Trash Management in the Field

In our disposable society we throw away so much stuff that we have become numb to it. When I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, I was surprised to learn that there are no public trash cans in Japan (there was a terror attack some years ago and they decided to get rid of assault trash cans lol). I had no idea how much trash I generated just walking around in town until I found myself forced to carry it with me.

A patrol is much the same, but with higher stakes. There are no trash cans in the woods, and you can’t leave your garbage around without giving the enemy a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of garbage to follow. This means that you need to pack out your trash and carry it with you until you return to base. In this article I will share with you some tricks that I’ve learned about managing trash in the field.

Why can’t I just bury my trash?

You may be asking this question in your head as you read, and I get it. The temptation to leave your trash behind can be pretty strong (especially if it’s sticky). However, digging a hole in the ground creates spoor, which can be spotted by a skilled tracker. Even if you happen to be skilled enough to camouflage the hole, animals will smell any food trash you have buried and dig it up, exposing it for an enemy patrol to find later.

Regardless of whether or not you can get away with it, you should exercise self-discipline and never leave trash behind on a patrol, buried or not. Laziness can quickly become a habit, and will get you or your friends killed eventually. Don’t let that happen.

Minimize the Trash that you Generate

Analyzing what goes into your ruck can help you mitigate the amount of trash that you generate on a patrol. Simply put, If you don’t carry it out, you don’t need to carry it back with you.

Anything new that you pack must have as much of the packaging removed as possible. For example, AA batteries are kept in a ziploc bag anyway to waterproof them, so you should remove them from their box. This also frees up a small amount of space in your pack

The biggest source of trash on a patrol is food. Food tends to have a lot of extra packaging, so this is an easy place to offload future trash before you even begin the patrol. For example, if you bring a box of pop-tarts, throw away the box and just pack the pop-tarts in their individual wrappers. In the Marines, we would “field strip” our MREs by doing just this, removing all the unnecessary garbage and then taping them back shut.

Carry Heavy Duty Trash Bags

You don’t want your garbage to be floating around in your pack between your sleeping bag and spare socks. You need a way to keep your trash segregated inside your pack to keep it organized, and thick black trash bags are one way to do this. Two are preferred, in case one tears.

If you want to get fancy, you can buy a dedicated waterproofing bag for your garbage. These will be thicker and more resistant to tears, but you will need to pay for them.

Stow Trash within Trash

There is a possibility that your trash bags may tear or rupture in your pack. If you have a lot of sloppy food garbage, this can get very messy. To insure yourself against this possibility, you can compartmentalize your trash within your trash bags.

When you sit down for a meal, look at everything that you will open. Identify what trash will be messy and find a less messy piece of trash to put it in. If, for example, I will have a Gatorade packet and a packet of crackers for a snack, I can quickly tell that the Gatorade packet will be sticky when I am done eating it. I would then plan to fold the Gatorade packet and tuck it into the empty cracker pouch. This puts another barrier between the sticky residue and the inside of my pack.

A trick that I discovered is to meal plan for the patrol with each meal contained in a 1-gallon Ziploc bag. When I am done with the meal, everything goes back into the Ziploc bag, which I then squeeze the air out of and reseal. Then the whole thing goes into the black trash bag.

When I would use MREs, I would put all of my garbage back into the main pouch and close it with duct tape.


Congratulations, you made it through an entire article about garbage. Hopefully you learned a thing or two about how to manage your trash in the field. If you’ve been reading my other articles about living out of your pack, you should be noticing a trend; organization is the key to success. You cannot say “screw it” and lazily toss things into your pack. Everything needs a plan, even your garbage.

Published by vonsteubentraining

Mike is the owner and chief instructor of Von Steuben Training & Consulting (VSTAC). A self-described “Tactical Scholar,” he spent 6 years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator and small-unit tactics instructor. He has dedicated his life to honing the tactical prowess of himself and his fellow patriots, guided by the wisdom of his commanding officer, Jesus Christ. He can be contacted via email at

5 thoughts on “Trash Management in the Field

  1. Excellent article Mike.

    Spoor left by undisciplined folks in the field in the form of ground and top sign from moving around and from sleeping sites, from trash and from human bodily waste provides a treasure trove of information on that group, its composition, its health, its morale, its general training and its level of professionalism.

    If a team can bother to properly police its trash then that effectively denies a good chunk of information to an adversary, so the methods detailed in this article should be adopted as team SOPs.


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