Surviving a Snowstorm
Winter is undoubtedly one of the most magical seasons and a favorite of many people across the world; but what happens when the gentle cascading snow abruptly evolves into a deadly blizzard or snowstorm?
Whether you're indoors or outside the safety of your home, you and your family must be prepared and equipped with the right knowledge to survive a snowstorm.
Winter Storm Warnings and Terminology
The national weather service advises that anyone who resides in blizzard-prone areas be on alert for winter storm warnings and to familiarize themselves with the proper weather terminology. This will help to better understand and appreciate the severity of snowstorm warnings.
Here are some key winter weather terms to know:
~Sleet & Freezing Rain
~Sleet and freezing rain are two similar types of precipitation that mainly differ in the manners in which they come to the surface. To produce sleet, snowflakes first melt into raindrops when they encounter a tier of warm air far above the surface. Then, shortly before hitting the ground, they refreeze into small ice pellets when hitting a section of freezing air. These pellets typically bounce rather than stick, but they can accumulate and cause moisture on the ground to freeze and become slick.
~Freezing rain, on the other hand, can be quite dangerous. If the section of warm air mentioned above is larger, this allows raindrops more time to survive so that when they come into contact with the surface layer, they don’t turn into ice pellets; rather they remain very cold liquid raindrops. The danger here is that in combination with a cold ground, the freezing rain elicits a coat of ice onto whatever it touches. If there is enough rain, this could create a sheet of ice on roads and walkways, presenting a real threat to motorists and pedestrians, whereas sleet may actually provide a level of traction on the road. A large build-up of ice from freezing rain can pose serious risk to power lines and trees, bringing them down and/or causing power outages.
~Winter Storm Outlook
~A winter storm outlook is a weather update given approximately 3-7 days prior to when severe cold weather conditions are expected.
~Winter Weather Advisory
~Winter weather advisories are issued when a weather system is producing snow, freezing rain, sleet or any combination of winter weather conditions that are deemed inconvenient but not worthy of a winter storm warning. Under a winter weather advisory, it is important to remain cautious as the conditions could be live-threatening in certain areas.
~There are several specific types of advisories:
- Snow Flurry Advisory: Issued when light snow is expected to fall for a short period of time. No accumulation or ice is expected.
- Snow Shower Advisory: Issued when snow is expected to fall for short periods of time at varying intensities.
- Blowing Snow Advisory: Issued when wind is either blowing fresh, falling snow at a rate that reduces visibility or picks up fresh snow from the ground and blows it around, think sand storm. Precautions while on the road should be taken seriously under the advisory.
- Dense Fog Advisory: Issued when fog is present that is reducing visibility to ¼ mile or less over a widespread area.
~Winter Storm Watch
~A Winter storm watch is issued 12 to 48 hours before the beginning of a winter storm. It is used to alert the general public of the possibility of a blizzard, heavy snowstorm, heavy sleet, heavy freezing rain, heavy snow, or any combination.
~Winter Storm Warning
~Winter storm warnings are used to notify the public of an ongoing or imminent severe winter conditions, including heavy snowfalls of at least 8 inches, a snowstorm, heavy freezing rain or sleet, etc. It’s usually issued 12-24 hours before the event starts.
~These are issued for winter storms that have sustained winds of 35 mph or higher with continuously blowing snow that reduces visibility by ¼ of a mile or less. These conditions often last a minimum of three hours.
~Wind chill is the “feels like” temperature given the intensity of cold wind in addition to the cold weather. Wind chill advisories are often issued when wind chill temperatures are expected to be dangerous to life within minutes of exposure.
~This warning is issued when surface temperatures are expected to drop below freezing over a large area for an extended period of time.
Dressing for Extreme Cold
One of the main risks of being caught in extreme winter conditions is hypothermia. Hypothermia is essentially your body’s reaction to its core temperature dropping too low, which can happen quickly. A normal body temperature is 98.6°F, while hypothermia occurs once your core temperature dips to 95°F or below. Keeping warm and dry are the keys to winter survival.
The best way to prevent exposure is to dress properly, especially if you plan on being outside for an extended amount of time. The winter weather dress code requires many layers, A.K.A the “Layering Principle” (think Randy in A Christmas Story). Wearing several layers of loose fitting, lightweight, and warm clothing instead of one heavy layer allows you to remove or add layers as needed.
