If I had to count the times I exceeded myself and my expectations during my first ever hitchhiking trip, my fingers and toes wouldn’t be enough.
On Friday evening the 2nd of June, 170 orange-vested hitchhikers have gathered at the amphitheatre behind Helsinki Opera. Some of them are first-timers, just like myself and my teammate Nella, some are experienced hitchhikers. Pro or beginner, everyone is as eagerly waiting for the final countdown. You could sense the excitement in the air.
One is carrying a skateboard, and another one has a ukulele in his hands. The third one is dressed up as a panda. We are wearing simple caps that say Finland to highlight our team, Suomiretki on the road.
Do you know the feeling when you’re standing in the middle of a broad group of people without knowing what to do, where to go or what to say? At the same time, you feel like every single person around you is perfectly organised and knows exactly how to behave.
This is how we felt just before our first ever hitchhiking competition that we signed up for as a team on a whim.
Finding familiar faces at the starting spot of the race made us feel a bit more comfortable. Lotta and Antti from Lanttimatkat YouTube channel were also participating in the hitchhiking contest as beginners. They made this weird and unusual situation feel a little bit more normal. It was already easier to breathe, even if you can probably sense the hidden panic on our faces.
The rules of Hitchball 4000 hitchhiking contest were simple: at 6 pm, 85 two-person teams would start their journey from the amphitheatre. Until Sunday evening 11 pm, we would all hitchhike across Finland in the style of Amazing Race, collecting points from checkpoints from South to North and West to East. Anyone could follow our journey via GPS and the teams’ Facebook pages, where we would publish all the evidence of the tasks we’ve completed. After the competition officially finishes, we would still have 12 hours to hitchhike back to Helsinki.
Despite the simple rules, we had no idea what to do when the competition finally starts. Should we walk or run? Should we laugh or cry? Afterwards, it’s easy to say that when you lift your thumb up on the side of the road for the very first time in your life, there’s no other option but to laugh.
What the hell are we doing, seriously?
Together with Lanttimatkat, we managed to create a plan just 20 minutes before take off. Have a look how our waterproof (or should I say beer proof) plan sounded like. (Tip for watching the video: turn on the English subtitles!)
“Do one thing every day that scares you” – First time hitchhiking and 13 insights I discovered during the trip
It’s already been a month since my very first hitchhiking trip, and yet I’m still incapable of creating reasonable sentences about the adventure of a lifetime.
If you thought one short weekend wouldn’t be long enough time to experience the most unforgettable and mind-blowing escapade of your life, I hope my insights will prove your thoughts wrong. Besides practical tips for hitchhiking, during my first hitchhiking adventure I discovered some valuable facts about life, as well.
1. Friends can be priceless
Hitchhiking differs from “regular travel” in many ways. The most important difference is that when you’re hitchhiking, it’s impossible to avoid encounterings. Having to meet and talk to strangers can also be the primary reason why the idea of hitchhiking feels too scary. Would it be safe?
That’s why hitchhiking contests like Hitchball 4000 are an excellent way to familiarise yourself with hitchhiking. Travelling with a friend and a GPS locator makes you feel a lot safer compared to the situation where you’d go first time hitchhiking on the side of the road all alone.
A friend can be priceless in countless ways, not only for safety reasons. To give out one of the newly-learned but practical hitchhiking tips, it’s a lot easier to get a lift if one can stand with a sign a little bit earlier to attract drivers’ attention, while the other one is standing with thumb up where it’s safe to stop and pick up hitchhikers on board. Always leave the drivers enough time to react and slow down.
Choose your friend well. A good friend will be your greatest support, for better or for worse. A friend is there to share the tears of frustration and sadness, but also the tears of happiness and joy. Sharing splits the weight of troubles in half but doubles the bliss.
2. Sometimes it’s just better to get FORWARD
On “an ordinary holiday”, it’s easy to spend a day doing nothing. Just lay on the beach or by the pool and get even your drinks delivered directly to your hand. On the contrary, that kind of way of living doesn’t suit everyone. I’m one of those people. It’s challenging for me to stay still doing nothing.
Sometimes it’s just better to get forward, no matter where, and that’s precisely the purpose of hitchhiking. To get somewhere, whether it’s two, twenty or a 100 kilometres.
