Updated: Jan 19
We are getting ready for our first winter storm of the year. Granted, we are in Kansas, and we don't get weather like many of the rest of the states but, part of being self-reliant is preparing for whatever comes our way.
Our local news stations do not have the experience that Northerner newscasters have with snow and ice, so we always prepare for the worst-case scenario. In 2002 we had an ice storm that knocked power out for five days, and I will never forget how unprepared I was and what a miserable experience I had after the fun wore off in the first 24 hours. In 2012 I was better prepared but we almost lost everything because of a generator taking a hike.
So what do we do? Well, as homesteaders, we don't have to shop for food, and I must admit this takes most of the joy or excitement out of prepping for a storm. I think most people experience more food excitement over storm excitement. Everyone should have several months of food stocked up in this day and age, considering how unstable the food chain is. We all saw what happened in the event of a two-week lockdown. It will not be the last. If all you can afford is an extra bag of rice or dried beans each month, it is something to add to your pantry stores.
I'm assuming you have your meat (if that is your thing), bread, butter, eggs, sugar, and milk. I have watched over a hundred videos on YouTube about being prepared, and I assume most are newbies or haven't actually experienced living without daily essentials in the household. They have basic items, and all preach the same few things. The rest are rouge, hardcore military enthusiasts, off-grid fanatics, and hardened preppers who don't mind pooping on sawdust in a cardboard box. These people are not my tribe. I like comfort and luxury, so let's go through my checklist that I do every winter.
Generator: Having a generator is essential these days. China attacks our power grid relentlessly, as do storms year-round. Our power grid was build in the 1950s, and we still depend on all of those weak points. Even though we see new substations - power has to make it through the old ones to get to new ones. Just owning a generator isn't the end of it. Servicing it regularly (every three months) keeps it ready to go. Not being able to start it when you need it can quickly turn into a nightmare. Newer generators have a hidden vent lock in the cap. If your generator won't run for more than a few minutes or runs very rough, look for this vent in the cap.
Chock your generator if it doesn't have wheels, especially if it does have wheels, and never store gas cans anywhere near it. In the snowstorm of 2012, our generator ran all night to keep an incubator running in the house. As the tank emptied, the unit became lighter and began to shake, which walked it down the front porch, right up next to the house and the gas cans on stand-by. The exhaust muffler burned a pinhole in the top of a half-full gas can right as the generator ran out of gas. Five more minutes and we would have been homeless and/or possibly dead.
SECURE YOUR GENERATOR.
Gas: We keep several gas tanks on hand with fresh gas. Gas does not keep more than a few months, even when treated. Try to find ethanol-free gas for storage. If you are a high-roller and can afford it, buy benzine free gas. It is the only kind of gas with a long storage life. Benzine is the chemical in gas that hardens plastics and ruins diaphragms, not ethanol. Ethanol is what gooks things up and chars your spark arrestor. (You can remove them for cleaning with a propane torch to get your 2-cycle engine breathing again).
Never leave your spark arrester off. Forest fires do happen. You don't want your name going down in history with a wildfire. We also make sure to keep 2-cycle oil on hand for chainsaws. We may need to remove limbs or cut firewood.
Don't forget gas stations lose power too. Most stations do not have emergency back-up power. You can not get gas if the power is out at your house and the nearest station. You may have to drive across town or in some cases, the county, on slick or debris-covered roads, for gas. It is important to keep some on hand and your vehicle tank full.
Extension cords: Heavy-duty extension cords should be kept with your emergency equipment. We have heavy-duty cords zip-tied to the top of our generators. This keeps us from looking for them in the middle of the night or during an ongoing storm. Heavier cords help distribute the energy better than thin cheap cords that heat up when in use. Thin cords are also easier for mice to chew on, creating the possibility of an electrical fire.
Heat sources: Always know your heat sources and how to run them. Don't try to figure it out on the fly. Your generator can only push so many watts. Is a small space heater going to work better than a few heated blankets on high? I always keep hot-hands in stock. If you can't afford a generator, buy them and stock up on them when they go on sale in spring. They can keep for years. They work amazingly well on cold hands or feet, especially at night if you can't get your house up to temperature. Putting them on your lower back near your kidneys can help pump warm blood all over your body. They also work well for chicks and chickens in extreme emergencies but do not regularly use them as they can ruin an animal's outdoor acclimation.
Check your, or GET a carbon monoxide alarm. You need one even if you just have a regular fireplace, gas fireplace, or gas furnace. Gas furnaces and fireplaces can get blockages in vent pipes from snow and ice. In some cases, they can be half blocked by mice or wasp nests in the warm months and may cause problems with any added frozen precipitation. Chimneys on standard fireplaces can slowly backdraft when there isn't a good pull up the flu when the fire starts to go out, sending carbon monoxide into the house instead of up the chimney. Fully enclosed woodstoves can produce a violent backdraft. Closing the damper quickly on a red-hot fire causes the coals to demand air to breathe, sometimes hours after closing. The backdraft can be hard enough to pop open a lid or door at night, leaving it ajar, releasing carbon monoxide (we know this from personal experience). If you are lucky, you will awaken to a smoke smell; if you don't, you are dead.
