Positioning is a very crucial and important action during hitchhiking. Wether where your position takes place, you have a better or worser chance to catch the next ride. It is one of the most important actions during your hitchhiking and the success depend on your ability to find good positions. Often it makes sense to walk for a 1-2 km and take a good position for a fast next ride, than waiting on the place where you are.
Of course hitchhiking success depends on different factors. Position is just one. And an experienced Hitchhiker won´t do much mistakes. He/She knows, what works for him/her and what not. There might be places, that certain people like and others don´t. Like standing on the end of a service station area rather than asking at the gas station, or taking position in front of the traffic lights. There is one person who loves to do that and another on who hates it. And if you take a position you don’t like, it definitely will decrease your chances. Keep that in mind. All about attitude. I for myself try to like every position. Even if it feels wrong, I take it as a challenge and work eagerly towards my next ride.
If you work in a team of two experienced hitchhikers, better let one person choose the position. This would be also the person who is responsible for the thumbing. There is no need to start a fight and create a bad atmosphere in your team. Sometimes it is better to let the hitchhiking person just do it the way he/she is used to it. Most positions are equally good, if the attitude is positive.
What is a position?
In general a hitchhiking position has three main characteristics.
1. Speed of the passing cars
They can be slow, damn fast or not moving at all. In general we want positions where the traffic is slow, just because of the fact, that the communication time between you and the driver increases and you can make him pull over with a sunshine smile and your gentle waving thumb. Also drivers are more tempted to stop, if they move slow already.
Second quality of a position is the visibility. You would think that you should take a position, where the driver might see you from far ahead. I am actually not sure about this. Sometimes, when the cars see you 1-2 km before they arrive, it is very hard to have a significant and connecting sign language. People might decide about taking you or not, even before you gotta chance to interact, which is not always optimal. Sometimes it is good, to be the flashing object, that occurs behind the corner with a sunshine smile and a gentle waving thumb, surprises the driver and makes him pull over.
3. Keeping area
Although with the visibility, keeping area is something, we don´t have to discuss. There must be enough keeping area for the car, to pull over, get safe from the road and make you also being safe when getting into the car. A lot of people won´t stop, if there is not enough keeping area.
I write that with being conscious about the fact, that some people just stop on the street and others would stop everywhere, whenever they see a hitchhiker. Even if they have 3 km rush hour behind them, they are moving on a one laned road out of the city and a mass hysteria of hatred behind them, because “hey, there is a hitchhiker!”. This all happens. Fair enough. But you should not support this behaviour with your positioning. Always choose a place, where it is safe for all to stop and interact.
In general I think there is a difference in the importance of those criterias. In my eyes the speed of the traffic is most important for positioning. Always try to find a spot where cars go slow. Fast traffic is the worst. Keeping are is important but under certain circumstances it can be less important. Visibility is the last criteria. You should be visible, for sure! But the question is either, at what point you should get into the drivers attention and it is definitely not always an advantage in positioning if you are seen from far away (like say on a 1-2 km long straight road). Especially if this is combined with fast traffic. The principle should be to give enough time to react for the driver, but more time means not always better chances to catch this ride.
Beside this, we have some basic and reoccurring structures and can identify an ideal position. If there are not traffic jams, everyone is moving in the same speed, the traffic has 24/7 the same frequency, our hitchhiking partner does nothing but standing beside us and looking good (which imho are the best settings) and there is always a good keeping area and no weather changes. We got three major structures:
As you might see, I already marked the ideal position. When we get a curve, we most likely stand behind it, at the position where the cars start speeding up, when getting out of the curve in direction downstream. If there is another curve behind, stand between the two of them. They won´t go to fast.
Place yourself behind the crossing in downstream direction. Not before, so you might miss the people from the crossing road. Makes sense, doesn´t it?
3. Branch off
Same with the crossing. Usually you don´t want to stand in the main road and wave down the traffic which takes of in your direction, but stand on the beginning of the road, directed towards your destination.
Good positions and bad positions
Bad positions are in general bridges or tunnels, because there is no keeping are, overpasses, inside of towns or villages or in places where it is forbidden to stop, like prison areas or under „No stop“ signs. Hitchhiking in those places will decrease the amount of cars that are going to stop. Also it is wrong to hitchhike in bus stop, as you will be seen as a passenger not as a hitchhiker. But if there is no other keeping area, it is acceptable to use bus stops. Hitchhiking in narrow roads can cause car accidents and you should avoid those places.
Good positions are police checkpoints/controls, frontiers, railway crossings, defects of the road carpet, traffic lights, traffic jams, roundabouts and so on. It is important to position behind those places and not in front, as the drivers attention will be concentrated on the percularity of the road and not on you. It is all about the minimizing disturbance and putting yourself into the focus.
How to find a position?
You can have a look into our great Hitchwiki to find hop out spots for almost all bigger citties. Feels invited to add information and help the database growing. But you don´t have internet or hitchwiki all the time. Usually i never look up spots and use my Hitchhiker Instincts. I move into direction highway/my road and then i have a look in place, while singing all the time: „These boots are made for walking.“ Walk walk walk, if you don´t like the place. There will be another one within the next 5 km. Promise!
