27 Survival Emergency Uses for Trash Bags

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By Bryan Lynch •  14 min read

Whenever you are packing a bag, BOB, gathering up gear for an outdoor adventure, or creating a survival kit, there is one thing that you should try and keep in mind, multifunctional gear.

Not all of your supplies are going to be multifunctional because some tools are only good for one specific purpose. However, a tool that can serve multiple purposes is going to save space, weight, and be more versatile. 

There are quite a few items that fall under this category, however, there is one item that is not only often overlooked but sometimes not even considered. That item is a trash bag.

Yes, I am talking about that plastic bag we all place our trash into and set out on the curb at the end of the week. It may be hard to believe but a trash bag can be a versatile item to have for emergency and survival purposes. 

Choosing the Right Bag

To get the absolute best results out of this item you are not going to want to use a standard kitchen trash bag. Those types of bags are probably going to be on the small side, will sometimes be scented, and won’t be very durable. 

Instead, go to your local hardware store and pick up contractor bags. Contractor bags are trash bags, but they are larger and much, much more durable. 

The thickness of a plastic bag is often measured in mils, which is one-thousandth of an inch. Standard kitchen bags are usually around 0.9 mils while contractor bags usually start at several mils thick. 

If they are available, I would recommend getting them in different colors, such as black, clear, and orange. The bags are lightweight and compact enough that several of each can be packed into a bag or the rolls can easily be stored right under the kitchen sink.

27 Uses for Trash Bags 


Most people do not enjoy being stuck outside in the rain and being drenched only makes things more frustrating and possibly dangerous. 

A heavy-duty contractor bag can easily be turned into an improvised poncho by cutting one head hole in the bottom and two armholes in the side. Try to offset the head hole so that it can be used like a hood and drain more water away from the opening. 

Also, if the bag is large enough and you are carrying a pack, try fitting the bag over the pack to help keep your supplies dry.

General Purpose Dry Bag 

Do you have to cross a waterway on foot, is it raining, or do you just need to keep important items dry? Items tightly wrapped in a garbage bag will help to keep them dry.

If you are carrying a bag that is not very resistant to water, line the inside of the bag with a trash bag before packing the items inside. Once packed, simply tie the bag shut and fold the top over.

Shelter Material 

A large enough garbage bag can be used as an impromptu shelter all by itself. It may not be the most comfortable shelter to spend time in, but it may just keep you dry and out of the wind. 

However, if you decide to build a shelter out of other materials, garbage bags could be used to shore up any gaps and help in waterproofing the structure. 

Collect Rainwater

Staying dry is pretty important in a survival situation but so is drinking enough water. Clean water can be hard to come by so when it starts to rain it is a good idea to collect as much of that water as possible. 

A couple of blunt sticks can be used to prop the top of the bag open. Also, the bag could simply be placed in a low depression on the ground or inside a hole that has been dug out in the ground. 

Solar Still

If there is green vegetation or saltwater around, clean drinking water can be obtained by creating a solar still.

To make a solar still, dig a hole in the ground, line it with green vegetation, place a container in the center of the hole, cover the hole with the plastic garbage bag, weigh down the sides, and place a small weight on top of the bag in the middle. 

As the sun shines through the bag, heat will become trapped inside and cause the water to evaporate. It will then collect on the underside of the plastic and drip into the collection container.  

Collect Water from Trees 

Just like people, plants and trees lose water through a process called transpiration. By tying a garbage bag around several leafed branches this water can be collected as it leaves the tree. 

This method doesn’t yield a lot of water, but every little bit helps. If you want to increase the yield, set up as many bags as possible.

Transport Water 

Once all that water has been collected it would be nice to have a way to transport it. A heavy-duty contractor bag makes a pretty darn good impromptu water bottle/bucket. 

Floatation Device 

A trash bag is by no means a proper replacement for a real floatation device, but it can be used in a pinch.

Fill the lower half of the bag with air and twist the bag shut. Tie some additional cordage, if it is available, around the twist. Then fill the top portion with air and tie it shut as best as possible. 

Having two different air pouches gives a person space in the middle of the bag to hang onto rather than trying to manhandle the entire bag.

Make a Pillow 

If you have a shelter and all your other needs are taken care of, it might be nice to have a comfort item, like a pillow. Something as simple as a pillow can go a long way in getting a good night’s sleep and it is super easy to make. 

Simply take a trash bag and fill it with as much vegetation as you like to create the perfect-sized pillow.

Insulated Ground Cover 

Sleeping directly on the ground is usually a big no-no, especially in cold or wet conditions, because doing so will only cause you to lose body heat.  

Put some space between you and frigid ground by creating a sleeping pad. The method for doing this is pretty much the same as creating a pillow except you will want the bag longer and flatter. By filling the bag with vegetation, it will create a small, insulated space between you and the ground. 

Signaling Device 

If you are in a survival or other type of emergency situation, it’s a good bet that you are looking for someone to help you get out of it. 

Garbage bags have a shiny, reflective material that can easily get someone’s attention. The bag will be even more noticeable if it is hung up like a windsock because this will provide movement. 

Trash bags that are orange make an excellent signaling device as they stand out against most backgrounds. 

Go Fishing 

An improvised dip net or fish trap can be constructed easily enough with a garbage bag and a sharp tool. 

As a dip net, it will help to cut several small holes into the bag to allow water through but not any fish as it is lifted in and out of the water. 

The simplest fish trap would be to place the bag into the water with some bait on the bottom. As long as you are slow and careful you should be able to lift the bag before any fish escape. Be aware of any current in the water and anchor the bag accordingly. 

Water Filter 

There are a few different ways to create a water filter out of a garbage bag. 

The first way is to use the bag as a container for creating a field filter. This consists of fine material on the bottom, like charcoal and sand, and progressively larger material towards the top of the filter. 

