How To: Survive a Blizzard

How to survive a blizzard with sanity intact – this blogpost is separated up into sections, based on how long you have to prepare, and what to do as the storm begins. You can skip to the section that works for you, but be aware there could be useful stuff for you in any section, even if you’re reading this as the whiteout begins. Which is where we’ll start in just a moment.

My region recently had a blizzard and it was fairly epic. The whiteout itself lasted for some solid 18 hours, and then afterwards, ah, afterwards was just a horrible winter storm. But you could see, at least. And a lot of people died, even more were without power for more than a day (including my household, and no, we do not have a generator), and a lot of people seemed unprepared.

So here’s how to prepare for a blizzard, to endure a blizzard, and perhaps even to enjoy yourself instead of dying tragically during a blizzard. (Please don’t die tragically during a blizzard.)

(And yes! Here is an easily printable version! )

As the storm begins, and continues:

  • Put all cold water taps on to drip. (We do this to keep the water pipes from freezing. It works. Do it. You don’t want to lose power and water both. Running water is one of the joys of modernity – protect it. Otherwise you’ll be gathering snow to heat just to be able to flush your toilet and you don’t want that.)
  • Periodically (every 4-8 hours) check and clear furnace vents. (So, locate it/them, if you don’t know already how or where your furnace vents. Some people’s furnace might vent through an unused chimney stack (mine does), other people it’ll vent out the side of your house. If it gets snowed over, you die of carbon monoxide poisoning. So clear it of snow regularly, yeah?)
  • Do not go for a walk. (People die within yards of their houses because a blizzard is totally disorienting. Snow absorbs sound. Wind makes more sound. When you can’t see beyond your stretched out arm and you can’t hear anything but wind, you shouldn’t be walking anywhere unless you’ve got a rope tied around your waist and the other end is anchored to something really strong.)
  • Do not drive anywhere. (This means you, unless you are an exempted employee with a 4×4 vehicle. And even then, think twice. Your 4×4 won’t help you if you can’t see what you’ve just crashed into.)
  • Gather whatever emergency supplies you’ve got. (If you do this while you still have light, power, and hot water, it’s easier. For an idea of what might be useful, go check the other sections of what to do if you’ve got more time to prepare. You might already have some of those super useful items on hand.)
  • Plug in all rechargables. (If you’ve got a portable battery for recharging phones, charge that, too!)
  • Locate all physical games and books you’ve been meaning to read and pull them out. (If the power goes out, that means the TV or projector is not an option. Yes, you might still stream on your phone, but you might need to conserve battery power if you have no way of recharging it. Keep the phone battery to check on emergency updates and checking in with loved ones, and entertain yourself in an analog fashion.)
  • If you’re already away from home, consider your options: shelter in place, check frequently with weather alerts in your area. (If you have to abandon your car, or shelter in your car, make an attempt to move it from the main travel lanes for your own safety, and to make it easier to clear the roads when the storm is over. But prioritize your own safety. If you can shelter with others, that’s better than being in your own car, alone. Get whatever emergency supplies you can out of the trunk and don’t imagine you’re going to rely on the car’s heater – that’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning, if the exhaust is blocked by snow. Crack a window for ventilation, light a tea light on the dash if you have it, and prepare yourself to periodically dig out of the car – out one window, or one door, not the whole car. Constantly fill your travel mug with fresh snow and keep hydrated.)
  • If the power goes out (and the heat goes with it), stay warm. (There are three ways to stay warm. Produce inner heat, inside your body. Conserve your body heat. Produce/Conserve outer heat. Producing body heat is going to give you the biggest payoff, the quickest. Conserving that heat is the runner up. Producing and conserving heat in your environment is going to take more energy for less of a pay off, but it’s still worth it if you can. So.) Sublist:
    • Eat warm food, drink hot water. This works if you have a gas stove that is still working, or a camp stove you can set up on a sheltered porch/balcony/breezy mudroom. This warms you up from inside.
    • Exercise. No, really. Aerobic is best, but whatever works, whatever is familiar to you, do it. Can’t think of anything? Bundle up and go shovel snow away from your front door. Yes, it’s a sisyphean task, but it will also get you super warm from the inside out, and that’s the main goal, here.
    • Layer your clothes. Choose the most thermal fabrics you own – hint: Not Cotton, therefore also, Not Jeans. Keep the layers looser rather than tighter, especially around your feet. If you cut off the blood supply to your feet, they will get colder, not warmer. Make sure part of your layers is a hat and a scarf.
    • If you’ve got a gas oven and a semi-drafty kitchen (or are willing to crack a window the tiniest bit, if yours happens to actually seal well), keep it going. Take your biggest pots and fill them with cold water. This gives you a constant supply of hot water for cooking, drinking, and mixing with a bit of cold water to soak feet in (just make sure that foot-soaking water happens to start out lukewarm and only get warmer from there). If you have Nalgene water bottles, you can fill them with boiling water, wrap them in a hand towel and use them as a hot water bottle. Also, you can make hot food. Soup for the win, but you can also steam, fry, and boil. (This year, the Christmas Ham was steamed in a dutch oven. The house smelled great, even if the ambient temperature was 45 degrees Fahrenheit.) 
    • Light some candles, but remember fire safety! Don’t allow them to burn unattended, or when you go to sleep. If you burn your house down in a blizzard, the fire department can’t help you.
    • If your blanket situation isn’t inspiring, check camping gear, if you’ve got it – sleeping bags and tents. Move furniture out of the way and pitch a tent in the living room. Make a fort of pillows and blankets inside and cuddle with your family, and any pets. It’ll be a lot warmer in there in just a minute.
    • Keep your curtains mostly closed. Even if they’re not particularly insulative, it will help to keep the cold out and the (relatively speaking) warm in. This is good advice… unless it gets so gloomy in your home that you can’t take it. Then open one or two of the curtains. Also, this is less of an issue if you either have windows that seal very well, or windows that are sealed with plastic (see below for more about that.)
  • Do all you can to stay positive. (Once you’ve prepared all you can, sorted out all your emergency supplies, charged up your cellphone and taken stock of your ramen noodles, the only thing left to change is your attitude. Which is maybe the hardest part of the preparation. But whether your alone, or with family, friends, or strangers, the greatest gift you can give all them and yourself, is to try to relax. Find something good about your situation, or several somethings. Focus on what has gone right. Be grateful for what you do have, and discuss that with others. Have fun with those board games or card games. Tell stories. Pick your favorite movie and brainstorm how it could have gone differently and what would happen to all the characters in six months time if you made that change. Listen to offline music, or make music yourself.)

