Beyond Great Lakes

Autostop – Useful Tips and Info for Hitchhiking in America

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What foreigners think of hitchhiking in the U.S.

Recently, on one foreign travel forum, I came upon a discussion about hitchhiking in the U.S. And guess what – a lot of information and opinions were inaccurate, or completely incorrect…

Many opinions were base on action movies, sensationalized news, like mass killings, lack of gun regulations, gang activity in some of the big cities, and wrong interpretation of messy legal regulations, etc.…

Therefore, I decide to write a post to give international travelers some idea what to expect, if they think about hitchhiking in America.

While I, personally, never have hitchhiked in the U.S., and I most likely will not in the future, I have traveled extensively alone and tent camped, sometimes, stealth camped, all over the country…

And, let me just point out, that the reasons, while I most likely will not hitchhike are NOT safety related. I will elaborate more when I get to the details.

Freeway
One of many freeways/highways in the U.S.

Hitchhiking in America

In the U.S hitchhiking is legal in most of the 50 states, provided that the hitchhiker is not standing in the roadway or otherwise hindering the normal flow of traffic. Even in states where hitchhiking is illegal, hitchhikers are rarely ticketed…

In most states, especially the eastern half of the country, hitchhiking in not allowed on the interstate freeways. They are identified by “I” and a number (for example, I-90).

There are no federal laws that regulate hitchhiking, and the state are allowed to regulate it themselves, as they want. The exceptions is a regulation applying to National Parks. Hitchhiking in National Parks is prohibited. So, if you are in a national park and need a ride, don’t stand at the edge of the road, waving cars to stop. Instead, ask people at parking lots, points-of interest or campgrounds, and do it discretely…

Parking Lot in Grand Canyon N.P.
Parking Lot in Grand Canyon N.P.

In Which States It Is Illegal To Hitchhike

In which states it is illegal to hitchhike is questionable, as different sources list different states. Most often the states listed are: Delaware, Idaho, New Jersey, Nevada and Utah. However, some sources occasionally list other states and exclude some of the above. So, do your research before your trip.

You can find some legal information here https://law.justia.com/ by searching for “hitchhiking” “soliciting a ride”, etc.

This is one of the reasons why hitchhiking is not very popular in the U.S. Finding out the laws and information related to hitchhiking is quite difficult. Each state and sometimes even local governments set their own rules. There are many outdated and incorrect information on the Internet, and it is almost impossible to find any official references. I tried to find the correct information, but it seems impossible. Therefore, I leave it to the reference articles that I listed at the end of this post. It depends, which one you choose to trust as the one providing the correct information… If I find out any additional details, I will update the post.

How General Public Perceives a Hitchhiker

So, my biggest issue with hitchhiking is related to how people view the hitchhiking traveler, and related to that, difficulty in catching a ride.

There is a fear of picking up hitchhikers and also of hitchhiking. The fear has been spurred by movies and few real cases of kidnapping and murder.

Even though, the traffic is heavy in the U.S, hitchhiking is hard, because generally people don’t trust a person without a car. (Why don’t you have a car? There must be something wrong with you… Are you a drifter?… If you have no car, you most likely have no job. Then, how do you live?)

This is a general perception of people trying to stop a car for a ride. This is what makes hitchhiking in America difficult. You most likely will have to rely on semi-truck drivers. They are more eager to pick up a passenger for the company and hope of a conversation.

This is the reason, that I will not hitchhike. Because, hitchhiking in the U.S. is frustrating, and slow, while the distances are great.

Backcountry Camping
Backcountry Camping in Colorado.

What to do to improve your chance of catching a ride

However, if you still decide to hitchhike in the U.S., there are few things that will help getting a ride:

  1. Dress in clean, nice clothes. Look presentable. The sixties are gone; you don’t want to look like a hippie, or a homeless person. You want drivers quickly to notice that you are NOT a vagrant person, but a tourist. It also applies to your gear. Make sure it looks clean and neat.
  2. The above applies also to your body appearance as far as hair, facial hair, cleanness, etc. If you appear like you just came out of the sewer, don’t expect to get a ride.
  3. Know the English language. Not many Americans are fluent in any other language. Therefore, it will help you a lot, if you can communicate in English.
  4. Pick you routes and destinations carefully. There are roads and areas in the country, where you can walk for long time before you see a car driving by. Also, when picking a spot to catch a ride, make sure the car can stop there safely.
  5. If you are stopped by the police, it is best not to argue. Even if they are wrong and you are right. Better to agree, if it doesn’t inconvenience you, or cost you anything. Then wait till they leave, and do what you intended to do in the first place… Don’t curse, or not follow their orders – it could get you arrested. Don’t be a “smart Alek”. It will get you in trouble, too. Best thing is to cooperate, and apologize, if they say you did something wrong. This is what I do, and few times it got me out of trouble of getting ticketed or even arrested. Be HUMBLE!!!
  6. Pay attention to road signs. In the areas where there are prisons, there are signs: “Prison area. Don’t pick up hitchhikers.”. If you stand somewhere in such a zone, you definitely will not catch a ride. However, most likely you will attract police attention…
Car traffic
Heavy road traffic in Washington, D.C.

