A Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving a Hostel Kitchen

A Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving a Hostel Kitchen

Ah, the humble backpacker’s hostel kitchen. Found in all shapes and sizes and differing states of cleanliness it is both a place of wonder and of frustration.

From the fancy, shiny kitchens of the upmarket “flashpacker” hostels to small, dingy, could do with a remodel kitchen of some older hostels, each hostel kitchen is as unique as the hostel itself.

If like me, your chosen type of accommodation is the backpacker hostel then at some point or other you will find yourself gracing the hostel kitchen with your presence.

I mean, if you eat out all the time then you’re not going to have any money left for the important traveling stuff (and if you do, well, you’re probably not staying in hostels anyway).

In many ways, the hostel kitchen resembles the shared kitchens often found in university accommodation. An excess of fridges and sinks and well-used pans. Not forgetting a random assortment of people and food combinations.

So, for those that have already survived that experience, adapting to a hostel kitchen environment will be a doddle.

For those of you less familiar, the hostel kitchen can be a sauce (pun intended) of stress, confusion and well can completely put you off cooking for yourself.

I know that I have walked into some hostel kitchens and walked straight back out again. Consequently, pretty much avoiding the place for the rest of my stay.

However, it doesn’t take a lot to put me off cooking as any of my family or friends will tell you!

So, to help you out I thought I’d share with you some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up along my travels to help you conquer the beast that is the backpackers hostel kitchen.

1. The Hostel Kitchen Set-up

All hostel kitchen’s have 3 main areas in common which are

  • The cooking and prep area
  • The fridges
  • The “non-refrigerated” food storage area

The cooking and Prep area

As you would probably expect this part of the kitchen contains work surfaces where you can peel, chop, mix and perform any other kind of food preparation on.

There is usually a decent amount of space for this although at busy times expect the surfaces to not be clean and there not to be much space available.

Not to mention that some hostels appear to have not really thought about the whole cooking process. For reasons still yet to be revealed some prep areas are in no way conveniently situated next to the stoves.

food preparation, vegetables
cutting boards. good for cutting and for carrying food.

Every hostel Kitchen is equipped with stoves/hobs (although I have stayed in one where they used hot plate/ griddle things like the ones you get in restaurants) for you to cook on. Some are gas, and some are electric. It just depends on the hostel.

Tip: There’s usually some kind of weird knack to getting the gas stoves to light as there doesn’t seem to be a universal system. So instead of standing there looking dumb and wasting time ask someone how to light it if you’re not sure. You won’t be the first to have asked – I for one have.

What I can tell you is not to expect an oven.

I have only come across a single hostel during my time in Australia that had an oven in its kitchen (shout out to Backpack Oz, Adelaide).

Yes, this might just be an Australia thing but still if you go food shopping with the expectation of cooking something in the oven before checking out if the kitchen actually has one?

Well, you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

‘Luckily, in Aus, you can get a Domino’s pizza for $5 so you can still get a cheap pizza fix despite not being able to cook it yourself.

The Fridges

Most hostels seem to have invested in the industrial floor to ceiling fridges that you usually see in supermarket.

The number of these fridges fluctuates from hostel kitchen to hostel kitchen depending on the size of the hostel. What you can count on though is that there will be hardly any room.

Even when I’ve stayed in hostels with only a few people, the fridges are always full. That’s even despite a weekly clean out that the staff do (more on that later).

So, grab one of your reusable shopping bags (because saving the planet) and make yourself some fridge space.

I’m not going to lie; some people can get a little possessive about their fridge space so be prepared to go hunting for your food on other shelves/fridges.

Generally, though your food won’t go missing – unlike the shared kitchens at university. The backpacker community are pretty good like that.

Don’t expect a freezer though.

For some reason freezers don’t seem to be welcome in a hostel kitchen which is shame because where are you supposed to store your ice cream?

The “non-refrigerated” storage area

Now you’ve found yourself some fridge space its time to bag yourself a shelf/locker/crate etc.

The non-fridge storage area in some hostels can be as simple as placing your bag(s) of food onto a shelf. Other hostels allow you a little more security with lockable lockers. Either way, the one thing they agree on is not storing food in your room.

You may have to look a little further for where to put your food as some storage areas can be around the corner from the main kitchen area or even in another room.

Again, sometimes you may need to fight for space because for whatever reason the hostel underestimated the among of storage space that is needed for the number of people it accommodates. Seems a little stupid but it happens.

Tip: Don’t forget to take advantage of the free food shelf. This is where people have left things that they no longer want/need/can’t take with them so have gifted them to the community.

Label Everything

Pretty much all hostels operate a weekly kitchen clear-out at a minimum.

The day(s) that these occur are normally well advertised about the hostel kitchen, so you basically have no excuse. Any food that isn’t labelled will be thrown out.

For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, labelling usually consists of writing your name, room number and check out date on a slip of paper or sticker and then attaching it to your food/food bag(s).

The labelling equipment is usually easily found somewhere in the kitchen so no need to add that to your list of things to take with you. Again, if you can’t find the labels just ask, they may just need re-stocking.

Extending your stay? Don’t forget to update your food labels or it might get thrown out along with your dinner plans.

This goes for both refrigerated and non-refrigerated food, although it usually the fridge stuff that is stricter.

