Thumbs out:
Ethnography of Hitchhiking

Donna Carlson


Transportation systems vary from one society to another. So does their meaning. The Plains Indians adopted horses from the white man and used them for travel; they also gave them great cultural significance. One’s status came to be measured by the number of horses he owned (Ewers 1955). We have only to think of the jet set of young males who lavish loving care on their hot rods in order to realize that the objects and methods of travel have cultural meaning beyond the mere task of getting from one place to another. In this paper, Donna Carlson examines the meaning of hitchhiking in Great Britain. As a participant observer, she recorded the terms individuals use to classify their actions as they travel by this means. The plans that girls in particular use as they hitchhike are shown in great details, as are the dangers one anticipates and tries to circumvent. Such cultural knowledge of of hitching is no less valuable for personal safety and survival than knowledge of horses was for the Plains Indians, And, in the same way that horses came to have status value, the author shows how hitching has certain status value among British students.

Of all man’s inventions the automobile has had one of the most profound effects on human life. The impact of the car is nowhere more evident than in the United States where motor vehicles became available to those who were rich enough to afford them at a time when the country still had room to grow. The result has been the characteristic urban sprawl, many square miles of parking lots, and the national superhighways that are paved over more than one percent of the country.

Cars also serve as status symbols for their owners, vehicles of power for the over-masculine, and places for young lovers. They are, in short, the very lifeboat of the nation.

The presence of automobiles has had another effect that is often overlooked. Despite their prevalence, not everybody owns one. Since most people need to get places, the possibility of receiving a ride with a more fortunate driver presented itself early. Hitchhikers are now a common scene by the roadways, and most Americans at one time or another in their lives have tried to thumb a ride. Although they hardly recognize it themselves, those who hitch rides regularly develop systematic ways for getting where they want to go. The problems of persuading drivers to stop, maintaining personal safety during travel, and arriving at one’s destination have led to the development of culturally shared solutions.

The automobile, originally invented in Europe, has finally taken over there too. In Great Britain, for example, there are limited-access superhighways, large service stations, and most other accoutrements of car life familiar in America. There are also great numbers of people seeking rides on the highways and employing special knowledge to insure that they arrive on time in one piece at their destinations.

My interest in hitchhiking developed out of my experience as an American student at a British university. I arrived bag and baggage at London’s Heathrow Airport with a sigh of relief. I had flown from New York several days before and had threaded my way rather precariously through a number of western European airports before arriving. Once in Great Britain, I thought the difficulties I had experienced with foreign European customs would disappear. After all, because the English speak English they should be like Americans, but of course this was not altogether true, as I soon discovered.

The university I attended was small but its buildings were dispersed throughout the city. The distance was great from where I lived to the building in which my lectures were held. Travel to class required at least a half-hour walk. In the age of the automobile no self-respecting person should have to walk that far every day, so despite an upbringing that said girls don’t hitchhike I decided to thumb a ride. I placed myself by the side of the road with a bit of apprehension and extended my thumb in the direction I wished to go. Amazingly, a car pulled over to the side of the road immediately and its door opened for me. I got in the car and told the driver about my nearby destination. He looked at me incredulously and said, “Can’t you walk that little bit?” Obviously I had done something wrong. In the United States students hitch for a mile or two without any trouble. But in Great Britain, despite the fact that I knew many students who seemed to procure rides, hitchhiking in town was apparently not appropriate.

This contrast with American practice led me to choose hitchhiking as a topic for ethnographic research. Research was carried out during 1970-71 from October through the following July. My informants for this study were British and American university girls, with whom I also traveled on several occasions. The views presented therefore are only typical for girls. Data was gathered primarily by participant observation and informal discussion with informants.

Ways to Travel

Like in most western countries, there are a number of ways to travel in Great Britain. Railroad trans, buses, airplanes, coaches, and boats are all to be found as part of a commercial transportation system. But commercial travel is not approved of by most British students, as I discovered after traveling that way. Upon discovering that I had taken a train to get somewhere, a fellow student remarked in amazement, “Why didn’t you hitch?” Further observation bore this out, for rarely did I see students pay for a ride.

Informants refer to the modes of acquiring a ride in a private vehicle as hitching. There are three major categories of hitching, as shown in the following diagram based on the principle of inclusion:


When an informant refers to hitching, it is necessary to know at which level the term is being used. It could mean a specific action or it could refer to any of the three ways shown above to hitch a ride.

Flagging refers to waving at a friend who happens to be passing by in a car. It almost always occurs in town when one is going a short distance and proved to be one way I could get to my lectures. It is an unpredictable mode of travel because you must bank on spotting a friend as he drives by, but there are times of day and places in the city where it is worth the uncertainty if there is no other way to get where you are going. I learned about flagging one day while walking to class with a couple of friends. One of them suddenly waved frantically at a Mini coming along the read and it took me a second to realize that he knew the driver and that we were going to get a ride that day.

