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How to Prepare Your Home & Car for Winter Storms, Blizzards & Snow Emergencies

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I’m no fan of winter, but there’s nothing quite like a good old fashioned snowstorm. The blustery wind, the drifts of snow, the weather forecaster’s announcements about “the storm of the century”…it always gets me excited!

While snowstorms can be fun, however, they can also be dangerous, especially when you’re caught unprepared, or on the road. For instance, the snowstorm that hit the Midwest last month (November 2010) caused over 400 traffic accidents in Minnesota and 2 deaths in Wisconsin. Many people who were caught in Washington, D.C.’s “storm of the century” last winter were stranded on the highway for 30 hours or more before they were dug out. In fact, Popular Mechanics reports that 70% of winter storm fatalities occur in automobiles.

Making sure you’re prepared for a winter emergency will help ensure the safety and comfort of both you and your family and help you avoid major home and car expenses. Here are the best ways to make sure your home and car are ready for the next snowstorm, ice storm, or power outage:

5 Ways to Prepare Your Home for a Winter Emergency

1. Have an alternate heat source
If the power goes out, how will you stay warm? Make sure you have an alternate, non-electric heat source for your home. This could be a fireplace or wood stove, a kerosene heater or a backup generator.

If you’re planning on using your fireplace during an emergency, make sure your chimney is clean and ready to go and that you have plenty of dry wood on hand.

If the power goes and you don’t have an alternative source of heat, then it’s time to go camping. Set up a tent in your living room and pile your family and pets inside under sleeping bags and blankets. The tent will keep your body heat trapped inside, and you’ll stay much warmer than you would in a large room. If you don’t have a tent, then you can easily make one out of blankets and furniture. Believe it or not, a lot of people voluntarily freeze and camp out in lines for Black Friday shopping deals, but obviously this is much more serious.

2. Invest in a camp stove
If the power goes out, you’re going to want hot food. So before the weather gets bad, invest in a portable cookstove. I use a tiny one made by MSR, but it enabled me to make hot soup and mac ‘n cheese last winter when the power went out, and I was really glad to have it. Being able to eat hot, cozy food in a cold house is priceless. It also helps keep you warm.

Remember, many portable stoves cannot be used indoors because the fumes are deadly. Know how to safely use your portable cookstove before an emergency hits.

3. Keep emergency supplies on hand
You should always have the following items ready to go in a portable, waterproof container:

  • Candles, matches and fireproof candle holders
  • Flashlights and extra batteries, or a lantern
  • Crank radio with NOAA access
  • Non-cordless landline phone (which will usually work even when the power is out)
  • Heavy plastic sheeting and duct tape (What if the wind blows a branch through your window? How will you seal it off to keep your home warm?)
  • Individually packaged hand- and foot-warmers
  • First aid kit

4. Stock up on non-perishables
You should have enough shelf-stable food on hand to get by for at least several days without having to venture outside. Make sure you include plenty of high-calorie foods – they will help your body stay warm. Don’t forget water! You will need at least one gallon per day for each member of your household. It may be a good idea to buy in bulk wholesale or use tap water instead of bottled water to save on costs.

You’ll also want to make sure you have a non-electric can opener so you can open your canned foods. And if you have small children, have extra formula and diapers on hand. It would not be fun to run out of those during an emergency. And while we’re on the subject, here’s a list of baby items you don’t need, whether you’re in an emergency or not.

5. Don’t forget the pets
Your pets will also need heat, food, water and medication during an emergency, just like they always do. Make sure you’ve prepared for their needs as well.

hand completing emergency preparation list

4 Ways to Prepare Your Car for a Winter Emergency

1. Keep your gas tank at least half full
Allowing your gas gauge to get down to “E” is not a good idea during the winter months for several reasons. First, when there’s very little gas in your car the lines can freeze, which means your car won’t start. Second, if you get stuck while you’re travelling you’re going to need every drop of gas to stay warm. Keep your gas tank filled at least halfway during the winter months. Here are some ways you can save money on gas costs.

2. Winterize your car
Make sure your car’s radiator system is working effectively. Replace your windshield wiper fluid with an anti-freezing solution. And check your tire treads; if any are getting worn down, now is the time to replace them so you have adequate traction in the snow.

3. Prepare an emergency kit
Can you imagine being stuck in your car for 24 hours or more, in sub-zero temperatures? It’s happened to plenty of people in the past, and many people have died from exposure in such situations. Keep the following in your car during the winter months, just in case you get trapped:

  • A warm blanket or two
  • Extra antifreeze and windshield wiper fluid
  • A flashlight
  • Candles
  • High-energy snacks (like granola, peanut butter crackers, energy bars)
  • Jumper cables
  • A small shovel
  • A snow scraper
  • A tow chain
  • An extra hat, scarf and set of gloves
  • Road salt or sand
  • Matches and a small can (to melt snow for water)

4. Know what NOT to do
If you’re stuck in your car, you might be tempted to run it constantly to keep warm. Don’t! You’ll quickly use up your gas. Instead, run your car for 10 minutes every hour. And make sure you get out periodically to check on your exhaust pipe – if it gets blocked by snow, you could die from carbon monoxide poisoning. You can also keep one window open a tiny crack to clear fumes.

You also shouldn’t eat snow for hydration. Your body uses precious energy to melt that snow into water, and it also lowers your body temperature. Instead, put the snow in a small cup or container and hold it close to you, giving it time to melt. Then it’s safe to drink.

Have any of you ever been stranded in your home or car during a snow or ice storm? What did you do to get by?

(photo credit: *Arielle*)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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