Winter can be one of the most beautiful times of the year. Regardless of how you feel about the cold, a fresh blanket of snow can quickly turn the landscape into a winter wonderland. But, when all of that snow comes down in one massive storm, it can wreak havoc on our daily lives.
So, to help you and your family stay safe during a major snowstorm, I’ve put together the ultimate guide to winter storm survival, complete with tips and tricks for staying alive in the cold.
Table of Contents
Why You Need To Prepare For A Snowstorm
A major snowstorm is a serious natural disaster, and it requires as much preparation and consideration as you would give to an earthquake or a hurricane. While snowstorms will generally only happen during the winter months, year-round preparedness for any sort of natural disaster is critical.
But a snowstorm is just some flurries on the ground, right? What’s there to be prepared for? Well, it turns out that snowstorms can be incredibly dangerous. Plus, they cause thousands of fatalities every single year.
In fact, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) estimates that tens of thousands of people are killed or injured in snow-related car crashes each year. Here are some of their figures:
- 24% of weather-related vehicle collisions are on snowy, slushy, or icy roads
- 15% of vehicle collisions happen while it’s snowing or sleeting
- 1,300+ people are killed and 116,800 are injured on snowy, slushy or icy road each year
- 900+ people are killed and 76,000+ people are injured while it’s snowing or sleeting each year
Think that snowstorms only affect you if you’re on the road? Well, the Insurance Information Institute (III) estimates that winter storms can cause upwards of $10 billion dollars in damages each year in the US.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service estimates that 2,175 people died simply from winter storm exposure and cold from 1986 to 2018 in the United States.
Even if you live in the southeast United States or in a region where it rarely snows, severe winter storms do happen, and they do cause deaths and injuries each year. Our goal is to never be one of those statistics, so we need to be prepared for any snowstorm.
Preventing Hypothermia: How To Dress For Severe Cold And Snow
The main danger of a snowstorm, outside of a car crash, is getting caught outside without the right equipment.
Anyone who ends up outdoors in a snowstorm can easily succumb to hypothermia if they’re not prepared. The trick is having the right clothing and gear to stay alive, even in the worst blizzard imaginable.
What Is Hypothermia?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s talk a bit about what hypothermia is and how to prevent it.
Basically, hypothermia is a medical emergency that occurs when your core body temperature drops below 95ºF (35ºC). Since our normal body temperature is 98.6ºF (37ºC), it doesn’t take long for hypothermia to set in.
Someone who is hypothermic will quickly lose the ability to think rationally, and will lose control of their fine motor skills. This means that anyone with hypothermia won’t be able to take care of themselves and get themselves out of a tricky situation.
Plus, as hypothermia progresses and our body temperatures drop, we can lose consciousness and can die if no one is there to help us.
How To Prevent Hypothermia
The key is to prevent hypothermia from ever happening. We do this by being prepared with the right equipment (more on that later) and clothing to handle wet, cold conditions, like what we’d face during a snowstorm.
In fact, having the right clothing is critical to surviving a blizzard, even if you get trapped outside without your emergency gear. Dressing for the cold is all about layering, so here’s what you should wear to prevent hypothermia:
- Baselayers. Non-cotton long underwear is critical for wicking moisture away from your skin. If we sweat and we’re not wearing long underwear, our sweat can evaporate from our skin, causing a cooling effect – not what we want in the wintertime.
- Insulating mid-layers. After you put on your base layers, it’s time to start piling on the warm clothing. The number of insulating layers you need depends on how cold it is. But, as a general rule, I recommend at least one fleece layer and then 2-3 synthetic puffy jackets for 10ºF (-12ºC) conditions with minimal wind. If it’s windy, you’ll need more insulating layers.
- Waterproof shell. Once you have your insulating layers, it’s time to protect yourself from moisture. When we’re wet, we get cold very quickly, so staying dry is essential. You’ll want to invest in a solid waterproof jacket with a hood to help keep the snow and moisture off your body.
- Gloves. For your hands, I recommend one thin pair of liner gloves and then thick, waterproof gloves or mittens. This layering system gives you some dexterity with your fingers but also keeps your hands warm and dry.
