Winter is a fun season for many people. Sledding, snowboarding, skiing, and building snowmen are some of the best winter activities. But unfortunately it’s not always fun and games. Every year in the United States, approximately 536,731 crashes occur, 136,309 people get injured in car crashes, over 1,836 others are killed due to icy road conditions. Without a doubt, it’s important to prepare for winter weather emergencies, but where do you start? What many people really want to know is:
How do you survive a snowstorm?
In order to survive a winter storm, you should winterize your home and car, make an emergency family plan, prepare an emergency kit with enough supplies to last you a week or more, dress appropriately, and take safety precautions during the storm. In this article, we will discuss each of these points in detail.
[This is a long article about becoming prepared for winter storms, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here. And don't forget to download your free checklist at the end!]
Extreme cold and snow facts
- The Earth is closest to the sun during the month of January and farthest away during the month of July. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, that means that you’re closer to the sun in winter and farther away in the summer.
- The coldest temperature ever recorded in the United States was -80°F (-62°C). This occurred on January 23, 1971, in Alaska.
- Hawaii is the only US state where below-zero temperatures have never been recorded.
- The deadliest blizzard recorded in world history was the February 1972 Iran Blizzard that killed more than 4,000 people after a week-long winter storm dumped 10 to 26 feet of snow in 200 villages.
- The largest amount of casualties related to a winter storm in the US are linked to the Great Blizzard of 1888 in which more than 400 people died.
- Snow is not white- it’s actually translucent.
Winter storm terms you should know
There are different types of winter storms, such as freezing rain, snowstorms, ice storms, and blizzards. The following descriptions will give you insight into what classifications are used to distinguish them.
Cold rain: Cold rain refers to water droplets that travel mostly in frozen form because the atmosphere is so cold. The closer they get to us, however, the temperature change melts them into raindrops.
Sleet: Sleet is defined slightly differently, depending on which English-speaking country you’re at. In the United States it’s when a water drop begins as a frozen particle, then melts because it comes into contact with a section of warm air, and finally re-freezes by the time it reaches the ground. It’s a precursor to freezing rain. In Australia and other Commonwealth countries, it’s defined as a mixture of snow and rain.
Freezing rain: During a winter storm, the air might be a bit warmer than the surface of the earth. For this reason, it might be raining above, but upon contact with any cold surface, the raindrop turns into ice. That’s known as freezing rain.
Ice storm: An ice storm refers to a storm of freezing rain. As the raindrops freeze over a surface, they accumulate. Driving conditions can become extremely dangerous during ice storms because the roads become like thick sheets of ice. Ice accumulating on power lines, trees, and infrastructure can cause widespread damage and outages.
Snow: In its simplest terms, snowflakes are tiny clusters of ice crystals. Snow is composed of water and 90 to 95% of trapped air. A forecast of “snow” means that there will be continuous snowfall and likely accumulation.
Snow flurry: A flurry means that there will be intermittent periods of light snowfall. With flurries, little snow accumulation is expected.
Snow shower: A show shower is a step above a flurry. It refers to short periods of snowfall but the snow accumulation expected is between low and moderate.
Snowstorm: A snowstorm relates to a certain period of heavy snow accumulation. In many cases, there is the possibility of gusty winds as well. Do not confuse a snowstorm with a blizzard- there’s a difference so we’ll get to that next.
Blizzard: A blizzard is the more intense version of a snowstorm. A snowstorm is classified as a blizzard when it meets the following criteria: it must include sustained wind speeds of over 35 miles per hour and cause reduced visibility of less than one-fourth of a mile.
Snow squall: A snow squall is like a short version of a blizzard. Snow squalls have the potential to dump large amounts of snow in about 30 minutes or less. They also include gusts of wind that can reach up to 50 miles per hour. Snow squalls are quick yet random storms that can occur at a moment’s notice and may catch people by surprise. Another term you may hear used interchangeably with snow squall is “whiteout conditions”.
