Last Updated on October 18, 2020
The humble cardboard box can save us time, money, and labor in all sorts of ways. Especially starting out or if budgets are tight, it’s hard to beat good ol’ generic cardboard boxes on a number of fronts.
The multitude of uses – and our ability to then reuse cardboard after many other uses – and our ability to source them for free makes cardboard an absolute must-have for preppers.
A Few Downsides
Cardboard is vulnerable to water, and will melt into a mess if it stays humid or damp or gets soaked (however we’re actually going to make use of that later, though).
Cardboard is also both vulnerable and attractive to a multitude of little bugaboo pests, and it’s not as tough as some storage totes or crates.
Not much is going to protect cardboard from rodents if they’re present, sadly, but there are some fixes to reduce other downsides.
For a little extra strength, just add tape to seams. We can also line boxes inside or out (or both) with plastic trash bags to add moisture resistance.
Including used dryer sheets, bay leaves, and dried tansy flowers and stems can help keep many insects at bay.
Sourcing Free Boxes
The crazy thing here is that it’s actually easiest to get our hands on the really good cardboard boxes.
Most gas stations receive cigarette cartons in pretty sizable cardboard cases. They’re not as thick as some boxes and they (usually) don’t have lids/flaps, but they’re also really easy to work with and a reasonable size for either packing lightweight items or using for mulch, weed exclusions, litter liners, animal beds, and to cut up for animal enrichment.
Being both roomy and easy to work with, two cigarette cases are ideal for combining with some straw and black plastic lawn bags or Mylar sheets to create “hotboxes” or “cat cookers”. They’re great for barn cats and other small livestock, and even indoor pets that feel the cold keenly when the power goes out.
(Don’t use plastic or Mylar for rabbits or pups that will chew.)
Liquor stores also usually have a plethora of boxes. They keep some in for customers, but are usually happy to provide the rest free for the asking.
Those boxes are particular goldmines, because they’re very sturdy – these things were designed to hold several gallons of liquid in heavy glass bottles, after all, and to hold up to the weight of other boxes holding the same stacked atop them.
They also have inserts that can be handy for us.
For smaller but seriously heavy-duty boxes, check with independent gun stores. Availability will be a little more hit-or-miss, but some sell enough by the box instead of the case to make it worth swinging by.
Large, heavy duty boxes can also be had from both moving companies (used, post-move; don’t buy from movers – “wowser” expensive), appliance stores, and some electronics stores.
When you have as much stuff as preppers commonly start accruing, keeping things neat and tidy can be huge. Boxes were pretty much invented for this purpose. The many ways they can help with organization, especially the ones with divider inserts, is worth an article (or five) all on its own.
Their uses go way beyond just storage, though.
Since they’re cheap/free and come in many sizes, cardboard boxes also make great shooting and archery targets.
Empty or flattened, they’re accepted on pretty much all public ranges in the U.S. that don’t require you to buy their specific, overpriced targets.
We can draw our own on them and not spend anything on targets at all. We can also leave them intact to draw the head-on and profile views of game animals or bad guys so we’re presented with different angles as they bounce/shimmy from impacts.
*Fewer public ranges are cool with shooting at things on the ground, so we may want to add some wrapping paper tubes or thin tree branches that will turn our boxes into caltrops.
Intact, we can also fill them with more cardboard, phone books, or old pillowcases/ripped jeans filled with dirt to create air gun and air soft targets appropriate even for hallways and small backyards.
*Be sure you have enough stopping power for each gun and each ammo by testing it somewhere with for-sure solid backstops, like a gravel-filled filing cabinet or an actual range berm.
Save the boxes from Range Day. Preexisting holes don’t hurt for some of the other uses.
Entertainment for animals isn’t just for the fun of it, theirs or ours. Providing engaging experiences creates a barnyard with animals that are less snappish and easier to handle. We’ll also spend less time finding and putting our critters back in fences, and getting heads/horns out of fencing, ladders, and buckets.
Enrichment has even greater benefits in situations when animals that normally forage or go out working are cooped up, and when feeding is a static experience.
Since almost everything likes cardboard boxes, not just kids and kittens, and most critters like eating, it’s a pretty easy fix. Any ol’ box will do.
From cattle to goats all the way down to rabbits and chickens, we can cut some shapes or poke small holes in boxes and stuff them with nummies.
