Severe weather and natural disasters can throw a huge monkey wrench into your prepping plans. That’s why we’ve compiled this in-depth guide to surviving harsh winter – preppers edition.
When we think about prepping, we often focus on simply the loss of conveniences: electricity, supermarkets, etc. And of course, the loss of those conveniences can be devastating.
However, it’s also important to recognize that the loss of these conveniences can have a great deal more impact if it occurs when external conditions are more extreme.
To begin, we’re going to make a couple of “worst case” assumptions. Namely, that you don’t have the advantage of say, a revolutionary geothermal power generator or an epic solar array. We’re also going to assume that the winter will be at least somewhat lengthy about 3-5 months of snow and low temperatures.
So let’s explore this guide to surviving winter – preppers edition
Your Bug Out Kit
The very first thing you need to consider if you might face a harsh winter in a survival situation is your bug out kit. Why?
Well, there are a few reasons but the most pertinent is this: blizzards are unpredictable and can be absolutely hostile when it comes to traveling anywhere.
The unpredictability of winter storms means that you could be caught anywhere at any time and you may not know whether the storm is going to blow through in fifteen minutes, or dump snow on you for three days.
Here are your bug out kit must-haves—and you must-have your bug out kit with you at all times in the winter, inside or outside your cottage.
Remember that bit about how easy it is to get lost? It’s absolute imperative that you have a compass on you in the winter. (And that you know how to use it, so learn, if you haven’t already). Just being able to tell the cardinal directions can keep you on track and prevent you from getting turned around in a whiteout, even if you don’t have a map with you to do orientation.
- An Emergency Bivouac/Bivvy
A bivvy is a very compact emergency shelter—little larger than a sleeping bag. They’re lined with heat reflective material to make the most of your body heat. There are a few things you should look for in your bivvy (and don’t skimp on it).
Look for a bivvy that’s both waterproof and breathable. Waterproofing is necessary for obvious reasons—all that heat reflection isn’t going to do you much good if icy, melted snow is soaking through the material.
Check the body heat reflective rating on it as well. You want one that’s at least 90% reflective. Finally, choose one that’s bright and easily seen in an emergency situation so that rescuers are more likely to find you.
- Emergency Stove
An emergency stove is a must in cold weather conditions, if for no other reason than to melt snow or ice for water. The energy expenditure you need to melt the snow with your body heat can actually lead to further dehydration.
And, if you keep it up, you’ll find yourself with hypothermia on top of being dehydrated—a potentially deadly situation. This doesn’t have to be pricey. In fact, there are plenty of resources available to help you make your own. An industrial sized vegetable can will work, with the right fuel.
- Ignition Source and Fuel for Emergency Stove
When choosing your emergency stove, look for one that uses highly portable fuel, because you’re going to want to have that handy, too. Sterno or similar fuels can be a life saver. Look for a fuel compatible with your stove, of course. And of course, your favorite ignition source, whether it be a good supply of waterproof matches or a sturdy lighter.
- An Extra Set of Winter Clothing
Hopefully you’re already dressed appropriate for the climate. However, stuff happens, and wet clothing can be a death sentence in cold conditions.
A base layer (thermal long johns, for example), and a mid-layer (like a thermal diver suit or fleece top and bottom) are ideal. Your outerwear, which you should already have with you, will likely be waterproof/resistant.
- A Metal Container for Water
First, you may need to have a metal container to melt snow. Second, your usual portable filter may not be up to snuff in negative temperatures, so you may need to boil your water.
- Folding Portable Emergency Shovel
Aside from having a million and one other uses, an emergency shovel is good for shoveling the snow away from your sleeping/resting area. If you know how to do so SAFELY, it’s also a good tool for constructing a show cave.
- Emergency Rations
Calorie dense, non-perishable foods like MREs (Meals ready to eat), which don’t require cooking. Make room for at least 5k calories worth of rations—but if you can fit more, go for it.
- Emergency Blankets and Shelter
Yes, you have your bivvy, but there’s no reason not to carry a few Mylar blankets and a lightweight tarp, too. A transparent sheet of heavy duty plastic works as well, and lets you get a little extra warmth from the sun.
- Emergency Rope
You should always have a few lengths of rope on you, and a good fifty feet of paracord is the perfect solution.
- Roll of Duct Tape
Because things break, and duct tape is the universal fixer. Seriously, though, it can be a great tool to have on hand if your shelter, bivvy, or clothing tears and you need a quick and reliable way to seal it back up.
- Folding Saw/Serrated Heavy Duty Knife
If you can build a fire using readily available fuel, do it—save your Sterno for when you can’t.
- Hand Crank Flashlight
- Sunglasses and Sunscreen
Yes, we know it’s not a trip to the beach—but sunburn can indeed be debilitating, and in a bright, snowy landscape, you’re getting it from all directions. Not only that, but snow blindness does happen.
Yes, it’s quite a haul—but if you’re caught away from home base, it could mean the difference between life and death. Speaking of the home place…
Surviving the Winter in Your Home Place
If you’ve been prepping right, you’re probably set as far as food and general supplies (and we’ll assume you are, because you’re not going to have a lot of options with a ton of snow on the ground). We’ll go over a few things you might have overlooked, however. But first, this very important note:
Don’t travel far from your home base during winter in a snow belt area unless you have to. Just don’t! Limiting yourself to about a two mile radius around your home base may be the smartest thing you do all winter, and yes, have your compass with you at all times, and your bug out bag if you’re going any distance at all. If you have to go further than two miles away, over prepare. Pack extra food, extra clothing, etc. While packing light is generally wise, severe snow storms almost always mean you have to hunker down, and you won’t know how long you’ll have to hunker for.
