Ruth Johns-Bishop takes us through the history of hitchhiking, and some common misconceptions behind it.
Hitchhiking is thought to be a hippie trend of the past. Originating in the US last century, it became popular in the 1920s and 30s due to people having less money to spend on travel and a sparsity of transportation. After a brief decline in the 1950s, it resurfaced again in the 60s and 70s as international travel became increasingly popular amongst broke and curious young people. Hitchhiking was a great way of getting bargain transportation to where you wanted to be. Tourists could simply stick out their thumb to flag a cheap or free ride in places where public transport was infrequent or out of their budget. Since the 1980s, though, hitchhiking has seen a steady decline. With budget air travel having been introduced and tourists having more money to spend, hitching a lift isn’t in such high demand. Car ownership is also more affordable and common, so fewer people rely on hitchhiking as a way to get around.
Notoriously, there has been a rise in mistrust and scepticism around hitchhiking, particularly contributing to its decline. Partially due to a few high-profile crimes and horror films featuring the topic, possible dangers that hitchhiking poses have been highlighted, making it even less appealing. For women, too, these potential dangers reflect familiar risks of male violence; female travellers may feel in danger by taking this mode of transport, and feeling stressed or unsafe makes it an unfavourable option for many. Hitchhikers may be at an increased risk of being driven by people who are impaired, such as being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and this too has contributed to its decline. Hitchhiking is also not culturally common in some places, so you’ll likely be waiting a while to meet a driver willing to take hitchers and may be met with some hostility. Even if this isn’t the case, it is illegal in some countries, including the UK, to walk along motorways and highways, and since motorways have become popular routes to take, it is much harder to flag a lift from passing drivers. Walking along small country A-roads instead reduces your chances of meeting many cars.
But is hitchhiking as dangerous and inaccessible as we think? The perceived risks to women, in particular, is one of the most infamous downsides to it, but this may be blown out of proportion. Whilst hitchhiking can put women at risk of attacks and sexual assault, this risk remains incredibly small. Potential dangers are dramatised in films and on the news, but attacks are very rare. In fact, the risk to women is considered no higher than in most every-day situations, and most sex-motivated crimes are committed by family members or friends, or in instances closer to home.
Hitchhiking may also carry many benefits to those who do it. Tourists find it to be a great way to meet locals or other travellers who can provide knowledge and insights into the local area. People have also claimed it’s a great chance to find some unusual modes of transport that are normally uncommon or expensive to book; such trips have included rides on camels, yellow school buses, motorbikes and pick-up trucks. These benefits of hitchhiking are still recognised, as it still exists in more hidden forms. There are many apps, websites, and organisations that aim to enjoy the benefits of travelling this way, while promoting safe and secure transport: Zipcar, UberPool and BlaBlaCar all offer modern forms of hitchhiking, mostly in the form of car-sharing for a small fee, often costing less than public transport. While embracing cheap rides, they enable tourists to arrange trips in advance, ruling out uncertainty and a long wait for a lift.
Hitchhiking may be an outdated trend, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be enjoyed. Although it’s more difficult to do in many places than it used to be, and bad press makes it seem a fairly concerning mode of transport, it doesn’t need to be forgotten forever. In some places around the world, hitchhiking is still commonly done and is a popular way for tourists to travel. For any risks it may pose, it is still worthwhile trusting your instincts and making sure you feel safe. Check the guidelines where you are heading, regarding rules on hitching lifts and walking alongside roads. With this in mind, feel free to embrace the art of hitchhiking and the sense of spontaneity, excitement and adventure it brings.