GETTING A GOOD STRETCH IN THE THUMB IS SURE TO YIELD RESULTS
The Thru-hiker’s Guide To Thumbing It: What To Expect When Hitchhiking On Trail
Disclaimer: Hitchhiking is illegal in some states and in no way is this article meant to encourage or condone hitchhiking anywhere otherwise. It is meant as an educational and anecdotal resource. We do not recommend relying on hitchhiking while out on trail. Always be prepared to get yourself out of situations on your own first before relying on others.
Hitchhiking while out on trail is a common practice among long-distance backpackers, like thru-hikers and section-hikers, and can be an essential skill for resupplying and navigating the trail effectively.
According to wikipedia hitchhiking is “a means of transportation that is gained by asking individuals, usually strangers, for a ride in their car or other vehicle.”
Hitchhiking plays a crucial role in the life of a long-distance backpacker, and serves several specific purposes that are vital to a successful long-distance backpacking journey. Drawing from our experiences on trail we’ll outline some specific ways it is important to educate yourself before taking on your first hitch.
Firstly, telling your parents or loved ones that you plan to hitchhike during your upcoming thru-hike can be a challenging conversation, as it may naturally raise concerns for their child’s safety. However, by approaching the conversation thoughtfully and responsibly, you can help alleviate their worries and gain their understanding and support. Try to be prepared as you go forward with the conversation, make sure you are well-informed about hitchhiking safety and the specific circumstances surrounding your thru-hike. Gather information about the areas where you plan to hitchhike, the prevalence of hitchhiking on the trail, and any safety measures you intend to take.
The places you’re most likely to need a hitch would be at road crossings where a town stop or resupply point meets the trail or unexpected trail closures from things like fire, rockfall, landslides, protected habitat, etc. Having a good resupply plan in place will give you a better idea of where you can expect to need to hitch and help you better communicate with family.
Hitchhiking while thru-hiking can be a practical means of transportation, but it does come with certain risks and concerns. Although many dangers are prevalent with hitchhiking there are dangers with anything that comes in life- so you might as well be well informed, take some precautions to minimize them, and take that leap to fly.
Diving into the Unknown
The most significant concern with hitchhiking is the unknown experience of the ride. You can’t predict the intentions or character of the driver who picks you up. While many drivers are kind and helpful, there is a small risk of encountering individuals with malicious intent. To mitigate this danger:
- Trust your instincts: If a driver or situation makes you uncomfortable, decline the ride politely. Listen to how you feel as you interact with the driver before getting into the car, if there’s a little voice in the back of your mind telling you not to get in, follow through with it. Chances are that you will be able to get another ride, and it’s always better to play it on the safe side.
- Try to hitchhike with fellow hikers or in groups: Not only do numbers increase safety, but it’s also such a joy riding in the back of a pickup with 10+ hikers. Some of the best memories from trail have come from various hitches with friends there with you. Take note that if you’re trying to catch a ride on the side of the road surrounded by multiple hikers it will be harder to convince someone to pick you up. There is power in numbers, but unfortunately cars only hold a certain number of seats.
- Keep others informed about your journey: Share your whereabouts and ride details with someone you trust before getting into a vehicle. A great suggestion would be to take a picture of the license plate before you get into the car and send it to someone following your adventure. Let the driver know you’re taking the picture, it’ll keep them on edge if they did pick you up with mal intent and will give off the notion that you’re not an easy target.
- Keep your SOS device with you: Most hikers hike with a Garmin, Inreach, or some sort of SOS device. It’s a great idea to keep this on your body while hitchhiking just in case something does happen. Having a pocket knife on you or pepper spray is always a good move as well.
- Ensure your driver is not inebriated: As most trails go through remote and rural areas it is not uncommon to meet a driver that has been drinking before(or during) getting behind the wheel. If you suspect any kind of drug or alcohol use it’s always best to deny the ride and either keep hiking or wait for the next one. This might seem obvious but many hikers get caught up in the adventure and just stumble into any situation the trail “provides” without thinking critically about it.
