The moment we drop the heavy backpacks on the hard shoulder and look straight into the road, a frozen rush of wind blows my woolen hat away. I pick it up muddy from the wet asphalt. It’s always colder out here than we imagine from the window. And we are never ready. Never warm enough. Hitchhiking in winter is a test to our trust in the kindness of others, and an exercise of hope. And I must confess I don’t always pass the test, or not always in a serene way. While Boris patiently stands petrified, with his thumb up, I clap, jump, crouch and wrap myself in more than one scarf, always aware than in the battle with winter weather I am the weakest link, that cold always wins, and takes over me slowly, starting from the toes and moving upwards in icy streams. If I happen to know the temperature, it feels even worse, it seems even more impossible that we are still standing in one piece instead of breaking in a million splinters of ice. As much as we love winter landscapes, and the gift of walking and hitchhiking across them, there has not been a single time that we have not felt challenged by the experience. For us, hitchhiking winter is a category on its own. It’s another way of travelling. It is worth it, as much as it is tough. For those who have been recently asking about winter tips and tricks, here is what we have done to hitch frozen roads.
Know the conditions
It’s very important, I would say crucial, to have a general idea of the weather, road and winter hitchhiking conditions of the areas you will be passing through. The most important details are probably:
- Weather. Temperature, humidity, wind and the possibility of storms. You don’t need to be a meteorologist, but knowing how low the thermometer drops and how cold it is actually going to feel out there, helps one thinking of the necessary equipment as well as planning a hitchhiking strategy. It’s totally different to hitchhike in plus temperatures or in -20ºC, and the humidity and wind greatly contribute to one’s perception of cold. Never underestimate the weather.
- Hours of daylight. Winter days are short, and in some parts of earth the sun does not dare coming out at all for the whole season, so you don’t simply need to hitch while freezing, but also most probably at night. Knowing how many hours of sunlight one has, and at what times the sun rises or sets are key to planning your trip. Sunlight warms you up, makes you visible to cars, and generally makes hitchhiking easier, use it wisely.
- State of the roads. Ask locals what’s the state of the roads in winter (if you have a common language), and try to gather a general picture of the sort of challenges you will be facing. Icy roads? broken roads? no roads? any traffic? this will help you guess your waiting times and the speed of rides. Hitchhiking in winter can be slow.
It’s not about etiquette, but about warmth. Anton Krotov says it clearly in his guide to free travellers: “Do not go on the road in winter without proper clothes!” and we can trust that a Russian hitchhiker knows what he is talking about. Under any other circumstances, we would usually tell travellers to leave when they feel like and with whatever they have, but winter hitchhiking is an exception. Before you set on the road, please, make sure you are carrying the following items (or make your way to the nearest store and provision yourself):
- Shoes. Let’s start from the bottom up. Winter boots are not optional, they are a must. We wear winter hiking shoes, leather or synthetic, and necessarily waterproof. But have read there are people using sorel insulated boots as well, for very low temperatures. If you find yourself in winter without appropriate shoes, check around for what locals use, and get yourself the best thing you can buy.
- Socks. We used to have thick winter thermal socks (for trekking), and they are probably the best choice. Otherwise camel wool socks also proved to be a good option in Kazakhstan, but I guess they are not easy to find. In any case wrap your feet well, your toes will be thankful. But do not wear too many pairs of socks or too tight, you want your blood to circulate. When your feet start to get cold, move your toes or jump.
- Thermal underwear. We could say that in subzero temperatures a thermal t-shirt is a great ally. It’s more comfortable, convenient and lighter than wearing too many layers of heavy and thick clothes, although I must confess that in very cold days, or with strong wind I wore two thermal t-shirts to make sure no trace of cold could pass. If you have a choice, Merino wool is what we would recommend (2 years or continuous use, still in good condition!). Thermal tights are pretty useful too. If you happen to be in a cold country and without a mountaineering shop at hand check the local markets – Boris, for example, found the warmest fleece-coated tights in Tibet, and we provisioned ourselves with some emergency winter clothing in the north of India as well. Local clothes in rural areas tend to be thick and heavy, and not the ost comfortable of all, but will sae you from the cold.
