The Beginner’s Guide to Surviving Winter Weather

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Here in the upper Midwest, winter weather can be absolutely brutal. We’re talking frigid temperatures, freezing rain, feet of snow, and just a whole lot of no fun when you’re trying to go about your daily life.

The Beginner's Guide to Surviving Winter Weather via The Survival Mom

Sure, if you enjoy snowmobiling, ice fishing, and skiing, the winter months are like paradise, but for those who are just trying to get to and from work each day, though, things can get dicey.

Fortunately, winter weather rarely hits without some advance warning. While we all like to poke fun at the weather forecasters, when it comes to blizzards and such, they get it right far more often than they miss the boat. So, the first line of defense is to pay attention to your favorite weather forecast.

It is exceedingly rare that a winter storm pops up out of nowhere. There is almost always several hours, if not a day or two, of warning.

Make sure you have back-ups to your back-ups

Cold kills, and it’s dangerous to rely on only one source of warmth. How could you and your family stay warm if your usual source of power was gone?

  • Do you have enough blankets to add to beds and hang up on windows?
  • Is there a way you could protect your outside walls from high winds and extreme cold?
  • Can you add extra insulation in your exterior walls?
  • In extreme circumstances, would you be able to shut off all unnecessary rooms and contain your living and sleeping quarters in just one area?
  • Does everyone in the family have the right clothing for spending time outdoors in cold temperatures?
  • Do you know the warning signs of hypothermia?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with methods of staying warm in case of a breakdown?

What other options could you add to your home in order to stay warm? Watch for deep discounts on winter gear and clothing. If money is tight, maybe a really good snowsuit or heavy jacket would make a fine Christmas gift in place of a new electronic gadget.

Traveling in severe winter weather

If at all possible, limit any planned travel during a predicted winter storm. I know, that’s often easier said than done. Bosses tend to get a little irritated when employees don’t show up. If you have a vacation or sick day you can afford to burn, use it on a day when the roads are going to be sketchy at best. If you can work from home, do so.

Always have emergency supplies and gear in your vehicle. These include jumper cables, a blanket (wool is the best), extra cap, socks, and gloves (again, wool), flashlight with extra batteries, food, water, and a first aid kit. Bonus points for chemical hand warmers, glow sticks, and a cell phone charger you can plug into the cigarette lighter in your vehicle. You’ll find a complete list of what should be in your vehicle emergency kit here.

If you get stranded for some reason, stay put unless you absolutely have to leave your vehicle due to safety reasons. A car or truck is much easier to spot than a person. Tie a brightly colored piece of fabric, such as a flag or bandanna (from your emergency kit), to the vehicle’s antenna. This is a universally recognized symbol indicating you need help.

NOTE: Read this article about surviving in your vehicle during severe winter weather, if you are ever stranded. Each vehicle should be equipped for survival, just in case.

You might want to pack supplies to make this small, alcohol-fueled DIY heater for a true emergency.

Should you decide to trek out on foot, do everyone a favor and leave a note on your dash with your name, the date and time you’re leaving, and where you are heading, even if only a rough compass direction. This will help people find you, should they need to conduct a search.

Surviving severe winter weather at home

At home, I hope you already have a full pantry. If that’s not the case, hit the grocery store a day or two ahead of the predicted storm and stock up. No need to go crazy and lay in enough food to last a month, but get enough of what you’ll need to last at least a week or so. I cannot stress enough that you should not wait until the last minute for this grocery store trip. If you do, you’ll either find empty shelves or you’ll be fighting the pre-storm crowd. Empty store shelves aren’t just a fantasy in a survival writer’s imagination. They are all too common when an impending severe weather or natural disaster is in the news.

There’s a good chance of a power outage, so plan on buying food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, as listed in this printable.  Take that list to the store with you so you’ll have plenty of ideas for foods that your family will eat.

A key element to surviving brutal winters is having multiple way to keep warm if the furnace isn’t working. If you have multiple people in the home, double up and pile on the blankets. Try and keep everyone in one room, ideally a small one as described in this article. Body heat multiplied by a few people and kept in a single room will benefit everyone. Add a dog or two, and you may become too warm! As a last resort, put up a tent in one of the smaller rooms and everyone can sleep in the tent.

Hang a blanket over the window and any open doorways to help reduce heat from escaping and eliminate cold drafts coming in. Obviously, if you have a fireplace or a wood stove, make judicious use of it, provided you thought ahead and have a good supply of dry, seasoned fuel set aside.

Wind Chill

Wind chill is something most residents here in my neck of the woods understand, yet it sometimes baffles new folks. Basically, in the winter it gets cold, obviously. However, wind chill makes it “feel” colder, just as a breeze makes it “feel” cooler when its hot outside. A lot colder, actually.

