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How to Dumpster Dive for Free Food

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How to Find Free Food —

Immediately prior to stepping foot off the farm for my first journey, my grandfather – who lived much of his life on the Road — took me aside and imparted some wise words of advice that have subsequently gotten me out of more jams and saved me more money than I could ever calculate:

“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.”

My grandfather had thus introduced me to dumpster diving.

I took his advice on that first journey, and eventually molded it into a diminutive science. In countries like the USA, which pathologically dispose of otherwise good food, a traveler can live well off of that which is left in those big green bins behind donut shops.

How to dumpster dive

Dumpster diving works on the premise that certain types of businesses dispose of perishable food that has not been purchased during day, packaged goods that are near their expiration date, or food that had its packaging damaged beyond the point of being salable.

To liberate this discarded food the only thing a prospective penny pincher needs to do is take it.

Chaya eating dumpstered food in Colorado

Chaya eating dumpstered food in Colorado

How to get free food from a dumpster

  1. Be as discrete as possible – I have been arrested for dumpster diving before. In court, the judge threw my case out as being nonsense, but it was still a hassle . . . and the arresting officers beat the shit out of me before hauling me off to jail. Was not fun.
  2. Approach a business after working hours or at night – Most dumpster diving is conventionally done at night. You do not want the business to know that you are taking their discarded food, and the dumpsters are generally filled up with fresh food as the businesses close down for the day.
  3. Be quick – Try to limit your time at a dumpster.
  4. Use a red filter lens for 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 stick it over the light end of your flashlight.
  5. Go for the closed trash bags – when at bagel or donut shops, dig into the trash bags for the fresh fill, rather than in the loose crap that are just thrown in the dumpster.

Food to look for

Bagels, donuts, pizzas, boxed goods, canned goods, food in packages.

Food to avoid

Table scraps, anything that smells bad, food that is mixed with garbage, food that is not in a container.

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

Not good locations for dumpster diving

  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.

The arts of dumpster diving have saved me more money than what I could ever calculate. Eating packaged goods, bagels, and pizzas from dumpsters is an optimal way to keep your costs low as you travel, or as you save up money for traveling.

Ever dumpster is a treasure chest of surprises: sometimes its contents fill your belly, and other times it just makes your hands real gross. You never  know until you dig in.

To save money to travel the world, most people need to cut their usual expenses. By trying to obtain a human’s three basic necessities —  food, water, and shelter — for free, a lot more funds are opened up for traveling the world.

Related pages

This travelogue entry is part of a series on how to make and save money for traveling

How to make money to travel

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Filed under: Budget Travel, Cheap Food, Food, Save Money for Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Polis, Republic of CyprusMap