The Art of Hitchhiking

It's no secret that long-distance hikers frequently hitchhike to get around and get into towns.  It's also no secret that hitchhiking has a bad reputation.  We all grew up listening to stories of axe-wielding hitchhikers and murderers on remote mountain roads.  However, when you're hitching a ride on a mountain road near any long hiking trail, chances are anyone willing to pick you up knows exactly who you are (a hiker) and what you're doing.  NoKey and I even hitched our way down the length of Vermont after we finished our Long Trail thru hike in the summer of 2015.  This post is going to give you some tips and tricks to getting a ride AND doing it the safe and smart way!

 NoKey giving me the thumbs up for throwing up my thumb and getting us a ride!

NoKey giving me the thumbs up for throwing up my thumb and getting us a ride!

My first hitchhiking experience on the AT was in Georgia at Unicoi Gap.  We were 50 miles and 3 days into my thru hike and there was a big thunderstorm about to roll through.  A guy I met in camp the night before, Zip Code, was going to go into Hiawassee to get a hotel room and invited myself and another hiker, Fisher, to join him to get out of the rain.  Wanting to take a shower after getting sunburned and dehydrated the day before, I gratefully accepted his offer.  Zip Code had hiked this part of the trail before and was very comfortable hitching a ride.  He told me to wait on him at the trailhead and we would go down into town together.  A group of 5 of us stood on the side of the road with our thumbs up and immediately we were picked up by a pickup truck.  The rain was heavy and we all jumped in back, getting soaked and pelted by rain all the way to town.  I had been nervous to hitchhike, but this first experience proved to be just fine and not the least bit scary!  My first piece of advice for hitching a ride, especially for those who have never done it before, is that there is strength in numbers (but not too many numbers!)  When you're on the AT during northbounder season in Georgia you'll see many pickups loaded down with hikers in the back.  People here are used to seeing the droves of hikers at trailheads and often will tell them to jump in back.  My first several hitches were done this way with a group of people I didn't know very well, but we were all hikers going to the same place.  You'll also find that there are a lot of people offering free shuttles to hikers during the peak of the hiking season.  Between the pickups and the free shuttles offered in the first few hundred miles, I never felt uncomfortable or nervous after my first hitch.  

 Hikers in the back of a truck, enjoying the free ride!

Hikers in the back of a truck, enjoying the free ride!

So, let's say something has happened and you need to get further from the trail.  Maybe you need to get to a healthcare clinic or you need a piece of gear replaced and you end up taking a few rides to a town a little bit further out from the trail.  Well, most places close to the trail will still recognize you as a hiker.  In fact, when we were hiking the Benton MacKaye Trail, which is near the AT in Georgia but more than 50 miles from it in other parts, people would ask us if we were hiking all the way to Maine every single day!  The point is people close to the trail will still normally recognize you as a hiker and hitching will still not be too hard.  Many people who shuttle go to bigger towns for hiker needs as well, so you can always call a shuttle or a trail angel if you need assistance.  But what if you're set on hitching a ride to save some cash?  Well, a simple sign has always worked for us!  When we hitchhiked the state of Vermont we got a ride into Burlington, which is pretty far from the Long Trail.  When we were trying to hitch out of town and no one would pick us up, we ran into a gas station and wrote a sign on a paper plate - "Hikers Going South."  We were picked up in less than 5 minutes.  The woman who took us told us the sign let her know we were hiking and she felt safer picking us up.  We used the sign a few more times that day on bigger roads further from the trail and everyone who picked us up also told us the sign let them know we were pretty much harmless smelly people.  

 Never underestimate the power of a well-written and easy to read sign!

Never underestimate the power of a well-written and easy to read sign!

Another helpful tip I've found is to smile and be friendly!  While it seems cheesy, standing on the side of the road looking grumpy, sweaty, and filthy doesn't really lend itself well to getting a ride.  When we were in Vermont near the town of Jay we were trying to hitch a ride on 100 South.  This road is several miles from the Long Trail and outside of the village.  We were standing on the side of the road and not having much luck hitching.  NoKey and I would put out our thumbs and people would pass us.  I kept smiling and waving even if they didn't pull over.  A man actually turned around and came back to pick us up after about 5 minutes.  He said he wasn't going to stop, but he said me waving brought him back.  He said if we were that upbeat about standing on the side of the road in the sun that we couldn't have been too awful!  

So, now you know some techniques for landing a ride, even if you're miles away from the trail.  Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind before you hop in the car. 

1) Keep your valuables on your person!  If you're going in a car chances are you'll throw your pack and hiking poles in the trunk.  If that person pulls off and you've left something in there, chances are it's gone forever!  While I've never personally heard stories of someone driving off with all your gear, people do leave small things - gaiters, hiking poles, shoes - in trunks ALL THE TIME.  I personally pull out my wallet and phone and put them somewhere on me while I take a ride with a stranger. 

2) Trust your gut!  If someone pulls up and you feel like the ride is unsafe, make an excuse and catch a ride with someone else.  There's a lot to be said for trusting your instincts!

3) Strength in numbers!  Like I stated in my first paragraph, hitching a ride with other people until you get more comfortable is never a bad idea.  In the throes of thru hiker season this definitely isn't hard to do.  Do keep in mind that groups larger than 3 sometimes will have trouble getting a ride just because cars don't hold that many people.  When we were much further into the trail we found 3 was the magic number for getting a ride.  

4) Don't feel too proud to call a shuttle!  When we were outside of Caratunk, Maine on our thru hike we attempted to hitch a ride for 90 minutes in the hot August sun.  It was a Sunday in the late morning and everyone going into town was a tourist in a small car and not one person stopped for us no matter how happy we were.  It turns out there was a business just up the road that would have given us a free shuttle if we just checked the book!  The AT in general has great cell phone coverage and it's rare to  not be able to make a call.  If we just would have walked half a mile to the post office, they would have let us use the phone for free.  It would have saved us a lot of time if we would have just done that.  

This post just barely touches on my experiences with hitchhiking on a long-distance hike.  From my personal experience, I've never had a bad hitch or taken a ride where I felt uncomfortable.  On some of our remote trails, like the Finger Lakes Trail that traverses across rural New York State, we often have little trouble getting a ride.  I found that people truly aren't that bad in the real world and I've definitely gained a new faith in humanity from all my hiking experiences.  

Have you ever hitchhiked before?  Are you going to for the first time soon?  I'd love to talk with you more about this topic!  Leave me a comment with your thoughts below, or find me over on Facebook and let's get the conversation started.