Getting forward is good to keep in mind when creating your hitchhiking signs. Instead of the actual destination, sometimes it might be a better idea to write vague words like “forward” or “to South”. Especially when hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere in Finland to a checkpoint in another middle of nowhere.
3. A smile will get you far
This insight applies to a hitchhiking trip but also to life in general. Smiling people have much more fun, and you’ll also feel luckier when you’re facing the unexpected circumstances with a laid-back and positive attitude. A smile makes even the unluckiest mishaps seem less unfortunate.
For a hitchhiker, a smile is a golden currency. Who would like to pick up an angry drifter? Not me! Remember to smile, rain or shine. And with this, I don’t only mean the weather.
4. Middle finger isn’t the only hand signal
Facebook brought back the disappearing thumbs up culture. Hitchhiking contests, like Hitchball 4000, are slowly bringing it back on the sides of the roads as well. It’s a good thing, as for years I’ve felt like a middle finger is the only hand signal people know – or at least use – nowadays.
A hitchhiker isn’t the only one communicating with hand signals. Sometimes also the drivers use weird hand gestures that you might get confused with when it’s your first time hitchhiking. As some idiots might still give the finger, the most of the hand gestures are telling you why the driver can’t stop. The car might be full, or the driver is taking the next crossing. Find out the most common hand signals by drivers in this article by Sissi Korhonen.
If you’re hitchhiking in Finland, you’ll be okay with lifting your thumb up. In some other countries, however, showing your thumb to a driver might be a major insult and eventually lead you to troubles. Reading this Hitchwiki article about the gestures will get you started with understanding cultural differences.
5. Dressing DOES matter
I’m one of those people who doesn’t give a damn about fashion or even what to wear in the closest grocery store, as long as I’m wearing something. I do understand that in encounterings a little bit more unique than purchasing milk, the dressing does matter. So it does on a hitchhiking trip.
You don’t need to wear your best outfit, but trust begins with the appearance – smile and clothing. Sometimes even consistent clothing with your travel buddy does the trick; Many drivers confessed that the reason why they picked us up during our hitchhiking trip was the orange vests and blue caps. Our clothing gave the drivers idea “there must be something fun going on here” instead of considering us as murderous punks.
Also, remember to dress up according to the weather. No one wants to pick up a soaking wet and muddy backpacker on their fancy car seats, so try to keep your outer layer as dry and clean as possible.
6. The police is a friend
During the hitchhiking contest, the competitors communicated via WhatsApp chat group. In the group, we shared our moments of success and doubt, asked tips for good hitchhiking spots, told about the most amazing drivers we met and shared the weirdest rides we got.
Already during the first day of hitchhiking, one team had been picked up by the police – and they didn’t even need to do anything illegal for it. The police really IS a friend, at least in Finland.
First time hitchhiking taught us how also a taxi or a bus driver can be a friend and give a free ride to a hitchhiker in Finland. On the other hand, we learned that truck drivers usually aren’t allowed to pick up hitchhikers, even if they wanted to.
7. Fuel station chains aren’t cursed after all
Even if I’m not a huge fan of fuel station chains, I quite often benefit from them when travelling on a budget. The sanitary spaces are roomy and well equipped, which make brushing teeth and other necessary morning duties smooth. The best part is that I can grab a takeaway coffee to go when I continue my journey.
Many fuel station chains in Finland are open 24/7, which rescued the first night of our hitchhiking adventure. Because we got stuck in ABC Oritupa, a petrol station pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
I couldn’t thank enough for the staff of ABC Oritupa who didn’t mind at all even if four hitchhikers slept on the benches of the café for the whole night. We didn’t have a tent with us, so without the fuel station, our night would have been freezing and miserable.
8. There’s always a spark of hope
This insight could as well relate to our night at ABC Oritupa, but instead, this is a story of phenomena I like to call ‘The Miracle of Suonenjoki’.
Let’s be clear; Suonenjoki is a small town located almost in the middle of Finland, and yet it’s remote. But it’s famous for the sweetest strawberries in Finland, if not in the whole world (yummy!).
After gaining 75 valuable points from Suonenjoki checkpoint, we got to experience why everyone kept warning us we’d be walking a lot when hitchhiking. It was the second day of our hitchhiking adventure, and we hadn’t yet walked at all.
In Suonenjoki, everything changed. Our goal was to get to Kuopio as soon as possible, but instead of a ride, we ended up walking along the road for a long time. There was no sign of a bus stop or any other spot where cars could safely stop. Not that there were cars in the first place.
