Q. Are waterproof bags necessary or will garbage bags work just as well?
—Curious Keith, Muskegon, Mich.
A. This really depends on what you’re doing, Keith. If you’re throwing away a bunch of stinky trash, then a garbage bag is totally the call. But I’m assuming you’re really asking if garbage bags will also work for backpacking or canoeing or some such. The answer is yes and no.
For trail-based activities, like backpacking somewhere kinda rainy, garbage bags are actually super handy. They can be used as a waterproof pack liner (to keep your sleeping bag and clothing dry) or as a rain cover for your backpack. They are lightweight, cheap, super packable and can even provide emergency shelter in a pinch. Just be sure to get the heavy-duty, super thick plastic bags like the ones you find at Home Depot and hardware stores. Double bagging (lining one bag inside the other) is even more effective as trash bags can puncture relatively easily. For holding smaller loads like just a down sleeping bag or specific clothing, some experienced hikers tend to use smaller, narrower trash compactor bags which are thick but not as large as conventional trash bags.
Now if you’re wondering if a garbage bag is a good choice for carrying your gear on water-based outings like canoeing or rafting, the answer is no. Plastic bags can and will eventually get puncture holes, which let water seep inside. And if you capsize or if your trash bag full of clothing and gear sits in the bottom of a wet canoe for hours, there’s an excellent chance your stuff will be soaked. For this type of outing a waterproof drysack with a roll-top closure is really the best choice because it can take a full dunking and still keep the stuff inside dry. These type of dry bags range in cost from about $10 to $75 depending on size and thickness of the bag. Some good quality brand names to shop for are Sea to Summit (seatosummit.com) and SealLine (cascadedesigns.com/sealline)