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Are Female Hitchhikers a Disappearing Breed?

Female hitchhikers aren't as common as they used to be, and with good reason.

The media is full of scary stories about women and teenage hitchhikers being picked up, kidnapped, raped and even killed. It's certainly enough to keep you off the roads, especially if you're a solo backpacking woman.

Yet there are plenty of blogs and posts by women thumbing their way around, and you'd be surprised at how many do so, despite the dire media warnings.

I'm divided on this - I've hitchhiked alone but I haven't particularly liked it - I've had to be on my toes and quite alert. Still, I'd do it again if I had to, especially in those countries where hitching is perfectly acceptable, safe and legal.

At first sight it would seem unthinkable for a lone female to hitch a ride on her own.

Surprisingly, though, women actually have certain advantages on the road. Believe it or not, there are times when female hitchhikers are actually safer. Families and women drivers may stop to give you a ride, even if they'd never consider it normally, possibly to 'save' you from danger at the hands of someone else. For obvious reasons, women also tend to get picked up faster.

If you've decided to hitchhike from one place to the next, make sure you put every chance on your side.

What are good spots for female hitchhikers to catch a ride?

Anywhere but downtown! Always head to the edge of town to improve your chances of getting a ride.

A good place for female hitchhikers is a gas station - you'll have an opportunity to check out your potential ride before you get into the car, not to mention a place to use the bathroom and buy drinks and food if you're stranded.

Toll booths on a motorway are great - as long as it's legal, because in many countries it isn't. But always use a sign with your preferred destination written clearly. There's nothing worse than forcing someone to squint and swerve trying to decipher your scrawny penmanship. This spot doesn't work where the toll booths are many lanes wide, because drivers will be too far away to see you.

Many roads have trucking stops. Get there early in the morning or at lunchtime and you'll probably score a ride with a trucker.

And then there's by the roadside, usually the most common refuge for hitchhikers. Just stick out your thumb (depending on the country) or raise your sign, make eye contact, and wait. Just make sure you stand in a place that gives drivers time to stop safely. Drivers often give hitchhikers a miss because they'd probably cause an accident if they tried to stop.

TIP: Wear something bright when you stand by the side of the road and leave enough room for vehicles to pass safely.

Try to minimize the size of your pack, and, don't forget your road map, rain poncho and a bottle of water to stay hydrated, as well as some dried fruit and nuts to snack on. You never know how long you might be waiting.

At stations, tollbooths and stops, you can pick and choose your ride by simply asking, which increases your margin of safety. By the roadside, you're more at the mercy of someone you won't even see until the vehicle stops.

Safety for female hitchhikers

Female hitchhikers obviously have more particular and strenuous safety needs when hitchhiking. We mostly hear about grisly murders and kidnappings, and they do of course happen. But many women hitchhike relatively safely - some swear by it, but some would never do it again.

These basic safety tips should help if you plan on hitchhiking, especially if you're a woman or teen hitchhiker:

  • don't hitch at night - in many countries, female hitchhikers are often sex workers looking
  • which leads to the next safety tip: don't wear revealing clothes, or you'll be mistaken for the above, or for someone looking for sex
  • look and act self-confident - people with bad intentions tend to look for potential victims, not fighters
  • when going towards your ride, try to memorize it's licence plate - and use your cell to send it to a friend
  • find out where they're going before you volunteer where you're headed - it gives you time to check them out and decline the ride if you don't like the look of them, because yes, it is your right to say no
  • don't get into a car with a man alone (or worse, with several men!) - a couple is better, a family is best (though plenty of solo female hitchhikers do ride with men - if they feel non-threatening)
  • make sure your doors stay unlocked, especially if you have to sit in the back - check that the child locks aren't activated
  • if a driver looks drunk or stoned, don't get in!
  • never fall asleep in someone's car - always stay alert...
  • don't hitchhike when you're tired or you might not notice if the driver takes a different route, or becomes ever so slightly more suggestive
  • keep your valuable travel documents in your travel money belt on you, in case you have to make a rapid exist
  • prepare some conversation topics beforehand - it'll save you from long moments of silence which might veer towards you as a topic - families and children are usually good topics, and send the signal that you're a decent everyday person
  • consider carrying pepper spray or similar spray (foam is even better in confined spaces) where legal - and telling the driver, if you feel a bit unsafe; remember, he is stuck driving, and you have more freedom of action, including a handbrake you can grab
  • if you feel uncomfortable or ill at ease, get out of the vehicle as soon as you can - you can ask to be let off early, if this seems realistic, or pretend you're motion sick and begin throwing up (that should usually get a driver to stop or abandon suspicious intentions)
  • above all, as is the case for all other types of safe travel for women, trust your instincts!

One thing you should know is - and statistics bear this out - your greatest risk when hitchhiking is road safety. You're much more likely to have a traffic accident than face a sexual incident or assault. Thing is, rapes and murders get huge publicity, as they should, whereas the thousands of female hitchhikers arriving safely at their destination don't warrant any coverage at all.

Just remember - female hitchhikers always have be extremely cautious - a hitchhiker teen ever more so. And if you've taken any drugs or alcohol, don't even think of hitchhiking - sleep it off, leave tomorrow.

Where is hitchhiking the safest?

Again, this will depend on who you are, and what you consider safe.

In a few countries, including Bolivia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico and Mongolia, people will usually expect to be paid for giving you a ride. In Thailand, India, South Africa, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, this may occasionally be the case as well.

Hitchhiking isn't legal everywhere - for example, it can be legal on some roads and not on others in the US, Australia and Canada, and outright illegal in countries like Singapore.

The easiest countries in which to hitchhike would be Belgium, Bhutan, Canada (where legal), Croatia, Cuba, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa.

But it's also common - although not as easy - in Argentina, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Poland, Thailand, Ukraine, UK and USA.

Countries where hitchhiking is rare (but not impossible) include Costa Rica, Finland, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey.

Hitchhiking resources

Hitchwiki, a free wiki guide for hitchhikers

For a database of hitchhikers seeking partners, try Hitchbase, or the forums at Bootsnall or the Lonely Planet. And for an inspirational story, read this interview with Russian hitchhiker Natalia Kislitskaya in TravelStyleSexFoodLife.

Want to hitch a ride on a plane? It's a long shot but some people suggest trying Airhitch - although the service itself seems to be on its way out. I've never met anyone who used this but I can confirm hitching by air can work. I hitched a ride on a ranger flight from Durban to Saint Lucia national park in South Africa a few years ago because it was the only transport available headed in that direction...

I can't think you'll go too far this way, but you'll never know until you try!