Hitchhiking in the Canadian Rocky Mountains – as a 5’2”, Female

There are a handful of things we don’t confess to our mothers: like getting piercings in sketchy neighborhoods in Rio from artists who don’t speak English or crossing into countries illegally. Crowning the list of adventures that would provoke parents to fly across the globe and drag you back home from your backpack straps is hitchhiking.

Me hitchhiking close to Lake Minnewanka, Banff.

There has been a lot of news coverage lately about young women being raped and killed while solo traveling. Maline Grace of UK was killed backpacking in New Zealand early December and bodies of Maren Ueland of Norway and Louisa Jespersen of Denmark were found in the mountains of Morrocco just last week.

With all these horrific acts of violence committed towards female travelers, it’s hard to preach hitchhiking. And I won’t. 

I personally would never recommend thumbing if you’re alone or have alternative options to finance transportation.

Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park, Alberta

I spent the last part of this 2018 in Banff, Alberta exploring the Canadian Rockies in what felt like the temperature of Trump’s heart: COLD AF. Though beautiful, Banff isn’t the ideal place for people without cars or licenses when 10 inches of snow decides to accumulate overnight. As a cherry on top, bus service is limited and expensive.

Sunrise at Lake Minnewanka in Banff, Alberta

After getting off a stop too early on our way to Lake Louise, a friend I made in the hostel and I started ascending a mountain to get to our destination 5 km away.  Ten minutes in, a black truck pulled up and offered to drop us to our destination. I could feel the snowstorm roaring so we decided to take him up on his offer. Seven minutes later (I know because I was continuously gawking at my phone’s GPS to make sure we wouldn’t end up in a truck stop dumpster), we thanked him at our stop and went on our way. This was probably the first time I took a ride from a stranger on the street.

Banff, Alberta

Maybe its something in my diet but I have a really hard time being denied something. Especially when it comes to travel, the line between excitement and danger is notorious for being muddy. When my Australian dormmate showed me pictures of Lake Minnewanka the following night, I knew I had to check it out. Google said it was a 5.5-hour walk away and me being persistent as I am, decided we’d hitchhike it when we got too tired. And we did.

Banff, Alberta

A Russian man kindly offered us a ride when we got close to the Trans-Canada Highway.

Climbing into a stranger’s vehicle is akin to opening the door for an unknown caller. There is always a chance that the mysterious individual bears malicious intent—but more than likely they are a regular person with an innocuous or (in the case of hitching) benign objective. Though there are admittedly few statistics available on hitchhiking and your chances of being killed doing it, Ginger Strand (who penned a book about the impact of highway development on crime rates) wrote in 2012 in The New York Times that hitchhiking (in the U.S.) is safer now than it has been in decades. In Canada, the Native Women’s Association and the RCMP teamed up a few years ago to raise awareness about the possible dangers of hitching, even as they admit it’s “common practice in many rural or remote communities” and that people hitch because it’s “the only way travel is financially possible.” They have some great basic safety tips and by taking precautionary measures it is wholly possible to curb the associated risk.

Here is how not to end up in a truck stop dumpster….just kidding.

Photo courtesy of the talented @karimboun
Note: I hate writing these because the onus should not be on women to “protect themselves” as Rape culture suggests. it should be on evil people to not be so.
  • Refrain from hitching at night. Sex workers cover many areas which travelers may not know.
  • Do not wear revealing clothing. Reasons the same as above.
  • Be confident. Predators look for “weak” body language in victims so they cannot fight back. Keep your shoulders back and speak confidently to show you’re prepared to shut any monkey business down.
  • As soon as the car pulls up, memorize or take a picture of the license plate and send it to a friend. If you do not have signals or data, pretend. Let the driver know you’re being diligent.
  • Though its harder to offer rides to groups of people due to limited seats, safety is in numbers. Two is good. Have code words to signal any discrepancies.
    “Are you feeling a little hot in here” = “Are you comfortable?”
    “I’m not feeling well, I need to throw up.” = “The driver is shady, we need to get out ASAP.”
  • Judge the book by the cover. Is the driver intoxicated or high? Is he eager to get you in? Does he have a clear destination he’s going to? Are there any women or kids with him? I say “him” because just like it’s unsafe for women to hitchhike, it’s also unsafe for women to pick up hitchhikers. All rides I’ve ever gotten have been with men.
  • Say “no.” If anything seems off, say you’re fine and deny the ride. You have the right to feel safe.
Lake Louise, Alberta

These tips sound harsh but rarely are people bad. More good people exist and want to help. For example Tyler, a man who kindly picked us up on our way down from Lake Minnewanka and took us hiking with him in Canmore. As road junkie Gloria Steinem put it, “The most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home.” Like Steinem and many women before me, I discovered that the road could be a freer, safer place than even my own bedroom, and strangers could be safer than friends.

Tyler (the kind driver that gave us a ride), me, Winnie (another fellow hitchhiker from Taiwan who tagged along), and Sam (a friend I made at the hostel from Winnipeg, Manitoba)

For those still unable to take on hitchhiking, use rideshare apps that are cheaper than public transit and safer because drivers can be held accountable through their data profiles. A really cool one I was introduced to is Poparide.

Have you ever hitchhiked? Got any more tips for first timers? Let me know in the comments!

ps: I also posted a vlog! Check it out!

Xoxo,

Zahra

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve picked up two Hitchhiker’s on my way between Toronto and Ottawa! It’s scary at first to invite a stranger into your car but I’m really glad I did it! I met some very interesting people, got to prattle on about architecture for a (literally) captive audience, and at the end of the day I was better off for having company on the long drive.

    Advice for anyone picking up a hitchhiker: if anything violent happens, immediately crash your car. You’re far likelier to walk away from it and it will leave your attacker dazed and confused. Your life > your car.

    Great article, Zahra!

    Like

    1. I’m so glad you did because it helps us move away from the “stranger danger” stereotype. If you ever need the company / gas money, just post your ride on fb or kijiji. I met one of my best friends in a rideshare to Toronto from London, ON.

      Thanks for the advice for picking up hitchhikers! I can’t drive and have 0 experience in that department so I’m glad you did!

      Happy Holidays, Gagan 🙂

      Like

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