German exchange students Rosa Preuss and Denise Schweers look their 16 years. Standing on a freezing Taupo sidewalk, they are dwarfed by their backpacks as they stare, confused, at the map Schweers is holding.

The rosy-cheeked pair have lugged their packs from Auckland to Wellington, Wanganui to New Plymouth, Havelock North and Waitomo. Their homestay parents would be horrified.

Demurely they glance at each other - then grin nervously before letting out their secret. Yes, they have been hitch-hiking and yes, they have heard about murdered backpacker Birgit Brauer.

"It's not the normal thing and it's really uncommon," says Preuss, referring to Brauer's death. But they avoided hitch-hiking in New Plymouth after the 28-year-old's body was found dumped in nearby Lucy's Gully on September 20.

"That area we were a little bit scared [of]." Police are still hunting for Brauer's killer.

Preuss and Schweers have just been dropped off in Taupo by a grandfather and his granddaughter who were only meant to be travelling to Tongariro.

"They changed their route for us," says Schweers. She does not know if it was out of concern for their safety.

Interestingly, Schweers says she would never hitch-hike in Germany "because the people are so different. Here everyone talks to you and it seems nicer. In Germany they are strangers."

New Zealand's relaxed clean green image is why many tourists and locals choose to hitch-hike. "It's cheaper than taking the bus and people are friendly," says Schweers.

Preuss says they have been careful - no rides from men driving alone, although they did get into a car with three men they were not sure about.

German 19-year-old Katherin Howvekamp and her boyfriend Denis Parchow have been in New Zealand for two months and hitch-hiked from Wanganui to Taupo and throughout the South Island.

"The most exciting was the last one from Ohakune to Taupo," says Howvekamp. "[The driver] was in his mid-20s, he looked kind of weird, a gangster type."

It's funny now, she says, but it would not have been at the time if she'd known what her boyfriend knew.

"He didn't talk to us the whole way. He had weapons under the back seat, kind of big arrow things.

"My boyfriend told me when we got out of the car."

She feels safe hitch-hiking with her boyfriend. She would never do it alone, but knows female tourists who have.

"Mostly they were picked up by males, they ask them for coffee or 'come to my house'."

On State Highway 5 near Rotorua, Grant McMillan stands with thumb poised, his girlfriend sitting on a bag beside him. The chef, originally from Auckland, has taken a couple of weeks off to do "a mission". He has hitched for the past six or seven years.

"I've never had a bad experience." He has heard about Brauer but rationalises that cases like that are few and far between. He does not really look at the drivers who give him lifts. Instead they chat - sports, what they do for a job, he shares recipes.

A website dedicated to hitch-hiking culture,, says the "simple, unplanned and spontaneous act of sharing transport" has been around as long as there has been transportation. But hitch-hiking in its purest sense - thumbing rides from passing motorists - followed the invention of the car in the late 19th century. It became common in the war years, when soldiers hitched rides, and entered the realms of popular culture with Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road in 1957.

Kerouac reportedly preferred bus rides to hitching but his book turned hitch-hiking into a rite of passage for generations of youth.

Literature, films and music have often played on the fears surrounding hitch-hiking. Tales of lost hitch-hikers and hitch-hiker murders possess a power like no others. New Zealand is still wondering what happened to Mona Blades, the 18-year-old who disappeared without trace when hitching on the Napier-Taupo road in 1975.

In the United States, the murders of seven young women who hitched along Highway 101 in California in the early 70s have never been solved.

Why do people hitch-hike? There appear to be two main reasons - necessity (lack of money/transportation) and adventure (the chance to meet new people/go to random destinations).

Drivers may want someone to talk to, someone to convert, or even someone to have sex with. Several New Zealand hitch-hikers report being propositioned by drivers. Others say unwelcome religious preaching is common. But the main hazard appears to be intoxicated or reckless drivers.

Shelley O'Connor, 38, recalls hitching a lift with two men in a Jaguar in the early 90s. She says they rolled joints on the dashboard and drove at breakneck speed from Whangarei to Auckland because they were late delivering urine samples to a methadone clinic.

Some hitch-hikers say they've been subjected to threatening behaviour but very few have been assaulted. One man was bitten by a driver's dog and required stitches in his ear.

Opinions vary about the dangers of hitch-hiking. Detective Sergeant Dave Beattie, the officer in charge of the Taupo police, believes drugs like P have made it more dangerous.

"It's a lot more risky to hitch-hike than it was 50 years ago," he says.

But Canterbury road policing head Inspector Derek Erasmus says the risks are minimal if hitch-hikers are sensible.

The Automobile Association recommends hitching in groups, texting or phoning family or friends to let them know where you are, and not hitching at night. "It's really just a matter of being savvy," says motoring affairs manager Mike Noon.

Tourism Research Council figures show 15,700 overseas visitors hitch-hiked in New Zealand in the year to March, about the same number as 1998 - when we had almost half the tourists. But council senior research analyst Mike Chan says the relative drop does not necessarily mean tourists do not like hitch-hiking. Many come for short stays and do not have time to thumb rides.

Campbell Shepherd of the Backpacker Tourism Marketing Network says hitch-hiking is still as popular as ever among backpackers, although Brauer's murder has put a damper on it.

"In the last couple of weeks, it's turned around completely," he says.

It also remains popular with students, although numbers are believed to be fewer than in the past because more students now own cars.

For Christchurch writer Joe Bennett, hitch-hiking has never lost its appeal. "There's nothing like it for meeting a spectacularly random variety of people," the 48-year-old says.

Bennett hitched everywhere before buying his first car at age 28 and last year published A Land of Two Halves, his story of hitch-hiking around New Zealand in 2003.

He says hitch-hiking injects adventure into one's life.

"When you're on the road with your thumb out, you feel freer than you've ever felt. The journey itself is the experience rather than the destination."

Hitch-hikers and drivers tell each other things they would never say to anyone else. "It's just like the confessional."

He predicts a bleak future for hitch-hiking in New Zealand. "It'll be dead in 10 years."