The second way is to poke pinholes in the bag and allow them to filter out larger material.

Lastly, if you want to leave the bag undamaged, fill it with water and allow it to sit undisturbed for as long as possible. Over time, sediment will sink to the bottom and cleaner water will remain on top. 

Water Heater 

Have you ever left a bottle of water in the car on a summer day only to return and have a swig of warm or hot water? That’s pretty much the same concept for creating a portable water heater. 

Take one garbage bag, fill it with water, and set it out in the sun for several hours. The water will probably not get piping hot, but it will be warm enough to be used as a temporary “hot” water bottle or if you want some warm water for cleaning up. 

An improvised shower could even be set up by hanging the bag up and poking a few small holes in it.

Create a Buoy 

A buoy could be used as another signaling device or as a giant bobber for fishing. To create a buoy, fill the bag with air and tie the opening shut as tight as possible. It will help to cinch some cordage or fishing line around the closed opening to help keep the water out. Add a fishing line or a length of weighted cordage, this will help to keep the bag anchored and from floating away. 

An Arm Sling 

A rudimentary sling can be made by tying the two ends of the bag into a secure knot. This will create a large loop that can be placed around the neck and an injured arm can hang in. If you need the sling to be larger, cut along its seams to open the bag up and make it bigger.

Waterproof Bandage 

It can be frustrating and detrimental to go through the process of cleaning up a wound and bandaging it only to have it get wet. 

To help keep a bandaged area dry, cut out an appropriately sized piece of plastic from the bag and tape it over the injured area. 

Seal a Broken Window 

Leaving a broken vehicle or home window open can be an invitation for all sorts of problems. Replacement glass is not something most of us keep on hand, but the hole still needs to be sealed up. If you have yourself some contractor bags and duct tape, then you create a decent temporary fix.

Composting Toilet

When indoor plumbing is not an option, a composting toilet can be a good alternative for taking care of human waste. A rudimentary one can be made by lining a bucket with a trash bag and adding in material like moss and sawdust. 

Improvised Boot Covers 

When you need to cross a wet or mucky area, trash bags can be used as improvised boot covers. Simply step into the bag and secure it over the boot or somewhere on the leg.

The downside to this method is that is likely the bag will become punctured from using it to walk over the ground. It could also cause a trip hazard due to the loss of traction. 

If it is safe to do so, you may want to consider removing your footwear, place them in the bag, and simply carry the bag. 

Make Cordage

Cordage is an extremely versatile item to have because it has a ton of different uses. You can lash items together, make tools, and tie items down just to name a few. 

Cordage can easily be made from a trash bag by either cutting it into strips of the length you want or by making a spiral-cut pattern for a longer piece.

Trash bag cordage won’t be pulling a vehicle out of a ditch, but it will work for a lot of light-duty tasks.  

Trailblazing Material 

Trailblazing is a method of marking one’s trail so that they know where they came from or to alert others to their direction of travel. 

This is another instance where orange-colored bags would work best but even black or clear bags will work. Cut the bag into as many strips as possible and every so often, stop and hang a strip along your path. 

Make an Icepack 

For many first aid applications, a cold pack not only feels good, but it helps to reduce swelling. As long as you have access to ice or snow you can make an instant icepack by placing some of the cold material inside a trash bag and wrapping it up several times. 

This will keep the freezing ice or snow from having direct contact with the skin and the bag will retain all the meltwater, keeping you nice and dry. 

Divert Water 

There may come an instance where you need to divert water away from a structure or some other object of importance. Situating a large trash bag around that object will effectively divert water in a different direction. 

Blackout Windows 

In a survival or emergency situation, security can become a priority rather quickly. Once the sun goes down, any light emitting from a vehicle, or a structure will easily be seen and alert others to your position. 

In a situation where you want to keep your location a secret, cover the inside of windows with black bags to help reduce the amount of light that can be seen from the outside. 

Bury a Supply Cache 

For whatever reason, there may come a time that you need to leave an area but cannot take certain supplies with you. Making a buried supply cache allows you to come back later to retrieve them. 

To keep the supplies reasonably protected, wrap them in as many bags that can be spared and hide the bag in a structure aboveground or bury it underground. 

Improvised Gloves

There are times when it is best to keep our distance from certain hazardous or unsanitary objects. In situations like this, a trash bag can be used as an improvised glove to provide some physical protection to the hands. 

Trash Bag 

I don’t think I could end this list without stating the most obvious use of this item. For a variety of reasons, items in our possession may become unusable, unsanitary, or a hazard. Using a trash bag as a trash bag will allow those items to be safely separated from us and other supplies.   

Trash Bags Pros and Cons 



Wrap Up 

I think trash bags are underrated items that people do not often stock in their emergency supplies. They are extremely affordable, versatile, they don’t take up much space, and when the right type is bought, they are quite durable.

If you want to keep yourself prepared while staying within budget, I suggest grabbing yourself a few rolls of contractor bags the next time you are at the store. That way you will be ready for more than just taking out the trash (sorry for the pun but I couldn’t resist!)   

Thanks for reading and I hope this article helped you to look at trash bags as more than just trash bags. 

Are there are things you have used trash bags for that didn’t make it on our list? Sound off in the comment section below and let us know!

Bryan Lynch

Bryan grew up in the Midwest and spent every waking moment outdoors. Learning how to hunt, fish, read the land, and be self-reliant was part of everyday life. Eventually, he combined his passions for the outdoors, emergency preparedness, and writing. His goal was to spread positive information about this field. In 2019, Bryan authored the book Swiss Army Knife Camping and Outdoor Survival Guide. His second book, Paracord Projects For Camping and Outdoor Survival, is scheduled to be released on March 2, 2021.