27 Survival Uses for Plastic Bags


Survival Uses for Plastic Bags Title Image

Many people have asked me why I recommend that all preppers keep a large supply of plastic bags on hand. After reading this article, I think you’ll understand exactly why.

When survival is on the line, the last thing you need is soggy rations, wet clothes, or contaminated medical supplies. There are much more creative and unique survival uses for plastic bags than just keeping your lunch dry, however.

Why Should I Stock Plastic Bags for Survival?

Whether bugging out or bugging in, storage space will be at a premium when SHTF. Every item you keep will need to be personally useful, valuable for trade, or both. It’s even better if every item has multiple uses.

It’s the difference between having a screwdriver, a set of pliers, and a metal file in your bag or just one multitool that has all three plus a dozen more tools. Clearly, the space-saving multitool is the smarter choice. Plastic bags are the multitool you didn’t even know you had.

Plastic bags are lightweight, easy to store in any bag, box, or container, and come in a variety of sizes. They can be reused over and over. They can be crumpled up, folded, or stored flat without diminishing their carrying capacity or strength. Since they’re plastic, they won’t rot. That means whatever you use them for will last a hell of a lot longer than organic materials like paper, canvas, or wood.

Let’s face it, if it’s the end of the world, what you need are items that will last. That’s plastic.

27 Survival Uses for Plastic Bags

1. Shelter

Even without a tent, you can stay warm and dry. If you don’t have a large trash bag to make a full shelter with, smaller plastic bags can be used as roof and wall patches over and between branches and leaves.

Layer them together to create roof shingles and full wall panels. Split larger Ziploc bags open and spread them out for use as draft barriers. They make excellent vapor barriers under flooring, too.

Please note that you don’t have to split the bags for draft and vapor barriers, but they will cover more surface area that way and be more effective. If you don’t plan to stay in that shelter for long, don’t split the bags. Keep them intact so you can pack them up and use them for other things in your new shelter.

2. Bedding

Use folded, layered, or crumpled shopping bags for a mattress to get off of the cold ground. If you have access to leaves, vegetation, pine needles, newspapers, shreds of fabric, or more bags, stuff them in plastic bags to add even more comfort and insulation to your mattress. Extra clothes, your camp towel, or your supply of paper towels and toilet paper can all be used as mattress stuffing, too.

Apply the same idea for a pillow. A gallon size Ziploc bag stuffed with leaves or shopping bags is a great way to elevate your head and support your neck. Getting good, solid rest will increase your chances of surviving any situation, so don’t skimp on the comfort at rest time.

3. Insulation

Gallon and storage size Ziploc bags can be filled with leaves, smaller plastic bags, and other materials, then tacked to shelter walls to create insulation. Shopping bags can work for this job in a pinch, but since they cannot be sealed, the stuffing tends to fall out, blow away, or become damp over time. If it’s all you have, use the shopping bags and tie them tightly.

However, if you can read this, it’s not too late to add sealable bags to your cache before SHTF. If you’re prepared enough to have a solid, permanent shelter already in place when disaster strikes, you can use grocery bags to seal around windows, under doors, and in any cracks that form over time.

Pack them in tightly to keep drafts out. Seal it all up with duct tape for the best results. You can use plastic bags as personal insulation, too. Stuff your clothes with plastic grocery bags to help hold in body heat.

An emergency shelter made partially from plastic bags.
Plastic bags can be used to build, patch, and insulate your shelter.

4. Personal Rain Protection

Hey, it’s the end of the world. I’m not about to make fun of you for putting a plastic bag on your head to keep dry in a downpour. In fact, I’d applaud that effort. The same goes for pulling a couple trash bags or shopping bags over your feet and taping them at the knees or ankles.

You won’t stay perfectly dry sloshing through a pond this way, but it’ll work well enough to tread through some puddles or snow while you find a dry place to wait out the storm.

Larger bags—such as the big black contractor bags—are excellent rain slickers. Cut a hole in the bottom for your head to poke through and two holes for your arms, then be on your way.

5. Sanitation

Bugging in or bugging out, you’ll have sanitation needs that should not be ignored. Plastic bags will help you keep a handle on unsanitary situations. Ziploc bags are the best choice for this because they can seal in the muck and smells until you can dispose of whatever you’ve stuffed in that bag.

Think vomit, feces, other human waste, bloody bandages, toilet paper, dirty hand wipes, and used condoms. Yes, you may actually have a use for condoms when the world ends, so you’ll need to be able to dispose of them, too.