Propane burners are NOT to be used indoors without ventilation! YES! Your Lil' Buddy propane heater is clean burning! Just like your gas grill outside! But you wouldn't use that in the house! They are designed for open hunting blinds, drafty barns, and poorly insulated garages (where rising heat causes air exchange). This is why propane water heaters, heat pumps, RV refrigerators, and household gas furnaces and heat pumps have a vented stack that goes OUTSIDE.
Kerosene heaters also use up the oxygen in the air while creating carbon monoxide. Ever tried to light a kerosene heater with a full tank to watch the fire dim and extinguish? There isn't enough oxygen in the room to keep a fire lit—open windows. Get a carbon monoxide detector.
Food Prepping: I make sure I have a few meals lined out to easily cook on the woodstove in winter or the camp stove in summer. I find it fun being creative with new culinary challenges that come with power outages. Last summer, I made fajitas on the front porch with the air-fryer from an auxiliary plug on the generator during a thunderstorm—plan for easy-to-cook pan meals or boiled meals such as noodles or rice. In my youth, more than once, I was brought back to life from the brink of a freezing-death from a bowl of hot Top-Ramen. These days it is a healthy egg drop soup.
Warm drinks can raise body temperature in the winter such as cocoa, coffee, and tea. Learn how to make it without an appliance.
Freezers: Freezers are often forgotten when prepping for outages. To protect our freezers and keep them running efficiently, I freeze jugs full of water to keep the freezers filled to capacity. It cuts down on electricity cost to cool the empty spaces and serves as ice in a power outage.
A one-gallon jug is 8 pounds of ice—equivalent to a large bag of store-bought ice. This is an excellent way to double up drinking water storage as it doesn't require any treatment. I fill old laundry soap containers to be sure I have extra jugs to swap out if any thawing occurs. The more frozen jugs, the better. I can use them in coolers to keep my refrigerated items cold if I need to empty the fridge. Don't use jugs of frozen water in your refrigerator. You need to eliminate as much open air space as possible. Refrigerators work by circulating cool air around items. Without a fan, warm spots will develop in your fridge, leading to spoilage. Put a towel down in your cooler to catch condensation and tightly pack it with food and frozen jugs.
Blankets and cardboard can be used around the outside of a freezer for added insulation. Never, EVER leave anything covered or insulated other than the lid if the unit is running. Many freezers have cooling coils in the sides, which are intended to cool the unit by the ambient air temperature. Feel the sides of your deep freeze when it is running. You can feel the heat escaping. Coils used to be in the bottom in the old-days but were moved to the sides and sealed in. This created a deeper bottom in the freezer (that some of us can't reach) and prevented dust build-up and mouse nests that could lead to overheating the compressor, possibly leading to fire. Only cover sides when there is an outage. Lastly, use the outdoor temperatures to your advantage in the winter. If your freezers are outside and it freezes at night, open them.
If you have food in your house freezer, put it in a cooler or trash can with a fresh liner outside on your deck or porch. Never use trash bags for food contact. They are treated with pesticides and harmful chemicals to prevent toxins in the environment. Your grill is also a cold chamber if the temperatures are freezing. You can also set food on a table in your garage with the garage door cracked to keep food cold or frozen. Food safe temperatures are in the 40's for refrigerated items. Even if the forecast calls for some low fifties, you will be alright if you can let your items get very cold at night and close off the area to retain a few extra degrees while the day warms up. You can also cover them with blankets during warmer hours. Keep all food items out of the sun at all times, no matter the room temperature. Solar activity is not recorded in ambient air temperatures. Your thermometer may say 38-degrees in the room, but it can be 68-degrees in the sun. Anything in the sun is a hot-spot. This is why our critters like to lay in the sunny spots in the house.
Batteries: Batteries seem obvious to have on hand, but it goes a lot deeper these days. We have a portable emergency cell. It has all the charging adapters, a small battery jumper, flashlight, and USB port. Solar chargers are nice, but in the event of a storm, it is usually cloudy, and in winter, solar power weakens. These power cells are also handy in the vehicle. If your vehicle dies or you have to abandon it, you can still charge your phone.
All media devices get charged before storms, along with all of the rechargeable tool batteries in the garage. It can take a full day of swapping batteries on and off the charger, but it is worth not having to unplug a heater or A/C unit to charge a drill battery if you need to repair something when the power is out. The flashlights that come with these lithium batteries are also essential.
Housekeeping: A HUGE part of storm prepping for me is housekeeping. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a filthy house that you can't clean for days on end, and going out isn't much of an option because many businesses will also be without power.
