Hitchhiking (also known as thumbing or hitching) is a means of transportation that is gained by asking individuals, usually strangers, for a ride in their car or other vehicle. The ride is usually, but not always, free.
Itinerants have also used hitchhiking as a primary mode of travel for the better part of the last century, and continue to do so today.
Hitchhikers use a variety of signals to indicate they need a ride. Indicators can be physical gestures or displays including written signs. The physical gestures, e.g., hand signals, hitchhikers use differ around the world:
In some African countries, the hitchhiker's hand is held with the palm facing upwards.
In most of Europe, North America, and the United Kingdom, most hitchhikers stand with their back facing the direction of travel. The hitchhiker typically extends their arm towards the road with the thumb of the closed hand pointing upward or in the direction of vehicle travel.
In other parts of the world, such as Australia, it is more common to use the index finger to point at the road.
Signals used by drivers
In 1971, during the Vietnam War, drivers invented methods to communicate various messages to hitchhikers (frequently soldiers in those areas of the U.S. near military bases). To indicate to a hitchhiking soldier that their vehicles have no additional space to accommodate them, drivers could tap on the vehicle roof. Another common message that drivers could signal to hitchhikers—who usually sought to travel long distances, distances too far to walk in a reasonable amount of time—was that the driver's destinations were located nearby—and of little use to the hitchhiker—by pointing at the ground for a few seconds.
Two of the signs used in the United States, forbidding hitchhiking
Hitchhiking is a historically common (autonomous) practice worldwide and hence there are very few places in the world where laws exist to restrict it. However, a minority of countries have laws that restrict hitchhiking at certain locations. In the United States, for example, some local governments have laws outlawing hitchhiking, on the basis of drivers' and hitchhikers' safety. In 1946, New Jersey arrested and imprisoned a hitchhiker, leading to intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union. In Canada, several highways have restrictions on hitchhiking, particularly in British Columbia and the 400-series highways in Ontario. In all countries in Europe, it is legal to hitchhike and in some places even encouraged. However, worldwide, even where hitchhiking is permitted, laws forbid hitchhiking where pedestrians are banned, such as the Autobahn (Germany), Autostrade (Italy), motorways (United Kingdom and continental Europe) or interstate highways (United States), although hitchhikers often obtain rides at entrances and truck stops where it is legal at least throughout Europe  with the exception of Italy.
In 2011, Freakonomics Radio reviewed sparse data about hitchhiking, and identified a decline in hitchhiking in the US since the 1970s, which it attributed to a number of factors, including lower air travel costs due to deregulation, the presence of more money in the economy to pay for travel, more numerous and more reliable cars, and a lack of trust of strangers. Fear of hitchhiking is thought to have been spurred by movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and a few real stories of imperiled passengers, notably the kidnapping of Colleen Stan in California. See § Safety, below.
Julian Portis points out that the rise of faster highways, such as freeways, motorways, and expressways, has made hitchhiking more difficult. He adds:
The real danger of hitchhiking has most likely remained relatively constant, but the general perception of this danger has increased. ... [O]ur national tolerance for danger has gone down: things that we previously saw as reasonably safe suddenly appeared imminently threatening. This trend is not just isolated to the world of hitchhiking; it has become a pernicious artifact throughout the American cultural conscience.
Some British researchers discuss reasons for hitchhiking's decline in the UK, and possible means of reviving it in safer and more-organized forms.
In recent years, hitchhikers have started efforts to strengthen their community. Examples include the annual Hitchgathering, an event organized by hitchhikers, for hitchhikers, and websites such as hitchwiki and hitchbase, which are platforms for hitchhikers to share tips and provide a way of looking up good hitchhiking spots around the world.
Limited data is available regarding the safety of hitchhiking. Compiling good safety data requires counting hitchhikers, counting rides, and counting problems: a difficult task.
Two studies on the topic include a 1974 California Highway Patrol study and a 1989 German federal police study. The California study found that hitchhikers were not disproportionately likely to be victims of crime. The German study concluded that the actual risk is much lower than the publicly-perceived risk; the authors did not advise against hitchhiking in general. They found that in some cases there were verbal disputes or inappropriate comments, but physical attacks were very rare.
In Cuba, picking up hitchhikers is mandatory for government vehicles, if passenger space is available. Hitchhiking is encouraged, as Cuba has few cars, and hitch hikers use designated spots. Drivers pick up waiting riders on a first come, first served basis.
In Israel, hitchhiking is commonplace at designated locations called trempiyadas (טרמפיאדה in Hebrew, derived from the “German” trampen). Travelers soliciting rides, called trempists, wait at trempiyadas, typically junctions of highways or main roads outside of a city.
In Nepal, hitchhiking is very common in rural areas. Many do not own cars so hitchhiking is a common practice especially in and around villages.
