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Emergency Shelter

Winter storms: What to do when the power goes off and you’re stuck inside

Winter storms: What to do when the power goes off and you’re stuck inside

So here’s the scenario – the power went out and you’re sheltering inside the house. Outside, the temperature plummets, the wind picks up and it starts to snow. It doesn’t appear that the power will be restored within the next few days. How will you stay warm and safe?

by Leon Pantenburg

Where I grew up in Iowa, this situation was not all that uncommon.  It seems like every winter, there would be spell where a blizzard knocked out the electricity and we’d have to fend for ourselves on the farm.

When the lights go out, and the blizzard starts to rage, know what to do to do to stay safe and warm inside your house. (Pantenburg photo)

When the power goes out, and the blizzard starts to rage, know what to do to stay safe and warm inside your house. (Pantenburg photos)

But since this situation was expected, everybody had some sort of  storm plan.

Keeping warm at my parents’ place was was not a problem. The farmhouse was heated with several oil burning stoves that didn’t rely on anything electrical. We also had candles and some kerosene lamps for lighting. The stove and oven were gas.

But for people with no experience with winter power outages, a power outage can be dangerous. If you live somewhere where the winters can get cold, be ready for this winter storm situation.

Here are some tips to prepare your house for a winter storm power outage.

Before the storm hits:

– On the outside: Cover the north side of the house with clear visqueen to seal off the wind. Pile bales of hay or straw around the foundation, if available, and stack them up as high as you have bales for. If it has snowed, shovel the snow up around the foundation for insulation. If it’s really snowing and blowing, shovel up snow as high as possible on the windy side of the house to slow down the wind, and reduce the wind chill.

– Hopefully, you will have double-paned windows that are insulated and well-sealed. If not, or you notice a draft around the edges, cover the windows on the outside with plastic.

This LED light has a reliable on-off switch. It won't turn on inadvertently.

This LED light has a reliable on-off switch. It won’t turn on inadvertently.

– Don’t seal the house to be completely airtight! Carbon monoxide is a real danger with any heat source that relies on a flame!

– Let’s hope the water pipes have already been insulated! If not, that is one of the tasks that should be done before winter and cold weather!

Inside, make the best use of your resources.

– Close off the parts of the house you  aren’t staying in. The idea is to have everyone in one room to conserve heat. Hang blankets over doors, and roll up towels to put at the bottom of doors and windows. Cardboard, cut to fit, is a great insulator, but it blocks the light. Stop the wind!

A single candle may provide enough lighting in some power outage situations. Check out thrift stores and garage sales for good deals. (Pantenburg photo)

A single candle may provide enough lighting in some power outage situations. Check out thrift stores and garage sales for good deals.

– Lighting: Make the best use of light sources. Several people may be able to use the same light source simultaneously in activities such as reading around the same lighted candle.

– Don’t waste batteries. Schedule regular radio listening times, for favorite music programs. Or know where to find a show that gives an upbeat, positive spin to depressing, emergency situations. Get a hand-cranked lighting source.

– The drinking water should be kept some place where it won’t freeze.

– You should still be able to flush the toilet by pouring water in the commode tank.

– Do off-grid cooking in the garage, some well-ventilated area or outside. The carbon monoxide from lighted charcoal, a gas stove or propane cooker can be deadly in a closed, sealed area.

– Have lots of board or card games around. Many of them can be played around a  single lighted candle. (During one memorable Iowa blizzard many years ago, my entire family played Monopoly for nearly three days straight! I went bankrupt several times!)

– Have a big selection of good books to read. Don’t rely on a Kindle! When the batteries die out, so do the stories. Find books that can be read aloud, and let the kids do some of the reading.

– Useful craft projects, that contribute to the overall well-being of the group, can be appreciated.

Nobody wants a power outage. But the right attitude and some preparation can keep the situation from becoming too bad. Besides, when it is all over, there will be all these war stories to tell. Who knows –  maybe the enforced family time will have been beneficial!


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And for more info, take a look at:

10 Things to Do if a Winter Storm Is Happening and You’re Not Prepared

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View Comments (7)


  1. Leon

    01/12/2015 at 07:23

    Adapt and thrive!

  2. Leon

    01/12/2015 at 07:11

    That may not be the best choice if the water supply is limited. Also, if you have to heat/boil water to wash dishes, fuel cost is another factor. If you have to melt snow to make water and heat it to wash dishes, you have probably negated any savings by increased fuel cost and use. Many “best choices” must be based on situational factors, and water supply is one of those.

  3. Jana

    01/12/2015 at 06:44

    As a Frugal Environmentalist, I would not use paper plates. We use white vinegar cut with water to wash our dishes. It more cost effective and earth friendly.

  4. Bob Brooks

    01/08/2015 at 12:22

    We buried our frozen food from the useless deep freeze in snow on our elevated back deck during “White Juan” (five days , no power) in February 2003. Didn`t lose a chop!

  5. Leon

    11/16/2014 at 10:45

    Good info – thanks for the feedback!

  6. Pete M

    11/14/2014 at 08:30

    Good advice Leon. One thing you didn’t mention was the refridgerator. When warming your house you are also warming your fresh and frozen food unless you have backup power for your fridge. A portable generator is a good investment as the contents of your fridge can be worth several hundred dollars. An instant read thermometer in the fridge will let you know how often to run the generator… While 35 degrees is the optimal temp below 40 degrees is fine as long as your food is fresh. Hygiene goes down hill in a power outage too. Lack of light, loss of hot water, no electric dish washer etc. make food safety more difficult. We keep lots of disposable paper plates, paper towels, and cleaning products on hand so we don’t end up with a sink full of dishes and a dirty food prep area.

  7. Bernadette

    11/12/2014 at 13:20

    good time to have a afghan to be crocheting or knitting. Help to keep warm.

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Emergency Shelter

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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