Don't forget; there will be no hot water. Even propane water heaters require electricity to spark the ignition on the heater and to shut it off. I do all of the laundries to be sure we can make it at least a week without needing clean clothes. Not having a clean sweatshirt or socks puts an end to winter fun quite quickly. Towels are always used in abundance during any storm because they are usually associated with precipitation, so I always have a clean stack on the ready. I even wash all of the rugs to help prepare for the extra traffic in and out. I also wash all of the dog blankets. It helps keep the house fresh when it is quiet and still. Then, I vacuum. I vacuum right up until the storm hits. Clean floors make the home more pleasant for extended stays and prevent cabin fever.
Lastly, I prepare for hot water with a large pot. If you are heating water on a grill or propane burner, be sure to find a pot without plastic handles. Grills and propane burners roll heat up on the outside of a pot, unlike household stoves that mostly or entirely cover the burner, so beware of hot handles. You can use this water for cooking, dishwashing, and bathing.
Personal hygiene is also important during an outage. Bathing in a pot of warmed water can be time-consuming if you have a large family. Baby-wipes make for quick and easy dry showers. Adults can use a shot of vodka on a facecloth for underarm care. Hand sanitizer works in a pinch but tends to burn and often has many impurities that can be harmful if overused. Use it sparingly.
Outdoor chores: We always prepare critters for the weather. I triple check housing and fence for security and supply additional water and food. I do my best to secure the bees, but I have had to get up in the middle of the night to ensure our beehive entrance isn't blocked with ice or snow. I check the downspouts to be sure they will drain and are properly draining away from the house. I make sure all hoses are removed from faucets and inspect the crawlspace door to be sure it is sealed correctly.
Water lines: If the power does go out, you need to protect your water lines. Open cabinet doors below sinks and drip BOTH hot and cold water. Hot and cold water run on separate lines, and both need to keep moving. Dripping the hot water a little more than the cold water can keep your water heater from freezing up if it is on an outside wall and not in a basement. Lastly, if you think it may get down to freezing temperatures in a part of your house with a bathroom, drip the shower or tub head. Then, take the lid off the toilet tank and adjust the stack inside with a screwdriver or with your fingers by turning the knob or screw to let the toilet overfill and drizzle into the toilet a little. Don't worry; the toilet won't overflow. Gravity will keep it draining into the P-trap, keeping it from freezing, and it will drain out of your house. This will keep your tank from freezing and cracking. Turning off the water and flushing it doesn't remove water from the P-trap (squiggle in the bottom that prevents sewer gasses from coming up) of the toilet, which can still freeze and crack.
Techies: Don't forget to save your work, back up your computers, and turn them off. Storms can bring low or blinking electrical voltage that can damage devices without surge protectors. If you have a high-end TV it should also be on a surge protector or unplugged. I use to go as far as to unplug my washer and drier when I owned a fancy model with computer components. I rather live without TV than a washer and drier.
Pets and Kids: My pets are my kids, and I care for them as such. When anticipating a storm, I do my best to make sure my kids get plenty of exercise. Knowing we will be cooped up in the house together for a few days or possibly weeks, I plan ahead on the day of the storm for as much outside activity as possible. Even if it is in several spurts through the day, they are more likely to be calm and tired when the storm hits, allowing me to focus on staying on point. Games are essential for both kids and animals, so I try to keep something new and exciting hidden away for such an occasion. I don't recommend busy-bones or Kongs with new and exciting snacks for animals because it may increase bathroom needs when no one wants to go outside.
I like to keep the wild birds fed all year long. They are very active at the feeder in the winter months and are a source of endless entertainment. It is important to not only provide them with food but also fresh water. Eating snow lowers their body temperature. House-temperature water helps gently hydrate them. Do not give them warm or hot water. Their bodies will try to cool their overly-warm bellies which will lower their entire body temperature making recovery a harder. Warm water also encourages them to stand in it, which can ball up and freeze on their feet once they leave the waterer. I have found a few wild birds hiding in our barns in the winter with icy feet that had killed them.
Kids love snacks, and under careful supervision, using the fireplace, outdoor grill, or propane stove is a great way to cook a hotdog, piece of bologna, or s'more on a stick. If you are worried about making a mess, line your fireplace hearth or propane grill with aluminum foil; just remember it will get hot. The more creative you are, the more your kids will remember how you went out of your way to provide entertainment. Just don't forget to involve your kids; they have a survival instinct that needs nurturing too. Have them help think of ways to cook, keep warm, entertained, and most of all, enjoy each other's company.
Are you interested in homestead life? Visit my homestead website growingbacktotheland.com and see how we live off the land by growing all of our food. For a full non-fiction modern-day homestead reality adventure in book form, Growing Back to the Land is available on Amazon in e-book and paperback forms.