A word of warning: I know I’ve said that you can reuse plastic bags for all kinds of things, but there’s a limit. Please don’t reuse any plastic bags that have been used for sanitation purposes. When SHTF, medical facilities will likely be a thing of the past, so it’ll be up to you to keep the germs at bay. Don’t be the plague monkey or patient zero. That’s just rude.

6. Food Storage

This one should be fairly obvious, but it goes deeper than simply dropping all your rations in a bag and forgetting about them. Use Ziploc bags to portion out each day’s calories, or even each meal.

This will help you see at a glance how many days (or meals) you have left so you can plan your next move accordingly. You can also ration out proper portion sizes to be sure everyone gets a fair share, or to help you stop snacking out of boredom. When you can see how many bags are left, it’s a lot tougher to overeat or mindlessly snack.

7. Starting Fires

I’m not kidding. You can absolutely start a fire by using a plastic bag filled with water. Not only is it effective, it’s really cool to watch. Simply fill a clear plastic bag with water without sealing it, hold it by one top corner, then slowly twist the bag to force the air out.

As the air leaves, the bag will begin to bulge and make a sphere. Use the sphere to focus sunlight onto a pile of tinder and wait. I’ve covered how to do this in detail, in the article 5 Strange Ways to Start a Fire Without a Lighter.

8. Warming

As I stated in the previous entry, you can start a fire with a plastic bag and some water. The same principle can be used to warm yourself, your food, or your shelter. Just be sure not to leave the refracted light on your skin too long or you could burn yourself.

The biggest drawback to using the focused light directly on yourself for warming is that the heat will be extremely focused and will not warm a large area.

Plastic zip lock bags used for emergency food storage.
Keep food dry and portioned out using plastic bags.

9. Wound Care

Use the plastic to cover a wound by taping it around your injury until you can get back to your shelter. Plastic bags work well as wound covers in just about all situations, but you don’t want to leave them in place long.

Plastic bags over a wound will stop germs and dirt from infecting your wound, but they also stop airflow and healing. Only use them to protect your wound until you can get to proper medical supplies.

It doesn’t hurt to keep a few bags inside a sterile bag, for this specific purpose. This is not the time to use recycle bags.

10. Boil Water

Don’t have a metal pot to boil water? Use a plastic bag! Even though you can’t put a plastic bag over a fire, you can still use one to boil water. Dig a hole in the ground, line the hole with a thick plastic bag, and fill it with water. Get a few red-hot rocks from your fire and drop them into the bag one-by-one to warm the water.

If they’re hot enough, the water will boil. This can be accomplished successfully while still leaving the plastic bag intact. Just be careful not to let the rocks touch the bag while they’re still red hot or it will melt.

11. BOB Organization

Your bug out bag can quickly become a mess if you don’t have a good organization system. Plastic bags are fast, simple, and efficient for this purpose. Larger bags can separate food, medical, and clothing.

Within those bags, you can have smaller bags that separate food into days or individual meals, and you can separate different types of medical supplies. Use multiple sizes and types of bags to quickly identify what you need without having to dig through the whole BOB.

If you ever need to use your BOB in a survival situation, having those extra bags inside can be extremely useful.

12. Barter

The best preppers keep some barter items stocked up for when things start to calm down. It’s inevitable that your neighbors will have forgotten a supply of plastic bags. Trust me, after even just a few weeks of a disaster, plastic bags will be a hot commodity!

This is another great reason to kept extra on hand. Offer a few for barter and see what goodies you can walk away with.

13. Funnel

Cut the bottom corner off of a stiff plastic bag to use as a quick funnel. This is especially useful if you’re splitting rations, measuring rice or other grains, or just need to organize smaller items quickly. Don’t throw away that end you cut off though.

14. Fishing Lure

Fish aren’t the smartest creatures in the world but they do provide a good amount of protein. Remember that corner of the bag you cut off to make a funnel in the previous section?

Use that corner you cut off as a fishing lure. The reflective surface can attract fish. If it happens to swallow the lure, it’s easy enough to retrieve when you’re cleaning the fish for dinner. Then you can use it again!

Survival tip for using plastic bags as emergency gloves.

15. Gloves

With sanitation options limited and bathrooms few and far between, you’ll want to keep your hands as clean as possible. Plastic bags are passable gloves if you don’t have any in your first aid kit.