If you have one day to prepare for the blizzard:

  • Go grocery shopping. (As much as you are financially able and between your already stocked pantry items, and what you buy today, try to get 2 weeks worth of supplies – toilet paper, food, diapers, whatever. No, the blizzard won’t last two weeks. But the post-blizzard storm and clean up might. If you lose power, do you have a gas stove? If not, make sure you have a few days worth of non-cook food – crackers, cheese, tinned meat, fruit, veggies. If you have access to a camp stove and could manage to boil water, make sure it’s prepared food that just needs you to add boiling water… but not microwave.)
  • Refill your prescriptions. (This is especially important if you’re going to run out in the next week or two, and if an important part of your medication regimen is not to skip a dose.)
  • Do all the laundry you can. (If the power goes out, so does your ability to clean clothes. And if you have to walk or drive to a laundromat, that will also no longer be an option.)
  • Do all the dishes. (If you lose power, you’ll also lose hot water on demand, which makes doing dishes a bit more time consuming than usual. Start with a clean slate.)
  • Locate all your emergency supplies. (Candles, matches, flashlights, batteries, extra blankets, snow shovels.)
  • Charge everything. (Cellphones, kindles, laptops, headphones/earbuds, external batteries, snowblower batteries.) 
  • Put gas in your car. 
  • Fill a few gallon jugs, minus ½ cup, with water and set outside to freeze. (If the power goes out, stick these in your fridge, preferably at the top. Cool air sinks to the bottom, and this will help keep things cool in there. And just don’t open your freezer.)
  • Bring in your winter emergency bag from the car. 

