An approaching winter storm is often a cause for excitement, especially for kids looking for some time off school. Blizzard and ice storms can be fun, but if you’re not prepared, they can become very uncomfortable and even dangerous.
Winter storms and extreme cold raise the risk of hypothermia, frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning, and heart attacks. They can cause long-term power outages, cause severe damage to homes and cars, make it difficult or impossible to reach medical services in an emergency, and lead to extended absences from work or school.
Planning and preparing for a snowstorm or extreme cold means more than having a 72-hour emergency kit on hand, although that certainly helps. Putting in the time and energy to build your emergency supplies and prepare for severe winter weather means you and your family won’t be stuck without warmth, food, or water when you need it most.
How to Prepare Your Home for a Blizzard or Extreme Cold
My family and I used to live on a remote mountain on a steep and twisty road that wasn’t maintained by the state during the winter. Even a light snowfall made traveling down into town dangerous, and every winter there were at least three or four winter storms that knocked out power and kept us at home a week or more before the road was safe enough to drive on. One storm knocked out power for 10 days and kept us homebound for over two weeks.
Our experience living there taught us the importance of preparedness. We learned how to organize and maintain an extensive long-term food pantry. We learned how to fell trees and process firewood. I even learned lifesaving skills like CPR from the Red Cross and how to prevent traumatic blood loss in case we didn’t have quick access to emergency medical services.
Learning these skills meant we didn’t worry when we heard a winter storm was on its way. We were prepared. And that’s the biggest benefit of spending time and money on emergency essentials. You don’t have to worry about keeping your family safe and warm – you’re ready.
1. Stock Up on Food & Water
Winter storms and blizzards sometimes make travel impossible, and during a winter weather event, most city officials ask people to stay off the road. So you need to have plenty of nonperishable food and water on hand, ideally in a long-term food pantry, so there’s no need for you to drive on dangerous roads. A food pantry also ensures you have the foods you like to eat instead of worrying about facing empty store shelves picked over by panicked shoppers.
It can get expensive to start a long-term food pantry from scratch, but it doesn’t have to. If you start now, picking up a bit of extra nonperishable food each week when it’s on sale, it won’t make much of a difference in your food budget. Some foods to stock up on include:
- Dried beans, lentils, or peas
- Trail mix bars, protein bars, granola bars, or fruit bars
- Canned vegetables, soups, and fruit
- Peanut butter and jelly
- Tea, coffee, and hot chocolate
- Powdered drink mixes
- Dried pasta
- Instant soup mixes
- Pickled vegetables
- Trail mix
- Beef jerky
- Instant oatmeal
- Sweets like cookies, candy bars, and chocolate
- Evaporated or condensed milk
- Nuts and dried fruits like mango, apples, apricots, and strawberries
- Oils like olive oil, vegetable oil, and coconut oil
- Whole-grain crackers
- Shelf-stable milk, tea, and hot cocoa
- Waffle and pancake mix
- Breakfast cereal, including hot cereals like Cream of Wheat
- Vegetable, chicken, beef, and bouillon cubes
- Packaged foods, including macaroni and cheese and instant potatoes
- Canned meats, including tuna, sardines, oysters, chicken, turkey, pork, sausage, and Spam
- Formula or baby food if you have very young children
- Pet food if you have pets
It’s useful to have some MREs (meals ready-to-eat) in the pantry. Some MREs come with a heat source and only require additional water. Others, like freeze-dried meals from Augason Farms or Mountain House, require boiling water to reconstitute.
These meals are on the expensive side, especially compared to buying raw ingredients, but they provide your family with a quick hot meal that requires no prep work and no cleanup. Sometimes, you can find them on deep discount at Amazon, so use a price tracker like CamelCamelCamel to get the best price. You can also download the browser extension Honey, which will help you find the best prices online.