~Your base layer is also known as the 'long underwear ' layer and is often considered the most important. Think of it as a second skin. This layer, as the name implies, is not your regular underwear but rather the ones that will provide some water resistance and cover most surfaces of your body. This layer should be tight fitting, while the remaining layers should be somewhat looser.
~The material for this layer should be non-cotton, non-absorbent, and moisture wicking to keep your skin dry and core temp up.
~While the base layer will wick off the water, the mid-layers should retain heat. A good mid-layer should absorb moisture that has gotten into your base layer and get rid of it by evaporation while still being able to insulate your body's heat. Fleece, wool, angora, etc are proper materials that will make for an excellent mid-layer.
~The number of insulating layers you need depends on how cold it is. As a general rule, it is recommended at least one fleece layer and then 2-3 waterproof layers, plus a jacket for 10°F conditions with minimal wind. If it’s windy, you may want to add additional mid-layers.
~Several layers of your clothing should be waterproof, especially the layer of clothing closest to your skin. The outer layers should be tightly woven and water repellent. You want snow, sleet, and rain to trickle right off your pants and coat. This helps keep the cold from sitting on you. When wet, you get colder and stay cold, so staying dry is essential. WE recommend investing in a hefty waterproof jacket with a hood.
~A good pair of gloves should provide warmth while maintaining dexterity; however, while gloves can provide dexterity, mittens are a far better option for keeping your hands warm if you don’t need finger separation.
~Looking for a compromise? The alternative is to double down on gloves. First put on a quality liner glove and then slip on a pair of mittens.
~Note: The outer-most glove layer should be waterproof.
~During extreme cold, keeping your head exposed is a big no-no. Most of the bodies heat escapes from one’s head and feet. Luckily for you, there are several options when it comes to cold-weather headwear.
~A thick fleece lined hat with ear flaps is the best option, but woven caps, beanies and fur lines hates can be just as useful, especially when used paired with a hood. Alternatively, you can opt for a full-face mask (A.K.A ski mask). Face masks will keep the ears and nose warm with out additional gear, unlike a hat.
~Scarfs and neck gaiters are the most popular options here. Scarfs are long or circular pieces of fabric that get wrapped around the neck. A neck gaiter is a tube of fabric that gets stretched over your head and pulled down to cover your neck.
~Putting on an insulated neck gaiter or scarf can give protection to your otherwise exposed neck. In regard to bulkiness, a neck gaiter is often thinner and more compact than a scarf, taking up less room in a survival bag.
~Extreme winter weather poses an extra problem when it comes to vision. Not only can the unforgiving weather make your eyes feel dry, it can also limit your line of vision during heavy snowstorms, meaning your choice of eyewear should provide you with protection without further impairing your sight.
~Googles are often the most preferred eyewear as they suction to your face, with just glasses you may struggle to keep your eyes open. The goggles suction will keep the googles attached to your face and the enclose-ness will prevent wind and flurries from getting to your eyes.
Unfortunately, the severity of a snowstorm or blizzard is often undermined. Well, snowstorms and blizzards are responsible for hundreds of fatalities every year. This is why they should be treated with the same urgency as other natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes.
~Family Disaster Plan
~Major snowstorms are known for trapping people in their homes for days or weeks on end. So, self-sufficiency during these times is imperative.
~Your family should be a major part of your preparation plans. Understandably, it might be a tad bit difficult to get the little ones to show interest in disaster plans, but ultimately it will pay off.
~Your family snowstorm disaster plan should include the following:
- An established family meeting place (incase of displacement or separation)
- A family emergency kit
- Always have the radio or any other emergency broadcast media turned on
- Have the emergency contact of every family member(s)
- Don't forget to include your pet(s)
~~Water and Non-Perishables
~~Most snowstorms come with some warning and for those that don’t it is imperative that once winter starts you are already prepared to be stuck indoors for days at a time. Stock up your pantry with non-perishables and bottled water that can last you and your family until the storm has passed and the roads are open.
~~When it comes to storing water for non-drinking purposes, a pro-tip is to fill up your cleaned and disinfected bathtub. Doing this, you can have water to use for sanitary reasons in case of frozen pipes allows you to use this water for sanitary and cooking needs in the even your pipes freeze. If worst comes to worst you can melt snow and filter out any debris for your water needs.
~~Note: Do no eat still frozen snow. This will lower your core temp and isn’t effective.
