Steve McDonald’s Guide to Getting in Cars with Strangers (Vol. 1)
Here at Backpackology, it is my responsibility to promote a travel style that encourages suicidal recklessness. It is my duty to glorify irresponsibility and actively promote self-endangerment. This is my contribution to the gradual decline of western civilization.
At least it might seem this way to some readers—who in turn probably wont enjoy today’s article.
Today I’m going to teach you how to hitchhike your way onto the back of a milk carton! (or wherever else you may want to go). So try to forget the poor media image and flashing warning signs—hitchhiking can be one of the best ways to experience a country, meet local friends, save money, and have an adventure.
This volume is merely an introduction to the wonderful world of hitching (more advanced tips and strategies are to come), but with just the basic instructions below, you can get from Manhattan to Mexico City with little more than a sharpie, a strip of cardboard, and a gameshow-host smile.
STEP ONE: THE KIT
Aside from coming prepared with the tools (maps, sharpie marker, head torch, pocket knife, sunscreen, food rations, water, a bright clothing item, and strips of cardboard—or even better, an erasable whiteboard), you need to be prepared to NOT get a ride. Not just emotionally, but logistically; you need a backup plan. Be prepared to overnight in a hotel. If you can’t afford a hotel, bring a tent. If you can’t bring a tent, watch enough episodes of Bear Grylls to know how to use your pocket knife to convert a slow-moving camel into a sleeping bag.
This also means that you should avoid making deadlines. Even if your destination is only ten-hours away, you could end up trapped in the cabin of a truck for days on end, eating nothing but cold, boiled lamb parts out of a metal bucket with a fat, Mongolian trucker named Bold.
STEP TWO: THE DESPERATE ART OF LURKING ON HIGHWAYS
Perhaps the most important factor to successful hitchhiking is finding the perfect spot to lurk. Make sure there is ample room for the driver to see you and then safely pull over without using you as a speed bump.
My modus operandi is to follow my map and walk out of town—but not too far, or people will wonder what you did to end up there. If you’re standing on the side of the road, miles from anywhere in the middle of cornfields, you might as well be wearing clown makeup and holding a chainsaw. On a similar note, if you can’t walk to where you want to go—don’t goddamn try. Avoid ending up stranded by sticking close to towns. The slow-moving camels will thank you for it.
Other good hitchhiking spots include gas stations, bus stops, toll booths, truck stops, and near highway on-ramps (assuming there’s enough space for the driver to see you and safely pull over). In the digital, you even have the option of hitching a ride online. Sites like backseatsurfing.com or triphoppers.com let you peruse driver profiles and chat with truck drivers—making hitchhiking more convenient, more secure, and more patently sketchy than ever.
STEP THREE: GIVING CARS THE FINGER
Looking presentable to potential rides is just as important as finding the right spot. The key is to ask yourself, “Would I pick me up?”
Look lively and fun. Choose bright, cheery clothing with maybe a colorful scarf or a fun hat. Don’t look too fun though—no on wants a six hour car ride with Willy Wonka in fish nets.
It’s essential that you smile, smile, smile. Keep happy. Laugh, hum, and sing to yourself. Hitchhiking can be tedious, so you need to be patient. Remember that with each passing car, the probability that the next car will stop increases.
Wait, but Steve, that’s not how probability works. Didn’t you go to art school?
Make eye contact with every single car, or in the case of tinted windows, look where the driver’s eyes would be. Eye contact creates a human connection, removing the feeling of anonymity. It is psychologically proven that people are more likely to help out if they’re not anonymous.
Once you look the part, it’s time to ask for a ride. Here are three ways of doing that:
BY FINGER The hand symbols used for hitchhiking vary around the globe, so check online before heading out. Hitchhiking etiquette in Africa means holding out a cupped hand to passing cars. If you tried to use the standard, American ‘thumbs up,’ locals might think you were congratulating them on their driving.
