Is It Hard To Be Vegan While Backpacking?

Are you concerned that it will be hard to be vegan while backpacking?

A question that I get asked a lot whilst travelling and meeting new people; is it hard to be vegan while backpacking?

Not only is the world now super accessible if you want to explore it but also choosing to live a vegan and cruelty-free lifestyle has literally never been easier.

More and more people are choosing to live vegan lifestyles and that is amazing but as we all know by now, not all countries are developing at the same pace.  And that’s ok.  So many people may have the same questions that I did before I left on my first big backpacking trip.

  • Is it hard to be vegan while backpacking?
  • Is it hard to be vegan anywhere other than in my home country?

It’s a big world and especially if you’re a new vegan, I would be surprised if these questions hadn’t crossed your mind yet.  So I’d like to try and help as best I can, and share the experiences I have had while travelling as a vegan, so you know what to expect.

a board with 4 vegan tacos in Mexico

Is It Hard To Be Vegan While Backpacking?

The short answer is NO.

But it is definitely not what I was used to.  Coming from the UK we have supermarkets in every town and city and we are spoilt for choice.  Also, more and more restaurants are adding specifically labelled, vegan options to their menus now too.

Especially if you are heading to developing countries, then it is going to require a little bit of patience, some homework, preparation and understanding.

99% of the time if you find a place to eat, the menu will not be in English.  Remember Google Translate is your best friend.  But most importantly it’s time to brush up those communication skills and get creative. 

Top 10 Tips For Being Vegan Whilst Backpacking

Here are my 10 main tips to ensure you can stick to your beliefs whilst not going hungry;

1 – Forget the word vegan

If you’ve been vegan for more than 5 years then you will remember the time when you would ask a waiter if a dish was vegan and they would just stare blankly back at you. 

That’s right even as little as 5 years ago many people hadn’t even heard of the word vegan. If they had heard of it, that didn’t necessarily mean they knew what it meant.

Travelling to somewhere like South East Asia is very similar.  If you ask someone for a vegan option or if something is vegan, they are most likely just not going to understand.  So we need to adjust how we ask to make sure we don’t get any unpleasant surprises.

You will want to ask questions like this instead;

  • Does this have meat in it?
  • Are there eggs in this?
  • Does this have cow milk in it?

It may seem super obvious but it really does help.

a man waiting in line to get some sugar cane juice from a local street vendor in Colombia

2 – Translate key phrases and save them

The reason I say to save them for later is because if you are somewhere with no phone signal then Google Translate isn’t going to work.  Who knows what you will end up eating?  This happened to me only once then I learnt my lesson thankfully.

Here are the phrases I recommend always translating into the local language;

  • I do not eat meat
  • I do not eat eggs, milk or cheese
  • can you make this without the meat, please?

That should do the trick.

3 – Ask a local to teach you how to say the key phrases (or record them saying them)

Following on from the last point, we are very lucky if we got to grow up in a developed country but we can’t always assume that everyone can read.  So to have a local person say the phrases and record them saying them, that way you can express yourself to anyone. 

Or better yet try and learn them for yourself if you’re feeling confident.

If you have Google Translate you can also get it to say the phrases out loud if you have an internet connection.

4 – Do some research on what ingredients traditional dishes contain

Most countries have a national/regional dish and they generally tend to stick to the same ingredients.  For example Pho in Vietnam, Pad Thai in Thailand, Kottu in Sri Lanka and so on. 

If you know the dish and look up the ingredients it then becomes easy to ask them to leave out the ingredients we don’t want.

Also being aware of how different areas cook foods will also come in handy.  For example in Northern India, they cook everything with Ghee and in the south, they use coconut oil.  In Vietnam, everything is made with fish sauce.

lots of fresh vegetables on a stall at a local market in Belize

5 – Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself and make sure you were understood

This is the step where you define your own personal limits.  I personally recommend asking your questions to find out how much someone can accommodate your requests but then go over them all again to confirm. 

If English is someone’s second language, we need to practice extra patience too while they help us out. We then have to trust that our message got through and wait to see what we get.

I never really had any issues or nasty surprises, just a couple of occasions where a curry would arrive with a swirl of cream on top which could easily be scooped out and no harm done.

6 – Go for right first time

Continuing on from the last point, making sure you are understood before your food is made is really important. We don’t want waste and they won’t remake it for you unless you pay twice.

I recently ordered a pasta dish in Colombia and specified ‘sin queso’ or no cheese just to be on the safe side. My pasta came covered in cheese. I repeated that I asked for it without and they took it away and just mixed it in hoping I wouldn’t see.

Remember folks, you’re not at home anymore and most likely won’t get the same service you are used to. Situations like this don’t happen very often but it’s good to be prepared and ready to communicate clearly when they do.

7 – Always pack snacks for a long journey

While backpacking, it’s common to take long journeys and for these, I always packed some fruit from a local market and crackers or something slightly more substantial. 

Usually, buses will stop mid-journey at a rest stop, but your options may be very limited, if any.  So always be prepared.  Trains also often have people selling food but it will just be one local dish and most likely not vegan either.

TOP TIP – While I was in India I did find a more Westernised supermarket and bought myself a jar of peanut butter, jam and marmite.  This way I could always make myself a sandwich for breakfast, for a day out, for a hike or for a long journey.

A plate of trasitional colombian vegan food including beans, rice and plantain

8 – Cook for yourself

I stayed in a lot of hostels that had small communal kitchens. It’s great not only to be sociable but you also get to save some money and make your own meals for a while. 

You will ALWAYS find plenty of fresh fruits and veg in markets, in fact, sometimes the selection is far better than anything we get in supermarkets back home.

Time to get adventurous!

9 – Watch how they make the street food

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  By watching them first you know what’s in it and then you can make sure they leave out the parts we don’t want.  

But as always, pick the vendors with the queues.  The more popular they are the better.

10 – Use the Happy Cow app

This app works everywhere I have been so far and never lets me down.  I found some amazing fully vegan buffet-style places in Vietnam using the Happy Cow app.

a tray of vegan food in Ecuador, including a bowl of soup and rice and beans

Is It Hard To Be Vegan While Backpacking – Final Thoughts

All this being said, I always managed to find a meal everywhere I went.  Sometimes pretty basic but I never went hungry.  In every country I went to, I tried their local dishes, even if slightly modified, I ate street food and tried new fruits and vegetables.

So to answer the question; is it hard to be vegan while backpacking? 

Nope, not only is it possible, but being vegan while backpacking is quite possibly even more exciting.