Soda boxes and large boxes are great for softer and bulkier feeds like hay, leaves, and small branches from safe fodder/forage trees and shrubs, or treats like apples and carrots.
Small, sturdy boxes that will hold their shape against more abuse are perfect for grain and kibble feeds, table scraps, nuts and seeds, or peels/ends from veggies.
Particularly in late winter and spring, chunks of sprouted fodder mats and sprouted grains and beans can be big time treats as well as huge boosts to health. It doesn’t have to be something special, though.
Just presenting their daily ration in a variety of places and non-bucket containers, and just making them work for it instead of only taking a few steps and eating from a feeder can have enormous benefits for animals tiny or massive.
We can also present multiple boxes, or drop boxes over feed pans in some places and toss some dummy boxes around so our animals are searching and working.
If we want, especially for small sheep, goats, rodents, and chickens, we can up the time input and creativity involved even more.
Cut 4-9 circles out of cardboard, slot them, and create balls that roll around while they’re chomping their greens, leaves, and hay.
The more internal compartments we make and the smaller those compartments are, the more challenging it is to get feed out, and the more time they’ll spend engaged.
Anything that makes feeding interesting and gives them something to do, decreases the inclination to invent fun games like “let’s climb a roof” or “everybody dig a bog” or find interesting toys like the watering lines or gate latches.
*Nothing will stop young goats from springing around and off objects and other living creatures like demented high-bounce balls. That’s “normal”.
Do be hyper aware, though, that we’re training our livestock to chase, kick, poke inside, bat with heads, and tear open cardboard boxes.
That can backfire if we also use boxes to guard noses/paws from rat traps, or for brooders and cat cookers, smaller-animal safe zones, beds, or transports.
Also ensure box-trained critters can’t reach, say, boxes of holiday decorations or the deliveryman’s drop-off spot. (Oops.)
Don’t be scared off now, though. Boxes are a cheap, easy way to create contented critters. Contented critters make for a quieter, more peaceful barnyard, and there are big physical benefits that come from good mental health, just like humans.
Weed Control & Soil Structure
Cardboard makes a great weed exclusion, either for walkways or as a base layer for garden beds. The thicker we layer it and the more it overlaps, the better and longer it’ll perform that function for us.
Cardboard as a weed exclusion layer is particularly helpful for beds built on gravel, patios, or sandy soils.
A good base several layers thick can help keep moisture available, acting almost like a tarp initially with water pooling, especially if we build it up some on the edges. As the water sits and starts penetrating, the boxes start softening and soaking it up. They hold that moisture, but allow excess to drain. The water they’ve retained will wick up into the soil as that dries, where plants can access it.
We can also use cardboard (and shredded printer paper) if we have heavy or thin soils.
Rip it into small pieces or run it through a leaf or branch chipper-shredder, then create a composting trench or mix it into the surface of beds at the end of a growing season.
It provides the same absorbency as for sandy soils, but it also creates and retains pockets for air and moisture to penetrate. As it breaks down, it increases the carbons in soil like any other organic matter.
(See https://theprepperjournal.com/2018/06/13/prepper-must-haves-shipping-pallets/ for some of the many things that will kill us faster than the chemicals in/on cardboard boxes.)
Cardboard can be handy even if we already have really nice soils. Spreading cardboard around big vines and letting them sprawl across it as they grow decreases weeds, but it also help us see fruits and keeps those fruits clean.
Spreading out cardboard also makes it fast and easy to collect nuts/seeds and fruits that drop readily when ripe, like many ground cherries or shaking elms for samaras.
Laying even little patches of cardboard can also help with pest control. Slugs, squash bugs, and others will hide under it at different times of day. Wander out, flip it, and dispose of the garden munchers.
Cardboard: The Wonder Freebie
Cardboard boxes may reign supreme when it comes to packing things, but their usefulness goes far beyond storage.
They’re handy floor protectors, and make it easier to slide furniture when rearranging. We can cobble them into lightweight shelving, and turn them into countless nearly-free games for our family.
They can soak up oil, patch windows, pinpoint leaks, prop an uneven chair or dresser, or fill in tiny gaps around A/C units.
It’s hard to find a single item that can do so much for us, especially with so little effort.
When that item can also be sourced for absolutely free, while usually adding no more than a few minutes to our daily/weekly/monthly travels, I call that an unconditional must-have.
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