BY SIGN: Many hitchhikers swear by using signs. You can either write the name of your destination (far destinations might deter people from stopping) or a personalized message. Try writing something in the local language, like ‘Please,’ or something more witty, like ‘I’m Awesome,’ or ‘Runaway Bride.’ For pity points, try holding the sign upside down.
BY MOUTH: Service plazas with food courts provide a great opportunity for personally asking people for rides. If you’re polite and charming, this method gets good results. Some people might find this method awkward, however, especially when people say “no.”
But do you know what’s even more awkward? Not finding any rides and getting kicked out of Burger King for trying to sleep in the ball pit.
STEP FOUR: GETTING IN CARS WITH STRANGERS
As a precaution, you should always aim to sit in the front seat—back seats can have child locks. Always check before getting in.
Once you’re in the car, the hard part is over! But don’t think you’re off the hook just yet. Nothing comes free; your driver picked you up for any number of reasons and you’re going to need to reciprocate…
The secret to giving good road head at gunpoint is—
The vast majority of drivers that pick up hitchhikers are simply looking for company on long drives. Wait for them to indicate that they want to talk, then try to accommodate. Be amiable; entertain. If you’re nervous or scared, try to relax by sticking to small talk. Bring up how attractive and vulnerable you are.
It’s important that you try not to offend your driver. Be courteous, especially when suggesting where you’d like to be dropped off. Lastly, never, ever, ever discuss religion or politics. You’re never going to make Alabama a blue state; you’re going to piss off a trucker and get dropped off at a church.
STEP FIVE: THE CASUAL ART OF DEALING WITH SOCIOPATHS
Hurray! This is the part where I make jokes about psychopaths wearing your stomach as a hat… while simultaneously trying not to discourage you from hitchhiking.
The chances of someone accessorizing your organs are slim, but you can lessen those chances even more by hitchhiking with a buddy. There’s a downside to doing this, however. Many drivers will feel intimidated by picking up two hitchhikers. Furthermore, your friend probably won’t be much use anyway, unless your driver needs two victims to complete his human centipede. A more practical safety measure is to record your driver’s plate number, car make, model, and color, and then texting that to a friend.
The golden rule is to relax and trust your judgment. Never hesitate to turn down a ride if anything makes you uncomfortable. Maybe there’s something you don’t trust about the trucker’s mustache. Maybe you’re put off by the way he says, “You got a real purddy mouth.” If this is the case, use any excuse you can think of to get out of the car immediately. Fake being car-sick, tell him you’re going a different direction, creep him out, scream at the glove box, pretend you’re possessed by Satan. Once you’re out of the car, get away from the road and tell them not to wait.
Most likely, however, you’ll never encounter such dangers. While we’ve villainized hitchhiking to represent violence, crime, dishonesty, and fear, in reality, it symbolizes the best qualities of humanity—generosity, empathy, compassion, friendship, and trust.
Since the 1970s, the United States has placed a stigma on hitchhiking that does not exist elsewhere in the world. Perhaps our horror movies and serial killers are to blame. More likely its due to a wider cultural decline—a culture where children need leashes, sidewalks need cameras, and neighborhoods need perimeter gates.
People are nicer than we remember. If you’re unsure, try this fun activity: over the weekend, attempt to hitchhike to someplace near your home where you’ve never visited before. Really try it. At the very least, you’ll come away with a fun story. More likely, you’ll find that it was a wonderful experience. You might even make a new friend. And in the extremely unlikely event that all goes to hell and you find yourself in a horror-movie scenario, well… Feel free to ask me for a personal apology. You can tap me on the shoulder—I’ll be near the front of the human centipede.
To hear more about my death wish, check out the ill-fated hitchhiking story from the Gobi Desert, “The Long Road to Nowhere: A Hitchhiker’s Tale from Outer Mongolia“
I promote self-endangerment! Check of the Backpackology lesson, “Steve McDonald’s Guide to Not Dying in Scary Countries“