Also a good reason, not to carry your fully stuffed 25kg expedition-backpack and a brand new Walmart tent in your hand and maybe a guitar or some cooking pots hanging somewhere around you. Hitchhiking is more important, than being your own house. Travel light, be more flexible and enjoy the road.
How do I know if the position is good?
If you try to hitchhike an nobody stops for a long time, you might stand in a wrong position. It might be usefull to have a rest or walk to another position then. For me personally a position is good, if it makes me feel good and does not hurt any of the major qualities above. And I feel good while hitchhiking, when I get reactions from my by passing traffic. 5 minutes waiting, while everybody is ignoring you, can be much more difficult than 30 minutes road-side-show, while cheering, laughing and having fun with your traffic. I prefer having fun, staying in good mood and think then hitchhiking is working better automatically. The faster the traffic, the more they tend to ignore you. Find a spot, where they have to slow down („Stop“-Signs are great) and have to deal with you, your sunshine attitude and the gentle waving thumb!
General advices about positioning and hitchhiking
But there is a major principle about positions and taking rides: Only get into the car if you know that it can get you to a good position. This sounds simple but is one of the major problems, that can occur, when you hitchhike. Even I make this mistake from time to time. If you are on the highway and it is just going to the next village, you might end up in a very bad spot. It is a tactical mistake to get from a good position into a bad position. Sometimes it makes sense to wait for a better ride, instead of taking everything that stops. Also sometimes it make sense to get out of a car earlier, than going the full distance, if you can not make sure to end up in a good position.
I (almost) never take positions, if it is going downhill. Faster traffic, cars have longer braking way and it is harder for them to overcome their natural skepsis and pull over for you. Best is, to be on top of a hill.
Stay in the traffic current, don’t let yourself fall out of it. Especially in countries that have a dense highway network, it is the worst tactical mistake, if you get driven out of your main track. This usually takes a lot of time to fight your way back and pick up speed again.
Also, if you go a long distance, your chances to catch a good ride are increasing while progressing on your route. There is a certain point where finding a ride to your final destination is not anymore about luck, but about simple probabilities.
An example: When I was hitchhiking 3700 km through Kazakhstan (Almaty-Aktau) it was very unlikely, that I would catch a direct ride when I left Almaty city. Especially if the final destination is about a one day drive away you will likely find traffic that is going there during day and night time. If there are no major cities on the route, it also can mean, that you will likely catch a good ride.
In this case I had a direct ride around 2300 km before Aktau. That was luck. I did not take it all the way, because they stopped for sleeping. Around 1000 km before Aktau I catched a Truck that was going directly to my destination. It was in a place, where they where no major cities in between and I knew, that there would be relatively much direct traffic. This truck also stopped for sleeping in the night around 500 km before my final place. I could have waited 5 hours and arrive the next day, but the position was just too promising.
I kept on going and hitchhiked in the night. 20 minutes later I had my final ride. Especially the last ride,was very likely. I was confident to make this move, because I knew this position was in the current, on a good section of my overall route, with no major cities in front of me and enough traffic in my direction. Simple analytics for a successful hitchhiking.
This idea of wrong traffic (not your direction) turning into right traffic (to your direction or destination) also is crucial for my strategie to pass big cities. While from the entrance to the center of the city it is very unlikely, that you will find a ride that really helps you and walking might be the better option, your chances to find traffic (at least) to the other end of the city are constantly increasing, when you pass the city center and move outwards of the town and not inwards anymore. The city center defines the tipping position, where catching a good ride is not luck anymore but possible.
Some people hesitate to drop me in rural areas, because they think, nobody ever will pick me up there. The hopeless position. In Argentina I was going from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and in my first night I had a position at a gas station, which was not very successfull. 50 km in front of me was a major intersection, though in the middle of nowhere, without any lights and other structures. My driver told me, that there was nothing and I thought: „Very good!“ No disturbance. And people tend more to help you, if they perceive the place as hopeless. In this case it took me 2 minutes and the first car to catch a 800 km night ride from there.
This does not mean, that you should bring yourself in danger and try to get into rural areas in the night. Only take those positions, if you can handle to survive there, when nobody picks you up! In this case I knew there is an major intersection with traffic in my direction and that drivers would stop either than on the gas station, i was positioned before.
Wintertime and i mean real winter with snow and stuff (i know not everyone of you might have that), is hitchhikers heaven. I love it, when there are 1-2m high snow hills at the road side. You know why? Cause it makes life so much easier, especially in rural areas with not a lot of traffic. The question about the keeping area is not important anymore, because there is just no keeping area. Which means you basically can stand everywhere. It does not make a difference. Also people in the winter pick you up, everywhere. They are much more hold to stop and give you a lift.
This advice is for cities and small roads, not for highway with fast traffic (remember, winter, snow, slippery roads, longer braking ways…be careful what you do). If you are hitchhiking on a fast and big road in the winter the situation changes completely. Keeping area and taking a safe position is getting even more important here.
When you are in danger of getting into heavy rain, try to stay near a shelter. It is not worth to get soaked. I prefer shelter rather than carrying rain equipment with me.