Four Hitchhiking Scares and What You Can Do to Stay Safe

Like it or not hitchhiking is a part of trail life. Most of the time hitching is easy, people are kind, and the ride is uneventful. Trail towns know the drill and often the people who scoop you up are trail enthusiasts ready to support your journey. Honestly, the amount of kindness I received floors me every time I think about it. I tried not to be too intimidated by the concept and pride myself on being a trusting and adventurous traveler. After spending four winters in a ski town, this wasn’t even my first foray into the art. Unfortunately, I did have a few rides that were, umm, let’s say sketchy. Here are the short stories of them and my advice for how to stay safe out there.

The Old Grabby Man

In North Carolina we came to a gap and with the gap, a choice. We had expected to continue to the next town to take a zero and do all the chores. Realizing that if we could grab a hitch from here to the grocery store we would save ourselves the zero when all we really needed was food. Confident in our decision we crossed the road and stuck out our thumbs. A truck pulled over almost instantly and we hoped in and were whisked down the highway. There was no back seat so the three of us sat side by side. The old man asked us about our hike the commonplace questions that follow. We had a friendly and light-aired ride until he slapped his hand on my friend’s thigh and rubbed it along the inside of her leg. I saw red, my blood boiled, I was angry scared upset, and wanted OUT of this car. I didn’t want him to touch my friend and I didn’t want him to touch me. He dropped us off at the supermarket and we exchanged defeated looks.

“Why is it OK if it’s an old man?” she asked me in the parking lot. “It’s not,” I said. I was upset about the invasion the patriarchy and the gross idea that women are objects for an old man’s enjoyment. I don’t know if we should have jumped out of the car the second it happened or yelled at they guy, but we were vulnerable and hungry and in his car. I still fume as I write this. Keep your hands to yourself.

The Clinger

After resupplying, we took our time, charged our phones, downloaded some new tunes, and ate bag salads at the plastic picnic tables in the parking lot. Hiker luxury. When we were ready to try to get back to the trail, immediately a dented car pulled over and the fellow seemed down to earth. He was interested in hiking and he loved the AT. All good signs. As an ambassador of the trail I feel like it is my duty to be patient, friendly, and welcoming to anyone contemplating a thru-hike. We made a joke about him joining us and he took up the offer. He said he was planning on hiking that day anyway and jumped on trail. His jeans and sandals suggested otherwise. He followed along the trail with us for four miles. Around two hours of hiking. I doubt any man can say that their ride followed them for four miles. Maybe he just wanted friends and an adventure, but his story had holes in it and the vibe was strange. I never felt threatened but something was off. I missed the warm blanket of being alone in the woods and I just wanted my space back. We stopped for second lunch and he turned back. It felt like forever and like we were meant to entertain him. I hope his story was true and his motives were pure, I really do. But I’ll never know.

The Murder Jokes

I woke up and decided that somehow I would charge my phone that day. It had been dead for days and to save myself a zero I was going to get to town, grab a burger, and charge my phone while I ate. And then with a full belly and charged battery, I would head right back to the trail. Easy peasy lemon squeezey. But oh, the trail always has different plans for you.

I got to the gap and stood on the side of the road for a while as cars drove past me going about their days. Finally, a car drove up and asked what I was looking for.

“A hot meal,” I replied.

“Jump in,” he said.

I’m a seasoned traveler, an adventure seeker with a big ego and something to prove. I got in the car. My phone was dead but I kept it on me.

“Haha!” He laughed almost triumphantly “I can’t believe you got in!” I watched the trailhead shrink in the rear view as we pulled away. I made a decision to memorize the turns we took just in case.
“You know the last time we murdered someone…” He started. My stomach dropped and my hands coiled.

I did get my dinner but I didn’t charge my phone because I never wanted to announce it was dead. It felt better to just keep that tidbit to myself. They offered a place to stay for the night and I passed and politely asking if I could be driven back to the trail. We stopped at an ATM so they could charge me for the dinner. Nothing bad happened but murder jokes are NEVER welcome. Not to a solo female, not to anyone. I got dropped back off at the trail down three hours and $20 and my phone was still dead. When I finally made it into my tent, I slept for day. Safe and sound and finally home.