Lake effect snow: Lake effect is a term used for heavy snowfall that occurs near the Great Lakes Region in the US. Lake effect snow is caused by the temperature difference between the air and the lake. The direction of the wind may dump several inches of snow in one area, and a few centimeters in a neighboring area. Lake enhancement snow means that a winter storm is combined with lake effect snow, so more snow is expected. In other words, lake enhancement snow is a step up from lake effect snow.
Winter storm watch: A watch is meant to inform the public of the possibility of a heavy storm developing or passing through a specific region. The National Weather Service typically issues winter storm watches 12 to 48 hours prior to a storm. When a watch is issued, make sure to begin preparing your supplies for sheltering-in-place, unless there’s another disaster that threatens your community and you have to evacuate. You should fill up your car with gas, get additional food and water, and fuel if you have a generator.
Winter storm advisory: A winter storm advisory means that there’s a high probability of an ice storm or heavy snowfall in a specific region. If an advisory is issued, continue with your plans to shelter-in-place. Gather all the necessary items to ride out the storm and add a few days to that. For instance, if the storm is forecasted to last 3 days, pack enough to supplies to cover your household for at least a week.
Winter storm warning: A winter storm warning means that heavy snowfall or ice is certainly expected. Take a warning very seriously. Limit your travel and time outdoors.
Current map of places experiencing winter storms
One of the best places to see a live map of a forecasted winter storm is on TV or possibly your local news channel website.
There are other radar maps out there but they’re not as clearly defined so they may be a little hard to follow if you’re looking into a specific region.
The National Weather Service has one of these radar maps that shows the direction of the storm but it’s very broad. Their full resolution map is frozen in time, so you have to click on a region to get more information about that area. And even after you get to the narrowed-down map, it doesn’t let you zoom in or out, so it’s still a bit vague.
AccuWeather also has a radar map but this one too is frozen in time. The cool thing about that map is that it shows you what type of weather is expected, whether it’s snow, ice, rain, or a combination. It lets you zoom in down to street level.
What to expect during extreme cold temperatures
What are the effects of cold weather on the human body?
The body can experience a wide range of symptoms from being exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Some of the effects include:
- Reduced blood flow beginning with your extremities and possibly working its way to other parts of your body
- Ear pain
- Bronchospasms—an irritation of the airways when breathing in cold air
- Heart problems
One of the ways to prevent weather-related health problems is by remembering to dress appropriately when going out in the cold. Make sure to wear layers, and use a warm pair of mittens or gloves, socks, and a beanie. Don’t wear wet clothes on for too long- always keep an extra change of clothes in the car if you’re traveling.
Assess your body when you’re out in the cold for long periods of time. Make sure you maintain sensation in your fingers, toes, nose, etc. If you begin to feel weird— either strong heart palpitations, uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, shallow breathing— then you might be experiencing the initial symptoms of hypothermia. Get help as soon as possible.
Can extreme cold cause power outages?
Yes. Power outages can happen any time of year but during extreme cold temperatures it makes life a bit more difficult. Hypothermia can occur whether you're indoors or outdoors, your home’s water pipes may burst, and your comfort level might diminish. Power outages during cold temperatures can be caused by a number of things. In some cases, severe winter storms can damage or break power lines. In other cases, there could be a city-wide overload of electricity usage—for instance, too many people cranking up their heaters or appliances and the power plants unable to keep up with production. It’s important to be prepared for power outages, especially during the winter season. Don’t miss this guide on power outage preparedness!
Can I start my car in extreme cold?
Cold weather can make it difficult for your car to start. Sometimes the problem has to do with an old or worn-out battery, the engine oil becoming thick in cold temperatures, a clogged carburetor, or perhaps something else. I recommend you take your car to a trusted mechanic for a routine checkup and inspection one month prior to the winter season. A month should give you enough time to make any necessary fixes. Learn how to care for your car during extreme weather and use the proper fluids, such as antifreeze.
How to mitigate extreme cold weather
It’s highly encouraged that you protect yourself and your home, vehicles, and other valuable personal property to withstand the winter weather and accompanying storms. These are some ideas to help you get started.