Afterall no-one wants to find stinky, rotting food, do they? Think of all the creatures that will attract.

2. Lower your expectations about equipment

Hostel Kitchens get hammered.

They are used by a variety of different ages and nationalities every single day. Multiple times a day. Needless to say, the cooking utensils may not be in the best shape.

Sure, you can still use them to cook, but watch out for the wobbly handles on the pans and that burnt patch that the last person didn’t bother to scrub off.

Oh, and definitely don’t expect sharp knives. You’re not at home now. While I’ve been pleasantly surprised at a few hostels with the sharpness of their knives, at others I might as well have used a spoon.

Basically, on your first visit just approach with caution. You’ll soon realise which are the best pans and knives etc. (hint, they are usually the ones in use).

There are some strange hostels where the kitchen utensils are stored not in the kitchen, but behind reception. Sometimes this is just plates, bowls and cutlery but at some this includes the pans as well.

I can only guess that they have had some kind of incident in the past. Or perhaps they believe that by making their guest pay a deposit to have access to these things that they will be looked after better? Personally, it just puts me off cooking.

Then there’s the washing up.

I don’t think hostels have heard of Fairy liquid. Probably for money-saving reasons they all use this cheap, watery washing up liquid. You need about half a bottle to get a decent lather on but at least there’s always plenty of washing up facilities. They’re sometimes full of dirty pots but I’ve found on the most part people do tend to wash their pots afterwards.

3. Choose your Cooking Time… Wisely

You know when you go to a restaurant that certain times are going to be busier than usual. Usually around mealtimes. The same goes for hostel kitchens. We’ve all got to eat after all.

While cultural differences may help you out a little bit (for example some countries eat their evening meals a lot later than others) you may have to be a little tactical. That is unless, you want to drop yourself into the chaos that is dinnertime at a backpacker’s hostel.

I usually scout out the busiest cooking period of the particular hostel I’m staying at as soon as possible. That way I can figure out if I’m going to need to move to eating earlier or later than I would normally.

hostel kitchen
That one time I decided to try and cook at 6pm. I should have known better

I don’t like cooking at the best of times but if I have to cook then I’d like to do it without having to fight for stoves and pans.

Here in Australia, the busiest cooking period in most hostels that I’ve stayed at is around 6-8pm. Anything before or after that and your usually fine.

4. Batch Cook when you can

Grab yourself some cheap Tupperware and whip up a big batch of food.


You’ve got yourself meals for the next few nights. No need to think about cooking and avoiding the rush. Just hijack the microwave for a couple of minutes and your good to go.

Better yet, if you find yourself at a loose end why not cook up your food in the middle of the day. Most people seem to only cook in the evenings, so the chances are you will have the whole place to yourself. Avoiding all the evening stresses.

Remember though, you probably won’t have access to a freezer so whatever you make you will need to eat sooner rather than later.

5. Cook with Friends

Eating out can be expensive but you can still share a meal with the friends you’ve made in the hostel.

All chip in and create a meal together. It will not only be cheaper, but it will take some of the strain off the rest of the hostel kitchen. Afterall you will need less equipment and take up less stove space. So, it’s really a win-win for everyone.

cheese and wine
even just sharing a simple platter of cheese (with obligatory wine of course)

You can even take it in turns sharing dishes from home for a cool sharing of knowledge and culture. That’s what traveling’s about after all right?

6. Cook Easy, Cook Fast

Definitely my biggest tip for those like me who do not like cooking.

Pick meals that are easy. Especially if those meals only require one pan. Those are my favourite, I mean less washing up for starters!

Plus, go for meals that are quick to make.Who wants to be stood in the kitchen for 2 hours making something that going to take you 15mins to eat?

It seems a little ridiculous to me. Instead, choose those recipes where you can be in and out of the kitchen in 30mins (or less). Those recipes are your friends.

Cook. Eat. Wash up and get on with the thrill of travelling.

Hostels are fun places to stay.

Full of people, stories and adventure. Just like the home, the hostel Kitchen can often be at the heart of the hostel. It is here where we go to eat, socialise and make new friends.

I have made many a new friend in a hostel kitchen simply by asking about what they are cooking. It’s an easy ice breaker.

However, they can also be overwhelming and daunting places. Hopefully, you will now not only be able to survive the many different hostel kitchens out there but thrive in them. Whether or not you like to cook.

Until next time

Keep Adventuring

Keep Up-to-Date with my latest Adventures!

2 thoughts on “A Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving a Hostel Kitchen

  1. These are fab tips!! I was really annoyed by the lack of ovens (and freezers) in hostels for a while, but I quickly learned to deal with it lol. Luckily the hostel we lived in (in Brisbane) had an oven, otherwise I don’t think we could have lived there anyway haha. I honestly think the worst thing about hostel kitchens is when people DON’T clean up after themselves. Often it just takes one or two people, and then no one else can be bothered either. And then the whole place turns into THE APOCALYPSE HELL HOLE OF TOTAL DOOM.

    – said by a hostel worker, in case you couldn’t tell. 😉

    1. aww thanks! Yes totally agree with you, as soon as a couple of people are like nah, CBA with doing my dishes it’s like someone emptied a garbage truck in there.
      I think you might have undersold how bad it can be a little bit

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