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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: Ode to a Plastic Bag

Are plastic bags an immortal evil or a hiker's best friend?

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Paper or plastic--don't lose a bag up here. (Jason Stevenson)
Paper or plastic--don't lose a bag up here. (Jason Stevenson)

The famous Scots poet Robbie Burns so loved his haggis that he penned a poem about it. Haggis, if you haven’t tried this delicacy, is a boiled mush of animal organs, oatmeal, and spices stuffed in a bulging sheep’s stomach. When Scots gather to celebrate Robert Burns’ birthday (January 25th), haggis is served as the culinary centerpiece—the equivalent of turkey on Thanksgiving.

But how could a dish so vile inspire so much adoration; not to mention a poem by the same man who wrote Auld Lang Syne? It must be that haggis has a dual nature—both loved and hated as a permanent fixture of Scots tradition.

For hikers, that same duality applies to plastic bags. We hate seeing bags littering the trail, fluttering in tree branches, or clinging to a river bank. But when packing for a trip, most hikers rely on these bags to stow and waterproof their gear. Meriwether Lewis and John Wesley Powell conquered the West without low-density polyethylene, but many of us couldn’t imagine life without it. After all, a zip-top bag will protect your camera during a sudden downpour, while a large garbage bag can save your life a dozen different ways.

So how should hikers approach the dual nature of plastic bags on the trail?  Try following these three concepts:

>> Keep them
Never bury plastic bags, drop them down a latrine, or let them blow away. All the plastic you carry into the woods should leave with you. Since plastic doesn’t degrade like organic trash, those flimsy grocery store bags could persist for hundreds of years underground.

>>Re-use them
Wash zip-top bags when you get home to use them again on a future trip. Durable freezer-style bags can withstand several wash cycles before they develop creases and holes. Worn-out bags can still store gear at home. Garbage and grocery bags won’t last as long as zipper-top bags, but they can still survive several outings. However, I wouldn’t recommend re-using any bags that held trash, toilet paper, or human waste.
>>Store them

Maintain a stash of various plastic bags in your gear closet. When packing for a trip, root around this “bag of bags” to find the right sack to secure a waterproof jacket, a pair of camp sandals, or spare batteries. The more bags you possess the more uses you’ll discover for them.

Has a plastic bag ever saved your camera… or your life? Share your best stories in the comments below, or send an email to

—Jason Stevenson

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 21, 2012

The one time I forgot to bring a ziploc bag for my important things was on my honeymoon. My wife and I were snorkeling to a small island in Malaysia, her with the water-(almost)-tight backpack. Never had any problems swimming with it in the past....Needless to say, when we got back to shore the seal had broken, and everything, passports, money and my camera(R.I.P.) were all soaked with ocean water. Luckily the SD card came out fine and passports dried nicely.

Aug 10, 2011

if after use you think you wish to reuse, just throw in the freezer, I store all my used bags in the freezer.

Jul 25, 2011

Two-gallon ziplock bags are good for keeping an entire change of clothes in, easy to grab when needed. When you shower, your dry clothes are conveniently nearby and not in the wet. You can then put your dirty clothes in the bag.

Jul 25, 2011

Two-gallon ziplock bags are good for keeping an entire change of clothes in, easy to grab when needed. When you shower, your dry clothes are conveniently nearby and not in the wet. You can then put your dirty clothes in the bag.

Jul 19, 2011

I agree, if you pack them out and recycle or re-use, what is the harm? alternatively you could purchase stuff sacks (many of which are transparent enough to see what is going on in there). may even be cheaper in the long run.

Jul 18, 2011

Good advice. I've been using the ol' bag stash for a while now and it saves money and is better for the environment - a win win situation!

Al Parker
Jul 15, 2011

I use the 2 gallon plastic freezer bags to collect water at the lake, pond etc.

Jul 15, 2011

If you pack them out, I see no real problem. Plastic wrappings on food are more likely to get blown away. And I always carry industrial strength 50 gallon garbage bags.
(And I grew up using bread bags to waterproof my feet -- stronger than grocery bags and never leaked!)

Michael S.
Jul 15, 2011

"haggis has a dual nature—both loved and hated"
just because YOU hate the IDEA of Haggis does not mean that the Scots must hate it too. It is actually not vile but perfectly edible - you just have to get over the idea that the only part of a cow worth eating is its buttocks (aka Steak).

Jul 15, 2011

Our water filter crapped out from the high sediment in this spring's runoff. So we packed clean snow in plastic bags, put them inside a black nylon stuff sack, and melted water.

Not a great solution, but we suffered no healt problems afterwards.

We also carry a few extra of these things!

Jul 15, 2011

I went snow camping this last winter and used plastic grocery bags as stake outs for the tent. It worked great, but when I woke up in the morning the ground was frozen solid. I couldn't break up the ground with my snow shovel and had to cut them and leave them. Make sure to have a saw or axe to break the frozen snow if you use this method!

Jul 15, 2011

Shoved in a corner of my gear closet I've got a collection of both plastic bags and hard plastic containers of many sizes and shapes (e.g., miniature shampoo bottles, old fuse containers, etc.) I always thought I was a bit strange for being such a packrat, so it's nice to find Professor Hike approves :-)

Jul 15, 2011

Be selective. Use the bags when you really need them, not just because you can. For electronics we have small dry boxes that have lasted for years. For short trips use small containers for recipe ingredients (for long trips, too, if you don't mind the bulk). I have some small cloth pouches to corral items that don't have to stay dry. We've been able to significantly reduce the number of bags we use this way.

Jul 15, 2011

Jul 14, 2011

I was staying in a shelter on the AT. We had a few days of rain when a fellow hiker started complaining that his grocery bag he was using to keep his feet dry (as if...) had holes in it. Well...I just happened to have a grocery bag that I was currently keeping wet clothes in, so I offered it to him. YOU WOULD SWEAR I GAVE HIM A BAR OF GOLD!! I was happy to see the bag get used again for yet another reason.


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