Is Hitchhiking Legal?

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a woman hitchikes with a backpack on a rural road

Someone’s always looking for “a free ride,” but is hitchhiking legal? Finding real complimentary travel to a destination of your choice has gotten harder and harder these days. It seems thumbing a ride has gone by the wayside over the last 20 years, as hitchhiking has lost its popularity.

But hitchhiking can be a great way to meet new friends, see bits of the country, and travel inexpensively. Let’s dig into the history of this semi-controversial pastime, separate fact from fiction, and look at the renewed interest in thumbing a ride.

What Is Hitchhiking?

If you’re looking for transportation from a stranger, you’re officially hitchhiking. You might catch a lift to a destination just down the road or find a driver who will take you the full length of your journey. In its heyday, hitchhiking became the main form of transportation for many free spirits, when exploring new horizons was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s.

But with new dangers to both the hitchhiker and the driver, thumbing it has become increasingly less viable these days. Some even wonder if hitchhiking is legal. What was once seen as a romanticized form of travel has become passe for most adventurers.

A person stands on the side of the road with her back pack looking for a ride.

Is Hitchhiking Safe?

Hitchhiking can be a safe way to travel, but as with any activity, you can take some precautions to make yourself safer. For instance, take a picture of the car and license plate before entering the vehicle. Text that information to a friend.

And be selective when choosing a ride. Trust your gut — if something doesn’t feel right, ask where they’re going, then tell the driver you’re going to a different location and wave them on.

Although there’s no federal law pronouncing hitchhiking illegal, some circumstances make it extremely difficult to thumb a ride these days. For instance, it might be legal to hitchhike in certain areas, but not others. “Impeding traffic” is an enforceable offense, and foot traffic isn’t allowed along major highways, so hitchhiking, by default, isn’t allowed on the roadside there. But standing at the on-ramp of that highway might be perfectly acceptable.

Forty-four out of 50 states allow hitchhiking as long as it doesn’t break other laws, such as those regarding impeding traffic. However, keep in mind that private property owners may have their own rules. Don’t solicit a ride from a truck driver at a truck stop. Instead, ask for a lift on the road leading from that truck stop to the highway. In other words, follow the rules of the road, and your hitchhiking should be legal in most states. 

A woman in the passenger seat of a convertible smiles at the driver.

It can be confusing to determine whether hitchhiking is legal, with every state having its own laws. Currently, the only states with explicit laws against hitchhiking are Arkansas, Maine, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington. Many states say that you can’t solicit a ride while standing in the roadway, but that doesn’t prohibit you from doing so in places like parking lots or off the road.

There’s also the question of enforcement. There’s some doubt about whether police would actually spend time enforcing anti-hitchhiking laws even in the states where it’s illegal. If you’re unsure, you can check the state and local laws.

Tips for Hitchhiking Safely and Legally

There are several things you can do to thumb a ride safely and hitchhike where it’s legal. Here are a few suggestions.

Don’t Stand in the Road

For obvious reasons, you shouldn’t stand in the road but on a visible shoulder or the side of the road. Give drivers plenty of time to spot you and plenty of space to come to a stop in a safe place. And if you’re hitchhiking with another person, make sure drivers can see both of you.

Only Hitchhike During Daylight Hours

It’s extremely difficult to get a ride after the sun goes down. Cars can’t see you, and you can’t see drivers or the distinguishing characteristics of their vehicles in the dark. Play it safe and plan for a place to sleep at night, rather than trying to hitch a ride.

A hitchiker holds their thumb out into the road as a car approaches

Be Prepared to Wait

Even where hitchhiking is legal, it can be tedious and difficult while waiting in all kinds of weather for a ride. Be prepared with food, water, sunscreen, a hat or other shade, a flashlight, and the proper clothing. You might need a sign and a way to contact friends or family, so carry a small portable power bank with your phone charger, as well.

Keep Valuables on You

If you’re carrying any valuables like money or credit cards, don’t put them in a backpack or bag. Make sure they’re safely stowed on you. You’ll have less chance of leaving them in a stranger’s vehicle or losing them during your travels. Plus, there’s less temptation for pickpockets if your valuables aren’t in bags they can separate from you.

A man grabs a ride in the back of an old school van as he hitchikes across the country

Traveler’s Tip: Have you ever considered traveling by bus? Learn if riding a Greyhound bus is dangerous.

Choose Rides Wisely

When a driver stops in response to your extended thumb, try to photograph the car and license plate, texting the images to a friend. You may even ask the driver if it would be OK to take their picture, as well, explaining your safety concerns. It might reassure them that you’re a safe hitchhiker. 

If possible, try to pick vehicles with a single driver or a couple and sit in the front passenger seat. And when telling the driver where you’re going, don’t give a location too far away, in case you feel like you need to bail a little sooner. Ask them to let you off in a location where you can get more rides, not in a city center or very rural spot. 

Keep Conversation Friendly and Polite

Always be polite and upbeat. Before entering the vehicle, ask the driver where they are going and take note of them. You can then accept the ride and climb in, or thank them for stopping but tell them you’re going in another direction. Whether hitchhiking is legal or not where you are, a little courtesy can go a long way.

A suspicious looking man in the driver seat of a car beckons for a passenger to get in.

Be Assertive (if Needed)

If something just doesn’t feel right, ask the driver to pull over and let you out. Be forthright, and don’t put up with anything that makes you uncomfortable. Trust your instincts, and if the driver doesn’t immediately stop, tell them that you have been sick and are about to throw up. 

Would You Consider Hitchhiking?

Hitchhiking can be an exhilarating way to travel. But there are still risks involved with this type of transportation, whether hitchhiking is legal or not. Follow the tips here to make sure you stay safe while hitchhiking.

Hitchhiking can be an enjoyable way for adventurous travelers to see the country when combined with a bit of common sense and preparedness. Would you ever hitchhike?

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