Road Trip Survival Guide – Picking Up Hitchhikers

This entry is a part of a series. Check out the rest of the Road Trip Survival Guide for more valuable information.

Fear of Hitchhikers

Films like Hitcher (1986), Thelma and Louise (1991), and most entries in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise have been brutal in their portrayal of hitchhikers.

Like most nomadic practices, hitchhiking is one of many great American traditions that has grown less popular (and even outlawed to an extent) – mostly the result of fear and paranoia. This is unfortunate, because hitchhiking is both economical and environmental, and a great way for two travelers to meet, get to know one another, and swap stories.

Ask most people, and the idea of picking up a hitchhiker is interpreted as an act of suicide. They assume that anyone standing on the side of the road looking for a ride has nefarious intent to kill his benefactor. This perception is not at all helped by the plethora of horror films that confirm this fear, nor the actual, real-life incidents of bad hitchers. But as I’ve said before, the perceived danger is blown way out of proportion.

Remember how you’re told that spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them? The same is true of hitchhikers. In fact, a hitchhiker is more vulnerable than the person who picks them up. While both a hitchhiker and their driver both assume some degree of risk, it is the hitchhiker himself that is taking the bigger gamble. Relegated to the passenger seat, their control over the situation is considerably less than the driver’s. This is why most hitchhikers carry weapons – an act in itself often misinterpreted as proof of malicious intent.

Much of our fear is born out of ignorance and prejudice. We assume that hitchhikers are poor, desperate, and violent. In fact, most of them are friendly people carrying on a very old tradition and attempting to live within their means.

Tips for Drivers

During my North American Road Trip, I picked up 5 hitchhikers, and each one of them was an absolute delight to have as a passenger. I was never robbed or assaulted. In fact, I still periodically communicate with two of them and consider them friends.

Of course, my perfect record might have been tarnished had I picked up just anyone off the side of the road. I didn’t keep track of all the hitchhikers I spotted, but as rare as they were, I’d estimate that I passed up about as many people as I picked up.

Here’s what I look for when I pick up a hitchhiker…

  1. Hitchhikers

    Just based on appearances, I would judge both of these guys to be safe picks.

    As superficial as this may seem, I’m looking for gear and a general appearance that gives “hitcher cred”. I’m looking for heavy rucksacks with carabiners, bandannas, water bottles, and sleeping bags hanging off of it. I’m looking for a person who looks a little dirty. Patched up battle jackets can demonstrate authenticity. If they have a dog, I feel even more comfortable. Basically, I’m looking for outward signs that this person is a genuine nomad and not a poser.

  2. The more heavy their cargo, the less likely I am to believe that the hitcher has sinister intent. Anyone intending to commit a crime needs to make a clean getaway and not leave behind a bunch of evidence. Heavy bags impair such activities. I’m more inclined to believe someone is an honest nomad if everything they own is strapped to their back.
  3. I look for outward signs (facial expressions, body language, and movements) of intoxication, agitation, or hostility. If my instincts say “no”, I trust my instincts. Often, instincts are processes by which our brains alert us to something that it hasn’t quite processed yet.
Tips for Hitchhikers?

As I have never hitchhiked myself, I am not going to discuss this aspect unless and until I do. I would, however, welcome a guest article from any experienced hitchhiker who wants to share his or her tips for finding rides.

Where to Find Hitchhikers

On account of police harassment, few hitchers can be found on the side of highways anymore. These days, you’re more likely to find hitchhikers congregating with other travelers in the parking lots of Wal-Mart. And I rarely see them east of the Mississippi River. 90% of the hitchers I’ve encountered on highways have been out west – from the Dakotas down to Texas, and westward.


I’ve already touched on this subject, but it’s so important that it bears repeating. Both a hitchhiker and his driver are assuming a degree of risk. It’s not a bad idea for a driver to keep a defensive weapon close to his side, just in case. But don’t be astonished if your hitcher has one, too. The hitcher is in a more vulnerable position than the driver is.

I remember when I picked up my first hitcher. Several hundred miles later, we stopped at a gas station for fuel and food. He sheepishly admitted to me that he was carrying a knife. But now he trusted me enough that he wanted to put it away with the rest of his gear.

I felt bad that he seemed to be embarrassed by his admission. Even though I hadn’t seen the knife, I assumed he was carrying one. In fact, I was certain of it. His confession came as no surprise to me. Nor did I take it as something to be offended by. On the contrary, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t been carrying a weapon and maybe even worried for him if he wasn’t.

