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Video: Make a trash bag shelter part of your survival kit

Video: Make a trash bag shelter part of your survival kit

Quick,  temporary shelters should be part of your survival kit. But how do you choose which one is the best for your needs?

by Leon Pantenburg

I’m not sure how the early settlers along the Oregon Trail or the western frontier  got along without duct tape, WD-40 or trash bags, but life surely would have been easier with them! Trash  bags, in particular, are included in all my survival kits. They have a multitude of uses, including being trash containers! But in an emergency,  when correctly used, trash bags can prove a quick, temporary shelter from the elements.

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This shelter will keep the wind and rain off you (Photo copyright 2013 Peter Kummerfeldt)

This shelter will keep the wind and rain off you (Photo copyright 2013 Peter Kummerfeldt)

Your best protection from nasty weather is your clothing. Never depend on a shelter to make up for inadequate clothing. Obviously, if you anticipate bad weather, be prepared for it, stay home or take along a  lightweight, four- season backpacking tent.

But, c’mon, how many of you are going to lug around a tent on every outing? Most of us will carry it a time or two, and eventually, the tent gets left at the trailhead. Then, some day late in the afternoon, you realize you’re lost or in a survival situation. You’ll have to  build some sort of shelter before it gets dark.

Reality shows to the contrary, you probably won’t be able to build a shelter out of natural materials, says survival expert Peter Kummerfeldt.

“I believe it is impossible for the survivor to build a waterproof, windproof shelter from natural materials,” Peter writes in Surviving a Wilderness Emergency.  “Shelters made from natural materials require time, natural resources, a cutting tool and a fully-functional survivor who has practiced building emergency shelters in the past! The survivor needs a waterproof, windproof shelter now!”

Large, heavy grade (3 or 4 mil) can make a good short term shelter. But don’t just crawl in and hunker down. Like any survival technique, you need to prepare and practice to use this shelter.

“Totally encapsulating yourself inside a plastic bag is not a good idea,” Peter advises. “Apart from the need for oxygen, the water vapor in the air you exhale, and your perspiration, will condense on the inner surfaces, and you will get quite wet.”

To avoid this problem, cut an opening in the closed end of the bag  just large enough to allow you to pass your head through. The bag is then passed over your head until your face aligns with the hole and the moist air is exhaled outside.

To make the hole, Peter advises cutting the plastic at a 90-degree angle along a seam about five inches below one corner. The hole should be just big enough to pass your head through when you are getting too warm.

This shelter  technique very well, and appropriate trash bags for shelters are easy to come by. Your local hardware store will probably have contractor-grade 45 and 55 gallon bags. You can also look in the storage area. I found 55-gallon, 3-mill bright yellow bags, designed to cover furniture  for long term storage, that will work quite well as shelters.

Include an insulated pad for sitting upon, because the plastic bag doesn't have any insulation. (Photo copyright 2013 Peter Kummerfeldt)

Include an insulated pad for sitting upon, because the plastic bag doesn’t have any insulation. (Photo copyright 2013 Peter Kummerfeldt)

Color is another consideration. I prefer blaze orange or bright yellow to help rescuers find me. But if you want to avoid being found, just get the standard black color.  Get in the shade of a tree, under a black bag and you will be pretty well camouflaged. A large white bag, also in the shade of a tree, will allow you to blend in well with snow.

I carry several tire bags, along with an orange 55-gallon heavy duty bag as part of my Ten Essentials survival kit and my hunting gear. My orange bag already has a head hole cut. In a pinch, per Peter’s advice, I’ll stick my feet in a smaller bag, pull it up around my waist and pull the orange bag down over me.

Also, as recommended by Peter, I always carry a piece of insulite foam for sitting upon. The plastic bag provides no insulation, and the cold ground will suck the heat right out of you. The padded, warm seat will make waiting to be found much more comfortable!

Obviously, an emergency shelter is just that. It is designed  to be used in an emergency, and nobody ever claimed a trash bag shelter is the best choice under any and all circumstances.  But a trash bag is light, will give you a waterproof shelter from nasty weather, and is compact and light enough to be taken anywhere.

Remember this thought when you’re putting together a survival kit, bug-out bag or a set of wilderness or urban survival tools: No piece of survival equipment is worth anything if you don’t have it with you!

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View Comments (2)


  1. Leon

    07/10/2015 at 17:12

    I tried one of the SOL bivi sacks on an overnighter with no sleeping bag. Temps got down to the 50s and the SOL was worthless for insulation. It also didn’t appear to breathe.

  2. PeteM

    07/09/2015 at 22:34

    In a real survival situation being a bit damp is better than dieing of hypothermia… SOL makes a breathable bivi bag that costs a lot more than trash bags but, it weighs less and breaths. If you are relying on any plastic bag to keep you alive in a really cold survival situation any insulation will reduce heat loss. You have 3 degrees before becoming hypothermic… More is better. Find a wind break, build up as much leaf litter as possible into a huge pile down wind of the wind break , then shimmy into the debris pile with your bag. Bags have an addional advantage as they keep bugs out… Bonus!

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Leon's Blog

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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