You also need plenty of fresh water, especially if your pipes freeze during a cold snap. Each person in your home needs at least 1 gallon per day for drinking and sanitation. And don’t forget to have extra on hand for pets. If you have a wood stove, you can always melt snow, providing you have plenty of firewood, but you must also prepare for snowless cold weather.
Also, consider stocking up on a few WaterStorage Cubes. These emergency water storage cubes each hold 2.6 gallons of water and collapse in size when not being used for compact storage.
2. Consider Cooking & Easy Food Prep
If the power lines went down during a winter storm, do you have a way to cook food and clean up?
If you have an electric stove in your kitchen, it’s not going to work when the power goes out, so you need a backup way to heat water and cook. A small camp stove, like the Coleman gas stove, is inexpensive and easy to operate. Just make sure you use gas-powered stoves in the garage – with the garage door open – to avoid carbon monoxide buildup in your home.
Another option is the family-size Solo Stove, a portable camp stove that creates intense heat using small twigs, leaves, pinecones, and sticks. If you have access to dry wood, this model allows you to cook meals for your family without having to depend on a fuel canister.
And don’t forget that if you have a propane grill, you can use it to cook food during a power outage too.
3. Stock Up on Supplies
Having plenty of food in your pantry is an essential first step. But you also need personal care products and handy necessities, such as:
- A manual can opener
- A NOAA weather radio
- Toilet paper
- Moist towelettes
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Feminine care products
- Paper towels, paper plates, and disposable silverware
- Dish soap
- An emergency cell phone charger
- Extra batteries
- A snow shovel
- Bleach or other disinfectant
- Laundry detergent
- A first aid kit
In addition to having plenty of supplies around for your family, if you have room, stock up on extra in case your neighbors or extended family members aren’t prepared.
Last, if you’re on any medications, talk to your doctor about how long it’s safe to store them for an emergency.
4. Purchase an Emergency Sump Pump
Consider this scenario: A lot of snow has fallen in your area, and you’ve lost power. Thankfully, the weather has started to warm back up, and the snow is melting. However, the power company hasn’t been able to turn the lights back on. If you have a basement, that means your sump pump doesn’t have any power to work right when it’s needed most.
A battery-operated sump pump will kick on and pump for hours or days when the power is off, keeping water out of your basement. And this is a time when it pays to spend more on a quality product.
You’ll also need to buy a battery in addition to the pump itself. Most reviewers on Amazon recommend getting a deep-cycle marine battery. While these are more expensive, they last much longer than an auto battery.
5. Install a Freeze Alarm
A freeze alarm is a device that calls you with an automated message if the temperature in your home drops below a preset mark, like 45 degrees, or if the power goes out. Knowing the power is out early – even if you’re home in the middle of the night – helps prevent frozen pipes because you can take action quickly.
You can also prevent freezing pipes during extreme cold temperatures by leaving faucets open just enough to drip slowly throughout the night, when temperatures are coldest.
6. Consider Portable Power
The power often goes out during winter storms, and even extreme cold weather events can cause power outages due to increased demand.
The Jackery portable power station has an excellent reputation for reliability and running quietly. However, it’s a power station, not a portable generator. It will keep your devices charged, but it’s not built to power appliances like a refrigerator or microwave oven.
Larger generators, like the Westinghouse heavy-duty portable generator, can power larger appliances, like a microwave, refrigerator, hot kettle, or sump pump. Make sure you have plenty of extra fuel at home before a storm hits.
7. Stay Safe From Carbon Monoxide
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that each year, an average of 430 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning from alternative heat and cooking devices like generators, camp stoves, and gas and charcoal grills.
If you use a gas-powered generator or stove, keep it outside in a well-ventilated area so carbon monoxide stays well away from your home. Generators must be at least 15 feet from your home (check manufacturer recommendations), but you can usually use smaller gas-powered appliances in the garage with the door open.
As an additional precaution, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home.
8. Clean Your Chimneys
If you use your fireplace or wood stove frequently, clean your chimney once per year. It’s best to schedule this during the summer months. Most people wait until fall, which means chimney sweeps have a waiting list far into the winter months. If you schedule a cleaning in June, they can probably come right away.