We started to get desperate. Our friends were following via GPS how our fast and eventful hitchhiking adventure suddenly changed to a snail-like crawl.
I have no idea how many kilometres we walked on the side of the road. When we finally spotted the first bus stop, it felt like a jackpot at the time. Still, there were only a few cars passing by, so we didn’t have our hopes too high. We were prepared to stand at the bus stop for a small eternity.
But we didn’t. Instead, I think we might have done a hitchhiking world record, as after reaching the bus stop it took one and a half seconds until we got a ride. The Miracle of Suonenjoki! We didn’t even have time to lift our thumbs up!
Lesson learned: no matter how desperate you get, there’s always a spark of hope! In hitchhiking, as in life in general.
9. Your adventure is only one side of the story – listen to the other one
First time hitchhiking can surprise you in so many levels. We were astonished to realise how the most of the drivers picking us up were a bit older couples. Men and women who have spent their youth hitchhiking on the sides of the roads and are now delighted when they get a chance to tell their hitchhiking stories forward.
And those stories are already a reason to go hitchhiking!
Men were excited to tell about the mishaps they encountered when hitchhiking for a holiday from the army. Women recalled their hitchhiking trips to the old-school dancehall and back. Our last driver on Sunday evening was a real king of hitchhikers who entertained us with his stories all the way from Turku to Helsinki. It was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend.
These drivers had something in common; every single one bemoaned the lack of hitchhikers in Finland today. Hitchhiking used to be BIG and everyone did it back in the 70s and 80s. Many of them would love to ‘pay pack’ at least some of the rides they once got, but there’s no one to give a ride to.
10. Hitchhiking gives more than it takes
No one gets as happy for a small gesture than a hitchhiker who has been standing on the side of the road for hours, desperate to get a ride. During our hitchhiking adventure, we were lucky to learn how picking up a hitchhiker can give a lot to the driver as well.
Our very first driver was so delighted of helping us that after dropping us off, he started looking for the next team to pick up. Instead of a night in, Eero the driver was driving another team from Tampere all the way to Vaasa – just because it was exciting, and helping others made him feel happy. Give it a try and feel it yourself next time when you see a hitchhiker on the side of the road!
11. Life is an adventure!
Do one thing every day that scares you.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
First time hitchhiking taught us how we really should do things that scare us or things we think we’d never do, for one reason or another. The feeling that you get afterwards is unspeakable and it gives you enough inspiration for weeks, if not months. Life is an adventure – exploit it! Break the routines and remember that an adventure doesn’t have to mean a year of backpacking around the world.
A weekend of hitchhiking or a night in the local woods can also be an adventure.
12. Hitchhiking is addictive
A dare to try was all I needed to get hooked. No matter how confused and insecure we were before the takeoff, and even if during the last evening of hitchhiking I felt I can’t lift my thumb up one more time, already after the first night sleep I was eager to get to the side of the road with a sign saying ‘anywhere’.
Why is hitchhiking so addictive? Because of all the reasons mentioned above, but most of all, because of the reason below:
13. THERE IS STILL KINDNESS IN THE WORLD!
The last – but definitely not the least – insight of my first hitchhiking trip is this one: there’s still compassion and kind people in the world!
After every day filled with news of war, terrorism, school shootings and abusing, my belief to the humanity disappears little by little. Until first time hitchhiking reminds me of the fact that the world isn’t such a bad place after all.
There are policemen, who are ready to make a U-turn to pick up hitchhikers and drive them wherever they needed to go. There are couples, who bring a spark of hope into the darkness and create The Miracle of Suonenjoki. There are young gentlemen, who give a ride to hitchhikers just to help them to earn points from the next checkpoint. There are fathers and sons, who circle the city with GPS just to find a hitchhiker to give a ride for.
There are retired gentlemen, enjoying their early morning cup of coffee, who feel so sorry for hitchhikers stuck on a fuel station that decides to drive them to the nearest town and can’t wait to tell the exciting story to his wife after she finally wakes up.
Every single one of the 1,700 kilometres and 19 rides hitchhiked over the weekend was a kind reminder of all this. I want to express my greatest gratitude to every driver, every hitchhiker, every event organiser and most of all, to my most awesome teammate Nella, for the adventure of a lifetime!