I won't go into those details, the brother did show up safe, but due to some of the folly that nearly cost him dearly, I felt maybe it would be appropriate for me to speak up as an experienced hitch-hiker.
Popular belief has it that hitch hiking is dangerous, and this is true, but it's actually a lot safer then what popular belief would have you believe, especially if you know the do's and don'ts of the road. Popular belief is largely based off of what we see on the news and is being perpetuated by the inexperienced, most people who teach their kids not to hitch-hike have never done it. Therefore it gives a very fear based slant with little information available about when hitch-hiking goes right.
Truth be told, I believe there is alot more positive stories out there that just aren't being spoken about because of the taboo nature of hitch-hiking. It might surprise you to know that it's very few people who actually have problems on the road compared to the amount of people who successfully hitch-hike without an issue.
I started hitch-hiking when I was 23 with the boyfriend I was dating at the time. Up until that point, I had always sworn I would never hitch-hike. But a family emergency came up for my boyfriend, and it became the only choice for getting from Kelowna to Nanaimo, BC. From that point forward, I gradually begin to hitch-hike more and more. Once I left that relationship, I started hitch-hiking small distances alone, mainly around the coast of BC but sometimes up around the Okanagan. Once out here in the east of Canada, I did quite a bit of hitch-hiking between Montreal and Toronto and one trip out to PEI from Montreal.
When I was 27, I did my 1st cross Canada hitch-hiking trip. First from Montreal to the Sunshine Coast, BC, then around BC and eventually back to Montreal. Going to BC it took 8 days and I was travelling with a tall Russian man, a friend of mine who wanted to ensure I would be safe. Coming back to Montreal I did half of the trip with a girlfriend, and the other half alone; this took a total of 3 days.
The trick is calculated risks. I have no regrets, but I also have entered each of my hitch-hiking experiences with the willingness to have full responsibility for my actions and whatever outcome there may be. The way I see it is everything in life can potentially be dangerous, we face danger on a regular basis, although I am sure we don't always realize it. I have hitch-hiked in the past because it enabled me to do something I did not otherwise have the resources to achieve.
Who picks up?
I have been picked up by families, old timers and single people. I realize it helps that I am a girl, many people view me as less threatening then a man so it opens up more options for me. The most common thing I have heard while hitch-hiking are the following comments:
"I couldn't bear the thought that you would get picked up by the wrong person."
"I used to do a lot of hitch-hiking back in the day, but now I am financially well off and want to return the favour."
"I have kids so I look at you as potentially one of my children, the more good people who pick up, the less likely a hitch-hiker will get picked up by a bad person."
"When I was a youngster, there were no buses, and hitch-hiking was normal. I want to return the favour."
"I have never picked up before, but I wanted to make sure you got safely to your destination."
"I am doing a long haul and wanted someone to talk to as it helps keep me awake."
"I have a long way to go and wouldn't mind some company."
How to safely hitch-hike:
1) Pick one person who will monitor your journey and keep in touch with that person as much as possible. Every opportunity you can access a phone (or better yet, bring a cell phone), phone and check in your progress, tell them where you plan to be hitching from, what highway etc, and where you are headed.
2) Try to have a friend to hitch-hike with, as much as possible, avoid hitch-hiking alone.
3) Know the environment, certain places are going to be safer then others. If you are hitching long distance, talk to an experienced hitch-hiker and find out what routes are more hitch-hiker friendly and avoid highways that may have an unusually high rate of missing persons.
4) Never get into a ride without talking to the driver first. Make eye contact. Ask them where they are going, why they have decided to offer you a ride. Anything to stall, so you can try to get a feel for who are dealing with and what their intentions are. Listen to your intuition; if it doesn't feel right, if you are hesitant, don't be afraid to say no. Saying no is ok and a good idea sometimes; just be polite but be firm. Someone who starts to be insistent that you should take the ride is definitely someone you should say no to, because someone who does not have ill intent will not care if you take the ride.
5) Learn to read people. I find that your first reaction/response, is the right one. Really good people you can feel that they are good people when you look in their eyes, you just know. But people who fit into the gray, there are many reasons it may not be clear. There are so many good people on the road that it isn't necessary to take a ride you are not sure about.
Bad people are obvious or will appear "grey", but a bad person will never appear to be a good person. If there is anything sketchy about a person, say no. I have seen alot of people make bad judgement calls that I saw coming, tried to warn the person but they didn't listen, largely because they did not know how to read people. Learn to read people.
6) Pick the right location. Ideally this will be somewhere public, near a gas-station, better yet, right in front of the gas station but this is only possible if the gas-station is really close to the highway as it will be the last stop for many travelers before they hit the road. If this is not possible, then go to the on ramp, just where the on ramp is about to merge with the traffic on the highway there is usually a large area appropriate for pulling over safely (remember safety must always come first for both you and the driver so think like a driver, where would you pull over if you were picking up a hitch-hiker?).
7) Have a large, bright sign painted/drawn that says the name of your next destination; this will make being picked up much much quicker then if you only use your thumb. Keep in mind alot people are not paying attention to hitch-hikers, usually due to their visibility, this will make you more eye catching but will also improve visibility for safety reasons (this will reduce the chances of being hit by a car).
Also wear light/bright colours for the same reasons as above.
8) Try to keep a smile on your face and look like you are having fun, even if it's taking a long time. People won't pick up if you yourself look negative in any way.
9) Don't hitch-hike at night. Good people generally won't pick up at night (unless you decide to be bold and stand in front of the walking traffic going in and out of a Tim Horton's near the highway) because they can't see who they are dealing with, so your chances of getting picked up by the wrong people at night is high. If you are stuck somewhere at dusk or nightfall, go pull an all nighter at a Tim Horton's, as long as you have a tea in your hand, they dont' care how long you are there and often they will turn a blind eye to a traveller (the big back-pack gives it away), even if you are sleeping with your head on the table. Or travel with a tent & sleeping bag and find a discrete place off the side of the highway to sleep.
10) Ideally try to have at least $100 emergency money on you as you never know what you might need.
11) Be grateful with your rides as they are not obliged to pick you up; you want this to be a positive experience and so be careful to leave a lasting positive impression. Be sincere, honest and take an interest in the person who picks you up.
12) Understand you are taking a risk and be mentally prepared to take full responsibility for that risk.
13) Make sure your intentions are clear with yourself, IE "I choose to be safe and reach my destination safely". This will program your psychology which in turn will help you subconsciously make a safe choice. If you are scared, don't go to the road until you are calm and ready to face this challenge. Like is attracted to like and hitch-hiking will show you this. When I have hitch-hiked scared, all the people who stopped were people I ended up needing to say no to. When I have hitch-hiked confident and happy, the people I attract are usually very positive people who it has proven to be safe to take rides with.
14) Set your intentions. Listen to your intuition.
Be wise, Be Safe!!
That's all I can think of for now to share with you about how to hitch-hike safely; I have been very successful as a safe hitch-hiker. If I think of anything else, I will update this post.
If you are planning to hitch-hike but have never done so but have any questions I have not already answered, don't be afraid to leave a comment as I will be happy to answer your questions.