- Toilet Paper (warning: some graphic words)
Yes, you have quite a supply (hopefully) if you’re a career prepper or even just as a regular cottager like us – but you know that it will, eventually, run out.
In the summer months, washing after elimination (if you have a good, renewable water supply, and you should) is the obvious solution, but in the winter, water can be at a premium.
Reusable toilet “paper” (i.e. rags) can be a good solution. No, you won’t be able to wash it immediately if water is short, but you can freeze it while it’s cold enough outside, until it’s more convenient to wash.
Don’t restrict gathering fuel to task specific needs in the warmer months. You’re going to need a lot more than you think when the weather turns cold, so get while the getting is good.
Even if your home place is in a wooded area, you might be snowed in for weeks or longer, or not be able to range far enough to continue gathering wood.
Five cords will generally get you through the winter, but there’s really no such thing as too much on hand, as long as it’s stored properly.
Another issue is that chopping and splitting wood in negative temps is going to burn up far more calories than you need to be spending during the most difficult months of the year for food gathering.
- Wood Storage
You’ll notice I’m using “fuel” and “wood” as synonyms here. If your home place isn’t in a wooded area, presumably you’ve figured out other options, but it should be.
Other sources of fuel, like propane, will be snapped up quickly in a situation where extreme prepping is necessary, so it’s not ideal to depend upon it plus it can be costly.
So, wood it is. Now, if you’re storing as much wood as you possibly can, a significant amount of it is going to be outside. That said, wet wood has to dry, and cold wood doesn’t work well as kindling.
That means that you need space inside for a week or more worth of wood. We start our storing halfway in the summer. Storing some wood inside means you can avoid having to dry/warm wood in the event that you need a fire now.
You don’t need to keep it indoors all year, of course. But having some indoors for winter also means you don’t need to open the door to let heat out during the worst of a storm. Make sure to guard your woodpile with rat and mouse traps, too.
We’re hoping you have a store of treated water at any given time, but we’d be remiss not to discuss how to leverage snowfall. Remember that to melt snow, you must either do so slowly (starting with a cool pan) or add liquid water and then add snow slowly.
And ventilate well! Even melting snow can create a lot of water vapor, humidity can be a huge problem in cold climates.
If you live in a climate with a harsh winter (Hello Haliburton County!), you need to up your food gathering and preservation skills in preparation for the cold months.
Don’t just do the bare minimum, or plan on using up non-perishables that you’ve saved from before—because winter will come again and again.
Also, research hunting, fishing, and winter food sources for the region around your home base now. During the fall, when harvests are coming in, you won’t be pondering the intricacies of ice fishing, for example.
Ideally, you won’t need to gather much food outdoors during the winter, but then again, things aren’t always ideal. Plus, on those nice days, being able to get out a bit and be productive can be a great break.
- Entertainment and Sedentary Projects
A prepper’s life is rarely boring, because there’s always something to do, right? Well, usually. In winter, however, much of your prepping playground—i.e. the entire world outside of home base—may be unavailable for weeks or even months at a time.
Winter is the time for repairing things, small and large, indoors, and even then, you may find yourself bored. Keep yourself mentally active with whatever you have at hand.
Favorite books, craft supplies, and other activities can keep you from succumbing to cabin fever. I love coloring books! It is not just for kids anymore. And it’s fun to do it along side the kiddos!
Shrink Your Home Base
Not literally, of course. But during cold weather, minimizing the space you’re heating is important. Choose the best room for your “hibernation cave.” Cover windows with Mylar blankets to reflect heat back inward.
Plastic sheets, hung like curtains (split down the middle, and overlapping) in doorways can help keep heat from escaping.
These might seem like minor things, but they can greatly extend your fuel resources, and will certainly enhance your comfort. Remember, while sealing off drafts, etc. that you still need to have adequate ventilation for cooking.
This is something that may come back to bite preppers that aren’t familiar with deep snowfall. Is it harder to build a steeply pitched roof for your home base? It sure is. Is it worth it? Well, if you’re expecting any significant amount of snow, yes. Very much so.
And keep it in good repair. Roofers aren’t going to be on call if you’re in a situation that you need to be prepped for.
Even with a pitched roof, you may have to get up there to sweep or shovel heavy snow off or face a catastrophic failure at your home base—but the less you have to do so, the better.
Remember, even shoveling snow on flat ground comes with risks of over exertion and wastes calories; doing it from the roof also comes with risks of falls and other injuries.
Have a Mid-Winter Celebration
Whether it’s Christmas, or just an “I need to cheer up” day, have yourself a little celebration mid-winter. Is it strictly necessary for survival?
No, of course not. But there’s a reason that so many cultures have a mid-winter celebration. An example is our very own, Haliburton’s Winter Festival, and in many other places all over Ontario.
Winter is hard. It can be isolating. It can be depressing. Wrap yourself a few “goodies” back in the fall to save for your celebration, and save a few treats from your rations for that special day.
Staying happy and upbeat in a survival situation might not provide calories, shelter, or water, but it’s still necessary. Deep depression can strike during the winter months regardless of whether or not we’re in a survival situation.
After all, your mind is the most important tool you have. You want it to be working at its full potential, and that means taking care of it.
The winter months aren’t easy, of course, but they do come with their own comforts.If you’re well prepared, the winter months can be a time of rest that you don’t really have during the warmer seasons.
They’re also a time to plan and mentally prepare for spring and summer. Keep a journal, and a calendar.
Take notes on difficulties you faced, so that you can be better prepared for the next year, as well. And as always, keep prepping!