Dumpster Diving: A Travel Strategy for Free Food

Riga at night

Riga at night. Photo by Jon Andrasz.

Dumpster Diving: The act of throwing the body into a dumpster in hopes of finding edible food; picking usable goods out of the trash; a good travel strategy.

I concurrently came upon the art of dumpster diving with the first steps I took off the family farm when I was 18. Before leaving on my first journey, my grandfather took me aside and bestowed some fine words of advice up me:

“If you ever don’t have enough money to get food, find a donut shop, go in back of it, and there you will find more free food than you can eat.”

I then set off with a pack upon my back to see what the USA had in store for me. I found it behind bagel and donut shops, surplus grocery stores, in the rear of pizza restaurants — I found my keep in dumpsters.

I then set off with a pack upon my back to see what the USA had in store for me. I found it behind bagel and donut shops, surplus grocery stores, in the rear of pizza restaurants — I found my keep in dumpsters.

This was a little over ten years ago, but the words of my grandfather I still carry with me: when leery about dropping money on food, I look for dumpsters. This may sound a little gross, a touch disgusting perhaps, but any traveler who has caught a glimpse of his food being prepared in the various restaurants of this planet knows that there is no such thing as a sterile meal.

10 Tips to Get You Started as a Dumpster Diver

The food that goes out the backdoor of a restaurant is often not much dirtier than the food that goes out the front — if you know what to look for.

Though there is a standard operating procedure that I abide by when eating out of the trash.

1. Choose your location wisely. Chinese restaurants are not usually the best places to go eating out of the trash. The same goes for many other restaurants that do not make and discard single varieties of food in bulk — eating half eaten table scraps is not the best occupation for the traveler who wants to travel another day. The best places to dumpster dive at are those that make food in bulk at certain times of the day. Bakeries are good, donut and bagel shops often better. Pizza restaurants can often provide a traveler with a feast, and grocery stores with dumpsters, rather than compactors, provide the rudiments for a full three course meal.

2. Look for food that is boxed, packaged, or in garbage bags that only contain food. Bagel and donut shops often discard their food that did not sell in plastic bags that only contain edible materials — the day old bagels go in one bag, the real trash in another. Pizza restaurants often dispose of their uneaten slices and unclaimed pizzas in regular pizza boxes or in plastic bags that mostly only contain food. Grocery stores tend to distribute good, free food in mass at their back doors. Discarded boxed goods that are beyond their expiration date or whose packaging had been damaged, over ripe – though still edible – fruits and vegetables, and an entire host of snacks and treats often find their way into grocery store dumpsters in enormous quantities. It is interesting what a traveler can find to do with 200 twinkies.

3. Once you have found a suitable location, be as discrete as possible when digging through the trash. I have been arrested for dumpster diving before. In court, the judge just sort of laughed at me and told me to get out. “Why were you in the dumpster?” he asked. “I was looking for food,” could be my only reply. Though that fiasco did begin with me getting the shit kicked out of me by the police and hauled off to a jail cell for the night. So my advice is: get in, fill up, get out.

4. Approach potential dumpster diving locations after working hours or at night. Dumpster divers tend to be a nocturnal breed by nature. Usually, you do not want the business to know that you are taking their discarded food, and the dumpsters are generally filled up with “fresh trash” only after the closed sign is hung on the front door.

5. Put a red filter on your flashlight. A flashlight is often necessary equipment for dumpster diving, but an unfiltered light may attract unwanted attention. Use a red filter lens or cut out a translucent piece of red plastic (like the kind in 3-D glasses) and pop it over the glass on the torch end of your flashlight.

6. Be neat, don’t make a mess, or it will spoil the graft for future travelers. It is not uncommon for donut shops to pour bleach or another harsh solvent over their discard food if they fear that “bums” are going to make a mess out of it.

7. Food to look for when dumpster diving: Bagels, donuts, pizzas, boxed goods, over ripe vegetables that can be washed, canned goods, food in packages.

8. Food to avoid: Table scraps, anything that smells bad, food that is mixed with too much true garbage, food that is not in a container.

9. Good locations for dumpster diving:

  1. Bagel or donut shops
  2. Pizza shops
  3. Supermarkets
  4. Factories that either make or package boxed or wrapped food
  5. Bottling plants

10. Not good locations for dumpster diving for food:

  1. Restaurants – It is oftentimes just not worth it. Believe me.
  2. Trash cans – In most circumstances, I try to avoid trashcans full of table scraps.
  3. In home garages – Stay away from table scraps. Well, unless an old half eaten chicken wing sounds appetizing to you.

Dumpster diving around the world

I have found the industrialized countries more game for dumpster diving. The obvious reason being is that more edible food is discard in these countries. The USA is the best country I have found for pigging out in dumpsters, followed by the “suburbanized” areas of European cities. But dumpster diving can be done readily in some form in nearly every country within the first world fringe: Japan is good if you know where to look, Eastern Europe is decent as well. But dumpster diving in poorer countries is often too much of a competitive sport to recommend indulging in, and the fact that you can get an entire meal for under $2 in most countries in the world often makes digging food from the trash a mute point of sorts.

More than anything else, dumpster diving can be fun. It simply feels good to have to do a little work for your daily bread when on the road, and always being on the lookout for a potential free meal keeps your wits toned and your senses sharp. Dumpster diving is also a prime occupation for those calculating their carbon footprints:

By not consuming the excess, you are contributing to the waste.

Dumpster dive as a travel strategy for free food.

About the author:

Wade Shepard has been on the road for 10 years. These days, he travels with wife Chaya and baby Petra and blogs about it at Vagabond Journey. He has also recently launched a travel community forum on his site.