Around here, it isn’t uncommon for the high temperature to reach, say, 10’F, and with the wind chill factored in, it feels like -20F or lower. At temps that low, any exposed skin can suffer frostbite in just a matter of minutes. This means you need to protect yourself with not only hats, coats, and gloves but scarves and earmuffs as well. Recently, we discovered fleece-lined tights and that discovery rocked my world!

When it comes to injuries and fatalities as a result of winter weather, while I’ve not seen any hard stats on this, I’d estimate more people die of heart attacks while shoveling snow than for just about any other weather-related reason. If you don’t have a teenager in the area who you could give a few bucks for shoveling your driveway and thus have to tackle it yourself, take it slow. There’s no need to try and do it all at once. Far better to take frequent breaks as needed. Even running a snowblower can be physically taxing.

Power Outages

Finally, severe winter storms often result in power outages. Ice can build on power lines, which adds a great deal of weight and causes the lines to come down. Often, it is just a matter of a few hours, maybe a day, before power is restored. But, plan ahead and have plenty of flashlights, batteries, and a portable radio so you can keep abreast of the weather-related news. Another very important step is to immediately charge all cell phones and electronic devices the minute you hear of a major Nor’easter or blizzard headed your way. It’s also a good idea to do a few loads of laundry in case the power is out for more than a couple of days. You might as well have a clean stock of underwear, socks, and clothes for every member of the family!

Boredom can also set in if the power goes out because that means most of your family’s entertainment sources will be powerless. This article about sheltering in place is a great resource for planning now to keep the kids and/or grandkids busy if you’re stuck in the house for hours or days.

Winter weather clothing tip

One piece of winter clothing that has held up for more than 25 years now is a peach-colored set of silk long underwear. Many winters they just sat in the bottom dresser drawer, seeing as how Phoenix rarely experiences long-underwear-worthy winters. However, when I’ve needed them, I’ve always been more than impressed with their comfort and the warmth they provide with the thinnest possible layer. Winter clothing is bulky enough without adding thick long underwear.

Silkies, as I call them, are more expensive, as you might suspect, but they can last just about forever. Here’s a tip for easily including them in any survival pack or the trunk of your car.

Tightly roll up both the silk top and leggings and insert them in a Food Saver vacuum bag. When vacuum-packed, they will weigh just a few ounces and take up only a tiny bit of space in any bug out bag or kit. Just make sure that you also have a pair of scissors or a pocketknife handy.

Over and over and over parts of the country have been hit hard by vicious winter storms, and in millions of cases, people just weren’t ready. If you keep a pair of silkies in your vehicle, along with a pair of warm waterproof boots and wool socks, you really could walk your way out of just about any winter disaster.

Shop around and you’ll find a pair in the price range that suits you as well as end of the season sales at stores like REI and Cabela’s. Don’t forget about kid sizes for the little ones!

What Will You Do When Winter Weather Hits You?

Severe winter weather isn’t something to be trifled with but with just a bit of planning, you’ll come through just fine. How will you prepare?

The Beginner's Guide to Surviving Winter Weather via The Survival Mom

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Jim Cobb is a disaster preparedness consultant and author. His books include Prepper's Home Defense, The Prepper's Complete Book of Disaster Readiness, and Prepper's Long-Term Survival Guide.

20 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide to Surviving Winter Weather”

  1. When we moved to a cold state, one thing NO ONE told us was to unhook your hose from the house and bring it inside for the winter. Having moving moved for a state where you watered year round, this never occurred to us ( and I guess no one else, b/c when we asked people what to do, no one mentioned the hose I guess they all assumed everyone did that!). We burst a pipe in the hose after a hard freeze b/c the hose froze and it just kept going up the line. What a mess!! Now I tell everyone who I meet that just moves here..unhook the hose from the house!!

  2. I would like to add (and I live in Saskatchewan – a very cold and snowy province), that thermal underwear works wonders. Even the very lightest pair for women is a help under jeans. Also mini gloves make great and cheap glove liners for heavier gloves. This year I plan to tape plastic around all my windows, even the triple pane new ones since it helped cut drafts so much last year and should reduce the heating bill. I also purchased a small oil burning portable fireplace last year – people usually use these for decor, but they can heat a small room safely without toxic fumes if the power goes out. There are gel models available as well. Oh, and a word of advice – stock up now on shovels, salt or traction aid, ice chipper and roof rake since these will all be sold out within hours of a major snowstorm! I have also already booked a date to get my snow tires swapped from my summer tires. Again, the service areas will be fully booked after a snow storm hits. The other information in this article is great. The key is being prepared before winter hits.