MAKING SIGNS HELPS!
TRUCK BED RIDES ENSURE THE DRIVER CAN’T SMELL YOU
Some roads near long-distance trails can be challenging and even dangerous for hitchhikers due to heavy traffic, narrow shoulders, or fast-moving vehicles. In some cases, road walks may be unavoidable, but hikers should be cautious and vigilant.
- Only hitchhike in areas where it’s safe to pull over: Be aware of accessibility. If you’re standing on a bridge there probably aren’t any places for a car to pull over and pick you up. Instead opt for places that have places to pull over or where the speed limit is a little slower. It will be harder for someone to pick you up if they can’t even pull over to get to you. Don’t waste time in poor places to stand.
- Stay as far off the road as possible while waiting for a ride: It’s easy to get carried away with the fun of trail or the thought of hitchhiking into town to get a cold beer, but be courteous and careful while waiting for a ride. Cars are dangerous vehicles, and humans aren’t indestructible.
- Wear high-visibility clothing: High-visibility clothing can help drivers to notice you and therefore increases the chances of a successful hitch. Honestly this shouldn’t be too much of a problem based off of most thru-hikers outfits (Hawaiian shirts? C’mon).
Weather, Exposure, and Time
Weather conditions can change rapidly during a thru-hike, and hitchhiking exposes you to the elements while you wait for a ride. Exposure to extreme cold or heat can be dangerous if you’re unprepared.
- Carry appropriate clothing and gear for varying weather conditions: Most roads are exposed which causes more problems in desert sections of trail along the PCT, AZT, and CDT. Set up a tarp for shade if necessary, or make sure to stay hydrated. The sun can be more hazardous than expected. There are some road crossings that meet trail heads that contain privies or “warming huts”. In a pinch you can take refuge in these shelters should the weather turn on you, but again, don’t rely on these.
- Be prepared to wait for an extended period, especially in remote areas: It can be common to wait an hour or more for a single hitch when in less trafficked areas. Statistically speaking women are more likely to be picked up quicker, so if it’s hard for a single middle aged man to get a ride go find yourself a hiking partner who is a little more approachable if possible. It’s intimidating to pick up a middle aged man who looks like they just killed a bear and are wearing 5” cat shorts, although we’ve seen showing a little guy-thigh work for some. This is when having a friend that looks a little friendlier to hitchhike with can really come in handy.
Legal and Cultural Issues
Hitchhiking laws and cultural attitudes toward hitchhikers can vary from place to place. Familiarize yourself with local hitchhiking laws. In some places, it may be illegal or restricted. Always adhere to the local regulations.
- Hitchhiking is legal in 44 of the 50 states, provided that the hitchhiker is not standing in the roadways or otherwise hindering the normal flow of traffic. The states where hitchhiking is illegal are Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
- Be respectful of the local culture and customs, and present yourself in a friendly and respectful manner.
THE SPOILS OF A SUCCESSFUL HITCH. FOOD AND A DRY PLACE TO SLEEP.
DAY HIKERS ARE A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO GET A HITCH. BEFRIEND THEM ALL!
A FRIENDLIER LOOKING HITCHING PARTNER IS NECESSARY…
SUCCESSFUL HITCHES ARE ALWAYS A REASON TO SMILE.
We asked former PCT thru-hiker and Intern-extraordinaire, Hallie Kemp, about her first hitchhiking experience while thru-hiking the PCT at the age of just 18. This is what she had to say “I was four days into trail and had been hiking with a group I recently met the night before. We had planned to meet up the next day at a water source just a couple miles down the trail, unfortunately due to extreme weather I ended up flying past the water source and lost my sleeping pad. From there I then panicked seeing that the next major road was twenty-five miles further along the trail. Eventually I ended up finding a side trail leading up to a road in the middle of nowhere and decided to hitchhike myself into safety. I walked along the road with my thumb out through thick fog and rain, and just prayed that someone kind enough was going to come pick me up. Fifteen minutes later this super awesome professor and his wife pulled over in a tesla, took me to town, and bought me hot chocolate and a muffin! We still stay in touch occasionally and I even sent him a postcard last summer for fun.”