- Warm clothes. Different hitchhikers prefer different styles of winter clothing. Some people would wear a ski overall or jacket and trousers that they can take off or unzip easily when getting on cars. Others, like us, go for the multi-layers option, which includes, on top of the thermal clothes a polar (fleece) and a good winter jacket. We usually wear winter hiking trousers over the thermal tights, that should be water-resistant, and are more comfortable than jeans, albeit less sexy, that’s true.
- Waterproof and Windproof jacket. Do not leave your home without one.
- Gloves. Usual woolen or fleece gloves may work well under mild winter conditions, but in anticipation of cold and long waiting hours we prefer to carry sky ones. Not only they are warmer, but they make your thumb stick out solidly. Remember you can’t do without a thumb, so keep it warm.
- Hat and scarf. Cover head,neck and ears, and cover them well, but let your face visible if you want to be trusted by drivers. A balaclava is the usual winter choice for trekking and backpacking, but not the best for hitchhikers, as you may understand… if you use one, avoid covering your face too much while thumbing up.
Other useful equipment
Every traveller has his tricks, and fills his backpack with things that may seem needless to others but make him feel at home on the road. For winter travelling, anything that brings you warmth (real or imaginary) will probably be useful, but one should also remember that visibility and comfort are just as important as keeping your feet warm. Some of the stuff we carry or we wish we did are:
- Cooking stove. It’s hard to cook when it’s freezing cold, but we usually found a place to hide and boil some soup or tea to warm up. In good weather any stove will do, but for long winter trips we would recommend at least a canister stove which is easy to operate or, even better a multi-fuel one, which is faster and more efficient than anything else we have tried yet. If you don’t have a stove and are ready for the investment, check what we recently wrote about all our experiences with camping stoves.
- Thermos. With hot drink.
- Torch. You may want to see where you are standing on and you can light up yourself or your sign. Some people like to blink their headlights to call attention, BUT remember not to point at the drivers with a light!
- Fluorescent vest or reflectors. Increase your visibility. It’s tricky, because drivers may confuse you with a driver in need or even with the police, but many night-time hitchhikers sweare over the yellow vests. We did carry reflectors in our first travels at night, but in winter we are better friends of hitchhiking nearby sheltered places and with street lights.
- Raincover for backpack. Useful against rain, snow, or wet and dirty roads. At all costs, avoid your extra clothes and sleeping bag from getting soaked, you will really appreciate dry clothes after a warm shower, when you reach any place with one…
- Hand-warmers. Marta loves them, but we actually forgot to carry them with us.
- Extra socks. If yours get soaked, believe us, it sucks.
- Sunscreen. In winter? The sun may come out for just a few hours, but it shines twice as strong on the snow.
- Cookies. Chocolate ones.
- Camera. Since you are gonna endure the winter, at least photograph its beauty.
- Know the map. Checking your possible routes, roads, diversions and options is more than just a good idea. Where am I going? Do I really want to take small roads under the snow? Is there a highway? Are several roads going to the same place? Am I going through mountain passes? If I need to cross a border, which is the most commonly used one? This will help you preventing getting stuck somewhere unknown or in lonely roads, if it is avoidable.
- Plan your journey. And divide it in stages. It would be absurd trying to know the exact itinerary of a hitchhiking trip but if your journey is longer than just a few days, it’s worth checking some of the towns or cities you will be passing through, and see if you can take a day rest with friends, hosts or even in a hostel. During long winter trips it’s important to rest and catch up with yourself, and getting a hot shower, cooking a hearty meal or sleeping well will bring you extra energy for the next stage.
- Make use of daylight. If you can start early, do it, you will not just have the chance to see the landscapes, but also be safer and more comfortable
- Choose a good winter spot. Make sure the road is safe (no ice, no big holes) and that drivers will have extra room to pull over safely. For us, in winter days, petrol stations have been great allies – one can stay warm while the other one hitchhikes, or we can talk to drivers, warm hands with hot water in the toilet and even sleep from time to time.
