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Become a MemberArtifact The Surprising Way a Burlap Sack Can Save Your Life

Artifact The Surprising Way a Burlap Sack Can Save Your LifeDesert bags are an ingenious way to quench your thirst when your Life Straw goes MIA.

In 1930, when you loaded your family into your Ford Model T and prepared for adventure out on old Route 66 across the sweltering desert of the American Southwest, you need- ed to be tough, courageous, even a bit audacious — at least on the outside.

On the inside, part of you was scared shitless. Visions of your broken-down jalopy with crying kids in the back seat and plumes of boiling steam rolling out of the radiator seared into the back of your brain.

Enter salvation in the form of a humble burlap bag.

Because of their simplicity and effectiveness, water bags have found their way into the military and forest service, and have even been seen strapped to the front of motorcycles for hot-climate adventure riding.
Desert Water Bag on White
Desert Water Bag Bruce Brown Motorcycle in the desert

(3) Bruce Brown in Baja, circa 1960s. Photo by Del Cannon.

Utilizing technology that’s been around for thousands of years (think water skins of ancient Rome), our wayfaring forefathers fabricated the ingenious desert water bag. In even the hottest conditions, these bags could provide an indispensable supply of cool water.

Made of flax canvas, the bags seeped slowly; the resulting evaporation cooled the water. Rather than taking a mind-warping foray into the laws of thermodynamics, let’s just say that when fast-moving, warmer molecules are removed, the molecules left behind are the slower — and therefore, colder — ones. The faster you remove them, the colder the aggregate becomes. How do you speed up the removal process? You use wind.

After soaking the bag for upwards of a week to remove the taste of flax and swell the fibers, it would be hung in front of the radiator of the car. As the wind blew the water off of the bag, it would move into the radiator to provide a mild cooling effect and hold off the scalding eruption. Left in the bag was a gallon or so of drinking water that could cool down as much as 40 degrees below the ambient air temperature and provide crucial hydration.

(4) Bruce Brown, left, and Del Cannon, right, about to embark on their Baja trip complete with desert water bags attached, circa 1960s.

Because of their simplicity and effectiveness, water bags have found their way into the military and forest service, and have even been seen strapped to the front of motorcycles for hot-climate adventure riding.

By the 1950s, coolers and improved radiators lessened the need for the desert water bag, but it stands as a reminder of those trying early days of the family road trip.

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