Opt for thicker plastics, such as Ziploc bags. Shopping bags tend to have tiny holes in the corners, which means you’ll be shoving your hand into a bag of something nasty if you’re not careful.

16. Protecting Plants

If you’ve survived the end of the world, it’s time to start thinking about the future. That means planting some crops. The world is going to be full of hungry critters ready to gobble up your precious seedlings. If it’s winter time, you’ll also need to protect your crops from frost.

Use a plastic bag to create a tiny greenhouse that will protect your tender new plants. Ziploc bags can stand on their own, but it’s a good idea to shove a few sticks in the ground around the seedling and place the bag over the frame. You should only use clear plastic bags for this, as the seedlings need as much sunlight as possible to grow.

Here’s a YouTube video about protecting your plants using plastic bags.

17. Hauling Small Game

Caught, shot, or took down some small game? Excellent! It’s time to get it back to your shelter without leaving a bloody trail or attracting flies. Carrying it in a plastic bag will make this much easier. Any bag will work, but be sure to tie off the top to keep the bugs out.

If you have a long distance to hike with your fresh kill, you may even want to seal it inside a plastic bag and stash it in your backpack. The plastic will keep your backpack clean, your hands will be free, and you wont be advertising to everyone who sees you that you have some valuable protein with you.

18. Carry Fresh Water

Sometimes you won’t have enough bottles or clean containers to carry fresh water. Plastic bags can save your hide! Ziploc bags can be filled to the brim, sealed, and safely carried for long distances. The thick plastic makes piercing unlikely, but you’ll need to pack a full bag carefully so it doesn’t burst from too much pressure on the zipper portion.

Grocery bags can work if that’s all you have, but many of them have tiny holes near the seams, so you’ll lose some water on your trek back to your camp. Double up for the best results.

Use a Ziploc bag to hold the water, then put that bag inside a plastic grocery bag tied to your BOB. If it does break on the way back to camp, at least it won’t make a mess in your BOB.

19. Rope

Grocery bags make awesome ropes when you twist and tie them together. To make an even stronger rope, braid them. If you need a long length of cordage, there is a technique you can use to create very durable lengths of cordage from plastic bags.

To do this, you cut the handles and bottoms off the bags, then cut them into 2-inch strips to make rings. Hold one of the rings with both hands on opposite ends, then begin to twist. Eventually, the bag will begin to twist in on itself in the center. Keep going until you have a fairly straight cord. Use a lark’s head knot to add another plastic ring to the end and keep going.

If you want more information on how to accomplish this, see this instruction sheet on making rope with plastic bags (with pictures). Practice this before SHTF and you won’t need to carry rope with you. You can just make one anytime you need one.

20. Mark Your Path

If you’re exploring a new area or want to mark a path for friends and family to find you, use plastic grocery bags. Grocery bags work better than Ziploc bags because they are much easier to bend and tie without having to tear the bags apart. Trash bags work well, too. Since they’re plastic, you won’t need to worry about the rain disintegrating your markers.

Just be sure to place each bag within eyesight of the previous one. White bags work best for easy visibility, but use black bags if you’d like to mark a path that’s tougher for outsiders to find.

21. Fencing

Use plastic bags to tie fence pieces together. They make incredibly durable ties that won’t rot in the rain, rust, or break. However, if you’re in a sunny area, check your ties monthly to be sure they haven’t weakened from sun exposure.

Fencing can be useful for keeping small critters out of your garden or funneling small game into traps.

22. Water Filter

Snip the very tip off of a corner of a Ziploc bag to create a quick water filter. It’s not going to get bacteria out of the water, but you can filter out sticks, pebbles, small bugs, even sand if the hole is small enough. At a minimum it’ll make a great pre-filter before you treat the water.

Water that has gone through a pre-filter such as this is a much nicer starting point for your water purification tablets or bleach treatment.

23. Flotation Device

In a flood, Ziploc bags can act as flotation devices by filling them with air. Other bags can work, but you’d need to tie them off tightly or use duct tape to seal them. One popular technique is to fill small Ziploc bags with air, then place those small air filled bags inside larger grocery or garbage bags. Tie off that larger bag and secure it to your waist and you have a personal flotation device!

The bigger the bag, the better the floating power, but even small bags can help keep you or your precious items out of the water.

24. Quarantine Zone

Nobody wants to think about a viral, bacterial, or flu outbreak during a survival situation, but it’s bound to happen. If you’re living with other preppers after SHTF, eventually people will start to get sick.