A more certain way of traveling to any destination is getting a lift. This simply involves finding someone with a car who is driving where you want to go and arranging a ride with him. The distance involved may be great or small, I discovered, for example, that my best bet to get to class was to arrange a ride with one of several people I knew who had cars. But it was also possible to travel across Great Britain by getting a lift, although it was often necessary to share expenses with the driver. The problem with long-distance lifts is that it is difficult to find someone going your way at the right time.

This leaves hitching2 or thumbing a ride with a stranger. As already noted, it is not proper for you to hitch2 short distances in Great Britain, although some drivers are not able to take you very far. You are expected to be going some distance. And while hitching2 is often chosen because it is cheap and because you can aim at a given destination at a time that suits you, it involves risks and some real difficulties. It is not particularly dependable as those rides deposited by drivers on a country roadside have discovered, and because the driver is a stranger, it is always possible that he will harm the hitcher. In reverse, the car or lorry (truck) driver has no reason to trust the hitchhiker2. From the hitcher’s point of view, this means he must use strategies that will cause people to stop, develop ways of sizing up drivers to avoid those who would do harm, and act in a way that insures the longest possible ride and perhaps some added help from the driver. (Table I shows the major distinctions among the three ways to hitch1.) Hitchhiking2 in England, from the rider’s point of view, can be looked upon as a series of steps related to the problems inherent in this mode of travel. In the reminder of this paper I shall discuss these stages of hitching2: (1) Getting Ready (2) Planning and Departure (3) Places to Hitch2 (4) Stopping a Vehicle (5) Getting Dumped (6) Crashing.

Table i
Ways to Hitch
Method With an
Hitching2 No No Long No High
Flagging Yes No Short No Low
Getting a lift Yes Yes Short/long Yes Low

Getting Ready

Before the female hitcher steps onto the road, she must consider several things. She should have a map, for example, so that she can check where a driver is taking her. Equally important, a map helps one to decide whether or not to accept a ride by judging the places and kind of road where she will be let off. Many girls carry a sharp pointed object of some sort as a defense against over-eager drivers and most try to find another person with whom to hitch2. A male is the best traveling companion, but another girl will do.

Planning and Departure

English hitchhikers feel it is difficult and dangerous to hitch2 at night. For one thing, drivers cannot see you and for another, they feel an increased sense of danger when it is dark and hesitate to stop. So it is best to leave during the day, particularly those times of the day when working rush hour is over, for there is no sense in riding a mile or two to somebody’s job. Hitchers2 also feel it is wise to leave in good weather. As one informant put it, “No one wants to pick you up when you are wet and dripping.” Foggy weather, common to Great Britain also presents a problem. It is not only cold and unpleasant for the hitcher, but it also limits the driver’s visibility. As another informant who got caught in a combination of these conditions put it, “I walked all night, hour after hour. I actually got holes in my boots form walking all that time and it was so cold, what with the mist across the land. I should have known better than to go then—after all they’d have to be owls to see me and brave as well.”

Most hitchers2 try to plan their departures to avoid unfavorable conditions such as these, but frequently their schedules do not permit them to put off a trip if the weather in inclement, and often they find themselves left off in the countryside at night or in poor weather. Yet discomfort and danger are always on the horizon and hitchers2 try everything they can manage to get where they are going under favorable conditions.

Place to Hitch2

Knowledge of places to hitch2 is important for the hitchhiker, for these help her to predict the type and volume of traffic and the ease with which drivers can stop. The latter point is particularly important. British hitchhikers2 note that they may have stationed themselves along a road with a high volume of traffic but at such a location that if drivers stop, they block the traffic. Or the location may be located along a stretch of road that hides the hitchhiker2 from speeding traffic so that even those drivers who would stop find that they are already beyond their prospective rides by the time they they make the decision to pick them up. Urban centers provide heavy traffic but drivers rarely stop in cities, according to hitchers2, because there is too much confusion around them to gauge the risks. There are, however, a number of places that solve these problems. Petrol stations, roundabouts (circles), entrance ramps (to motorways), service stations (the large restaurant and service areas found on limited-access highways), intersections, and roadways are all favorable place to hitch2.