- Hats. Wearing a hat is essential for trapping the heat that would otherwise be lost through your head. A thick fleece hat is ideal.
- Goggles. In a snowstorm, you’ll struggle to keep your eyes open if you’re not wearing goggles. A pair of affordable ski goggles is more than sufficient for the conditions you’ll face.
If you have the right clothing, you’ll be better prepared to survive if you need to go out in a snowstorm and can’t get back into your car or into a warm building. While warm layers alone are not enough to weather a blizzard, it’s certainly better to be well dressed in case SHTF.
The added coverage from your outer garments will prevent conditions such as frostnip or its bigger sibling, frostbite.
In addition to warm clothing, the Mayo Clinic encourages following the “COLD” method to prevent hypothermia:
- Cover. Dress in enough clothing to cover your whole body so heat can’t escape.
- Overexertion. Avoid exerting yourself or doing any activity that causes you to sweat a lot. Sweating will get your clothing wet and will eventually make you colder.
- Layers. Dress in layers so that your insulating clothing is covered by a waterproof shell for maximum protection.
- Dry. Remove wet clothing as soon as possible. Take extra care to keep your feet and hands as dry as possible.
Preparing Your Emergency Supplies For A Snowstorm
Once you’ve prepared warm clothing for you and your family, it’s time to start preparing supplies for surviving a snowstorm.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that a snowstorm can strike at any time of day, so you’ll need to have supplies ready to handle a variety of situations. Here’s how to prepare your emergency supplies for a snowstorm:
Winter Bug Out Bag And Get Home Bag
Bugging out in winter, and especially during a storm, is a bit different from bugging out during the warmer months of the year.
Ideally, you don’t have to touch your bug out bag or get home bag unless you actually need to use them. If that’s the case, then your bug out and get home bags need to be ready to deal with a wide range of climate-appropriate gear for both summer and winter.
If your bags just aren’t big enough to accommodate winter and summer gear at the same time, you can make a second bug out bag and get home bag just for the colder months of the year. However, many of us are limited by both space and financial constraints, so two sets of these two bags just isn’t a possibility for every prepper.
Should this be the case, you’ll need to plan on swapping out summer-specific bug out and get home items with winter gear – and vice versa – twice a year.
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When repacking your emergency bags for winter use, consider adding these cold-weather-specific items:
- Proper layers. We’ve already discussed what to wear to avoid hypothermia, but you may have to add some spare layers into your survival bags, just in case you get caught without the right clothing on.
- Neck gaiter. A neck gaiter, or a buff, is a great way to help trap heat around your neck and face. They are lightweight and highly compact, so there’s no reason not to have one in your bag.
- Chapstick and sunscreen. You can certainly get sunburnt in the winter, which will lead to dehydration and increase your risk for hypothermia. So, sunscreen is key. Plus, your skin and lips will quickly dry out in the cold, so chapstick is essential for spending extended periods of time outdoors in the winter.
- Hand warmers. Although these won’t provide lasting heat, they can briefly warm up your hands so you can light a stove or do other important survival tasks.
- Emergency blanket.
- Bothy bag. A bothy bag is basically a compact, lightweight emergency shelter that can provide protection from the wind and snow if you get trapped outside. Both bags don’t have poles, so they require no set-up. They effectively create a little microclimate that you can use to escape from the cold in an emergency.
Car Survival Bag & Winterizing A Car
As we’ve mentioned, thousands of people get injured or killed in vehicles during snowstorms each year. Plus, in an attempt to get home before a storm gets worse, many people get stuck in their cars on the side of the road in cold, windy conditions with minimal visibility.
While most of us keep our get home bag in our vehicle, you’ll also want to prepare your car with its own supplies for dealing with automobile-specific emergencies. This bag is called your “Vehicle Everyday Carry”, and is focused on ensuring that your car is ready to handle any situation that may arise.
However, it often doesn’t make a lot of sense to carry winter-related car equipment in our vehicles when it’s 80ºF (26ºC) and sunny outside. So, many preppers will simply create a separate storage bin or bag specifically for their winter vehicle gear.