Also, make sure you have plenty of heating fuel on hand before severe winter weather is forecast.
9. Winterize Your Home
Is your home ready for a winter storm? If you’re like most people, probably not. Start to winterize your home during the fall, long before the snow or sleet starts falling. However, if a big storm is on the way, focus on doing the following to stay warm and safe.
- Trim any tree branches that hang over your roof or car and those close enough to break a window during high winds or heavy snow.
- Check windows and doors for drafts, and use caulk and weather stripping to keep out the cold air.
- Wrap exposed water pipes with pipe insulation.
- Use a window insulation kit to keep out cold air.
10. Have a Fire Emergency Plan
House fires can and do happen in winter, even during a power outage. All it takes is a spark from a fireplace or downed electrical line to get a blaze going. Make sure you and your family prepare for house fires with smoke detectors – with fresh backup batteries – fire extinguishers, fire blankets, and an emergency plan.
11. Know Where to Go
If your home becomes too cold or is damaged by a winter storm, you might need to seek public designated shelter. To find a shelter nearest you, text “SHELTER” and your zip code to 43362, which is FEMA’s dedicated text line.
You can also find shelters and receive important safety information by downloading FEMA’s app:
- Apple Devices: Text “APPLE” to 43362.
- Android Devices: Text “ANDROID” to 43362.
When they receive the text, FEMA will send you a link to download the app.
The Red Cross also opens shelters during winter storms or extreme cold events. Download the Red Cross Emergency Alerts app to receive emergency information and warnings for 35 severe weather and other emergency events
12. Shovel Safely
According to research cited by the BBC, each year around 100 people in the United States die from shoveling snow. In an interview with the BBC, cardiologist Barry Franklin says he considers shoveling snow to be so dangerous for older adults he advises anyone age 55 and older not to do it at all.
There’s no doubt that shoveling snow can be dangerous for older adults, especially those who are sedentary, overweight, or have a history of heart problems. But when a winter storm hits, many other people need to get their walkways and driveways cleared so they can get out.
To shovel snow safely, keep the following tips from the National Safety Council in mind:
- Do not shovel snow after eating or while smoking.
- Only shovel fresh, powdery snow. It’s lighter. Avoid shoveling wet, compacted snow.
- Take it slow and stretch well before you go out to shovel.
- Push the snow instead of lifting it.
- If you do lift the snow, use a small shovel or only fill a bigger shovel half way.
- Lift with your legs, not your back.
- Do not work to the point of exhaustion or overexertion.
- Know the signs of a heart attack, and call 911 immediately if you experience these signs.
There’s nothing quite like a winter weather advisory or blizzard warning to send people flocking to the stores to stock up on food and supplies like snow shovels, salt, and window scrapers. Preparing in advance for severe winter conditions means you’ll avoid the crowds and have peace of mind that you’re ready for whatever Mother Nature can throw your way.
Although blizzards and winter storms are serious, there are plenty of ways to make things fun for your family if one strikes.
For example, there’s a good chance you and your kids will get a little stir-crazy from being cooped up in the house. Keep some board games and craft supplies on hand so you have activities that don’t require electricity. Let kids build a blanket fort, have an indoor “snowball fight” with cotton balls, or do an indoor treasure hunt to stay busy.
After the storm is over, take a few minutes to assess how you and your family weathered the blast. What do you need to restock for the next storm? What did you need but not have while the power was out? Were you able to communicate with everyone you needed to? Taking stock of how everyone handled the emergency better prepares you for the next one.
And don’t forget to prepare your car for winter storms too. It’s just as important as preparing your home and could save your life if you get stranded. It’s especially important to keep your gas tank full if a winter storm warning is issued. Having a full tank means you’ll have enough fuel to stay warm if you get stuck in the snow or need to make an emergency trip.
Have you ever survived a major winter storm? What did you do to prepare, and what do you wish you’d done differently?