• Leon Pantenburg | Survival Common Sense


Six survival uses for plastic bags

Include an insulated pad for sitting upon, because the plastic bag doesn't have any insulation. (Photo copyright 2013 Peter Kummerfeldt)
597 400 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

Common items can become valuable survival gear when used properly. Among the most useful are some you probably already have in your kitchen.

by Leon Pantenburg

When you check out outdoor schools and primitive survival skills, notice how much time is  invested in making containers. A lot of effort may be devoted to fashioning water and food containers out of natural materials.

That  does make sense. Storing and being able to transport  food and water can have a dramatic impact on survival.

That is just one reason I carry a variety of plastic bags in all my survival kits. They are light, compact and take up hardly any room. But they can literally be worth their weight in gold during an emergency.

The smallest ones I use are seal able two-inches by three-inches bags and are used to carry my wallet-sized survival firemaker and charcloth. The largest are the 55-gallon contractor-grade garbage bags that can be used for emergency shelters. Everything in between has a place in your survival gear.

Wallet sized fire starter:  The initial idea  for a compact, wax-based  fire starter came several years ago after I helped work on a story about some lost snowmobilers. A blizzard came up, and they were

Plastic bags keep the wallet-sized firestarter from making a mess.

stranded in the backcountry with no survival gear. The snowmobilers tried to use the contents of their wallets in a vain attempt to get a fire started, burning  money, credit cards, the titles to the snowmobiles and a rope to no avail.

Carrying the firestarter and charcloth (a material for catching sparks and creating an ember) is my main use for the smallest bags. But the small bags can also be useful for carrying an extra camera battery or card, a LED keychain light,  prescription medical pills, cotton balls and petroleum jelly fire starter or anything small that needs to be sealed from moisture.

Ziplock Quart or gallon bag for water: either size is really handy. I typically take a quart bag in my Altoids tin survival kit, because it will fit in the tiny container. But in my daypack, I carry a couple of gallon bags. If push comes to shove and you have to carry water, these containers will be adequate and much, much better than nothing. For ease of carry, tie the ends of  your bandana together to form a pouch, and put the water-filled plastic in it.

The  Ziplock bags can also be used to store dry tinder as you find it, and hold and separate sticky pine pitch and pitch wood fire starters from other items in your daypack.

2-1/2 gallon Ziplock bag: By the time I got to the kill site, most  of the butchering work on the bull elk was already done. The elk liver, though, would have been hard to transport back to the trailhead if I wouldn’t have had a 2-1/2 gallon plastic bag along. The liver fit perfectly, and was easy to carry out in a daypack.

Several times I have field dressed a whitetail deer and carried out the liver in a plastic bag in my coat pocket or daypack. But the uses don’t just stop there. I used my plastic bag to pick blueberries during a trip through the Boundary Waters of Northern Minnesota one year. I have mixed biscuit dough in a large plastic bag, kneading the dough through the plastic. The bag works well as a water container

11 Gallon:   These are the tall kitchen bags that are designed for a standard trash can. (They will  hold water, but the filled bag would be difficult to carry because of the weight.) These bags are great for sitting upon in a wet environment. Another tip I learned at a Peter Kummerfeldt seminar was to use the bags as liners in your shoes or boots.

If you have to cross an icy, rocky creek, you really shouldn’t try it barefoot, and it would be best to keep your socks dry. Put a bag over each foot, then put your boot back on (Because of the added bulk, you may have to remove thick socks.) Secure the tops with duct tape, and you have serviceable waders.  Kummerfeldt mentions in his seminars that this technique works in deep snow to keep your feet warm and dry.

Tire Store bag: These bags appear to be about 33-gallon in size, and they are put over tires at the store. One nice thing is that they’re generally free for the asking. The local Les Schwabe tire store has donated bags to area scout troops for years.

The Les Schwabe bags are bright yellow for easy visibility, and just the right size to improvise a rain poncho for an 11-year-old. They can also be cut into strips for flagging. In the scout troop, we use the tire bags for a lot of things, including sitting upon, improvising shelters, signaling etc.  I always have at least one along in my daypack.

55-gallon contractor grade trash can liners:  I started carrying a 55-gallon plastic bag after I attended a

This photo demonstrates how a trash bag can be used as a quick, effective emergency shelter. (Peter Kummerfeldt photo)

Kummerfeldt “Myths of Survival” seminar. The idea is this: cut a hole at the bottom of the bag, large enough for your face to fit through. When you need a shelter, pull the bag over your head, and stick your face outside.

All the moisture and condensation from breathing will be exhaled outside, keeping the inside dry. If you first pull a tire bag up over your feet and  to your waist, you will be sealed from moisture from the waist down.

Ideally, the bags should be at least four mils thick and  highly visible.  The plastic doesn’t insulate from the cold, but it will get you out of the wind and rain or snow and let your clothing insulation work to keep you warm. Take along a piece of insulate pad to sit on.

Using this technique, you can create a waterproof shelter in a matter of minutes. Best of all, the components are lightweight and easily packed. This means the items will be convenient to carry, so they won’t be left behind.

I discovered another use of the large bags while butchering an elk. The bags can be split, to make a good-sized piece of plastic. The meat can be stacked on the plastic to keep it out of the dirt. You can also wrap a quarter with the bag to keep it clean as it is hauled out.

Even bigger plastic bags are available at most hardware stores. You can get bags large enough to cover a queen sized mattress, or large pieces of furniture. You can decide how far to take this plastic bag idea!

But, everybody should have some sort of survival kit. For best results, make your own, tailored to your ability and environment.

And don’t let this task become too daunting. Start with small steps. Look around your home, and see what survival items you already have and build from there.

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  • Ready Lifestyle

    The key in so many survival situations is the ability to improvise. I love articles like this because they not only give solid ideas for others to use when they’re in a horrible situation, but they also get the mind going. Thanks Leon.


  • Tom

    2 1/2 gallon bags are great to melt snow around a fire while winter camping.. Seems to work as a bit of a reflector also.

  • William Skinner

    When using the smaller bags (pt./quart/1 or 2 gallon) buy the
    freezer type. It is heavier plastic & usually comes with a
    double zip seal.

  • Red Dirt Annie

    Love your website. Art and Craft stores carry small plastic bags , usually in the jewelry section, that are the perfect size for all kinds of small survival supplies.

  • Leon

    Thanks for the kind words. I stay in scouts because it is rewarding and I learn so much. And, I have a lot of fun!

  • Joe Brandl

    Hi Leon,
    I am the scoutmaster in Dubois, Wyoming and teach survival skills constantly. Check out my new fb page which features many of the outdoor experiences we do in our troop. You do a great job with your scouts, wish there were more men that would do the same….old scouts skills are dying out!
    Absaroka – Art of the Wilderness is my new page

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