Knowledge of the kinds of road there are in Great Britain is also necessary because these reflect the volume and type of traffic. The motorway or superhighway carries a substantial volume of traffic, most of which involves long-distance travel. ‘A’ roads are often dual carriageways (four-lane highways), but do not provide limited access. They are usually well traveled by a significant proportion of non-local traffic, but include more vehicles going short distances. ‘B’ roads are one-lane roads used mainly by local traffic. Thus, if the hitcher2 wishes to secure a long distance ride and get where she is going quickly, she does best to hitch2 a ride on the motorway. Hitching2 on ‘A’ roads is effective although the traffic is slower, while ‘B’ roads prove risky because people rarely carry you very far. The latter experience was related by one informant:

My girl friend and I were hitching2 back from Wales on Monday morning. It was a clear day and we were on a roundabout at a place from which you could see a long way. We stuck out our thumbs and waited, and waited, and waited. There was only an occasional farmer driving slowly by on his tractor. Not even a family of businessman or lorry driver came along. That’s the trouble with ‘B’ roads—no traffic that does you any good.

Stopping a Vehicle

One of the most serious problems facing the hitcher2 is persuading vehicles to stop. Tactics used to accomplish this reflect the hitcher’s view of what motivates drivers. Distrust on the part of the driver must be overcome and a hitcher2 can adopt a number of strategies to make herself trustworthy. “One thing you can do is hold up a sign,” noted an informant. “Drivers seem to know you better when you indicate where you are going. Maybe they feel sorry for you.” You can also stand by the road with a little baggage, some books, or other things that indicate to the driver that you are really a traveler. Being well dressed and hitching with the right combination of other people also helps. For example, two birds (girls) hitchhiking2 together appear to be least threatening to drivers. You can play on the driver’s sympathy by carrying and holding up a car part as though you had broken down somewhere else and are trying to reach help. Or you can make it interesting for the driver by looking eager. Smiling, looking into his eyes, standing, making personal contact (with a driver who has stopped for something else), and somehow looking interesting and different are all ways to induce drivers to give you a ride. Some hitchers2 think that getting in a predicament such as being stranded on a back road at night in poor weather makes drivers feel sorry for them, thus causing them to stop, but one does not usually select this strategy by choice. Some blokes (males) even place girls by the side of the road as attractive decoys and pile in the vehicle, to the surprise of the driver.

One of my informants described the tactic of looking eager this way:

We tried to hitch2 from a place where there were a lot of people who had got there before us. We took our place at the end of the queue to be polite, and to give the first ones there the first chance. That was why we were discouraged because there were so many people there. But most of them were sitting around waiting and looking dejected and we decided to look eager. So we brought out our sign with where we were going on it and we both decided to work at the hitch. With all the others there this was no one-girl situation. We smiled and tried to look students who would carry on a good conversation and it wasn’t long before a lorry pulled over for us and we were off again. The others looked really disgusting.

Although you have gotten a vehicle to stop, you still have to decide whether of not to accept the offer. A hitcher2 wants to reach her destination in the shortest amount of time possible and thus it is advantageous to accept a ride from a fast vehicle that is going a long distance. Businessmen in minis or sports cars and long-distance lorrys are better than delivery lorrys, as one of my informants pointed out:

We were just eight miles from the friend we were heading for and couldn’t get a ride no matter how hard we tried. There were no buses to that corner of northern Ireland until the next day and walking didn’t appeal to us so we decided to ask the driver of a delivery lorry that seemed to be heading that direction. With a lot of shuffling of feet he said yes, after telling us he still had a few deliveries to make. A few deliveries was right, but quite a few. We rode with that bloke for four hours as he wandered around every little village but the one we wanted, At first we chatted a lot but then after acouple of hours we got tired and a lot less cheerful. At this point our delivery man, noticing me sleeping in the corner, appeared with great quantities of food, woke me up and started singing old ballads to cheer us up. We couldn’t be tired or bored with such attention. After he invited us several times to dinner with his family in the next village he let us out at the doorstep but four hours after he had picked us up.

Getting Dumped

Most British drivers, particularly lorry drivers, expect the hitchers2 they pick up to talk with them, according to my informants. Drivers indicate that they appreciate company on a long trip and most hitchers2 suspect that talking gives the hitcher a more open appearance, threatening the driver less. The importance of being a lively, talkative rider relates to another hitchhiking2 problem, that of being let off at one’s final destination or in a place that is advantageous for securing another hitch2. In fact, a rider who talks well may induce the driver to go out of his way to dump her in a favorable place. As this informant noted:

Another girl and I were hitching2 back from Edinburgh late on a Saturday night. There was hardly any traffic at all, not even any lorrys. Finally a lorry did stop and give us a ride and we climbed in. We were delighted to discover that the driver’s destination was beyond ours. We settled down thinking that we could get home—this would be our last hitch. I thought, I will just sit back and listen to the driver, anything he wants to say I’ll look interested about. He said ‘You know, I almost didn’t pick you up, what with those hats you looked like two old men and I would never pick up such—too dangerous.’ Then he looked over at my girl friend, who was going to sleep, and said ‘She asleep? I might as well put my radio on again, what with all the conversation I’ll get out of that one.’ Then he said that he was getting tired and that he might stop before he planned to, and before where we were going. I decided I had better get lively. I tried to wake up and I smiled and worked at sounding cheerful. I asked about his lorry and his family and what he thought about all sorts of things. When the talk stopped, I would start it again. I finally discovered he was interested in old legends and that took care of us for miles.

