How to survive a backpacking trip on the gluten-free diet

Hiking in the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Spontaneity, living free on the open road and going where the moment takes you—that’s what backpacking is all about, right? Wrong. For me, it’s all about meticulous planning. But that’s allowed me to have some fantastic experiences traveling on a gluten-free diet, something that I never thought would be possible when I was diagnosed with celiac disease. Planning ahead has meant I’ve been able to relax and enjoy some incredible journeys around the world.

Before you hit the road

I was sure that Italy, with its pizza and pasta staples, would be off limits, so I was ecstatic to learn that the country is actually very clued up on eating gluten free. It’s quite easy to find restaurants that cater to gluten-free travellers (mainly in the larger cities) and indulge in delicious gluten-free pasta and pizza—absolute heaven.

India also surprised me. While awareness is very low, a lot of the food is naturally gluten free, with rice the staple instead of bread (especially in southern India). Food preparation there also employs alternative flours, like gram and lentil, as thickeners instead of wheat. Just stay away from those temping naans and chapatis.

If you’re backpacking through Europe, look for the crossed grain symbol that indicates gluten free. In South America, the sin T.A.C.C. symbol translates to “without wheat, oats, barley, rye.” There are quite a few gluten-free symbols around the world, so learn to recognize them before your excursion.

If you’re traveling to countries that don’t speak English, first learn some useful vocabulary and phrases. It’s not just wheat, barley and rye that you need to learn but also terms like noodles, breadcrumbs and soy sauce that might appear on a menu.

Hiking across Isla del Sol (Sun Island) on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Download gluten-free dining cards in the language of the country you’re traveling to. They list ingredients that contain gluten and also provide instructions on food preparation and cross-contamination. Whenever I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, I just hand over the card to the waiter. I don’t know how I would have survived traveling without these—I always have them in my wallet.

Give advance warning

Always contact airlines in advance. Most of them can arrange a gluten-free meal if you give more than 48 hours’ notice. What you’re served will be hit and miss—I was once presented with a bowl of apple slices with a side of orange slices as an evening meal on a long-haul flight—but it’s better than having nothing to eat for eight hours.

Get in touch with hostels in advance. If breakfast is included, ask what it is and if they can provide a gluten-free option. I often get told, “We don’t have any gluten-free food here.” Just be patient, and provide suggestions—I always say that I’d be happy with some fresh fruit and plain yogurt for breakfast, or ham and cheese that I can put on my own rice crackers.

Multi-colored corn – a naturally gluten free staple food in Peru

If you’re worried about the constant risk of cross-contamination, ask the hostel if they have a kitchen where you can cook your own food. I’ve done this a few times—it means less to worry about because you’re in control of what you’re eating, and it saves you lots of money on eating out. A good trick is to buy a bag of rice or lentils to carry from place to place in your backpack, and then just grab some fresh meat and veggies along the way.

Be prepared

You’ve got to accept that a good portion of your backpack needs to hold a hoard of gluten-free supplies. So forget the wetsuit you’re tempted to pack just in case you suck up the courage to go diving with sharks. I always pack toaster bags and some foil to avoid cross-contamination in hostel kitchens and take as many gluten-free staples as I can fit.

Every time I get to a large city or town, I head to health shops and large supermarkets. It’s a great chance to stock up on gluten-free essentials like cereal bars and rice crackers. You’d be surprised what you might find.

A lesson I learned the hard way is to check which foods are allowed to cross international borders. I once had to empty my entire backpack at the border between Chile and Argentina to have all my food supplies inspected, with quite a few things confiscated. Leave items in their original packaging rather than transferring them to suspicious looking zip-lock bags.

Enjoying a gluten free empanada on an ice trek on Viedma glacier in Patagonia (Argentina)

Of course, Murphy’s Law entails that if you head off into the wilderness carrying a ton of gluten-free supplies, you’re going to come across the most amazing gluten-free food. One of the most remote regions I’ve backpacked to is Patagonia in the southern tip of South America. In a tiny Argentinian frontier town called El Chalten, walking along the deserted main street, I gawped open-mouthed at a beautiful little deli displaying the crossed-grain symbol. To my amazement they were selling homemade gluten-free empanadas. Later that day I had a picnic lunch on a glacier enjoying the classic Argentinian takeaway snack of empanadas like everyone else. What a surreal moment!

Enjoy the journey through your taste buds

One of my favorite aspects of traveling is trying new food. And as I said at the beginning, by doing your research, you can really enjoy discovering local flavors. Try searching online for local gluten-free Facebook groups, and ask for recommendations of restaurants that can cater to gluten-free diners or offer dishes that are naturally gluten free. That’s how I found the most amazing gluten-free Chinese restaurant in London and fell in love with ceviche in Lima, Peru.

A gluten-free diet restricts what we can eat, but don’t let it restrict where the wind takes you or hold you back from experiences you’ll never forget.

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Danielle Miller is a travel writer and blogger currently based in Lima, Peru, and exploring South America. Follow her travel tales at pelicantales.com and on Instagram @pelicantales.

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