People are always asking me if it is safe for women to hitchhike.
My answer is yes… mostly. Hitchhiking in a war torn country is obviously going to different to hitchhiking in Switzerland. But in Europe, hitchhiking is a very safe and interesting way to travel, even if you are a woman!
This article will give you some great tips for staying safe when you are hitchhiking. It will also tell you some of the ridiculous encounters I’ve had along the roads of Europe as a young woman hitchhiking alone.
Why is hitchhiking so great?
Hitchhiking is a wonderful way to explore the world, but it has been tainted with a disproportionate amount of bad press. Before I started to live in my self-converted Peugeot Boxer van, I spent many months hitchhiking around the UK with my then boyfriend (now husband).
From the rolling hills of the Lake District, right up to the heaving city of Glasgow, to the wild and wonderful Western islands, and then more than 500 miles around the North Coast of Scotland.
Since then I have hitchhiked alone throughout Britain and Europe, getting picked up by men that are literally twice my size and weight. (It’s not just men that have picked me up. I’ve ridden alongside teenagers, mothers with their babies, elderly professors and everything in between!)
The experience has greatly restored my faith in mankind, allowing me to connect with hundreds of wonderful people and explore the hidden corners of the UK without contributing to any further pollution of the earth that I love that so much. Before I set off however, I was told by countless well-meaning family members and friends that hitchhiking was ‘extremely dangerous, especially if you are a woman.’
I have found that the people who tell you hitchhiking horror stories are almost always people that have never done it themselves. People that actually hitchhike will very rarely warn against it.
Is Hitchhiking really dangerous?
Before I started hitchhiking, I had the impression that hordes of psychopaths were driving up and down the country searching for their next victim to boil in a pot and eat for their dinner. And why wouldn’t I?
Our society tends to treat hitchhiking with extreme suspicion. This has not always been the case though, and in my parents and grandparent’s generation it was totally normal to thumb a lift at the side of the road. Whether you were heading to the coast for the weekend, or walking home with a heavy bag of shopping, grabbing a lift from a passer-by was completely socially acceptable.
Flash forward and we tell our children that they should never get in a car with a stranger. We tell them that the world is not like it once was and that there are crazy people out there just waiting to get their hands on a ‘nice girl like you.’
The truth is, there has always been a small percentage of violent people, and a vast majority of people that would help you in a tight spot. It is no more dangerous to hitchhike now than when it was considered normal.
We now have smart phones where we can call the police at the click of a button, or text a registration plate to a friend in a matter of seconds. Violent crime has actually declined in the last few decades, and DNA testing, communication technology and criminal profiling has made it harder than ever to hurt a stranger.
Of course, there is a small and serious risk that something could go wrong.
Just like there is a small and serious risk that someone could spike your drink when you go for a beer with your friends, or that someone could break into your home whilst you are sleeping and hurt you.
The problem is, when we frame our existence around avoiding all risks rather than living a full and rewarding life, we end up suffering all the more. You can plan your life to avoid every perceived risk you can possibly think of and it will not protect you from a drunk driver skidding around the corner and hitting your car.
People that get hurt didn’t plan badly.
Sometimes bad things will happen to good people. It’s bloody sad, but don’t shy away from all the adventures you could have because of it.
I have been shown, time and time again, that people are overwhelmingly good and gentle. That does not mean be reckless, and there are certainly plenty of things you can do to ensure that you are taking good care of your safety when you hitchhike. Your life is precious after all, and it is worth preserving!
Women (particularly minority women) and LGBTQI+ people are more likely to be a victim of violence than the heterosexual male. Unfortunately we have had safety plans in place ever since we started walking home from school by ourselves.
That same vigilance should be applied when hitchhiking, but it shouldn’t prevent you from living your life to the full.
Here are some safety tips that I recommend to anyone, but particularly women.
Hitchhiking Safety Tips For Women
Follow your gut
It is more important to be safe than to be polite.
You hear survivor stories all the time of people who said ‘things didn’t feel quite right, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I said he could sit next to me’ or ‘I knew something was wrong, but I brushed it aside as being paranoid.’
If a car pulls over and your gut tells you not to get in – just don’t
You do not have to give an explanation, but you could say ‘sorry I prefer to get picked up when there is a woman in the car, thanks anyway!’
Or you could look at your phone and say ‘oh my friend has text me that they are going to pick me up. I’ll wait thanks!’
Or you can say ‘I changed my mind; I’m going to walk.’
It does not matter what you say. It doesn’t even matter if you slightly offend someone who will later recount this story to friends that you will never meet with rolling eyes at the pub. What matters, is that you listen to your own instincts and do not put yourself in a dangerous situation.
Make a note of the registration
Don’t forget to make a note of the registration, even the last few letters.
If you later feel that something really isn’t right, you can text a friend and say ‘I am in a silver alpha Romeo, reg ending XXX and I don’t feel safe. Please call the police.’
You can also share your live location with a friend or family member from your phone. Make sure you know how to do this in case you get into a tight spot.
If you have asked the driver to pull over and they don’t, even if they claim ‘it’s no bother’ to take you to the next destination, then its time to put your foot down. So long as they have a safe place to pull over, they should let you out of the vehicle as soon as you ask. If they do not do this, it is absolutely not paranoid to feel unsafe.