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Discussion »

  • #1Baron

    Outstanding Wade!! It’s good to see you’re contributing to other blogs. Now go talk this article up on you own blog.

  • #2Travel Videos

    NIce stuff, good and interesting articles. I actually learn something today, that I’m on my way to try…
    Thanks

  • #3Scott

    Had never thought of doing this, but I suppose that it could be a good strategy for anyone who finds themselves on tough times…

  • #4BigManWalking

    Wow. I was grossed out, but I read anyway. You must be doing some walking so at least you’re getting exercise.

  • #5TangoAna

    ah ah ah !!!
    I don´t know if you visit my country…but here you can get fruit from the trees or vegetables in the land…
    Many people is very friendly and they offer a plate in their house table…
    Obviusly,,…it not happens in the city

  • #6Mozambique bum

    Wow that could be fun for some I guess, and I can imagine how it could be harder to “dumpster dive” in poorer countries. Have you ever been to Mozambique?

  • #7Xpat

    very interesting… it’s worth a try!

  • #8Brooke vs. the World

    Totally grossed out! I love travel and I love saving money, but this is just not an option for me :)

  • #9Laurie

    Interesting blog. I actually saw this idea featured on Oprah (not that I should mention having watched Oprah :) ). Not sure I have it in me.

  • #10Simon

    I don’t think I’ll be trying that, but some great tips if I ever get in trouble. Problem is I normally go to Scandinavia and the food outside is a bit cold in the winter :p

  • #11Will

    And I was thinking that eating nasi goreng every day for one month was too much…

  • #12cynthia in the french alps

    I find this article both brilliant and incredibly disturbing at the same time. I sure hope I never have to do this to afford traveling but who knows! Thanks for the tips (I think). Cynthia

  • #13James Rick

    I like this stuff. Keep it up

  • #14Name Tags

    Wade,

    What a great post. I thought it was a joke, but then I realized it is a brilliant idea. Especially as the dollar continues to fall, some may not even be able to afford good food around the world. I gotta get a red flashlight!

  • #15Radison

    Really very informative blog and i will surely give a chance to above mentioned tips,

  • #16pam

    I’ve lost it with people over this before, and not because I’m anti-dumpster diving and/or because of the ick factor and/or because I’m insensitive about waste. I think dumpster diving is a bad idea FOR TRAVELERS.

    1. Are you depriving some less fortunate person than yourself of a source of food? How can you know this if you’re transitory?
    2. Are you putting yourself at risk? I asked my significant other what he thought would happen if you were found dumpster prowling around a local guesthouse, he reckoned you might get shot.
    3. Are you putting yourself at a health risk? Again, if you’re transitory, you may not know the right source for “clean” food.

    Knock on some kitchen doors and ask to wash dishes for your dinner. Sing for your supper. Maybe you’ll meet some people. Unless you have a local connection who can assure you that you’re not putting yourself at risk or taking food out of needier mouths than yours, this is a terrible strategy. Finally:

    4. It might be a crime. Check the local laws. Do you really want to end up in prison because you didn’t plan your travel budget so you could eat? Yeah, that will make a great story. Good luck with that.

  • #17joseph

    oh it is very interesting thank you for shearing this type of experience.i like this this article.you give me a great idea keep it up

  • #18leslie

    this is great stuff!

  • #19Another Travel Blog

    Try to engage with staff at posh supermarkets – they’ll be best placed to tell you when and where the close to sell by date food goes

  • #20ohtallinn

    I’m so amazed by what i have just read. I have never thought on this subject like this. I think i might actually print it out, translate it and give it to some very people who might need it.

    It’s so unfair at the times that grocery stores throw away food what they legally can’t sell cause of the expirey but actually the food is very much the same 3 days after and sometimes even longer.

    Thanks for this read !

    B.

  • #21keyvah

    When traveling in Europe last winter I did tons of dumpster diving after street markets in major cities, especially Amsterdam. The guesthouse I was staying in was pretty radically oriented, and had a strong tradition of dumpster diving. It was a great way to save money, use things which would have gone to waste, and having the local connection of our hosts meant we were could dumpster more safely and respectfully. We often started collecting just as the market was ending, and many vendors handed us items directly that they would have throw away. Of course, a few also looked askance at us. Generally speaking, if I’m dumpstering to save money (and not because I am going to go hungry) I never take more than half of what is in any particular bin/dumpster/pile.

  • #22Maria

    Hi Wade – what an entertaining blog! It reminds me of many years ago when I was travelling, as a student, through Europe, with very little cash. We could probably have extended our stay had we thought of dumpster feasting. As it was, we arrived home considerable thinner than when we left.
    I did wonder though, if you might have been able to do a good deal with some of the supermarkets who are always out to screw as much money from us as possible.
    Also, when you think about the many hungry people in the world is it no criminal to throw so much into landfill? You are doing the world a favour!! Keep it up.

  • #23frank morrison

    wade your grandpa was a cool dude i remember when i was young and he drove that van by with all the bull horns and the white horses and such..do you remember when we went over there for Easter and your dad would through quarters and we would go find them…good times wade i miss them times. well good luck in life dude happy travels

  • #24Abe

    i just saw a documentary and i tried it. its amazing what you can find

  • #25Joe Eitel

    Great tips Wade. I don’t think I could ever live the dumpster diver lifestyle, but I definitely admire someone who can. I can’t stand wasted food!

    BTW: I didn’t realize you could be arrested for dumpster diving. I thought all trash was fair game. Hmmm…I guess not.

  • #26Christian Rene Friborg

    Interesting read! I guess when someone is in a dire situation, they will always find a way to survive. Although I cannot imagine myself doing the dumpster diving, it really is admirable to see people who are able to do it.

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