Stop the spread of illness by creating a quarantine zone with plastic bags. This can even be just a spare room in your house you have outfitted for this purpose. Trash bags are the best choice for this task. They can cover more area without having to split or cut the bags.

Smaller bags can work, but the more seams and overlapping you have, the more likely infection can spread. Hopefully, you have a good supply of duct tape in your BOB or shelter. If not, you can layer the bags and hold them in place with heavy rocks.

25. Raft Patches

A hole in your raft is not a hopeless situation if you’ve got plastic bags and some duct tape. Even large tears in a raft can be patched this way if you have enough bags or big enough ones.

A patch like this may not be permanent, but it can very easily last a few days if done well enough. Just make sure that area you are applying the patch to on your raft is as dry as possible to ensure the tape bonds well.

26. Dinnerware

Plastic bags can make excellent cups, bowls, and plates. Thick plastic bags, such as Ziploc bags, are even tough enough to hold scolding hot soup while you eat it.

The trick making a good plate, bowl, or cup with plastic is to carefully fold over the top edges of the bag multiple times over down towards the bottom of the bag. As it nears the bottom, it will create a fairly solid rim to your cup, bowl, or plate. If you are doing this with grocery bags, check for leaks first and make it double layered.

You can even twist grocery bags tightly to create makeshift utensils, too!

27. Storing Kindling

Every bug out bag should have some sort of kindling inside to assist in making fire. You need to protect this kindling so that even if you drop your bag in a creek and have to fish it out, your kindling will remain dry.

A Ziploc bag is excellent for this! What type of kindling should you keep inside you ask? There are many things you can use, but I personally like to keep dryer lint as kindling in my BOB. It is excellent for getting a fire going when there isn’t any other kindling available. It’s also extremely light and lasts forever.

Video: 30 MORE Plastic Shopping Bag Survival Uses & Hacks

This is a great video that demonstrates some of the things you can do with plastic bags to help you in a survival situation. This presenter demonstrates these uses clearly and sure seems to know his shopping bags!

What Are the Best Plastic Bags for Survival?

Honestly, any plastic bag will be better than paper or canvas, so use whatever you can find. But if you’re a smart prepper—and if you’re reading this site, you clearly are a smart prepper—you won’t have to scrounge for bags after the disaster. You’ll already have a nice stock of your own. Ziploc bags are one of my favorites, but it’s important to have grocery bags and large garbage bags on hand as well.

  • Stock a variety of sizes and shapes. That variety will come in handy when you have specific tasks to complete. A sandwich bag, for example, isn’t going to work as well for a makeshift shelter as a large trash bag would. Flimsy shopping bags won’t be able to hold enough water or handle the pressure if you need to use a bag to carry water. It’s much better to have choices, so keep a variety in your stash.
  • Strength is important for obvious reasons. You don’t need your plastic bag rope to snap just as you hoist up the roof of your new shelter. You need something thick and strong to start with. Stronger bags also last longer, which means they’ll be around for multiple uses.
  • Flexibility is important, too. The thickest bags might be great for heavy lifting, but they’re useless if you need to wrap delicate items or create intricate, small tools. Either find a balance between strength and flexibility, or stock several thicknesses. I like options, personally.


Limitations of Plastic Bags

While plastic bags are pretty good at keeping things dry, especially thicker plastics such as Ziploc’s, it’s important to note that they’re technically not 100% waterproof.

All plastic is gas permeable and that means water vapors will eventually get in. So while plastic can be great at keeping your food dry if it lands in a puddle of water, for example, you wont want to keep food in a permanently moist environment while only relying on the plastic bag it’s stored in.

Still make an effort to keep the items in a dry environment, even if they are sealed inside plastic. Also, be sure to dry your bags thoroughly between uses to prevent condensation buildup.

Conclusion

It’s never too late to start stockpiling plastic bags. If you’re like most people, you probably go shopping just about every week. Instead of tossing your shopping bags in the trash or recycling every one, put them in your emergency stash.

Did a friend give you a Ziploc bag of tasty homemade cookies? When the treats are gone, don’t throw that bag out. Add it to your stash. I don’t mean to imply that you should keep 500 bags in your cache, but keeping a reasonable amount handy can help you survive.

What are some other survival uses for plastic bags that you know about? Help a fellow prepper out and share it in the comments below! 

John Walter

John Walter is an emergency preparedness consultant with eight years of experience and training in related fields. He is a passionate prepper living in the Sacramento area of California.

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