You can leave this storage bin in your garage during the summer, and pop it in your trunk when the temperatures start to drop in the fall.
Here are the things you should definitely have in your car to winterize it before a snowstorm strikes:
- Ice scraper and brush. If you’ve ever had to wipe snow off of your car with your hand, you know it’s not fun. An ice scraper and brush are indispensable for prepping your car when it’s covered in snow.
- Collapsible shovel. When snow really piles up, you may have to dig your car out to be able to drive home. Small, metal shovels are vital in these situations.
- Tire traction materials. Kitty litter, tire traction mats, or sand can be useful for giving your car a bit of extra traction when you’re stuck in the snow.
- Deicing fluid. An iced-up windshield is dangerous, so keep some deicing fluid in your emergency kit just in case.
- Flares. It can be difficult to see in a snowstorm, so flares can alert others to your position.
- Tire chains. Chains are not appropriate for every vehicle, but if your car is compatible with chains, you should have them in your trunk and know how to use them.
- Jumper cables or jump starters. Dead car batteries are a fact of life during the winter months. If you live in a populated area, long jumper cables might be enough. But, if you live in a rural town, you may want to pack your own jump starter.
- Sleeping bags or wool blankets. If you get stuck in your car and have to spend the night, you’ll be much happier if you have a sleeping bag or blankets to cuddle up in.
- Headlamp. There’s less daylight during the winter, so it’s quite likely that you’ll get caught out in your car in the dark. A headlamp is indispensable in these situations.
In addition to your winter vehicle everyday carry kit, it’s important that you winterize your car. If you’re not comfortable doing some of these things on your own, you could always take your car to your local mechanic.
However, most car winterization tasks are quite simple, so you can probably do these things at home. Here’s what you need to do:
- Check your tires. Ideally, you have a set of winter tires for your car if you live somewhere with lots of snowfall, but this isn’t a possibility for everyone. Regardless, your tires should have good tread and good pressure levels every time you drive.
- Assess your breaks. Your vehicle’s brakes shouldn’t feel squeaky or soft. Check to make sure your brake pads aren’t worn out. If they are, replace them before winter starts.
- Wiper blade and washer fluid. Ensure your wiper blades are in good working order. You also want to use deicing washer fluid in the winter months.
- Test your battery. Go to an automotive supply store and get your battery tested. If it needs to be replaced, you want to find that out before you get stranded somewhere in a storm.
- Door weather stripping. When door weather stripping dries out, moisture can get into your car. Use Armor All or a silicone spray to lubricate the stripping and keep them in good condition.
- Keep your tank filled. In the winter, you shouldn’t drive your car until it’s nearly empty. An empty tank is more likely to have moisture build-up, which can be bad for your car in cold temperatures. Fill your tank frequently during the winter.
Home Winter Emergency Stockpile
While there are plenty of basic necessities that we should always have stockpiled at home, during the winter months, there are some specific items that are worth adding to your emergency stores.
Major snowstorms are well known for trapping people at home for days or even weeks on end, so we need to be prepared for self-sufficiency during these times.
Plus, the likelihood of a blizzard taking down power lines is pretty high. While living for a few days without electricity in the summer isn’t the end of the world for most of us, if a blizzard disrupts your home heating system, you could be in serious trouble.
So, here are some things to keep in your winter emergency stockpile at home:
- Food (for you and your pets!)
- Blankets and warm clothing for the whole family including socks
- Low temperature winter boots
- Snow shovel
- Flashlights with batteries
- Extra batteries
- De-icing salt or sand for the driveway
- Generator (expensive, but really useful)
- Propane portable heaters with fuel
- Battery operated weather radio
- Portable propane camping stove with fuel
- Kerosene heaters
- First aid kit with prescription medicine
- Candles and matches/lighters
- Fire extinguisher
- Landline phone
- Firewood if you have a fireplace or woodstove
- Low-tech entertainment (think books, playing cards, board games)
- Paper plates, napkins, and plastic cutlery
- Diapers and formula (if you have an infant)
As a side note be careful using fuel-based heaters inside as there is a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always have a portable carbon monoxide detector and smoke alarm close by just in case. Make sure to close off the gas tank when the heater is not in use.