What to do to increase your safety while hitchhiking in the U.S.

As far as safety is concerned:

  1. Do not hitchhike at night.
  2. Talk to local people to find out if certain areas are not safe.
  3. Do your research about the big cities you plan to visit. Find out which areas are safe and which you should avoid.
  4. Unless you sure, you are in a relatively safe area, don’t plan on late night walking or partying at the bar.
  5. Don’t flash your money or expensive electronic equipment around. While the U.S. has a lot less petty crime than many other countries in the world, it is occasionally present, especially in big cities. One easy way to tell if you are in a nice area or not so nice is to look at the upkeep of the outside, like roads, sidewalks, trash or lack of, and finally the grass. America is crazy about nicely trimmed lawns. In any half-decent cities, it will be cut and nicely groomed and green in the season. On the other hand, if you see weeds growing, tall grass, broken glass and trash along the sidewalks and streets, you are most likely in the “not so nice area”.
  6. If you can find a company, don’t hitchhike alone. The lone traveler is always the most vulnerable… And that is the same anywhere in the world.
  7. Do not criticize America! We, Americans, are extremely patriotic. More patriotic than most other nations. We don’t like when somebody criticizes our country, and anything else American. This could get you sometimes in trouble. So, till you know your party really well, avoid any criticism. Also, avoid any controversial and/or polarizing subjects.

Accommodations

There are plenty of accommodations available in the country. Tourism is well developed in pretty much all states to some degree. You have hotels, motels, hostels (not as many as in Europe), b&b’s, private campgrounds, state and federal campgrounds, houses and cottages to rent (Airbnb, VRBO).

C&O Canal Hiker/Biker Campground
Free C&O Canal Hiker/Biker Campground.

Camping

Considering that many people hitchhike because they are on a budget, they probably also want to camp, and possibly stealth camp, or wild camp…

So, starting with campgrounds – they are generally not cheap in the U.S. For state park, and many private campgrounds expect to pay between $25 to $40 for a night. Forest campground, which are mostly primitive (no shower, water pump, outhouse) are cheaper at around $10 for a night. There are few areas where there are free campgrounds. For example along the C&O Canal Towpath Trail from Washington D.C. to Cumberland, MD.

Camping
Camping in a state park in the summer.

Stealth Camping

As far as stealth camping is concerned, there is very little public land left in the eastern half of the country. Therefore more difficult to find a place to stealth camp. Unfortunately, I would not advise camping on private land without the owner’s consent. In the U.S., if you are discovered, you probably will be approached by the owner and his family or friends armed with guns. While, they most likely will only inquire why you are on their property and ask you to leave, such encounters can be unnerving, and rarely, possibly, dangerous.

Let me tell you of my such experience. Once, I was hiking in the woods with friends in southern Michigan. The property that we were legally on was quite extensive and without any fencing or marked borders. So, we did not realize when we crossed over to the neighboring property. The sighting was limited because we were in the forest. At one point, all of the sudden, four guys on four-wheelers, armed with long rifles and shotguns appeared out of nowhere. However, once we talked and found out that we are trespassing on somebody else’s property, we apologized and turned around, and the incident was over.

Additionally, do not stealth camp in National Parks, unless it’s allowed, usually by permit. I once did because of an emergency, and when discovered by park ranger, I was harassed with a gun half drawn from a holster and almost arrested.

Therefore, be careful where you stealth camp. It is a lot easier in the western part of the country. There is a lot of public land, a lot of empty spaces there.

Small Town America
Small Town America.

Final Thoughts

First, a disclaimer! To make sure that any information above is just that – information, for further research, and not a legal advise.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and the above post is not a legal advice. I also cannot verify that the provided information is correct and true. After all, it came from my research of various sources on the Internet. So, verify what you need, to plan your trip before the intended travel. The laws keeps changing from time to time.

Good luck in your hitchhiking travel in the U.S… Once completed, you could post some insights and tips for future travelers.

Resources

There are a lot more specific information related to hitchhiking in the following articles.

Is Hitchhiking Illegal in the USA? State-by-State Analysis!!

HitchWiki – Hitchhiking in America

14 Ways to Safely Hitchhike Across the United States

Is It Legal to Hitchhike?

American Hitchhiking Laws For Every State

Car Camping

Rich S. is a lifetime photographer and traveler based in Metro Detroit area. He has been traveling the Great Lakes area for over 30 years. Follow his blog about his trips, interesting activities and destinations in the Great Lakes region.

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