  3. Just a heads up- Target has glow sticks for sale in the dollar section at the front of the store if you need to stock up! 🙂

  4. Sharon, I have had my outdoor tap freeze and break more than once! Now I shut the water off from inside the house around the first frost (about mid-August), there is a tap in the ceiling to drain the water into a bucket before it reaches the outside, and the most important point is to leave the outside tap open, not closed for the winter once you have turned the water to it off. This way any condensation that accumulates in the pipe can still drain off. In the spring, I wait until after the last frost (usually end of June), to turn the outdoor tap back on. No tap breaks in the last few years following this plan! Another cold weather tip for those from southern climates is to have a block heater installed in your car. This can be plugged in to keep the engine warm. Just be sure to unplug it before you drive off!

  5. Also from Saskatchewan (-40F to +100F),Yes, definitely have a block heater for your vehicle (& remember to plug/unplug it) and turn off your outdoor water from the main/indoor valve before freeze up. Also, put insulation or heat tape around pipes inside the exterior walls. I had to leave my sink cabinets open all winter and occasionally defrost them with a hairdryer in one place I stayed! And please, don’t drive “out of town” if it’s very cold: there may not be enough traffic to help a distressed vehicle in time before frostbite or death.

  6. My plan for winter power outages is a tent with warm sleeping bags set up in the living room. Family of 3 with 3 dogs should be plenty warm and toasty. Mr Buddy heater is on my wish list also as it is rated indoor safe. Anyone ever use those?

    1. I know this answer is years later… But

      The Mr. Buddy and Mr. Heaters..one us smaller, one is larger they are pretty good, very safe..the smaller one in very cold weather will require at least one muddle of the night tank change.. The bigger one I have had to change twice a night..but both of those were used in extreme cold emergency type situations. We could have done with a little less heat, but kiddos were involved so we cranked the little heaters! Always crack a window if you are in a small space as these do have auto shut off if they detect carbon monoxide ! For these heaters, to get the most bang for your buck, read the instructions and get yourself the regulator and larger propane tanks… These heaters also have a place on the backs to hang up on the wall. They are strong and fairly rugged, they can make enough heat to heat you out if a small area, as long as they have larger tanks they can keep pumping an amazing amount if heat. I now have 2 smaller ones and 2 larger ones that I keep at the ready all the time and have gifted the larger one to my parents…. As the have plans to install a woodstove, it no one knows when exactly when I ask. We all live way out in the boonies and a power outage has become rare now that they are in the Co-op electric… But I am most comfortable KNOWING exactly what is going on. I have solar backups..and different back ups for those, a gas gennie, a solar gennie, and as soon as I can I would like a propane gennie… I have camp stoves, and a woodstove almost installed… And I have really enjoyed some diy solar heaters as well and will be installing a small a passive solar greenhouse type addition with a heat sink! My place is so small its a much smaller project than it sounds… For the car I have a jump box forty bucks at Walmart and fits in my pocket! An older bigger jump box with radio. Air pump. Lights, etc…fix a flat, basic tool box, cat litter for traction..busted down cardboard boxes under everything. Extra sock and undies for everybody x2, my silkies are always in my mom bag, I have bottles water… With extra headspace because of freeze thaw cycles! Jerky and granola/energy bars, trail mixes and GORP..and hard candy… I have an old navy surplus blanket thrown in and my smaller Mr. Buddy heater and a 6 pack propane minis…a first aid kit and a crisis pouch, and my regular handy dandy roadside emergency car kit, a Christmas present from my Dad a hundred or so years ago… And I am always adding.
      Oh and now that Dad us semi retired and working at the big box sporting goods store I am having him pick up those hand warmers and boot warmers often… I also keep an Ace brand back belt and several new and used pairs of work gloves in there too! I am sure I have forgotten to mention something, and I am sure I have forgotten to add something that should be obvious as well! I always feel like hat tho!
      The best part of all my prepping us I was the only one in my family who did so, yet over3r the last decade or two of prepping…. Those non believing in prepping type of family members have been kept out of trouble, bellies full, warm, off the street and outta danger by my preps… Many have changed their tunes after that. It really is a good feeling.
      I do understand many of their initial worries, when your daughter/sister/etc comes to you and says I am dropping out if the rat race and getting dropped off in the middle of the woods to build my own little place and such… I am sure that’s a bit if a shock.. Especially when you do not know they have spent years gathering supplies and learning how what when where… My mom always knew I was born in the wrong century when I took up canning at 12… But now the folks have moved to that same property and built their own place, albeit a modern space not totally suited to country life… But its great to see them out on the farm in their golden years. It old family land..many generations lived their, its nice to see the family return to it, use it, live it, enjoy it!
      Well, ‘buff about me…
      Buy a Mr buddy or a Mr heater… I have bought one new, expensive! And the rest off different sites and apps that specialise in USED goods… And never spent over fifty on my other ones! I highly recommend checking out those used goods sites, apps, etc..even facebooks yard sale type groups… Just bring a mini propane canister with u to test it out… Just like with anything else used. And good luck to all!