Even if you do not have signal, you can still say:
‘Look, I really don’t feel comfortable and I’ve pinged my location and the end of your reg to my Mum. She has called the police, please let me out of the car.’
Only use that as a last resort, I’ll go on to explain why later.
Carry a defensive tool
I do not advocate violence at all. However, if it makes you feel safer, you could carry something with you to protect yourself. Notice that I do not use the term ‘weapon’, because when we start talking about carrying weapons, we start talking about an intent to hurt other people.
What’s more, if you bring a weapon into a vehicle with you, it could just as easily be turned on you.
Are you fast and strong enough with a knife to know that, in a last resort of self-defence, you could take it out and kill the other person before they disarmed you? If not, you are literally handing them a tool with which they could hurt you.
In many countries, pepper spray is a legal defensive tool which can help to save you from a really nasty situation. By spraying it in someone’s eyes, you cause them enough pain and discomfort to slow them down, as well as blurring their vision. However, you do not want to spray this when they are driving as it could lead to a crash. I would recommend carrying a small can in your pocket in case of emergencies.
In some countries, including the UK, pepper spray is illegal. It counts as a firearm because it contains noxious gases, and the penalties for carrying it are serious.
An alternative you can carry in the UK is a criminal identifier spray. This is a strong dye (with no poisons or toxins) that you can spray in the face of an attacker. It will completely disorientate them and leaves a stain on skin for up to 7 days.
The more the attacker tries to rub it off, the more they spread it all over themselves and it could buy you the time you need to get away. What is more, they will be less likely to hurt you having been sprayed with this as they will be a walking sign saying ‘I attacked someone’ for at least a week.
You can find out which European countries allow and don’t allow pepper spray here.
Stop the journey
You are much more likely to encounter a bad driver than a bad person when you are hitchhiking. I got picked up by a couple of tourists from Hong Kong in the fanciest and shiniest 4×4 that I have ever seen in my life. They had just picked up their hire car at the airport and were absolutely delighted to pick up their first ever hitchhiker.
‘Where’s your luggage’ I asked, perplexed. Noticing they only had their designer jackets in the trunk of the car.
‘Oh, we don’t bother bringing luggage on trips with us, we just buy stuff.’
I was totally amazed that people actually lived like that and considered the fact that I hadn’t bought a new item of clothing for over 2 years. But I digress!
They were extremely nice people, and extremely bad drivers.
The woman was driving when I got in. She was literally changing the side of the road she was driving at will. Her boyfriend leant over and helped her with the steering when she had to turn left or right, and at one point, she drove straight over a roundabout. This was not the first time I had met a driver like this, and it won’t be the last.
‘This is me’ I shouted cheerfully in the middle of nowhere.
We were miles away from the closest town, surrounded by the moors. They looked perplexed but I pointed them to a spot where they could pull over and thanked them for the lift.
Instead of taking the spot that I had suggested, they parked in the middle of the road, at a junction and got out to take a selfie with me.
Cars piled up behind them and started honking their horns in disbelief, as they took photos with me with sticky out tongues and peace signs next to their hire Land Rover.
If you want the car journey to end sooner than expected, you can say ‘this will do thanks’ whenever you get to a junction, and say you are going in the other direction. Otherwise you can say ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’
This is perfect for boys in flashy sports cars that are driving faster than you are comfortable with. They might not stop for you, but they sure won’t want vomit over the dashboard of their baby.
If you have a big pack, you can also tell people that you are going to cook a meal for yourself and get a lift later, or you can say that you are going to camp close by.
You are very welcome to say ‘I don’t like your driving, please stop now and let me out.’ But I found the more tactful approach made me feel a lot more comfortable and got the same job done!
If you do think that you might have got into a dangerous situation, I recommend staying calm.
This may well be easier said that done, but I seriously believe that when you start acting like a victim, it is easier for you to become one. That does not mean that victims have any blame involved when they have been attacked at all.
All I mean, is that when you start to show your panic and fear, it can become a signal to someone that wishes to hurt you that ‘the game has begun.’
By staying calm on the exterior, you can delay the point at which the person chooses to reveal their true intentions, even if you know that something is not right. The longer you talk to someone as if they are a completely reasonable and gentle human being, the harder it is for them to start to behave otherwise.
When possible, navigating yourself out of a situation without revealing to the other person that you are doing so can be really effective. This might all sound a little weird, especially if you are a heterosexual man. The truth is, us girls have learned to protect ourselves in this way for years, because we have had to.
In Europe, it is safe for women to hitchhike.
It is not risk free, just as it is not risk free to drive your own car to work, or to take a shower without slipping over and cracking your skull. So long as you keep a calm head on your shoulders, and don’t take any unnecessary risks, hitchhiking gives you to opportunity to meet amazing people and travel great distances without spending any money or contributing to climate change.
There is always a chance that something will go wrong in this life, but the benefits far outweigh the risks in my experience.
Wishing you many safe and joyful adventures on the road.
If this article resonated, you might like to check out The Highly Sensitive Nomad book.
You might also like to read:
- How to Travel Without Any Money
- A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Wild Camping
- Making Deeper Connection When You Live On The Road
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