Matt had 10 days to get from Haugesund (Norway) to Munich. As part of an exclusive sneak preview of E&M’s ongoing project, A Transnational Adventure, Matt shares his 5 principle rules for successful hitchhiking across Europe.

Notes from A Transnational Adventure #1

On our recent Transnational Adventure E&M cameraman Tim and I travelled 2,223km from Haugesund in Norway to Munich in Germany. With only 50 euros. To put this into perspective, we had to travel the distance of Calais in France to Minsk, Belarus, or even Paris to Berlin 2 ½ times, in 10 days, with little more money than can get you one night’s accommodation in a hostel. Hitchhiking became an essential life skill in completing the race to Munich. What follows is some tried and tested advice that you can use next time you find yourself at the side of the road with nothing but other people’s kindness to help you travel.

Matt, displaying his controversial ‘pathetic’ sign technique (somewhere near Magdeburg). | Photo: Mathew Shearman

Hitchhiking is… (mostly) random

Forget all of your preconceptions: there is no ideal hitchhiker, nor is there the ideal person who will eventually pick you up. We were helped by a German student, a Swedish mother of two, a Romanian truck driver, an ex-hitchhiker herself, and three Norwegian-Pakistanis.

Their reasons for picking us up were all different, and we had actively done little to affect that. On the upside, if that’s the case, you can just sit back, smile and simply wait because at least on the surface of it, hitchhiking is completely random, you just get ‘lucky’.

There are some people who would never pick you up, there are others (fewer) who would always help, but then there are the third kind, a good number, who – given the right circumstances – will consider helping you out. These people are your target audience and so here are a few things that we think can make that little difference which tips the balance between the ‘maybe’ people either helping you or leaving you standing at the side of the road.

1. Pick your spot

Hitchhiking from the middle of a city is much like hitchhiking inside a building; everybody is busy doing something and nobody is really planning to leave. To the same extent, hitchhiking in a field means that unless you want to ride a cow to your next destination, you’re probably not going to get very far. Picking your spot is crucial, you want the highest intensity of cars possible, a place where they can safely stop just after you, and a spot which leads directly onto the motorway to where you want to go. We were waiting 1 ½ hours at a corner before someone kindly stopped, told us we were standing in the wrong place, and dropped us off somewhere better. A junction is ideal, but make sure it’s going in the right direction and that it has a high visibility so that cars have time to see you, make the decision, and stop to pick you up.

Sometimes you just have to sit back, smile and simply wait. Hitchhiking is competely random, you just have to get lucky.

2. The Sign

The sign is the fundamental tool of the hitchhiker, in just one word it holds both your desires and your wildest dreams (basically, where you want to go.) There are two schools of thought. Tim’s, which says the sign should be a piece of art, crafted beautifully, time spent lovingly drafting and cross-hatching the words so that it has the highest visibility and will make the biggest impression on drivers. And my view which states that the more pathetic the sign is, the more likely you are to engender sympathy in a passing driver and thereby get a lift to the next stop. In no way does this have any relation to the fact I can neither draw, nor sketch words effectively. Either way, cardboard is best and service stations are usually willing to lend you a pen to write the sign.

3. Be Specific / Be flexible

We thought we were being very clever by putting just the road name we wanted on the sign. Dan, one of our longest and best lifts, told us that this was foolish as most people did not know the roads they were going on, only the place where they were heading. So be specific! If you want to go to Munich, say in big letters MUNICH, and even if someone is only going half way (to go pick mushrooms in a local forest for example – yes this happened to us!) then that is better than nothing. And on this note, BE flexible – if you have a long distance goal, take the opportunity to travel to a place somewhere closer, or how about changing the destination all together? We wanted to go to Rødby, a port in Denmark, we got offered a lift to Gedser instead (much further east) changing the whole dynamic of our trip and making for some very interesting stories along the way.

Tim, getting friendly with the bad conditions. | Photo: Mathew Shearman

4. Enjoy the little victories

Hitchhiking is hard. Much like being a fighter pilot (I imagine…) it involves a lot of waiting around followed by a great adrenaline rush when you get the call to go. We were lucky, and we usually only had to wait between 1 – 1 ½ hours each time. But whilst you wait it is best to keep your morale as high as possible. If there are two of you, enjoy mocking the people who don’t pick you up – for example – ‘I wouldn’t get in that car if you paid me! Did you see his acceleration around the corner?!’ You will also notice that people apologetically wave at you a lot – so smile back! Happiness makes time travel faster. My personal favourite was to wave at a coach full of people, signalling in four separate actions – that if they were going my way – could they please tell the driver – to stop – and let me onto the bus… Clearly it was never going to work, but it made about 30 people and myself laugh every time!

5. Bad conditions are your friend

You are at a service station in the middle of nowhere. It’s late, it’s dark, and it’s raining. Are you miserable? NO! Because bad conditions are your friend. If you consider the first advice again, that hitchhiking is mostly about making that small group of people who ‘may’ pick you up do so, then what could be better than horrible conditions to make them think twice about driving past you… But if it is dark, there’s no use waiting by the side of the road and hoping for the best. It would be much better to go near the entrance of the roadside café and ask people for help. Fortune favours the brave, and if moving on takes approaching everyone you meet, then so be it!

It’s late, it’s dark, and it’s raining. Are you miserable? NO! Because bad conditions are your friend.

Hitchhiking is, quite obviously, a dangerous affair. You’re entrusting your life to someone else’s driving and whilst they clearly do not want to kill themselves, their idea of ‘safe’ driving may be very different to your own. But that said, across the whole of Europe; in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany the people who picked us up were all fantastically interesting, great to talk to, and were genuinally kind people just trying to help. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend making a whole holiday out of hitchhiking, the buzz you get when you finally are picked up is amazing – like achieving the impossible – and the stories we heard along the way made the waiting completely worthwhile.

Hitchhiking – The Game – Here’s a ‘complex’ formula I worked out at a junction 10km away from Rostock Port (Germany) – If you’re hitchhiking with a friend – Take it in turns to make the sign – At the end of the ‘holiday’ add up the total number and work out who has the most efficient score.

Without spoiling the film too much, on the Transnational adventure one of us was very far ahead in the hitchhiking competition, until the very last leg of the journey…

Cover photo: ‘Find your way’ Bozilla (cc-by-nc)

You May Also Like

Fifty issues of Legs: Europe on the move

For the 50th edition of E&M and, therefore, the 50th edition of LEGS, we ...

Gaudi’s Legacy: The Sacred Family

Explore the history and inspirations behind Antonio Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece. Every city has a ...

The joys of working 10,000 metres in the air

In my five years as a flight attendant, I have learned a few things.  ...