Female hitchhikers aren’t as common as men, and there are reasons for this.
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 female traveler.
You’d be surprised at the number of blogs and posts by women thumbing their way around the world 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 probably do it again if I had to, especially in those countries where hitching is perfectly acceptable, relatively safe and legal. But no, it’s not my first choice when it comes to transportation.
That said, why on earth would any woman choose to travel this way?
Reasons solo female travelers might decide to hitchhike
Hitchhiking by women isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. Many women are doing it – and loving it.
There are plenty of good reasons why:
- It is cheaper than other modes of transport. It is often free, although in some countries it is the custom to pay for rides. But free is still the norm.
- You can meet interesting local people – your driver, of course, but often the entire family once you get to your destination.
- There is tremendous freedom in not having a schedule (which you can’t really have if you’re hitching). The freedom lies in not knowing what time you’re leaving or arriving, not knowing who you’ll meet along the way and not really knowing where you’ll end up. You may start out for a certain city but you can’t predict the traffic so it may take more time to get there. Or, you’ll be making such great time you’ll get even further. Who knows?
- It will help boost your self-confidence. So many people warn of the dangers of this type of travel that if you try it and succeed, few things will ever feel impossible again and you’ll be wearing that badge.
- This kind of experience can be hugely self-affirming. It rankles that as women we need to be more careful than men to do certain things, and overcoming those prejudices and biases is something to be proud of. I mean, why should we NOT?
Along with the many good reasons to hitchhike, there are even more reasons why we should NOT hitchhike.
- There is a safety factor and hitchhiking can be dangerous: you’re in a moving vehicle under someone else’s control. That someone can make decisions that leave you powerless, like not stopping where you want, or stopping where you don’t want. And if that person is a lousy or unlucky driver, an accident could happen.
- Since we are women and many of those who stop for us are men, the possibility of sexual advances or aggression exists, as it does in the rest of life. Using caution and common sense can go a long way towards minimizing this kind of danger (see safety tips below).
- Another downside is that you won’t always get where you want, when you want. If you need to plan, say for a connection to another trip or a meetup with a friend, you won’t be able to do so with exactitude.
- It can get boring. On long rides, you may face interminable silences – which can also be a good thing. But come prepared for it.
- You’ll be a bit of a prisoner in the vehicle and your driver may (and will) ask anything at all, possibly becoming more personal than you’d like. It’s tricky to set boundaries when you’re not in full control of your space. You may be criticized for your travels, or pitied, or simply interrogated.
Safety for female hitchhikers
We mostly hear about grisly murders and kidnappings, and they do of course happen. But many women hitchhike relatively safely – and some swear by it.
If you’ve decided to go ahead and try hitchhiking, make sure you adopt every safety precaution by following these safety tips:
- don’t hitch at night – in many countries, female hitchhikers are often sex workers looking for… work
- 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 as opposed to transportation
- look and act self-confident – people with bad intentions tend to look for potential victims, not fighters
- when going towards your ride, snap a photo with your phone or try to memorize it’s licence plate – and send it to a friend (should things get difficult, you can always mention this to the driver at the opportune moment)
- find out where someone is going before you volunteer your own destination; this 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! And if you’re in the least bit tipsy, wait till you’re sober and clear-headed
- never fall asleep in someone’s car – always stay alert…
- …so 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 exit
- prepare some conversation topics beforehand – it’ll save you from long moments of silence which might veer towards yourself as a topic – families and children are usually good subjects, and send a 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 letting the driver know, 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 will 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. Rapes and murders get huge publicity, whereas the thousands of female hitchhikers arriving safely at their destination don’t warrant any coverage at all.
Hitchhiking isn’t new. While it is still popular in some parts of the world, that popularity has waned in the US. Perhaps it’s the huge highways, the decreasing tolerance by police or less trust in others. Or perhaps, like this video shows, hitchhiking has been scared out of us.
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 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 good – as long as it’s legal, because in many countries it is not. 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 doesn’t work where the toll booths are many lanes wide, however, because drivers will be too far away to see you.
Want to hitch a ride with a trucker? Many roads have truck stops. Get there early in the morning or at lunchtime and you’ll probably find a ride. At stations, toll booths and stops, you can pick and choose your ride by simply asking, which increases your margin of safety.
And then there’s by the roadside, usually the most common refuge for hitchhikers. Just stick out your arm or thumb (depending on the country), raise your sign, make eye contact, and wait. Just make sure you stand in a place that gives drivers ample time to stop safely. Drivers often give hitchhikers a miss because they’d probably cause an accident if they tried to stop. That said, the roadside places you in a slightly more vulnerable position because you won’t even see your potential driver see until the vehicle stops.
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.
TIP: Wear something bright when you stand by the side of the road and leave enough room for vehicles to pass safely.
Where is hitchhiking the safest?
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 illegal outright 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 and 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, UK and USA.
Countries where hitchhiking is rare (but not impossible) include Costa Rica, Finland, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey.
You never know when you’ll be confronted with the possibility or the necessity: in Tashkent recently I took a late train and arrived at the station after it had closed – and after all taxis were gone. I watched what others did and did the same: I waved my arm up and down, and when a car stopped, I handed over a slip of paper with the hotel’s name, and said necha pul, which according to Google Translate means “how much”? It worked, because the first man to stop wrote down a number, which seemed acceptable, and in I hopped. This is how they do things in Uzbekistan when no transport is available.
That said, I would not use this mode of transport unless I had to. As far as I’m concerned the dangers outweight the advantages – but I did want to lay out the pros and cons because it’s a decision we have to make individually, for ourselves.
Resources for female hitchhikers
To read even more widely about hitchhikers and their adventures, try Travel With A Road Dog, about a 20-year-old who took off for four years around North America with her dog. A Girl and her Thumb also has tales of her hitchhiking adventures.
If you’re looking for someone to hitch with, you can post in the Travel Buddies section of the Lonely Planet travel forum.
I’ve come across all sorts of information in my research. While some of these posts, blogs or interviews may be several years old, they still serve to portray the life of a female hitchhiker: Alyssa at Open Destination has wonderful hitchhiking resources; An Aimless Hitchhiker has a different approach; Toby Israel is interviewed by Salon.com about her adventures; Iris is Dutch and in Mind of a Hitchhiker, she records her “no-budget” travels.
And if you’re still on the fence about whether to give hitchhiking a try, have a look at these statistics. There aren’t many numbers around, and most of those who clamor about danger when it comes to hitching are people who haven’t tried it themselves. The far greater danger, it would seem, is a car accident.
— Originally published on 31 July 2011