Although I never had explicit conversations with any of my other four hitchers, I’m absolutely certain each one of them was armed. It didn’t bother me in the least. I was, too.

Nearby Prisons

The first time I saw one of these signs was in New York state, on my way to Salem. I thought this was the funniest thing ever. Afterward, I joked that I would only pick up hitchers near prisons to “increase my chances for an adventure”.

But I suppose if I have to be a responsible adult (a thought to which I shudder in revulsion), I should point out that it’s probably not the greatest idea in the world to pick up a hitchhiker too close to a prison. Heed the signs.

But if you do pick one up – don’t turn him back in to the cops. That’d be a total dick move! 😉

Courtesy and Protocol

I don’t know if there’s a universal unwritten code of conduct when dealing with hitchhikers. These are just my personal rules for how to treat them. My parents instilled in me a deep sense of duty between host and guest, and that duty is what shapes my policy toward hitchers. Even though I may be doing them a favor, I still view them as my guest, and they are entitled to all of the respect and hospitality I would give to any other guest of mine.

  • When I spot a hitcher on the highway, I’m usually travelling so fast that by the time I spot them, identify them, assess them, and brake to a complete stop, I’ve usually blown past them by a hundred yards or so. Since so few people are willing to pick them up, they usually ignore vehicles that have driven by and keep their focus on the cars still coming up. Once you have pulled over, tap your horn to get their attention. If traffic conditions are safe, you can back up a little and meet them halfway.
  • Ask them where they’re going and tell them where you are headed. Presumably, you’re headed in the same direction they are (at least for a little while). That’s why you found them where you found them. How long your paths align will determine whether it’s worth their while to accept your ride. If you’re not familiar with the area, you may need to look at maps to figure out how far you can take them.
  • You’re being assessed, too. As I said, the hitcher is in a more vulnerable position, so just as you assess them for signs of malevolence, they will be assessing you for the same thing. Don’t be offended if they refuse your ride. Just as you had to decide if you were willing to gamble your life to pull over and offer a ride, the hitcher must also decide if he is willing to gamble his life and accept a ride from you.
  • When you accept a hitcher, you are assuming a sort of custodial responsibility for their well-being. Hitchers do not expect you to bend over backwards for them, but you should extend basic courtesies to them.
  • Take the hitcher as far as you can. It’s incredibly difficult these days for hitchers to find rides. If your paths align for 100 miles but you’re only willing to drive them for 20, you may actually be making them worse off. You might be dropping them off in a place that’s harder for them to find their next ride. You might be dropping them off in a more dangerous place. And you might be dropping them off in a place further away from a town and its resources. If your itinerary is flexible, don’t be stingy. Be willing to go 5 or 10 miles out of your way if it means dropping your passenger off in a more favorable location.
  • Your responsibility to a hitcher may end when you drop him off, but don’t be callous about it. Take a moment to scope out the scene and make sure the hitcher feels safe with the drop-off point. It’s a simple act of humanity to take 5 minutes out of your life to ensure that your passenger ends up somewhere he feels safe.
  • If you’ve got water or snacks – share them. Odds are your passenger is dehydrated and hungry. I’ve never met a hitcher that has taken advantage of my generosity. On the other hand, I consider it good karma to share my provisions with someone who has less. A lot of hitchers have been hurt or treated rudely by people in their lives, including other people who have given them rides. Simple acts of compassion and charity go a long way toward restoring their faith in humanity.
  • If you show generosity to a hitcher (beyond just the ride), most will try to reciprocate in their own way. These token exchanges might not seem like much to others, but they can be the basis for memories, stories, and friendships.
  • Not every hitcher is the same. But most I’ve met like to talk. And since they and I share common interests and philosophies, my hitchers have never left me wanting for stimulating and intellectual conversation.
  • That said, don’t treat hitchers like animals in a zoo. They are not oddities for your entertainment. If they want to chat, then chat with them. But remember that they are human beings. Respect their privacy and treat them with dignity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to preserve memories, but ask permission before taking photographs.
  • Contrary to what you may have seen in porn, you do not have the right to demand sexual favors from a hitchhiker. The fact that I have to say this at all is a sad commentary on where we stand as a society.
  • Swap phone numbers or e-mail addresses with your hitcher. You’ll almost certainly never see them again, and you might not even speak to them again. But you never know. You might end up with a new friend for life.

Other Ideas?

Have I missed anything? What are your criteria for picking up hitchhikers? Are you an experienced hitchhiker who wants to write a guest article on finding rides? Do you have questions? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.

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