Hitchhiking (called liften) is legal in the Netherlands. This sign indicates a good place to get a lift.
In the Netherlands, hitchhiking is legal and official signs indicate where one may wait for a ride. These designated hitchhiking locations are called liftershalte or liftplaats in Dutch, and they are particularly common in university towns.
Hitchhiking in Poland has a long history and is still popular. It was legalised and formalised in 1957 so hitchhikers could buy booklets including coupons from travel agencies. These coupons were given to drivers who took hitchhikers. By the end of each season drivers who collected the highest number of coupons could exchange them for prizes, and others took part in a lottery. This so-called "Akcja Autostop" was popular till the end of the 1970s, but the sale of the booklet was discontinued in 1995.
Hitchhiking in Ireland is legal, unless it takes place on motorways. A backpacker will most likely still get a lift if the car has enough space to park. Local police (Gardaí) usually let backpackers get away with a verbal warning.
A "slug line" of passengers waiting for rides in the US
Warnings of the potential dangers of picking up hitchhikers were publicized to drivers, who were advised that some hitchhikers would rob drivers and, in some cases, sexually assault or murder them. Other warnings were publicized to the hitchhikers themselves, alerting them to the same types of crimes being carried out by drivers. Still, hitchhiking was part of the American psyche and many people continued to stick out their thumbs, even in states where the practice had been outlawed.
Today, hitchhiking is legal in 44 of the 50 states, provided that the hitchhiker is not standing in the roadway or otherwise hindering the normal flow of traffic. Even in states where hitchhiking is illegal, hitchhikers are rarely ticketed. For example, the Wyoming Highway Patrol approached 524 hitchhikers in 2010, but only eight of them were cited (hitchhiking was subsequently legalized in Wyoming in 2013).
In several urban areas, a variation of hitchhiking called slugging occurs, motivated by HOV lanes.
Ludovic Hubler – French hitchhiker who toured the world entirely by hitchhiking from 1 January 2003 to 1 January 2008, and wrote Le Monde en stop about his experiences
Ilmar Island (Saar) – the last and only hitchhiker recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for hitching between Key West, Florida and Fairbanks, Alaska (5 days, 20 hours and 52 minutes); the category only appeared once.
Chris McCandless – subject of the book Into the Wild and related films; hitchhiked throughout the western region of North America in the early 1990s
Robert Prins – last hitchhiker recorded in the Guinness Book of Records for the 24-hour hitchhiking record (2,318.4 km)
Stephan Schlei – from Ratingen, Germany; hitchhiked more than 621,371 mi (1,000,000 km); the Guinness Book of Records, before all hitchhiking records were removed, once said that he was the World's No. 1 Hitchhiker
Devon Smith – listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for most cumulative miles hitchhiked (1973 to 1985), over 290,988 mi (468,300 km); held the record for hitchhiking all 48 contiguous US states in 33 days during 1957
Colleen Stan, who was kidnapped by Cameron and Janice Hooker, and tortured and abused for seven years before Janice helped her escape.
^"So You Won't Talk, Huh?". Time. 18 November 1946. Retrieved 27 January 2009. In her cell, Susan learned that it also (technically) forbids hitchhiking, and demands (by a law passed in 1799) that strangers be able to give a good account of themselves.... Attorney James A. Major of the American Civil Liberties Union demanded that she be given a new trial.
^Wechner, Bernd (1 November 1996). "The Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking". bernd.wechner.info. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 9 February 2017. There are no statistics on hitch-hiking, at least none that are meaningful and reliable. Compiling useful statistics would require counting hitchers and the amount of rides they receive, and the comparing them to the problems reported, which would be a difficult task.
^McLeod, Jamie (10 January 2007). "The 'better' Better Way". The Eyeopener. Retrieved 3 May 2013. The most recent hard evidence I could find about hitchhiking danger was a 1974 study conducted by the California Highway Patrol examining crimes committed by and on hitchhikers. It found that in 71.7 per cent of hitchhiker related crimes the hitchhiker was the victim. It also found that only 0.63 per cent of the crimes reported during the period of the study were hitchhiker-related, and that hitchhikers were not disproportionately victims of crime.Citing:"California Crimes And Accidents Associated With Hitchhiking". California Highway Patrol. February 1974. Archived from the original on 29 June 2016. Retrieved 9 February 2017. No independent information exists about hitchhikers who are not involved in crimes. Without such information, it is not possible to conclude whether or not hitchhikers are exposed to high danger. However, the results of this study do not show that hitchhikers are over-represented in crimes or accidents beyond their numbers. Also available as a PDF.
^Joachim Fiedler; et al. (1989). Anhalterwesen und Anhaltergefahren: unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des "Kurztrampens" (in German). Wiesbaden, Germany: Bundeskriminalamt Wiesbaden. OCLC21676123.