Backpackers and Ziploc Bags

damien's picture
Submitted by damien on

One of my biggest pet peeves with backpacking is the sheer volume of Ziploc bags (and plastic food packaging in general) that we as backpackers depend on. It surprises me that outdoor adventurers are not more progressive in figuring out ways to eliminate non-biodegradable waste from their preferred activity.

I can't argue with the benefits of plastic packaging. It's waterproof, lightweight, (theoretically) food-safe, inexpensive, and makes it very easy to stay organized. Ziplocs are easy, it's the path of least resistance.

We recently returned from a four-day backpacking trip. As is the norm for us, we made almost all of the food ourselves. When it came to figuring out how to package it all up, I wasn't too thrilled with how the numbers looked.

Let's do the Ziploc math: If every snack requires one Ziploc bag and each person has four snacks per day and we have five people, that would amount to twenty bags per day (4x5=20). Then, if you organize each person's snacks for every day in another Ziploc (ie: a larger ziploc with 4 little snack bags in it), that makes for another five bags per day bringing the total to twenty-five per day (20+5=25). Over a four-day trip that equates to one-hundred bags, just for snacks (25x4 =100).

That kind of plastic consumption just isn't cool. Even if you do wash and reuse. I had to search for an alternative.

In Ray Jardine's Trail Life, he claims to use brown paper (butchers paper, or brown paper bags) and masking tape. We have tried this a couple of times but haven't been completely satisfied with the results. Brown paper is kind of bulky and doesn't handle moisture or greasy foods real well.

This time I decided to try something different. We bought a roll of waxed paper and using some masking tape and a stapler, we were able to create custom sized packaging for all of our snack food. The work was a little tedious but once we got an assembly line going, it actually went pretty quick. The kids thought it was a lot of fun too - they pretended to be factory workers. Thank goodness they didn't organize and strike!

We still used some Ziplocs for organizing the snacks for each day, but instead of using one hundred for five people for four days, we managed to whittle it down to twenty (one per-person, per-day).

Overall, the homemade wax paper packaging system worked pretty well; better than the brown paper system ever did. The homemade Eatmore bars were the only significant problem: they contain a lot of nut butter and everything in the same bag started to get greasy after a few days. Other than that, all of the other foods we packed seemed to fare quite well.

I think we can do better next time. For starters, I want to purchase some pre-made wax-paper bags to help streamline the packaging process. The other thing I want to do is sew some small ultralight stuffsacks for organizing the daily food rations. At this point I don't see it being possible to completely eliminate all plastic bag use, but I still think there is a lot of room for improvement.

Are you a backpacker who is cutting back on plastic waste? We would love to hear what steps you are taking towards that end.



Ziploc bags

I re-use them. They wash. Been using same 2 food bags since February. Use one for gear. Use large bags and wrap individual portions/snack in waxed paper etc., before putting them in ziploc. Keeps everything clean.

Waxed paper doesn't keep everything dry, and doesn't prevent air reaching the food so it'll go off faster.

Historically, food was carried in oiled (ie fat-covered) leather bags - waterproof but smelly. The more grease, the better food kept. Alternatively carry only dried food.

Basically you can't have a modern diet without at least some plastic. So either follow the historical diet of the early fur traders/native peoples, and their equipment, or a modern diet and accept the need for some plastic.

The shame

Having just packed my food for a month on the trails of Norway I was ashamed at the amount of ziplocks and other plastic bags I used. I will do my best to reuse and recycle as many of them as possible but, as you point out, there must be another way. I will watch this post and the subsequent comments with interest.


I am just thinking out loud, but could you make some bags out of cuben fiber? Would it be possible to make some small bags out of cuben fiber, seam seal them, and give them a hook and loop (velcro) closure to keep the food in? It seems since cuben fiber is a material that is water/air tight in itself (not due to a DWR treatment) that it could work. Then you could wash these when you get home and not have to worry about wasting the plastic bags. I don't know if you can throw cuben fiber in the washer, but that would be even better.

Again, I am not sure if this would work, but I am right there with you on the disgust over how many plastic bags I waste when I go backpacking. Good luck finding a workable, permanent solution. Let us know what you come up with!

working on this as well

Definitely ziplocs are a problem.

We usually start out with ones that have been washed/reused from freezing fish and berries (I'd love a better solution to that as well, if anyone has thoughts).

One of our major techniques is not organizing things. :) So I'd never pack each person a snack for each day in any sort of bag. All of any given type of food (all the granola bars, all the almonds, all the cheese, whatever) is just in a gallon ziploc or other appropriate size, and we just eat straight out of that. If you want a mix of snacks in your own pocket, just have one bag for that, and refill from the others as needed.

We do use some silnylon bags for various things like rice and pasta, and find they work OK, but are definitely less waterproof, and more difficult to close well. We often have things in drybags anyway, so it's not too big a problem. Never tried cuben fiber for this. We probably should make more than we have, but it's always such a rush to make critical gear before an expedition that we've never gotten as far as we should at making the less critical stuff.

I've been considering using

I've been considering using PUL and making bags with the coated side away from the food. From what I've read, the PUL is not considered food safe, but for some reason the polyurethane coated nylon is considered food safe. Not sure why that would be the case if both fabrics are coated with the same thing.

Either fabric would be washable. I've never sewn with the nylon but the PUL can be a little tricky to sew because the laminate tends to be a little sticky on the machine and the fabric itself is stretchy. I would imagine the nylon would be lighter weight also.


Great point about biodegradability, and about using waxed paper for fire starter. That's appealing as a multi-use technique. But biodegradability doesn't really make much of a difference if the stuff ends up in a regular old landfill, because most landfills don't allow material to degrade in them. I think you could probably also argue that the total mass of packaging is decreased too because your packaging is always the "right" size.

Would love to see a good alternative

On my last backpacking trip I noticed how many baggies my wife and I used just for two meals! There definitely needs to be another alternative.

Like Erin, I don't divide out my snacks. They are generally put into a stuffsack for each person and/or tucked into external pockets for easy access. We find it easier to carry whole portions of things (ie: one big bag of granola) that everyone can share. Brings us closer together, instead of us both sitting with our individual items and munching away.

Great post!

I think this is a great post and I've subscribed to the comments as other have contributed.
I wondered if Tyvek Mailbags might be any good, and being UK based I'd prefer to have a UK supplier rather than accumulate air mileage and pollution. But this is certainly getting me thinking about the more durable containers I could use. I have gone back to cooking in a pot, to help save freezer bags, in the past.

We used food grade mylar bags

We used food grade mylar bags and heat seal them. They are lighter than ziplocks, much more reusable, waterproof, bug proof, and even with a rodent infestation they left them alone. They aren't necessarily more environmentally friendly as they are also a plastic product, but they can be reused hundreds of times. You can get them off of Ebay and in various "survivalist" stores. In Europe they are even more popular than here in the US, so you might be able to find them much easier than we do here.

Well I'm not sure how many

Well I'm not sure how many people are still following this post, but I figured I would share something I came across today. I am getting ready to do our annual week pack trip and just like everyone else, with plastic all over the place when I get home. I have been considering vacuum sealing up each meal for when we go, but that's a lot more plastic that sits around and can't be recycled. So this has been driving me crazy for the past couple of years. So today I came across bags that you can I guess throw into your composter. The are Compostable Cellulose Bags (

A little pricey but if they can be heat sealed, and not sure if they can be vacuum sealed (not a big deal, just save some space), but they might do the trick. Granted that you have a home composter. Any thoughts on these? Has anyone heard of them or used them before?