Backpacker Food

As mammals, we require several things to ensure the continuation of our existence, and backpacking is one way to compromise the ease in which we access such things. Those of you who have been unfortunate enough to travel with me for more than a couple of hours will most likely know about my superhero ability to consume six times my body weight in under a minute and will probably also know about my weird desire to eat like a hipster without dietary requirements (contradictory, I know). Food is very essential to me, not just to live, but also to be happy.

So here’s my guide to eating like a backpacker…


The Basics

Okay, the first rule is to TAKE EVERYTHING YOU CAN GET AND GIVE NOTHING BACK (insert evil laugh here).  The key to elongated travel is to find ways to minimise our spending and to live with as possibly little as possible for as long as possible (possibly). The cheapest way to eat is to cook for yourself when travelling, and this causes some problems, because to be able to cook a decent meal you need to have ingredients which means that you have to buy and carry and maintain these ingredients. When you go to the supermarket, often when you buy things they are portioned for more than one person, so when you cook yourself a nice meal you also seem to be left with all these little half filled bags of rice and pasta that aren’t enough for an entire meal. When you initially pack your backpack, if you’re going to be on the move, make sure there’s a little bit of room for some food. If not, you will hate yourself.

Anyway, there are several ingredients that are very adaptable and can be eaten with almost everything. Pasta is a backpacker’s best friend, so much so we should probably all convert to The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rice, noodles and potatoes are also cheap and diverse. You don’t want to eat so much of one thing you become sick of it, so what I tend to do is, for example, to buy a packet of mushrooms (regular mushrooms, thank you very much), and have a creamy mushroom pasta one day, a mushroom risotto the next and then use the remaining mushrooms in a vegetable stir fry with noodles and then buy something besides mushrooms to use for the next few meals to avoid turning into a toadstool.

To save money, and I know this sucks for some people, but don’t buy meat. It’s expensive and a pain in the ass to look after and not necessary; you can obtain protein in a number of ways, but even so, we only require meat once every few days when you look at things from an evolutionary perspective. You can spend the extra money you saved on meat on much more important things, like beer chocolate and crystal meth. Vegetables and carbohydrates are probably the cheapest and easiest way to survive.

Some people like to kill two birds with one stone and go to McD’s to make use of the free wifi and to fill up on food at the same time. Thing is, that’s not really food, and McD’s is fucking terrible. I also condemn instant noodles. Fresh noodles are almost as quick and also cheap as with the added benefit of being about a million and two times healthier… people who eat instant noodles are just idiots.

And do make sure to treat yourself occasionally. I mean, what would life be like without the occasional flat white and banana cake?


The Free Food Shelf

This is where things get really fun. Sometimes people can’t carry their food with them, and that food can be gloriously yours. The key to life I believe is hidden somewhere on this shelf, and to unlock its true potential and to obtain master status you must learn how to cook an entire meal using leftover ingredients. This is tricky unless you want soy sauce soup, seasoned with table salt and soy sauce with a side of more soy sauce. You can strike gold on cleaning days when other backpackers forgot to label their bacon, but make sure you remain quiet when the aforementioned other backpacker is asking about what happened to their bacon for their most anticipated BLT. I mean, although it was their fault, you don’t want to open that can of worms. Their salty tears makes your meal even more delicious.

Items you can usually blag for free are salt, pepper and other seasonings (which is great because you don’t want to have to carry a spice rack with you), instant noodles (avoid), soy sauce, rice, pasta, potatoes, flour and half finished blocks of nondescript cheese, sometimes with added mould. Get creative people.

Invoking jealousy

Food jealousy is a real problem that, one day, I will create a programme to raise awareness about. It sucks to be on the receiving end, but it’s fucking awesome to be the person forcing it upon everybody else.

The first trick is to obtain something special, such as a prime cut of pork belly. It helps immensely if you work in hospitality and can take off cuts home with you for free, and if you need a job and don’t care what it is, I highly recommend working in a kitchen as you should get loads of hours and loads of free and decent food. With your pork belly, the free food shelf and your basics you can ponder for a moment and come up with something awesome; crispy pork belly with roasted apple and roast potatoes. Not only does it taste fantastic, but the smell is fucking awesome and everybody will hate you and you will feel like monarchy as you smash your face repeatedly into that bad boy, making no effort towards elegance as you revel in your gluttony, chomping way too loudly and slurping the pig fat from your fingertips. Evil comes in many forms…

Working in hospitality usually initiates you into a small community of restaurants where people are willing to feed and water you and even encourage you to eat better. Occasionally, they may even invite you out to places you will never normally be able to afford, or just buy you lunch, because some people who work in the industry are by far the nicest and most amazing people ever (despite throwing plates across the kitchen in cheffy rages). You find yourself with a plethora of extra ingredients that others don’t have access to and everybody thinks you’re a hipster. It rocks.

Eating like a Tom

So you can eat like monarchy for next to nothing incorporating potatoes, the free food shelf and some prime cuts of meat from a fancy restaurant where you work, where do you go from here? You throw all morality of saving money straight out the creaky hostel window and head out for a 12-course degustation at a Michelin star restaurant complete with matched wines and beers, before declaring bankruptcy and succumbing to the instant noodles on the free food shelf. In an attempt to battle your depression the following morning, you have to spend your last few dollars on a flat white coffee before dying of starvation as you fail to feed yourself for the next three years.


Thanks to Roots in Christchurch, I still have hauntingly beautiful dreams about the smallest bite of saffron pickled onion.

Here’s a couple of ideas to finish up on; If you’re really tight for money and need to eat, cut up some potatoes or kumara into thin slices and stir fry them with whatever vegetables you can get for cheap and whatever interesting spices are on the free food shelf. I call it “backpacker spuds” and it’s pretty delicious and highly adaptable. I think it tastes best with a little bit of jamon and a poached egg, but that might be too expensive.


When avocados are in season, not only will a quarter of New Zealand be concealing a partial erection, but you can make a pasta sauce by frying some onions in oil, adding some canned tuna (chilli tuna is particularly good if you can find it) and then chucking in the avocado and mixing it all together until it looks like bird poop. It tastes awesome and is pretty damn cheap, probably healthy too.

Axel taught me to shred my potatoes with whatever vegetables I wanted and some cheese before mixing with some flour to make a mixture. When you fry it in oil, you make fritters, which are rather sexy.

If you have any good backpacker recipes, be sure to let us know. We’re poor and starving.

– Tom @ indieroad

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