What Exactly are Sandbags Used For?

Sandbags are one of those survival items that is regularly included on many “must-have” lists of gear and goods, but often without much explanation as to why.

sandbag wall on a river bank

Being so commonly recommended, they must be useful, but what exactly are sandbags used for in a survival context?

Sandbags are commonly placed for defending structures against flood waters, used as a component or aid for the permanent or semi-permanent construction of buildings, and as basic fortifications against small arms fire.

Sandbags have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes, and their versatility is what makes them so popular.

No matter who you are and where you live, chances are good that sandbags do deserve a place in your survival stash. We will talk more about what sandbags can do for you in the rest of this article.

Sandbags Should be Filled with Sand, but Dirt or Gravel Can Work

When filling sandbags for flood protection it is important to use clean, washed sand if at all possible. Sand is heavy, so it will provide better weight and stability.

In addition, sand is more resistant to being carried away by water than lighter materials.

Sand makes the bags more malleable and better able to conform to various shapes while sealing crevices tightly. It will also resist compression stresses better.

As a result, sandbags filled with sand will be more effective at holding back floodwaters and for most other purposes in general.


Sand is an ideal choice for filling sandbags; it’s all right there in the name! But much of the time, beggars can’t be choosers.

If you have little time to hunt down a huge quantity of sand, no way to transport it, or you just don’t have much sand in your area, what can you do? Are you out of luck?

Not even close. You can fill sandbags with loose dirt or small gravel instead. While not quite as good as sand, these materials are still quite heavy and will do a reasonable job in most situations.

Just make sure that whatever you use is uniform in size, clean and free of any large rocks or other debris that could puncture the bags or keep the bags from conforming tightly to neighboring bags above or below. Gaps are never good when employing sandbags!

Filling sandbags with sand is always ideal, but using dirt or gravel is a great way to make use of what you have on hand or whenever you are in a hurry.

Now, how best can you employ sandbags during an emergency?

sandbags used on the street during a flood

Flood Protection

The most common use for sandbags is as a means of flood protection. While not impenetrable, when properly filled and placed, sandbags can act as a formidable barrier against rising waters.

Water exerts immense pressure on any structure it comes into contact with and will always seek the path of least resistance.

Sandbags, when used in conjunction with other flood-proofing methods such as plastic sheeting or plywood, can help to hold water away from your home, or even direct water around rather than through it or another building.

In addition to directing water away from structures, sandbags can also be used to create dykes and levees to temporarily hold back massive quantities of water from at-risk areas.

While not permanent solutions, these measures can buy time for evacuations or more-permanent preparations to be made before waters reach critical levels.

sandbags for constructions


Another common use for sandbags is as a construction material. Sandbags are frequently used in the construction of walls, foundations, and support structures.

When filled with gravel or sand, they are very heavy and can provide a great deal of stability.

In addition, because they can be easily shaped and placed, sandbags can be used to fill in gaps or spaces where other materials would not fit well.

This makes them ideal for use in tight spaces or around irregularly-shaped objects.

Properly placed sandbags can add a great deal of strength and stability to any structure, or help serve as braces or counterweights when lifting or preparing to hoist large or heavy materials.

You can even make a structure entirely out of sandbags! Sandbags that are filled with concrete can be stacked rapidly to make solid, if ugly, structures easily capable of withstanding environmental forces.

These stacks can then be encased in concrete for even greater strength. This method has been historically used to build semi-permanent structures in areas wiped out by natural disasters.

It was even used during World War II to quickly construct temporary runways and buildings in battle-torn areas.

soldied with machine gun behind sandbags wall


Another military-derived application for sandbags is as a fortification material. When filled with sand or dirt and placed in strategic positions, sandbags can provide protection from small arms fire and shrapnel.

The dense layers of sand or soil rapidly deplete projectiles of energy until they come to rest harmlessly inside the sandbag, or at worst, penetrate them only after having lost much of their velocity.

There is a reason sandbags have been a ubiquitous fixture on battlefields since shortly after the invention of the firearm: They can be used to create bunkers, foxholes, and other protective positions.

You can also use sandbags to reinforce or fortify common structures.

Some sandbags could be piled in front of a window or door during times of trouble to provide protection from bullets or to prop up plywood coverings to prevent entry.

Even a basic U- or V-shaped barrier of sandbags can prove to be excellent defense in times of civil unrest or a WROL situation.

If this is an application of interest to you, be sure to check out one of the many military issue field manuals that are freely available on the topic of fortification.

How To Sandbag Your Home.

Sandbags are Always Helpful in Times of Trouble

Flood protection, construction and fortification: These are only a few of the many uses for sandbags.

The next time you see a stack of empty sandbags at the hardware store, think about all of the ways that those bags could be put to good use.

With a little bit of creativity and effort those simple bags might just save the day for you in an emergency or disaster situation.

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