The Hitchhiker's Guide to Canada

After hitlching 5,000km across Canada, Ben Collins presents the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Canada

Having spent over 80 hours hitchhiking across Canada I have had a lot of time to think about the art of successful hitchhiking and for readers thinking of embarking on a similar journey I wanted to share with you my thoughts.

Successful hitchhiking is all about numbers
Before setting off you should accept that some 95% of all drivers who pass you have never picked up a hitchhiker and never will. That leaves just 5%.

Now this "golden 5%" aren't bound to pick you up, but thankfully they aren't dead set against it either. As such, consider it your job to do everything you can to gently persuade them in to pulling over and offering you a ride.

Bare in mind though that drivers have a very limited opportunity to pass judgement on you and much of this will be done at a superficial level. Whilst this sounds like a limiting factor, I came to learn whilst crossing Canada that there are still many things you can do to make yourself less threatening and more appealing.

Its really quite simple
You are in Location X and want to be in Location Y.

Standing on the side of the road, the aim of the game is to convince people who are going about their daily lives to pull on over and offer you a ride.

Have a "Dry Run" 
If you are thinking about hitchhiking a significant distance and have never done so before, I recommend you take the time beforehand to make a "dry run."

Like it or not, standing on the side of a highway, sticking your thumb out to drivers and jumping in to a strangers' car is not normal and the first time you do it - trust me, it will feel pretty weird. As such, if you are planning a long trip I would remove the burden of this stigma in a "dry run" lasting perhaps 100km or so.

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Plan your route
It seems somewhat obvious but I'm going to say it anyway... plan your route ahead of setting off and take the route most frequently taken by drivers. Always remember that this is a numbers game and at the most basic level, the more cars that pass you means less time you'll have to spend waiting.

Having spent a week looking at the map, this was the route I ended up taking heading East to West.

Know your limits
In terms of what distance you can cover on any given day I would suggest you start low and work your way up. For what's it worth I travelled an average speed (this includes the time spent waiting on the side of the road) of 56km/hr (34mph) and I would recommend using this as a basic assumption in determining the distance you might try to cover in any given period of time. Bare in mind that whilst hitchhiking can be quite tiring, it does mean that if you are willing to go at it for 12 solid hours you should comfortably make 700km (434 miles).

I wouldn't encourage aiming for anything higher.

When travelling across a country the size of Canada one of the big questions is "where will I stay?"

Despite the uncertainty that you will come to live by, I feel you can be pretty confident in saying where you will end up on any given day and so with some careful thought there is nothing to stop you arranging to  CouchSurf or stop at a hostel. However, you must accept that this is a gamble and if CouchSurfing it is only polite to inform your host that your arrival time may be a little erratic.

That said, I gave all of my hosts a 3hr window in which I expected to arrive and for what it is worth I was not late once.

Prepare to get stranded
Whatever you choose to do for your accommodation, you should plan to get stranded. Hopefully you won't, but for your own sake assume that you will. I myself did this simply by carrying with me a small tent that cost $15 from Canadian Tire. It was the worst tent I have ever slept in but it meant if I did become stranded I would have a shelter I could quickly set up on the side of the road.

Along with your tent, I would also take a suitable amount of food and water to keep you going for at least 24hrs.

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Looks matter
Like it or not but a large part of what will determine your success is what you look like. As such, before heading out dress appropriately.

Wear clothes that are light, unoffensive, and not too big for you. In particular I would always suggest short sleeve t-shirts and a pair of shorts. Together, this from the drivers perspective makes you not only easier to see but it makes you look less of a potential threat with less places to potentially conceal a weapon.

Prepare a sign
I researched this a lot before I set off and found there to be no overwhelming consensus on whether to carry a sign or thumb it alone.

Having tried both I highly recommend carrying a sign for quite simply you will have fewer rides that take you further. Whilst thumbing it alone works, my experience was you rarely land a ride taking you more than 100km and when travelling a country the size of Canada this quickly becomes very frustrating.

What to write?
Carrying a sign not only helps your chances of gaining more enduring rides, it allows you to show the driver a little about yourself. I found that writing the place name in a large, clear font with only the first letter capitalised worked well and by adding "please" beneath it illustrates to the driver you have good manners.

You're not a bum
Make clear to prospective drivers that you are not a bum or an escaped convict.

Clearly a large backpack helps and whilst it can be tempting to take it off I found much greater success with it on my back. This not only makes you more visible to the driver but it gives the impression you are ready to go right this second.