- Light up. Try to hitch underneath street lamps if it is dark, and/pr use reflectors or your torch to light yourself or your board.
- Try to stay near human settlements. Hitchhiking from village to village, instead of being dropped in the middle of nowhere, might be wise.
- Take turns (if you hitchhike with a partner). We don’t really like to hide from divers (i.e. somebody stops for a single hitchhiker and it turns out they are two people and a cat), but drivers will understand that in winter is a must. If there is a chance for one of you to stay warm in a shelter, take hitchhiking turns.
- Enjoy the wonders of petrol stations, specially warming up your hands with the hand-driers in the rest-rooms, checking the map while resting in heated spaces, hot chocolate and the chance to talk to drivers (if you are not shy). Also, in some countries (i.e. Turkey) we were several times invited to spend the night. Nice-clean-warm petrol stations are not available all over the world, but if you happen to be lucky and find a nice one, enjoy!
- Exercise! Move, jump, dance, wiggle your toes, anything to keep warm.
And hitch smart!
Going with the flow, getting lost and found, letting your self go, etc are all great ways to travel, but when a storm is coming or temperatures drop you may rather be somewhere warm than somewhere lost.
- Look for longer rides, to cut waiting times. This means trying to get lifts in TIR and trucks, hitchhiking at the highway paytoll, or asking at petrol stations. In several occasions toll staff or police have been very helpful in finding long rides.
- If you can’t help short rides, try to get dropped in roadside cafes, petrol stations or not more than a few km walk from a village or town.
- Juggle wisely with the options of hitchhiking over night vs. hitchhiking in daylight. Hitchhiking at night saves you from looking for accommodation in cold nights, and might be a good option when one is sure to find shelter at the destination. But hitchhiking during the day is generally wiser and safer, and sometimes is good to stop, sleep and start again at sunrise. Your choices will probably be conditioned by the availability of free (and warm) sleeping options wherever you are. If you had planned your trip, and have a host waiting a few hundred kilometers away, our advice would be to push your way there, otherwise, open your eyes for roadside shelter.
- Safety first. Unless you are in some sort of competition (and even then) sometimes the best choice is to stay warm, to wait for better conditions, or simply to rest. Remember that, summer or winter, it is important to avoid falling asleep in moving vehicles (unless you have a hitchhiking companion that you can trust will stay awake while you rest).
Sleeping options for winter hitchhikers
Winter sleeping options are worth a whole new post on their own, but we will outline some ideas for the brave ones or in case you get stuck. For the winter hitchhiker the world becomes, more than ever, a playground of shelters and hiding spots. The essential requirements are: invisibility, protection from rain and wind, toilet, cleaneliness and, as an extra, heating options.
- Petrol stations and TIR parking cafeterias.
- Roadside hostels and guesthouses. Or restaurants. Or shops. Or stalls. Aything with walls, actually.
- Bus and train stations. Sometimes they are huge empty and un-heated spaces, but other times you can find a comfy corner for a night. And you may get lucky if there is a room for the station master or guards.
- Temples and monasteries. Just ask (In countries when donations are customary, we would advice to share what you can, to keep the wheel going)
- Shelters. Ourside small villages and in small roads we sometimes found wooden shelters. Sometimes natural elements, like rock shelters and caves will be all you can find.
- Abandoned places. That’s actually our best bet, not as warm as a hotel, but safer and sturdier than our old tent. And we love sneaking into places…
- Your own tent, provided you have proper equipment. Although we have seen ourselves camping on frost a few times, we are not winter-camping experts yet. When we found ourselves outdoors in the cold, we slept with all our clothes on (and a hat is important) and often had to improvise extra insulation with our backpacks, ask for blankets or not sleep at all. So better check some extra sources like Backpacking in winter for general advice, or some tricks to stay warmer by Tom, a cyclist with useful pieces of advice to sleep at least 3 hours each night.
If you like winter hitchhiking or travel hacks, and have useful advices and knowledge, please comment below and share your tips and tricks to stay warm and safe.They will be most appreciated. Happy, safe and warm travels to all!