The Subtle Art of Successful Hitchhiking
Have you passed a hitchhiker and just kept going?
Did the thought of stopping, offering a ride or support ever cross your mind? Or did you have somewhere else to be? Maybe that hitchhiker is a serial killer just waiting for their next victims.
Whatever the case may be, a thru-hiker and a hitchhiker are one in the same on the AT. Luckily for you, the community around the AT and the trail towns is generally extra helpful towars hikers (minus Southern VA and NY). So, hitchhiking in Hiawassee, GA (population 912 in 2017), is much easier than catching a hitch in your hometown. However, if you look like part of my trail family in the above photo, you better read this. Twice.
There we were, in the rain in Marion, VA, looking for a hitch back to the trail.
I took refuge from the rain under a gas station overhang, as I watched my hiking buddies fail for 45 minutes to land a ride. I stepped out to the road, put my thumb out, and within five minute was in the back of a pickup truck heading back to the trail. This seemed to be the case in most towns. Many hikers failing to get a hitch to town. I come along. I work my magic, put my thumb out and land a ride. Was it luck? Yes. Getting a ride on the AT is a lot of luck but there is an art form to it too.
Understanding five basic rules will not guarantee you a ride, but it will greatly improve your chances.
1) Always have a girl try to hitch first. If that sounded sexist, it is. Ladies have a much higher chance of getting picked up. People in general are more likely to help a women along the side of the road than a man. And although they may smell as bad as any male hikers on trail, the common person doesn’t know that. If you’re lucky enough to have a woman in your group, have her try her luck first. That doesn’t mean the men hide in bushes and jump out once someone stops. Instead, put the lady closer to the road and dude take a seat along the side. It’s magical how it works. (I do know a story about a girl landing a hitch while eating an ice cream cone, but that’s a story for another day or a lady named Sprout).
2) Smile. Have fun. Honestly, who wants to hang out with a grumpy person? Smiles are contagious. So smile. I had a lot of success waving to cars, having fun, laughing, smiling, and embracing the hiker lifestyle. If you look like you’re begging for a ride, you probably are, and no one likes a beggar. If you’re getting a hitch, someone is picking you up for free. All you can offer is a thank you, a story, and a smile. Smile, damn it. Tell a good story from the trail and don’t forget your “Thank you”
3) Look better than you smell. It’s been raining for nine straight days and you need a ride a few miles to town. No one wants to put a soaked hiker in their car and drive them around. Or maybe it’s been five days of brutal heat and your sweat marks can be seen before your thumb. It’s time to clean up. Throw on a clean shirt, jacket, and clean yourself. Try to look like you are only a little dirty and not like a combo of butt/feet/death. I would often throw on a Hawaiian shirt I had for town, or my puffy, to make myself look cleaner. They were the only clean clothes I had but they worked. On the trail, it doesn’t matter what you look like but back in society, appearance is everything. If you look like a serial killer or look like you smell, just call a shuttle and pay for your dumb self to get to town. Clean up or pay for a ride.
4) Truck. I landed 90% of my hitches from a pickup truck. They can toss a few smelly hikers in the back no problem. Wave to them. Stand (almost) in the middle of the road. They have a truck and it’s time to use it. Sweat, wet, dirt, smell, doesn’t matter in a truck. Don’t let that truck pass by without a fight from your thumb (pickup trucks, not tractor trailers).
5) Allow yourself to be picked up. This sounds dumb but it’s a big one. If the trail crosses at the top of a hill, don’t stand at the top looking for a ride. The vehicles have little to no time to see you. If they do, there is no place to pull over for you. A few kind souls will circle back around. Generally, once they pass, they are gone forever. Instead, walk down the hill. Find room for the car to pull over. The same goes for towns. Target an area with a lot of people. I would go to gas stations, grocery stores, any place with a flow of people and ask for a ride. With a smile, politely ask for a quick ride back to the AT. The worst they say is no. I got rejected far more in my single dating years than when hiking and asking for a hitch. If they say no, just say thanks anyway, and continue on with your smile. You’re always one car away from that ride you need.
Bonus: Have a beer and make a sign. Every time I had some beers in my hand, I got a hitch. Maybe this is the luck part, but who doesn’t love a beer? I always offered my driver a beer upon pickup. Again, who doesn’t love beer? And make a sign. “Hiker to town” and “hiker to trail” communicates exactly what you need. Take your Tyvek groundcloth and find a sharpie. Problem solved. (Its UL. No more weight added to your pack)
A sign and a beer will do wonders.
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