If you want to learn more about what to stockpile during a snowstorm and why, check out our in-depth article on 22 Things To Stockpile For The Next Snowstorm.
Winter Camping Supplies
If, for some reason, you have to abandon your home in the middle of a snowstorm and you get stuck outside, having the proper winter camping supplies is critical.
While you can use some of your summer camping gear during the winter, there are some pieces of equipment that are winter-camping specific.
Here’s what you should have on your winter camping gear list:
- Snow shovel
- Four season tent
- Two sleeping pads – one inflatable, one foam
- 0ºF (-18ºC) sleeping bag
- First aid kit
- GPS (with batteries), map of the local area, and compass
- Stove with lots of fuel
- Water and water purification tablets
- Freeze-dried food
- Headlamp with batteries
- Bowl, spoon, mug, and water bottles
- Appropriate clothing
What To Do During A Winter Storm
Okay, so at this point, you should have a good understanding of all the gear you need to survive a snowstorm, whether you’re at home, in your car, camping, or bugging out. But, while having the right equipment is, of course, important, it’s what you do with that gear that really counts.
Surviving A Winter Storm At Home
If you’re well prepared, your home is the best place to be during a winter storm.
So long as you have food, water, and a way to stay warm, hunkering down in the comfort of your own home for a few days or even a week shouldn’t be too big a deal.
However, during snowstorms, we often experience power outages, which can be quite dangerous, especially if you don’t have a way to heat your home without electricity. So, here are some tips for staying at home during a snowstorm:
- Use your fireplace. If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or woodstove at home, a winter storm is the best time to use it. Not only does a fire provide warmth, but it will also bring your family together during a tough time.
- Get your warm clothes and blankets. We often don’t realize how many blankets we actually own until our heating doesn’t work. Gather all the warm clothing and blankets you have and bring them into your living room so you can make sure everyone is doing okay. Also, don’t forget to wear a hat!
- Run your portable heater. Hopefully, you have a portable heater that can run on propane at home. If you find that blankets and warm clothing aren’t enough, gather your family into a small room in your house and run your heater to stay warm.
- Prevent your pipes from freezing. The last thing you want during a blizzard is frozen pipes. Hopefully, you’ve insulated your pipes against the cold, but even if you do, you should let cold water drip from your faucets to prevent your pipes from freezing up. Don’t forget to turn off your water heater if your pipes freeze.
- Light some candles. It gets dark quickly during a winter storm, so light up some candles or use battery-powered lanterns in your living spaces.
- Power up the generator… but not right away. If you have a generator, you have a very powerful tool at your disposal. However, don’t start it up right away if the power goes out because you don’t know how long it will be before you’re back online. If you can use your generator infrequently, you can conserve fuel, just in case the power outage lasts longer than you expect.
- Cook a hot meal. A hot meal can really boost morale, so don’t forget to use your camping stoves during a winter storm. Just remember that you should only use a camping stove in a well-ventilated place or you could expose yourself to carbon monoxide.
- Listen to the radio. Use a battery-powered weather radio to get the latest updates about the storm and when it might end.
- Stay busy. Play board games or read books out loud to each-other. While no one wants to hunker down during a storm, it can be a great opportunity to spend some quality time together as a family.
Surviving A Snowstorm In Your Car
Unfortunately, thousands of people end up in car accidents during snowstorms each year, and countless others get stuck in their vehicles. As you can imagine, a vehicle is not an ideal place to wait out a snowstorm, but if it happens, you need to know what to do to stay alive.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Be prepared. This includes having snow tires on your vehicle. Be aware of the weather forecasts for any winter storm watch advisories.
- Stay in your vehicle. This can’t be repeated enough. Do not abandon your car! While you’d certainly rather be home, taking shelter in your car is better than getting trapped out in a blizzard without any protection from the elements. Unless you can see that a building is very close by, don’t even attempt to leave your car.
- Call for help. If you have cell service, call 911 so they can send someone to help you before your phone battery dies. You’ll want to pinpoint your location on your phone’s GPS to give the authorities the best possible chance to find you. It’s also worth calling a friend or family member to tell them where you are, just in case.