When we asked our Communications Officer, Garrett, he said “I’ve got tons of stories. Schizophrenic drivers on the PCT, shitting my pants immediately after exiting a ride near the Whites on the AT, and just very normal sweet trail angels that do it because they’re retired and never want any money when you offer. It’s always fun! I hike with my wife so we’re fortunate enough to get picked up fairly quickly. I think our zaniest “wtf is going on” moment was on the Appalachian Trail. We’d just gotten back onto trail but there was a BBQ place that met with the next road crossing we wanted to check out, so we hitched when we got to the road. The guy that picked us up asked what we were up to, we told him we were hiking the trail and were trying to get BBQ. He’d stated that BBQ sounded great, he’d wanted to try that restaurant out, and he actually had a date planned with a woman that he was enroute to. He asked if we’d be interested in a double date with them, and to tell his date that we knew him from college and weren’t total strangers. We agreed, rode with him to pick up his date, and had a double date at the BBQ restaurant with a man we’d never met, while lying to his date about how we knew him. She had no idea this guy just picked up two hitchhiking strangers, lied to her about it, and proceeded to go through a date with them as if everything was planned out that way. They were both very down to earth and seemingly normal people, we’d definitely enjoyed our time with them. But in the grand scheme when you think of how wildly twisted the situation was, it was very weird haha. He even took us to her house with him to pick her up!”
Be Thankful: Always smile and look friendly. Don’t act entitled when you’re given a ride by someone and always be appreciative. You just won the lottery! Please realize that this isn’t just the trail “providing” but it is an actual human that made the decision to stop and help you out.
Don’t Get Offended: Be aware that you haven’t showered for days and although you don’t notice your smell, YOU STINK! Don’t get surprised or offended if a driver immediately rolls their windows down or makes a comment. Alternatively, some towns are a long hitch from where you’re at. If a driver can only take you part of the way, accept the kindness you’ve received and get ready for phase 2.
Be Ready: Have your backpack and gear close by so you can quickly get into the car and the driver doesn’t have to wait on you.
Talk To Day Hikers: There have been many a times when we met someone out for a day hike on trail and they offered a ride. Don’t expect this and don’t only talk to people for this purpose. Have a genuine chat and see where it goes.
Don’t Get Discouraged: Sometimes it takes awhile. The times where we almost gave up but pushed through usually yielded a ride shortly after that feeling.
Make Sure You Have Everything: Forgetting things in the hitch is always the worst possible outcome. Whether it be trekking poles or other small accessories, make sure you double check before getting back on trail.
Keep A List: A great tip is to keep a list of everyone that gave you a hitch during your trip. Take down their name and email or phone number, that way when you get done with trail you can send them thank you cards. It’s up to us to ensure the community around the trail has a positive experience with hikers and a small gesture like this will go a long way. It’s good to get the drivers info at the start of the ride incase you forget something. Ensure them that you’re keeping a list of people that help you in order to send a card afterwards, that way they aren’t alarmed when you ask for their personal info.
Use Your Head: Remember to always stay on guard and use your head while climbing into cars with strangers. Hitchhiking can be a wonderful way to get to know the areas you’re hiking through- it connects you with locals in the most personal of ways and creates an atmosphere of the great unknown, which every hiker hopeful is looking to experience.
Hitchhiking while thru-hiking can be a practical means of transportation, but it does come with certain risks and concerns.Gather information about the areas where you plan to hitchhike, the prevalence of hitchhiking on the trail, and any safety measures you intend to take.