  7. this is my first year becoming a Survival Mom. 🙂 We live in NH. My first goal is to create a car emergency kit. We homeschool and drive around a lot. We live in a rural area and are almost always at least 40 minutes at home. For things like water, do you leave them in your car this time of year? I am concerned about the water freezing, but I know I won’t always remember to grab it when we leave. Suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Not just for ladies!
      My dad worked with just the most butch masculine body builder type guy you could ever meet, guy was from way up north, too… One cold winter day my dad hit the Loo about the same time as this guy and noticed he was really fussing with something, like an underlayer…well it was extremely cold so dad made a joke about daggon long johns getting bunch and this big butch body builder squished up his nose and said, actually its my pantyhose… My dad says he must have had His face drop because this big guy started with the nononono… Let me explain… Well after this started getting around every one of those guys at work started wearing pantyhose too. It was agreed that pantyhose fit better and felt better AND looked better under a nice business suit.. This was a place that required everyone to dress very nice, very professional but also spend some time outdoors…even if it was below zero…and many boss types said most guys winter coats just weren’t “chic”…

      And that’s the story of how my dad started wearing pantyhose every winter for the last 3 almost 4 decades!

      His only words of advice for men, or women, really is check the sizing very carefully.. If to small its bad, and if too large its bad too… So guys, make sure you take a look online and how pantyhose are sized and know your exact height and weight…AND he recommends the reenforced toes and the long line panty that’s reenforced..but again..only if you get the correct size..if not you will be very uncomfortable!
      Always wear cotton socks, a pair or two, and cotton underwear UNDER your pantyhose. He then usually would wear his dark dress socks OVER the cotton socks and hose, and he said that wearing a pair of boxers or such over the whole thing is good too..so cotton layer is next to skin, then pantyhose, then another layer… And he says that unlike His long johns he never has overheated in this type of get up…but he has stayed very comfortable even in below zero temps.

  8. Water 2/3 full in pop bottles will last all year round and not break.
    A good knife so you can make foam clothing out of your seats to keep warm. Or take your Fortress Clothing with you when you go for the trip.
    Empty all rain barrels after first frost you will not have splits in the bottoms.

  9. This has to go in the “don’t do what I did” column. If you are getting older, don’t move from a warm area to your dream homestead in colder northern areas. I don’t care how much better the prices are! We did that and found I (wifey) was the only one that could do the heavy stuff like shovel snow and tote wood due to hubbies copd. Within a couple of years I couldn’t do it either. So all our work on fixing the place up was for nothing when we had to sell and move south. Now we’re starting over again and remembering all the things we did that we are having to do again. At least make sure you understand totally what is involved living in a cold climate. Maybe just go and visit in the middle of winter for awhile.

    1. I am so sorry!

      I do not know if many folks know but if you have a little place and some skills you can pass on, you can usually sign up for “WOOF-ing” and get loads of help… I have had ppl come help build out buildings and chop wood and just so much more. Many just camp out, we feed them .. Later we used woof-ers to build a small dormitory type sleeping quarters for the next group. I initially thought they could be used to help take over some jobs my parents can no longer do round the homestead, but they really are more useful than I had ever imagined. I have a few that come back every year!
      I am big on privacy.. But no man, or woman is an island. I do also background check and keep them at a distance … They do not get full access… Its your property, your rules.
      I have had no problems, mainly kids that want to learn lost skills.. It used to be that a man was a man if he could build a house and take care if Hus family with Hus skills..now its all about can he buy buy buy…most of the kid’s I have had visit just want to grow food and tend chickens… Learn to beekeep..build a sturdy barn or small house.
      Especially for some of us that cannot get to our dream homestead til later in life I think this can be a really useful option. If you are someone in your golden years, check it out…well..anybody with something to teach, any projects that could teach someone a new skill…give it a looksie.

  10. Quote:
    “At temps that low, any exposed skin can suffer frostbite in just a matter of minutes. This means you need to protect yourself with not only hats, coats, and gloves but scarves and earmuffs as well.”

    Keep some fat rich creme as well in your emergency kit to protect skin from frostbites!

    off t.
    For owners of feathered live stock:
    feeding water must be lukewarm to cold to prevent frostbites in the beaks. (because warm water expands their beak vessels and makes these sensitive against frost)

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