A Guide to Backpacking with Your Thumb

If you’re a backpacker, then you know the world of hostels and buses by now like the back of your hand. As backpackers, we feel closer to the real deal behind the places we visit. We feel like we’re more part of the locale than those other tourists travelling with their wheeled suitcases and staying in those singular hotels, alone in their rooms. Backpacking is the ultimate way to travel. However, there is a subgroup, so to speak, of backpackers: the thumbing backpacker.


The Rewards of Hitchhiking While Travelling

It might feel daunting to take that next step down the ladder of expenditure, but believe me when I tell you that a thumbing backpacker feels even closer to that real deal.

Instead of sitting lonesome on buses, you’re standing alongside the highway waiting for someone who wants you in their vehicle to stop and pick you up. The reward for throwing out your thumb is that you will share in a unique experience with whoever decides to risk having you in their car.

The best advice I can give you is to simply do it – go out to the road and start hitchhiking, now.

The Guys

Still here? Well, perhaps it’s best to give you some more concrete tips on backpacking with your thumb, hopefully inspiring you in the process to join the thousands of people who have taken to the highways already.

Hitchhiking Solo or in a Group? Safety First.

First thing’s first: who are you travelling with? As much as I want to, I can’t advise that everyone should travel solo. If you’re thinking about security, remember that you have safety in numbers. It will be harder to get rides in twos, but it’s less likely that something unfortunate befalls you. In most parts of the world, women in particular should want to travel in pairs. Europe might be the exception to that rule, according to some.

The Equipment Hitchhikers Carry

Now that you have a travel partner, you’re going to want to make sure you have all the necessary equipment to handle the long hauls. If you’re travelling a short distance with your thumb, you might only need a day pack. However, let’s assume you’re looking to do inter-city backpacking with your thumb…

Here is a snap list of essential items that you should have:

  1. backpack (of course)
  2. sleeping bag
  3. sleeping mat
  4. map
  5. shelter
  6. food and water

The type of weather will dictate what grade sleeping bag you have, and whether you’re packing a tent, hammock, or tarp. All the items should be as light-weight as possible.

Eating While Hitchhiking

You generally eat about one pound of food per day. Depending on where you are, you might not need to worry about alimentation, but if you’re crossing a desert, take food. Always keep in mind that folks will want to treat you to a bite from now and again, but do not depend solely on the fruits of their kindness.


Any Other Items to Take on the Road

Now that you know what items are absolutely necessary, here’s a short list of additional items that can come in handy:

  1. a marker and cardboard
  2. knife
  3. water bladder
  4. musical instrument
  5. sunglasses
  6. brimmed hat
  7. scarf or handkerchief
  8. umbrella
  9. compass
  10. sunscreen
  11. reading material

I’ll assume you know the use of most of the items. The sign-making materials aren’t necessary, but some travellers feel that a sign indicating their destination ups their chances of getting rides. The instrument and reading material is meant to occupy your time as you wait. The compass is for those times you get left off in the middle of a city and you lose north. The umbrella is the most important unnecessary item. Its uses include: sunblock, rain block, walking stick, climbing stick, shelter, dog fender-offer, Jedi training stick, etc.

Guidelines to Thumbing

So, now you have your backpack packed and your travel partner is ready to hit the road. Before you let that rubber hit the pavement, you should adopt these general thumbing guidelines:

First and foremost, avoid at all cost travelling at night. When the sun has decided it’s on its way out, you should be decided on finding a place to set up camp.

Secondly, always follow your instincts about a ride. If you feel uneasy, don’t get in the car.

Third, never get separated from your pack. Countless travellers have lost everything by making the one avoidable mistake of putting their backpacks in the trunks of cars.

Finally, be as amicable as humanly possible.

Sleeping/Camping While on the Road

It’s very probable that you won’t make it to your destination in one go. This is where covert camping comes in handy. The guideline to follow here is simple: don’t let anyone see where you’re camping. You’ll find the best places to camp by walking outside of towns and wandering into the countryside, ignoring fences as you go. If you can’t find the owners of the property you’re planning on sleeping on, have a dialogue prepared if you get caught in order to defend your decision to squat there. However, you shouldn’t get caught in the morning if you follow this other simple rule: pack it up before 6 am.

Where to Stay on Arrival in a City?

Sometimes, thumbing backpackers arrive in cities without prearrangements, since it is hard to tell when we’re going to arrive when hitchhiking. You can try urban camping, couchsurfing, inquiring at the local fire station, or hostelling.

Location & Time frames for You and Your Backpack

If you’re planning on joining the ranks of thumbing backpackers, you should know that the best trip is an unplanned one. Not only is it already hard enough to tell when you’re going to arrive to a destination, but the best part of thumbing is the variety of experiences that open up to you. It would be a shame if you miss out on visiting the family farm of your ride just because you’ve booked a hotel or promised a couchsurfer you’d arrive on a certain day.

By now you should feel confident in your abilities. Don’t let the concept of thumbing frighten you, because there’s really nothing to it. Once you decide that you’ll leave your planning in the simple stage of “arrival flight the 10th, departure flight the 30th”, take notes on the following advice of how to get started.

The Law – Is Hitchhiking Legal?


First, know the hitchhiking laws of the country. For instance, contrary to popular belief, thumbing is legal in most of the United States, but only on the on-ramps of the interstates, not on the highway itself. Once you familiarize yourself with the law, you can find the ideal location to throw out your thumb.

Where to Stand

Location is everything in this game. Do not hitch from the middle of a city. Walk or take a bus or train to the outskirts. This is where a map becomes quite useful. You should decide ahead of time which routes you will take to get to ‘B’.

When you’re outside of town, look for a spot on the side of the road where the cars not only have space to pull over out of the way of other cars, but also where they might be driving slower. Toll booths, speed bumps, on-ramps, check points, gas stations, rest stops, and stoplights are all great places to look for a ride.

So that’s it; this is all the information you’ll need to get started with that thumb of yours. I’m sure it’s just aching for some attention by now!