When I tell people I hitchhike and often do so on my own, the first question usually is: “But isn’t that rather unsafe?” Raised eyebrows, comments on being a young female, etc. My response usually is: “Half the time I’m carrying an ice-axe and pointy poles and can be found by sniffing the wind, so I don’t exactly scream Vulnerable Pretty Little Thing.”
Hitchhiking is dangerous, just like crossing the street, hillwalking, driving, rock climbing or, hell, going out on a date with a relative stranger. Did you know some kids these days have Tinder? The nerve.
More seriously, I’ve been told far too many times that hitchhiking as a female (especially alone) is “asking for it”. Unless “it” refers to a lift rather than sexual assault, that assumption is not okay. It blames the victim, rather than holding perpetrators responsible for their criminality. Kind of gross. By hitchhiking and being more-or-less smart about it, I challenge this idea and take ownership of my adventures and my body.
I see becoming a more assertive and confident woman–and maybe inspiring other women to do likewise–as a bigger attack on the Baddies of the world than huddling indoors ever could be.
In an age of fear-mongering, it can be easy to think that our era is unsuitable for such shenanigans and that people just aren’t to be trusted these days. This is another assumption that demands thought, but I’m not going to dig into the statistics here. We are each responsible for researching the facts, clarifying the risks and trying to understand likely rewards.
We don’t need to be told we don’t understand the Big Wide World or to feel like we can’t or shouldn’t take ownership of our own adventures. Also, can we just not all assume that everyone is out to get us? Given so many seem to be assuming that and huddling inside, it probably isn’t true, strictly speaking.
That being said, let’s consider the rewards of hitch-hiking.
hitchhiking: the good
I’ve had hilarious conversations, talks that made me rethink my relationship with religion, dogs curled up on my knee, stories of land rights regulations and its impacts across generations, and a brief education on the marine life of the Firth of Clyde (it’s been overfished, y’all). I’ve sat in the back of camper-vans and in the back of a work-van like a stray dog while my bestie sat up front. I’ve chilled in the front seat of windowless black vans—sorry, Mom—and in suped-up SUVs. I’ve been given lifts by taxis on their way to their next job, expensive Mercedes-Benz contraptions, and tiny wee cars that somehow made it out of the 80’s on 3.6 wheels and a prayer. I’ve met mothers, teachers, construction workers, gardeners, an ex-jockey who is now my pen-pal, shop owners, taxi drivers, tourists, a bar owner, and mountain leaders. Strangers have a magical knack for extending their best selves.
I’ve built up a lot of confidence in being able to read vibes and guiltlessly turn down lifts that strike me as slightly off or sketchy. Because you’re also in a slightly more risk-involved situation, you’re also attentive to the driver in a way you wouldn’t normally be. Mannerisms, turns of phrase, and body language all become more apparent and more fascinating.
As someone who’s struggled with Panic Attack Disorder, I now can walk up to someone in a car park and ask for a lift with a smile and not a niggle of anxiety. It’s made me about ten times more relaxed around people, because, in some way, everyone’s just looking for a lift and a conversation in this life. Perhaps it’s cringe-worthy and sentimental, but I firmly believe it’s true.
Also, hitchhiking is free. You get to places you can’t access by public transport. Hitchhiking enables adventures that would have otherwise been impossible. It’s kind of awesome.
Those are the rewards. What, then, are the risks?
Conversion to a life of piracy or (another) religion(s), kidnapping, torture, death, alien abduction, etc.
I’m being flippant, I know, but every single time I hitchhike I do think about the chances of being raped. It’s just what comes with being a vaguely rational woman in a beautiful world marred by violence and sexism. However, risks can be mitigated.
Maybe the following list is gruesomely methodical. However, I find that the more one wants freedom the more willing one has to be to take responsibility for oneself. This means having one’s own rules–breakable should the occasion arise–which above all prioritise kindness and safety towards yourself and others. While also allowing you to challenge silly prejudices.
1) I accept lifts only from people I immediately feel safe around. This is my number one rule. If a sketchy-looking guy pulls up next to you and gives you The Look and, by the way, his car doesn’t have a roof but rather a covering of duct tape and tarps (true story), for the love of everything holy don’t get in the fucking car. Dear, dear God.
2) I only thumb for lifts in safe places where it is unlikely that sketchy characters will purposely frequent. Remember, someone looking for a “vulnerable female” is not likely to go venturing into the hills looking for a stink-bomb mountaineer to ice-axe duel. Cos if they did, crampon-kicks would be totally legal. I also don’t hitch between big cities. A bus is cheap, more reliable, and much safer than a city context.
3) I make sure there is space for me on the side of the road, that I can see cars for a long way and that they can see me.
4) I don’t get in a car with more than one man unless with multiple females. If I get in a car with a guy, I have some object that can be used in self-defense within easy reach (see: ice-axe duels). For this reason, I keep my bag on my lap.
5) I am happy, confident, and willing to talk or to be silent, and I sit with my shoulders relaxed and make firm eye contact. I don’t hunch or make myself look small. Communicate kindness and confidence.
That said, I’ve only ever hitchhiked in Scotland and Ireland, which are both relatively safe countries. Hitchhiking in the U.S. strikes me as a different ballgame. If you decide to hitch because of what I’m saying here, make all your own decisions and don’t blame me for any of them.
Hitchhiking is wonderful because it allows you to experience a different side of life—a part of the country that might be harder to get to, a side of the population you don’t normally see, a side of yourself you didn’t know existed. Yes, there have been times I’ve been on a quiet road for an hour or two struggling to get a lift and wondering if I’d have to negotiate sleeping arrangements with some cows, but it’s the adventure that’s worth it.
Above all, hitching shows you that people (and cows), with their kindness and open-mindedness, are adventures in and of themselves. You don’t need to be a professional ice climber to experience this. All you need is do is stick out your thumb, know what makes you feel safe and keep your wits about you. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by yourself.