1. Protect your home from extreme cold. Prior to the winter season, make sure to winterize your home.
- Most homes have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms already installed but they should be checked every six months. A good way to keep track of the six-month checkup date is by inspecting it at the beginning of fall and the beginning of spring. Set a calendar event on your phone so you don’t forget about it in the future.
- Prevent water pipes from freezing. Drain all the patio hoses and shut off the water access to areas that are not insulated. As for your indoor pipes, maintain a “warm” temperature in your home (between 55°F and 65°F). In extreme cold, you should allow your faucets to drip in order to prevent them from becoming frozen—a trickle of water should do the trick. Winterize your washing machine to prevent the internal pipes from freezing.
- Do a home walk-through. Go around your house (inside and outside) and look at the insulation and caulking of your windows/ doors. Feel around the seal to make sure there’s no draft. Even a small crack or opening can be significant enough to put a dent in your electricity bill. Repair the holes yourself or call a professional if you need help.
- Install thermal-pane windows. Thermal-pane windows are a bit pricey since they’re energy-efficient, they’ll save you money in the long run. Thermal windows are insulated so they help maintain the internal temperature of your home and keep the external temperature out. In other words, if it’s warm inside, it’ll stay warm longer than if you have single-pane windows.
- Do a property maintenance sweep. Cut any overhanging branches near your roof. Clean out the eavestroughs to allow proper drainage of rain and snow. [You may need to clean these out during a storm as well to prevent roof damage.]
- Have your chimney, fireplace, wood stove, and electric heaters inspected prior to the winter season. This will ensure your safety and reduce the risk of a fire.
- Implement ways to stay warm without the worry of ending up with a huge electricity bill. Here are some tips— 37 to be exact!
- If you’re planning to go on a trip anytime during the winter season, drain all the water pipes to prevent them from freezing. Also, have a trusted relative or neighbor check on your house periodically to make sure everything is fine.
2. Protect your vehicle from extreme cold. Winter can be especially hard on vehicles, especially if you don’t have a garage to keep them in. Talk to your mechanic about ways to winterize your vehicle— their opinions will be based on the conditions that your car is in. These are some general tips:
- Check your tires for two things. First, make sure the tread is still good.
- Get winter tires. Some people have two sets of tires- the all-season tires are good year-round but the winter tires are specially made for winter weather and snowy/ icy road conditions. The tread is a bit different. If you live in an extreme cold prone climate, it might be worth the investment. Always carry the appropriate chains for your car.
- Inspect the car battery. Extreme weather temperatures (both hot and cold) can cause faster deterioration of your battery. Measure the voltage of your battery—it should be at 12.6 volts or higher. Also, make sure the battery terminals and cables are not corroded and if needed, clean them out (very carefully). Firestone has a cool feature on their website called the Virtual Car Battery Test. All you have to do is add the basic information they request, like the car’s make, model, engine, and year, and you’ll get a review on how much life could still be left in your battery. Of course, it’s only an approximation, but it helps!
- Add new antifreeze to the car. It’s recommended that you clean out the coolant and add fresh antifreeze once a year.
- Get winter windshield wipers and use a fluid approved for winter to prevent it from freezing.
- Check the brakes, brake fluid, motor oil, exhaust, the defroster, heater, and the headlights.
- To add one last helpful tip, always keep at least a half-full tank of gas or more.
3. Build an emergency kit with the essentials to cover you for at least 7 to 14 days. Two weeks might sound like an exaggeration but remember that many people only have enough food in their pantry to last them a week, if not less. The stores will be very crowded right before and after the storm. Save yourself the time and trouble, and stockpile plenty so you can avoid all of the hassles later on. Keep reading to see my suggestions on which items you should add to your snowstorm survival kit.
4. Make an emergency plan with your family. Consider the possibility of a power outage occurring during extreme cold. How will you prepare for that? Also, consider that a storm might roll in harder than forecasted. If you’re at work, or your kids are at school, how will you become reunited during the storm? I encourage every family to discuss a communication and reunification plan. Click here for ideas on how to do that. Always include your children in the planning process so they know what to do in the event of a crisis. Make sure to create an evacuation plan together. You should decide two or three different places where you will go (whether it be a shelter or a friend/ relative’s house) in case it becomes unsafe for you to ride out the storm at home.