I found also that carrying a small Union Jack did wonders and many of the drivers picked me up for this reason alone, identifying me as a foreign traveller in need of assistance. Fortunately for me, back home the Royal Jubilee and London 2012 Olympics did a good job at publicising this flag and so even if you're not from the UK, try to find something that distinguishes you from other hitchhikers.

Location, Location, Location
This is so incredibly important I can't emphasise it enough.

Firstly, head out of town to the point where the suburbs are replaced with fields. This I found marks the point where anybody now passing you is definitely heading out of town and as they come to face the prospect of a long drive, you might be seen at this opportune moment as somebody to talk to and make the drive a little less dull.

Secondly, you want drivers to be able to see you for a good few hundred meters so avoid corners like the plague. My ideal location on the edge of town was always 100m after the last set of traffic lights as this not only kept the speed of passing vehicles relatively slow, it meant cars waiting at the red light had lots of time to pass their judgement.

This though is all redundant if you haven't given plenty of space behind you for the driver to pull over and so you want to make sure there is a suitable shoulder for them to pull over or alternatively a side road within the next 100m.

Choosing your location carefully is so important it is hard to understate and whilst this can at times mean you end up walking a long distance to find that spot, it is always worth the extra effort.

Posture and Appearance
Be clean, be smart and look like you have had a shower. Stand up straight, have your backpack on and don't look like you have been waiting for hours.

Don't stand facing head on as this could be seen as confrontational. Likewise, don't stand side on as drivers can't see your full profile and are harder to see. Logically then angle the direction you are facing somewhere in the middle.

Be Personal
This may sound difficult but you should try to make a personal connection with every car that passes you - even if they are doing so at 60km/hr.

Smile and make eye contact without exception and for that extra bonus point I'd also give a little hand gesture to say "hi." From speaking with those drivers that picked me up, a lot told me that this gesture was what sealed the deal, and remember, even if it is ignored, those cars in the distance will still recognise this action and see you more as a more positive figure.

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Be Ready!
You have been waiting on the side of the highway for 30 minutes and then a car pulls over. Don't then waste your chance by taking five minutes to get your stuff together. Have your backpack on and be ready to go.

Assess the Risk
Before hitchhiking everybody will tell you a dozens reason why not to.

There are obviously risks jumping in to a car with somebody you don't know but hey, that's part of the adventure. Remember though that you have that initial 10-20 seconds between them pulling over and you jumping in to decide whether or not it is a sensible idea. I suggest that the presence of blood stained sheets, weapons, empty beer cans and/or liquor bottles should be a tell tale sign to walk away.

Remember you can say "No"
If you don't feel comfortable then remember you have the power to say "No thank you" and walk on.

Trust your gut
If you remember just one thing it should be this: Trust your gut.

Rides will come in a variety of shapes and sizes
Have a get out clause
Plan for the worst, hope for the best - have a get out clause. In the event that things get weird and your gut tells you to get out then have in advance an idea what you will do. Depending on the driver my thoughts ranged from telling them I felt car sick to purposefully causing an accident.

On a similar note, keep your wallet and valuable documents on you at all times so that in the unlikely event you do a runner, you're not completely lost!

Prepare to Entertain
Most drivers pick you up for one of three reasons:

1. They're bored
2. They hitchhiked when they were younger and/or
3. They just want to help

Either way they are going to want to talk and you should prepare for this.

Open your ears
Knowing that they will never see you again, drivers realise there is little consequence to telling you about the problems in their life. Whilst it is refreshing for people to be so frank, be wary their problems may be deep seeded and whilst it is good to actively listen I would suggest maintaining a neutral stand point throughout.

Positive Mental Attitude. If you don't have it when you start then don't bother. On long trips there will be times when thousands of cars pass you without more than a look and when standing in the wind and the rain it is difficult to maintain that positivity.

However, you must remember nobody is going to pick somebody up who is clearly frustrated and angry.

Don't rush 
"Its 9am and in four hours I must be 300km away" - Start off a day like that and I promise it won't be an enjoyable one. The less you "must" be somewhere, the more fun you will have getting there.

You will get picked up and you should remind yourself that it is only a matter of time. For what its worth I had 29 rides in Canada and 28 of them picked me up within 45 minutes of me arriving on the highway.

Enjoy the Adventure
The driver to embark on this adventure should be the unknown. Its a great opportunity to learn new skills and meet new people. Whilst at times it may be a little challenging, it should on the most part be a fun experience and one to enjoy.

If its not - get the bus.

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