When he finally arrived at the stopping place that was the place he said he might stop at when he was tired, he just said that he was awake now and would go on for a while. I worked into some sad tales I knew about hitchers getting stranded and about how I had been stranded. I told him how hard it was to hitch, almost as bad as driving a lorry. We kept on talking about our mutual traveling problems. He decided to go on a bit further. I said he shouldn’t do it on our account but he said he couldn’t be letting his friends down, where could we find another ride at that time of the night and on that lonely road. Then I said that when we did come to the place where we were going that he should just let us off, not take us in there—it was a couple of miles off the road. But it just then started to rain and he took us right to our doorstep.

The British hitcher2 attempts to develop a bond between herself and the driver that may facilitate getting dumped where she wants to, as in the case above. But sometimes nothing the hitcher2 does accomplishes this end, with the result that she finds herself in extremely difficult circumstances for getting another ride of staying comfortable.


Hitchhiking2 can be viewed as a cycle. One prepares to hitch2, stations herself at a place beside a road, stops a vehicle, decides whether or not to enter it, and gets dumped. If she is dumped at her destination hitchhiking2 is over, but often she is left off somewhere and must seek a new ride. Where and at what time a person is dumped causes hitchhiker2 the greatest anxiety because, despite every precaution, she may be left on a ‘B’ road at night or in inclement weather. At this point she again must hitch a ride and repeat the cycle.


If by night time the hitcher2 has not reached her destination, she can aim at a spot to be dumped where she can crash or kip. Numerous places can serve this function. Ideally, you can stay with a friend who happens to live where the ride dumps you, but other places will also do. University students will often let you stay the night. They, too, have been caught with the need to crash when they hitch2. And police often like company and many hitchhikers2 have found a little comfort and warmth at a village station. Sometimes even the police have no room:

We were out in the middle of Wales on a rainy night and asked at a village police station if we could sleep in their jail. It wasn’t open all night. We went to the next small village where we were told that there was a youth hostel (cheap student hotel). But it was closed for the winter. It was midnight and the rain was cold. We didn’t want to stay out all night and tried to think where to go. We asked a couple of people we met where a hotel was, but there weren’t any. A student we met suggested we ask the local priest for help. He was supposed to be a kind old man type who helped people. But when we knocked on his door he didn’t look very pleased. In fact he was mad, maybe because it was so late. He lectured us about being out that late without planning—girls shouldn’t behave that way—and we stood in the rain while he lectured out his second-story window. But he let us in and gave us what he called the tramp’s bedroom. It was a little six-foot square room with one cot down in the cellar. He took our names and addresses and threatened to report us. We offered to leave early in the morning so as not to disturb him and he said we would leave when he let us and slammed our door and locked us in. In the morning he let us out, gave us tea and biscuits, and lectured us again. We offered to make a contribution to his parish, but he only smiled a little.


In this paper I have examined a small portion of the cultural knowledge of girls who hitch1 in Great Britain. A good deal of this culture is shared by males, but the extent of such sharing would require further ethnographic research. Hitching1 may appear to be a haphazard set of activities, but closer scrutiny reveals that it is a culturally constituted set of behaviours.

A person standing at the side of the road has a definite destination in mind and definite ways, means, and alternatives to reach it. For a few, these ways and means have been acquired through individual trial and error or experimentation, but most have learned the proper behavior from other active participants. The informal sharing of this cultural knowledge occurs continually as hitchers2 recount their recent experiences on the road, although somewhat formal situations take place as strategies are planned for the novice hitcher2.

As I listened to these experiences, it became apparent that hitching2 was not simply a utilitarian activity that was utilized when all other forms of transportation were unavailable. Rather it was with pride that students recounted their tales of adventure and the strategies they had used to overcome the problems encountered. The freedom to go where one pleased at any time was valued, but even more so when it was acquired by one’s own ingenuity. Mental records of their most successful hitch2 were readily available for comparison. “Two hitches2 in five hours to London is my best,” an informant proudly stated, “and that was with a half-hour off for tea.” Experienced hitchers2 are successful, and safely traveling a great distance in a short amount of time is the mark of an experienced hitcher2.