5. Make sure your insurance policy covers damage caused by winter storms. Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance might cover the “sudden and accidental” discharge of water from your plumbing, so this may include frozen pipes but don’t just take my word for it. Call your insurance provider and get a definite answer from them.
Cold weather safety tips
Staying safe should become your priority in extremely cold temperatures. Being outdoors during a winter storm is hazardous because of the risk of hypothermia, frostbite, and other weather-related illnesses as well as the dangers of driving under terrible conditions. If you’re preparing for a blizzard at home, you’ve already put yourself at a great advantage. If you must go outdoors during the storm, you’ll have to take extra precautions. We discuss how to stay safe under both scenarios here.
[For the sake of making this article less wordy, I will use the terms snowstorm and blizzard interchangeably here.]
Safety tips if you’re preparing for a blizzard at home:
- Drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Drinking alcohol dehydrates you, so drink less alcohol in winter or supplement with a lot more water.
- Drink hot teas and soups to maintain your body temperature.
- If you have a fireplace and aren’t using it, close the flue. This will prevent cold air from coming in and warm air from going out.
- Keep your house at an average temperature of 55°F to 65°F ish and wear more layers or bundle up in blankets.
- Use your wood fireplace for warmth and cooking. Yup, you read the second part right! My family is Argentine, so we’re big on barbecuing. During the winter season, we use the fireplace for grilling meat and veggies, as well as keeping warm. It’s a win-win! You can also make delicious meals on a cast iron skillet in the fireplace.
- Charge up your smartphone phone, electronic devices, radio, rechargeable batteries, etc. If there’s a power outage, texting and calling should still work but the device you’re using has to be charged. Solar chargers won’t help you much until the sun comes back out. So, while you still have power, keep all your devices fully charged!
- Create a cozy place for your pets. As much as my mini poodle doesn’t like using winter sweaters, it really helps to maintain his body heat especially when we’re out on walks. Get the necessary gear and blankets for your pets to keep them warm while they’re in the house and outside.
- Do not use a generator inside the house. It’s also a huge no-no to use them inside any closed space, like the garage or basement. It might be tempting to use a generator if the power goes out but you have to take the maximum safety precautions to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Safety tips if you’re outdoors during a blizzard:
- Stay hydrated!!
- Layer layer layer! When going outdoors, make sure to dress properly. This includes several layers to retain your body heat — think of yourself as an onion— as well as keeping your extremities warm.
- Clothing options include:
- A base layer: The base layer should be made from moisture-wicking fabrics to pull sweat and moisture away from your body, rather than making your clothes wet. Most people get thermal shirts and long underwear because they significantly help to insulate your body heat. Merino wool and synthetics are great materials for a base layer, but those are not your only choices. Just refrain from using cotton.
- A middle layer: Middle layers should include insulating fabrics, such as fleece or wool.
- An outer shell: Finally, your outer shell —otherwise known as a jacket— should be made from breathable materials that are waterproof and windproof.
- Keeping your feet, hands, and head warm:
- Socks: The best type of winter socks will be made from moisture-wicking materials (just like mentioned above for base layers). Synthetic fabrics are great, except that they’re not the best for reducing odors. Merino wool is better at keeping odors at bay- and when we’re talking about feet, that might be a great idea!
- Boots: Get waterproof boots. Before buying a pair, try them with a thick pair of socks.
- Mittens/ gloves: If you’re not going to be moving around too much, opt for mittens since they will keep your fingers warmer than gloves.
- Face mask: In blizzard-like weather, you’ll want to cover the majority of your face if possible. There are face masks made specifically for winter. You can get a feel for fabric types at an REI or sporting goods store, or get a few on Amazon.
- Beanie: Keep your head warm and insulated with a beanie.
- Earmuffs: If you don’t wear a beanie, at least cover your ears. For kids, I would advise you to use both. Your ears are very sensitive to the cold.