If you have 1 week to prepare:

  • Get some Nalgene bottles – one per person. (This is particularly useful if you have a gas stove in your kitchen, or a camp stove you can set up on a balcony or breezy mudroom. When the power goes out, you fill them up with boiling water, wrap them in a towel and have a perfect and beautiful hot water bottle.)
  • Stock your pantry. (As much as your finances allow, just stay one month ahead, especially in toilet paper and shelf-stable pantry goods you eat. If you’ve never in your life cooked a bean, don’t buy beans just in case.)
  • Get a 40oz Thermos. (This is a gem for keeping hot water nearby to continually drink to stay warm in a house with no heat. Along with the Nalgene hot water bottles, it’s a game changer for personal comfort.)
  • Save a gallon jug or two. (Vinegar. Milk. Orange Juice. It doesn’t matter, just save a few and clean them well. You can stick them outside and freeze water in them closer to the storm, then stick them in your fridge to keep your food cold.)
  • Invest in a few board games and a couple decks of cards. (Think: analog fun. And you are actually allowed to use them outside of winter weather advisories.)
  • Get extra gasoline, if you have a gas-powered snowblower, or gas-powered generator. 
  • Stock a winter emergency bag and put it in your car. (Make sure you put in there an extra hat, extra scarf, extra pair of gloves or mittens, an extra blanket, a couple of granola or energy bars, a bottle of water, and half a dozen tea lights with some matches. If you’ve got a sleeping bag, just toss it in the back. Put it near your snow brush, ice scraper, and telescoping snow shovel. If you don’t normally carry around a travel mug, put a plastic cup in there. If you ever have to gather snow to melt and drink, you’ll be glad you did. If you regularly drive around other people, or young children, put extra water and energy bars in there, with more extra blankets, and as many cups as the number of people who are typically in the car. In the spring, if you never had to use it, clean it out – drink the water and eat the granola while you celebrate that you didn’t have an emergency this year!)
  • If someone in your households needs extraordinary care, like dialysis or a ventilator, talk to your care provider to see what options you have in case the power goes out, or you are suddenly house-bound and the streets aren’t clear. (Your care providers probably have a protocol for such a situation, so follow their advice and contact the resources they give you.)

If you have 1-3 months to prepare:

  • Weather-proof your home. (Got leaky windows? Plastic over them – your hardware store can guide you to the right products, and they’re not expensive.)
  • Get a quality snow shovel or icebreaker for every able-bodied person in your household. (An icebreaker is just that – you can use a flat-edged garden edger in a pinch. It’s a game changer when it comes to breaking up heavy packed snow, and ice.)
  • Get flashlights, batteries for them, candles, and matches. (Don’t mix beeswax candles and non-beeswax when burning. Make sure at least one of your flashlights is something you can cook by, and at least one is something you can take to the bathroom. The cheapest good flashlight I’ve ever seen was at Harbor Freight Tools. It was a dollar, had a magnet and a hook, had two different lights, and took a few AAs, which they also sell remarkably cheaply and in bulk.)
  • Get an emergency radio. (We got ours as a thank-you gift from our local NPR classical radio station. Which we listened to all through the blizzard, and that brought a level of calm and classiness to our indoor winter camping experience – but really, it’s also just our kitchen radio. Emergency radios usually have multiple power sources and charging options. Ours you can plug into the wall, and it has a solar panel, and a hand crank. You can also charge a cellphone off it in a pinch, and it’s a flashlight. And a bottle opener. And a carabiner. It’s an Eton Scorpion II, in case you’re curious.)
  • Get a 16 quart stock pot. (Meh, only do it if you’ve got a gas stove in your kitchen, or you’ve got access to a grill outside and it’s safe to access. But if you have the stove and not the stock pot, invest while you have time. You’ll use it when the power goes out, if not before.)
  • Save three or four gallon jugs. (Vinegar. Milk. Orange Juice. It doesn’t matter, just save several and clean them well. You can stick them outside and freeze water in them closer to the storm, then stick them in your fridge to keep your food cold.)
  • Get a camp stove and some camp stove propane sized tanks. (This is if you don’t have a gas stove in your kitchen. If the power goes out, this will allow you to boil water. Don’t use it inside. Take your gear to the balcony, or the porch, or the mudroom, or the courtyard. If you can’t do any of that and it’s an emergency: do it in the kitchen, but open a window for ventilation. Otherwise: do not use a camp stove inside, people. That’s death by carbon monoxide just waiting to happen.)