- Make yourself visible. Use brightly colored fabric or write “help” in the snow to make it easier for someone to find you. If you think you hear or see someone, honk your horn to direct them toward you.
- Run your engine sparingly. Your car engine is your main source of warmth, but you don’t want to run out of fuel too quickly. Try and run the engine mostly during the night, but also remember to turn your car on every once in a while to keep the battery warm.
- Stay alert against exhaust fumes. If the exhaust pipe gets clogged up with snow there is a chance of fumes building up if they can’t escape. Clear out your tailpipe often.
- Bundle up. Search your car for all of the warm clothes and layers you can find. Wrap yourself up in blankets, sleeping bags, or whatever else you might have. Try to insulate the windows, if possible.
- Clean your windows every so often. This is to clear built-up ice using a windshield scraper.
- Get a light that uses batteries. Something like a dome light that you can switch on will save you from turning on your car to keep the battery charged.
- Be cautious. Once the storm clears, it’s natural to want to get home as quickly as possible. But, keep in mind that the roads might not be clear yet and there could be substantial avalanche danger on the roads if you live in the mountains. Listen to the radio to see if there are any updates about road conditions before you start driving.
How To Survive A Snow Storm In A Tent
If you have to bug out during a snowstorm and your best option for shelter is a tent, you need to be prepared for winter camping. Having the right gear, as we’ve mentioned, is critical, but winter camping is a skill that can take years to perfect.
These are some of my top tips for staying alive while winter camping during a snowstorm:
- Layer, layer, layer! Hands down, the best way to dress while winter camping is in layers. If something you’re wearing gets wet, take it off immediately or you could make things worse.
- Bring a tarp. This can be used as an extra layer of protection against heavy snowfall.
- Stay found. Besides hypothermia, one of the biggest dangers of camping in a snowstorm is that you can easily get disoriented. Being in a blizzard looks like being on the inside of a ping pong ball – it’s impossible to get a sense of direction. So, stay in your tent whenever possible. If you do need to leave, don’t walk more than a few steps away. If you need to go further, attach a rope to the outside of your tent and keep it in your hand as you walk so you can always find your way back.
- Eat food. Eating is, of course, essential to life, but when it’s cold outside, you need way more calories than you normally would. If you’re cold, eat something. Oh, and don’t forget to drink lots of fluids – hot beverages like tea and hot cocoa are key.
- Be careful when cooking in your tent. In general, cooking in your tent is not recommended as it can cause carbon monoxide to build up in your living space. If you do need to cook in your tent, make sure you have some airflow going through your shelter and cook only in the tent vestibule.
- Do crunches in your sleeping bag. If you’re struggling to stay warm at night, do some crunches or other exercises to create some body heat. Not only will you stay warm, you’ll be well on your way to that six-pack you’ve always wanted.
- Use a hot water bottle. If you have a hard-sided plastic water bottle, like a Nalgene, you can fill this up with warm water and cuddle with it in your sleeping bag for extra warmth.
- Melt snow for water. Snow is the best source of water in the winter, and it’s pretty easy to melt to create drinking water while you camp. Just don’t forget to add a little bit of liquid water to the bottom of your pot before you turn the stove on or you’ll end up with. burnt snow. Trust me, it’s gross.
Sometimes it’s not possible to put up your tent during winter weather, a snowstorm, usually if there is heavy snowfall.
In that case you can work on digging a snow trench or snow cave where you can hunker down until the storm passes. Just make sure the entrance isn’t facing the wind or you’ll get cold.
At the end of the day, preparedness and a solid understanding of winter survival skills are essential to getting through a snowstorm. While we hope we never have to use any of our skills or equipment, it’s better to know that we have them available at home, just in case.
Just remember that you can get caught anywhere during a snowstorm, so we have to be prepared to hunker down wherever we end up to wait out the storm.
Gabrielle is a professional outdoor educator, mountain guide, and survival expert with a passion for helping others be prepared for whatever might come their way. She is a polar guide in the Arctic region and is an experienced wilderness medicine instructor/EMT.