- Clothing options include:
- Once the storm has passed, shovel the path leading to your front door and the driveway. Use salt or rocks to safeguard against slipping on ice. Shoveling is a great exercise but it can be particularly hazardous for those with pre-existing health conditions. Take breaks regularly and drink plenty of water. Get someone to help you shovel if you can’t do it on your own.
- Build an igloo. Snow is a great insulator. If you build an igloo, and a few people get inside, it will trap in the body heat. It’s fun to do this with your kids as an alternative to snowmen. 😉
Safety tips when driving in a blizzard:
If you can avoid driving during a snowstorm, do so. When you’re faced with a major storm, I recommend talking to your employer and asking if you’re able to work from home during that time. Driving in hazardous conditions puts your life in danger, and quite frankly, it’s not worth it. Make arrangements prior to the storm and hibernate for a few days, if possible.
If you must drive anyway, consider these safety tips:
- Turn your headlights on- but not your brights. Having your low beams on while driving in stormy weather makes it much easier for other vehicles to see you. Do not use your brights because it blinds oncoming traffic. If you’re driving way under the speed limit, or the conditions are hazardous, use your flashing hazard lights. This should warn other drivers to reduce their speed before they catch up to you.
- Travel with caution. Drive carefully. If there’s limited visibility or the road conditions are messy, pull over wherever you see a safe turnout, side road, or shoulder. Do not stop in the middle of any road or highway.
- Drive under the posted speed limit.
- Take alternate routes. When you need to drive during a winter storm, try to take back roads and side streets if possible. Most people will be using the main road and highway, but if you’re driving short distances, you can avoid the traffic and possible pile-ups. Also, side streets have lower speed limits so going slow can make you feel more comfortable when driving in harsh winter conditions.
- Keep a distance of several car-lengths between you and the vehicle in front of you. When you need to brake, do so gently. Abrupt braking can cause you to skid and lose control of your vehicle. Also, breaking suddenly puts you at risk of getting rear-ended by the vehicle behind you.
- Keep your eyes open for the possibility of snow squalls which are sometimes unpredictable and can take you by surprise.
- Keep an emergency kit in your car at all times! Update it with the winter essentials a couple of weeks prior to the winter season. Learn more about preparing your vehicle for winter commutes here.
Winter preparedness kit must-haves
Now for a very important part of your preparedness process! It’s time to put together your snowstorm or blizzard survival kit— you can call it what you want.
In many cases, riding out a blizzard tends to happen at home. Unless another major disaster is threatening your community, it’s not very likely that you’ll have to evacuate. Sheltering-in-place is convenient because gives you a little more freedom in building your emergency kit. You don’t have to put a weight limit to something that you don’t need to carry in your car or on your back. On the other hand, prepare for an evacuation also because you just never know what can happen.
If you’re sheltering in place, you should stockpile enough supplies to last you at least two weeks. If you’re evacuating, take enough supplies with you to cover a minimum of 72 hours.
- Potable water: Save a minimum of one gallon of water per person in your household per day. A water tank like this one would be a great solution for a couple who wants to have a water storage backup for seven days. Two of those tanks would be ideal for a family of four preparing for a week. If you don’t have space for a tank, you can go for a water box. These can easily be stored in your pantry.
- Long-term food storage: Food can be stockpiled in several ways. Some people like to have a pantry full of cans and dried goods. If you store cans, always keep a can opener handy. These types of foods typically have a shelf life of two to three years. Most canned goods don’t require preparation so they’re easy for emergencies, but the problem is that they’re heavy, so consider the weight if you’re putting some in your evacuation kit. My favorite choice when it comes to storing food is long-term food buckets like these. They’re great because they’re hearty meals that are comfort foods. These meals take 15 minutes to prepare and only require water and heat to reconstitute. The best part is that they last for more than 20 years in the pantry. They’re freeze-dried so they won’t go bad as quickly as canned or boxed food from the grocery store. Forget about food rotation when you have one of these buckets! It can’t get more convenient than this.
