Matt Forney
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Why You Should Go Hitchhiking

This is an excerpt from my book The Hitchhiking Crash Course.

Last year, I took a six-month road trip from Syracuse, New York to Portland, Oregon. Exempting three short bus rides (from Plattsburgh, New York to Syracuse, from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin and from Madison to Des Moines, Iowa), I hitchhiked virtually the entire way: a distance of over 3,500 miles across sixteen states.

And you can do it too.

Well, attempting a cross-continental voyage might be a bit intimidating, but if you’re young and looking for excitement and adventure, hitchhiking is one of the easiest and most time-tested ways to find it. Here are some good reasons.

1. It’s safer than you think.

The claim that hitchhiking is dangerous (to the hitcher and the driver) is completely bogus. It was invented by the FBI in the late 1950’s as a means of cracking down on beatniks, hippies and other counter-cultural groups. The only agency to actually study the subject, the California Highway Patrol, found in 1974 that hitchhiking was a factor in a whopping 0.63 percent of crimes in the state. You have a better chance of being killed in a car crash than killed because you were hitchhiking.

Also, why should danger stop you?

“You don’t know who’s picking you up! You could be robbed, or murdered, or molested!” Let’s apply that line of thought to other activities and see if it holds up.

“You shouldn’t have extramarital sex! You don’t know who that bar skank is! You could be falsely accused of rape or contract syphilis!”

“You shouldn’t go rock climbing! You could slip and fall to your death!”

“You shouldn’t drive a car! You could get T-boned by a drunk driver!”

If the best argument you can come up with for not doing something is the potential negative consequences, then you might as well not even leave the house. Everything worth doing carries a risk. No, I’m not going to claim that hitchhiking is 100% safe, because it isn’t. But it’s nowhere near as dangerous as its detractors make it out to be. Common sense and trusting your instincts will save you in 99.9999% of cases.

2. It’s (largely) legal.

Despite what you may think, hitchhiking is legal in all but four states: Idaho, Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey. Wyoming used to ban hitchhiking, but in February 2013, the state government passed a law legalizing it that will take effect on July 1. The remaining 46 may ban hitching in particular municipalities and locations (such as on toll highways), but it’s perfectly acceptable everywhere else. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Also, even in the places where hitchhiking is illegal, you’re unlikely to be arrested or even punished. Cops can be assholes, but at the end of the day, they’re still human. They don’t want unnecessary headaches. Most of the time, being polite and respectful will get you off with nothing more than a warning. I’ll talk more about dealing with the police later.

3. It’s cheap.

Cars are friggin’ expensive. Whether you buy new, used or you just lease, maintenance and fuel costs add up. The same goes for flights. All hitching costs you is the energy needed to stick your thumb out. You can see much of America (or whatever country you live in) on a minimal budget. Additionally, many drivers/truckers will give you money or food, even if you aren’t broke. That said, you still don’t want to leave home without a good packet of change to rely on (more on that later).

4. You meet interesting (if odd) people.

The kinds of folks who pick up hitchhikers tend to live “alternative” lifestyles. A sampling of the folks I’ve ridden with:

  • A Canadian trucker for whom hitching runs in the family; his children have all hitched around North America, as have many of his grandkids.
  • A cell phone tower maintenance tech who thinks Obamacare will lead to every American being microchipped. He also told me that the cell phone companies’ hype about 4G data networks is total bullshit; in reality, 4G service has yet to even be implemented in the U.S.
  • An elderly divorcee who pulled a U-turn specifically to pick me up. She took me to church first, but I’m not complaining.
  • A Colombian trucker and George W. Bush fanboy.
  • A former hitchhiker who was touring the country visiting the death sites of various rock stars; we visited the spot where Kurt Cobain killed himself in suburban Seattle.

That all said, hitchhiking isn’t all fun and games. Here are some of the downsides of thumbing it:

1. It gets boring.

Thomas Edison once stated that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the exact same ratio applies to hitching, but much of the time, you’ll be spending way more time trying to get a ride than actually riding. If you’re at a truck stop or gas station, it’s not so bad. You can read a book, play Angry Birds on your phone, or screw around on the computer (if they have WiFi) while you hitch.

When you’re out on the road, the wait can turn into pure torture. I’ve been stranded in places for days at a time because no one wanted to give me a ride.

2. It’s physically demanding.

It’s called hitchhiking for a reason: you’re going to be hiking. A lot.

If you get dropped off at a bad hitching spot, you’ve got to hike to a better one. Depending on what city you’re in, you may have to hike out of it before you can get a ride; urban areas are extraordinarily bad for hitching. Add in the weight of whatever you’re carrying and adverse weather conditions and you can get winded pretty easily. After the first week of my trip, I was beat black and blue; massive bruises on my shoulders from my bag, quarter-sized blisters on my feet, and a painful sunburn, among other things. If you’re not in shape, hitchhiking will whip you into shape pretty quickly.

3. It may be cheap, but it’s not free.

Even though it doesn’t cost anything to throw your thumb out, other costs add up. Food adds up. Motels/lodging adds up. Unless you plan to live like a bum, you’ll want to have a big pile of money.

That all said, if you know how to do it, hitchhiking is a rewarding and memorable experience. This book is here to show you how to do it: what to bring, where to go, how to protect yourself, and how to deal with the police. Keep in mind that my experiences and those of the hitchhikers I’ve known largely come from the U.S.: if you’re in a more hitch-friendly place like Europe or Central America, some of my tips may not apply to you.

Let’s roll.

Read Next: Notes from the Road: Six Days of Hitchhiking Hell


If you liked this post then you’ll like The Hitchhiking Crash Course, my 94-page book that teaches you how to hitchhike around the world easily and safely. It contains tips on what to bring, where to go and how to get rides easily as well as providing tactics for protecting yourself and dealing with police. Click here to learn more.