Being Stranded in MA

After a bit of maniacal driving our hitch decided to kick us out somewhere between the trail and the town. In short, we were stranded on a highway with barely any battery life left and no idea where we were. When I replay this instance I am just glad I wasn’t alone.

We did eventually make it to the town and figured everything out. On the side of the highway without knowing where you need to go with a dying device as your only tool to help you out of the mess was not my idea of a good time.

The majority of my experiences were positive. I made connections with unique people. I met people who needed to meet me just as much as I needed to meet them. I rode with aspiring thru-hikers and shared advice, encouragement, and my email address. People pulled over for me in the rain when my gear was soaked and I was caked in mud. I had a ride from the parents of a former thru-hiker who were thrilled to be connected. A woman invited me to come stay in her home and cooked a homemade dinner. After narrowly missing a shuttle in the middle of a rainstorm on Clingmans Dome I got a hitch from a 19-year-old with hopes to thru-hike. It was her birthday and we took her to Cici’s buffet. I had people approach me and ask if I needed a ride while I was in the aisles of a grocery story. So often if you take a chance and put yourself out there you will be met with support and kindness. The universe is definitely looking out. But. I also had these less-than-pleasant experiences, so it is all true all at once. Its safe and it’s scary. It’s an exercise in trust and it’s risky. People are usually good and sometimes they aren’t.

Every time you jump into a strange car, you are inherently taking a risk. There are some tricks that you can use to put your mind at ease mitigate the risks.

What You Can do to Stay Safe

Always keep your phone and wallet with you. This is number one. Wrap your fingers around your phone and wallet and do not let it go. If you stick your pack in a trunk or a truck bed, grab your phone and your wallet out of it first. Worst case scenario, if you have to leave everything else behind and run you will be OK. Those are your essentials, your lifelines, your get out of jail cards, and being stranded with those two items will be infinitely easier and better than being stranded without them.

Save some battery life. I know. It’s so tempting to take one more video or play one more song. But seriously, your phone is your life line and you want to save some battery for the trip to town. The journey to town is often more threatening than the mountains. Just save a little; a little is all you need.

If you don’t feel safe, don’t get in. Just because a car pulls over does not mean you need to take the ride. You can say no thank you. You can pass; it’s up to you. Never feel obligated and use your judgement. Your safety is your priority. All the time.

You can always get out. Just because you got in the car doesn’t mean you need to stay. If you get creepy vibes just say thank you and kindly request to be pulled over. It’s fine. You don’t owe anyone anything, and it’s better to have an awkward exchange than to feel scared in the name of being polite.

If you don’t want to go it alone, you don’t have to. The blessing and curse of the AT’s popularity is that you won’t be alone for too long. If you would rather wait at the trailhead for another hiker than make the attempt on your own, by all means do so. Unless the siren song of town is too strong and you can’t wait there should be another hiker coming up behind you soon.

You don’t have to bring a male with you. Male thru-hikers often remark about how much easier it is to get a ride with a female than alone. Sometimes that’s great news because you didn’t really want to catch a ride by yourself, but sometimes it feels icky, like you’re being used, or you don’t necessarily enjoy this person’s company. Hikers look out for each other. But if someone gives you bad vibes remember you don’t owe them a piggyback ride and you can say no.

Tell your trail family your plans. If like me you get taken over by the impulse to go on a solo hitchhiking adventure to charge your phone, at least tell one person on trail with you that you are planning to hitch that day. That way someone up ahead is expecting you. If you have a GPS device don’t forget it can be used in town in an emergency as well.

If you really don’t want to hitch.
There are other ways. You can call a shuttle, look for trail angel postings, some sections even have Uber or taxi services (hello, NY and NJ!). It will be difficult to complete the entire trial without hitchhiking but don’t forget you have options. This option, of course, will add up financially but sometimes comfort and convenience are worth a little extra.

 Most people are gold. Despite the tone of this article almost every hitch I had was either forgettable or charming. People in trail towns know the deal and if they pull over for you they are people who get it. People who love the outdoors and are enamored with the idea of an epic journey.

The most important thing to remember is your instinct will serve you when your gear fails. Tune in and trust yourself. Take your chances, have fun and never value someone else’s feeling over your own safety. Happy trails!

Have you ever been scared while hitchhiking? Any tips to add to the list? I’d love to hear from you; share below.

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