- A stove and fuel kit: Don’t miss out on a cup of coffee, apple cider, or hot chocolate! Drinking hot beverages really help maintain your body warm. A stove and fuel kit like this one is great for indoor and outdoor use because it doesn’t produce toxic fumes. It also prepares meals in minutes. No power? No problem! With this kit, your cooking needs will be covered. [Random tip: Install carbon monoxide detectors in your house.]
- Plasticware and trash bags: Save yourself the hassle of dishes and silverware accumulating over the sink. Serve your meals in disposable plates and toss everything in large plastic bags.
- A bug-out kit: A bug-out kit, or evacuation kit, is essential for a quick evacuation. Put important supplies to help you survive for at least 72 hours. We recommend each person in your household have their own bug-out kit. Yup, one for each of your kids, elderly loved ones, disabled family members, and pets—whichever is applicable. These kits shouldn’t be too heavy in case you have to evacuate on foot.
- Flashlights, headlamps, and batteries: If the power goes out during a snowstorm, have a backup source of light. Whether it’s a flashlight or headlamp — headlamps are a preferred choice because it’s hands-free — you’ll feel at ease to not have to be in a pitch dark room by 5 PM.
- Complete first aid kit: This kit should contain items for taking care of basic wounds, such as bandages and compresses.
- Prescription medication: Talk to your doctor about this first! Figure out a solution for obtaining medical supplies and medication during extreme weather, in case you’re unable to make a trip to the pharmacy for a week or more.
- Toilet and sanitation kit: A toilet kit like this one ensures that your waste gets safely disposed of in the event of a power outage. Your health and sanitation is a priority, especially during a disaster.
- Appropriate winter clothes: Dress for the season! Using the tips mentioned above, switch out your fall wardrobe for clothing pieces made for extreme cold— it will make all the difference in the world, trust me!
- Wool blankets and sleeping bags rated for winter use: If there’s a power outage, your heater will stop working. Bundle up in a wool blanket or sleeping bag until the power is restored.
- Fire wood: If you have a fire place, make sure you keep plenty of dry firewood inside.
- NOAA Weather Radio: Stay updated with the current weather report. In the event of a power outage, you’ll have a backup radio to stay in tune with the news. [Remember to keep an extra set of batteries!] As a second option, you can download the NOAA Weather App on your smartphone. If wifi or your mobile data are working, the App will send you the most up-to-date notifications of watches, alerts, and warnings.
- Important documents: Whether you’re sheltering-in-place or evacuating, it’s always a smart idea to keep copies of your important documents in a secure waterproof container. Protecting your documents is a very important topic, which is why I dedicated an entire post to it. Read it here.
- A winter car emergency kit: If you have a vehicle, it’s possible that you’ll be driving it at some point or another during the winter season. Always keep a winter emergency kit in your car in case you encounter a roadside emergency. Learn here how to prepare your car for a winter commute.
If you stuck around this far, you are truly awesome!! To make this guide easier for you to remember, I made a checklist that highlights the most important points. Feel free to print it out and keep with your emergency supplies for easy access!
More resources related to extreme cold
- The first thing that goes UP during the winter is not the temperature, but your electricity bill! Learn how to stay warm while staying on a budget!
- A power outage could very well leave you in the dark, but don’t let it leave you hungry too. Look here for ideas on hearty meals you can prepare during an outage- no electricity required!
- If you're interested in learning more about power outage preparedness, look no further than here!!
Raise awareness on winter storm preparedness!
Hey! Brrrr-fore you go — do you have a friend or loved one who lives in a winter storm-prone climate? Please share this post to help them become prepared for extreme cold.
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Coldest temperature ever recorded in each US state — MSN
The 10 Worst Blizzards in US History — Live Science
The Worst Blizzards in World History — Ranker
Why Earth is Closest to Sun in Dead of Winter — Space
Lake Effect vs. Lake Enhancement — ABC News
Does Homeowners Insurance Cover Frozen Pipes? — McClain Insurance
Icy Road Accident Statistics — Icy Road Safety