If you have 3-6 months to prepare:

  • Get thermal layers of clothes. (Look at fabric content. If you’re in a room that’s 65 degrees, yes, you can wear cotton layers and not regret it. If you’re in a house that is 45 degrees, no. Do not wear cotton; as we say in camping, Cotton Kills. Look at labels. Think about what’s actually warm. Watch some youtube videos on the subject. Also remember that if you’re building layers of clothes, the outer layers need to be a size or two larger than you’re used to, because you want space, and you want pockets of air between you and your clothes to have maximum warmth.)
  • Get appropriate blankets. (Look at fabric content. You’ll be the warmest with down duvets, wool blankets, and polar fleece, and possibly if there are no allergies, all of those things layered. Even if you normally run hot and don’t really need such blankets in the normal course of events – sleeping in a room that is 45 degrees isn’t normal, and that’s what we’re preparing for. So grab an extra deep-winter blanket when you see one on sale, or at a thrift store.)

If you have 6 months or more to prepare:

  • Consider getting a gas oven/range. (It’s not necessary, but if the power goes out, so does your capacity to cook food and heat water. It’s this or a camp stove, so decide which you’d prefer, and which your budget would allow.)
  • Consider getting a generator or an external battery. (Neither are necessary, but depending on how comfortable you want to be, and how much you can save toward this endeavor right now, either or both will be very helpful. The cheapest gas generator currently runs about $500 and could power your fridge and your furnace, if you have it wired into your house. Alternately, if you’re just running plugs, it could power your fridge and one other thing, that other thing being a space heater, probably. The external battery might run you about $100. I got mine years ago and we charged three cellphones and an emergency radio off it, twice. It still had more than half the charge left over.
  • If money is tight, do what you can in this entire list, and shop smart at thrift stores. (You don’t need to buy a generator to get through a blizzard with your sanity intact, nor do you need a gas range, or expensive clothes or blankets. Most of what we used to get through the blizzard we had because we had camping gear, or kitchen gear, or because I’m a fabric content snob. We just used the normal things we already had on hand, but we knew how to use them. It’s no use having an external battery to recharge your cellphone if you’ve forgotten about it in a drawer and when the power goes out it isn’t charged.

Or, To Summarize

Surviving terribly cold weather doesn’t require you to be a Forest Ranger, or a PhD, or a Navy Seal, especially if you’re in your own home, and not trapped outside. Most people could get by with what they already have around them, and with a few months to prepare and some smart shopping at thrift stores, almost any budget can afford to get through a no-heat-inside and frigid-temps-outside situation in relative comfort, with their sanity intact. The most important part, perhaps, is this:

  1. Be aware of what supplies you have that can be helpful to keep you warm and fed.
  2. Be ready to use the supplies you have in a smart way. (If you can’t find the matches and candles, you may as well not have them at all.)
  3. Be aware of the ways you can die of house fires and carbon monoxide poisoning and hypothermia, and then don’t do that. It really is important to have very leaky kitchen windows or open one for ventilation if you’re using your gas stove a lot. It might seem counterintuitive – why crack open a window in the bitter cold? The answer: so you don’t die. Why extinguish the candles when you go to bed? So you don’t die. Why go outside in the bitter cold and clean off the furnace vent if you do still have heat? So you don’t die. Why shouldn’t you walk the block to the corner store/grocery store/place you want to go in the middle of a blizzard? So you don’t die. When you’re trapped in your car, why carry an emergency kit and dig out your car, even through the window, every few hours? You do it so you don’t die.

It doesn’t take a lot to keep from dying in these situations, but there’s no use in avoiding the issue: don’t leave your common sense at the door during an emergency. Stay warm. Eat well. Be safe.

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