~~If you think you will run out of food, ration it to make it last. You can do this by eating small meals a few times a day. This may not be fun, but having a little food a day is better than running out of food completely.
~~Note: Never light a grill, coal stove, or use a generator inside the house. Also, never light a fire with the chimney flue shut. Any of these actions could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
~~If you have any hope of surviving a terrible blizzard, then you should avoid the risk of getting cold or wet and try as much as possible to stay warm.
~~Make sure you always have a safe alternative heat source and plenty of extra blankets and sheets available. Having plenty of additional jackets, gloves, scarves, and other wear-able layers will help keep everyone warm.
~~Hand warmer pouches, electric space heaters, and self-heating heating pads, are all great alternatives to emergency heat sources.
~~Medical and Other Necessities
~~If you are looking at the possibility of being trapped inside for days, having a fully equipped first aid kit that includes over-the-counter medication and prescriptions for members of your family with special conditions is imperative.
~~Other necessities that should also be a part of your family disaster kit are flashlights, batteries, matches, etc.
~~Children and Pet Needs
~~Even though it's a natural disaster and only the essentials should be prioritized, you shouldn't forget the basic needs of the little ones or your pets.
~~Some examples include toys or other kinds of stimulation, diapers, cat litter, kibble, etc.
~~Prepare Your Property
~~Like every other disastrous event, your home/property is going to take a hit. But you can prevent or minimize the possible damages by doing the following:
- Either turning off the main water supply and emptying the pipes or allowing a single drip to drip out of each faucet. Both of which can prevent the water within the pipes from freezing up
- Have a backup heat source
- Inspect roofs for leaks that may develop during a storm
- Trim back trees and bushes away from the roof and windows
- Cover your cars or move them into the garage
Following Safety Guidelines During the Storm
Snowstorms come with all kinds of dangerous hazards. Depending on your location at the time, the safety protocols are going to vary. Knowing how to conduct yourself to maximize your chances of survival regardless of where you are is important.
~If you happen to be caught outside and the blizzard doesn't seem to let up, then do the following:
- Stay inside your tent or find shelter immediately
- If you're with other people, sticks together
- Stay warm and Dry
- Stay hydrated
- Ration food
- Determine what to do after the snowstorm i.e. wait it out until help comes or find a way to bug out yourself
- Get medical treatment if necessary
~In a Vehicle
~Being in your vehicle during a blizzard follows the same principles as being outside. The only difference is the advantage of having a car that can provide you with heat, shelter, and a way to get you home after.
~That being said, here are some guidelines to follow:
- Don't get out of your car, unless it is to clear the exhaust pipe of snow or to bug out
- Turn up the heat to remain warm and dry (being sure that the tail pipe doesn’t get blocked causing carbon monoxide to fill up in the car)
- Ration supplies and stay hydrated
- Decide what to do after the snowstorm. If you're physically capable, you can remove the snow surrounding your car and get to safety but if you're in a place where you can be found, it's better to stay inside your vehicle and wait for help.
~Being indoors is the best place to be caught during a snowstorm, especially if you were prepared in the first place.
- Stay indoors as much as possible
- Have a backup heat source
- Stay nourished and hydrated
- After the snowstorm, check for damage and clear the roof and sidewalks of snow
Dealing with the Aftermath
Even though the storm has passed, the danger isn't over yet. In some cases, the aftermath of the storm can be worse than the storm itself.
Here's how you can deal with the aftermath safely:
~Survey for Damage
~Survey the perimeters of your property for any permanent damage such as frozen pipes in need of replacement, a leaking roof, fallen trees, etc.
~Don't Overwork Yourself
~In striving for normalcy after a blizzard, you might overexert yourself by trying to do everything at once i.e shoveling snow, clearing debris, etc. ER admissions of heart attacks go up dramatically after a natural disaster. This rate increase is directly related to people working too hard post storm.
~Be sure to stay hydrated, nourished, and take plenty of breaks and if possible, getting help is advised.
~Stay Dry & Warm
~Just because the worse has passed doesn't mean you should neglect your well-being. Continue to stay warm and dry to prevent yourself from getting hypothermia or frost bite. Layering up and wearing waterproof gear when doing clean up or traveling post storm is imperative.
Like most major natural disasters, preparedness, good understanding of winter terminology, and knowing the proper survival tips can further improve your chances of surviving a dangerous winter storm with little to no long-term effects.