Ah, nothing like a good old-fashioned power outage to remind you how amazing it is to have light and heat at our beck-and-call just by flipping a switch or dialing a thermostat! Those are modern conveniences we should never take for granted, and that lesson tends to be driven home the hard way when a storm, fire, flood, grid malfunction, or some other hiccup—more than one unlucky transmission-line-scurrying squirrel has done the trick—disrupts the power supply. Blackouts are often merely short-term inconveniences, but it’s also possible to endure one that lasts a week or more. Such extended outages can be dangerous, even life-threatening, if you’re caught unprepared. So how should you prepare for a power outage? There’s a lot you can do to make these inevitable interruptions much more bearable: It’s all about assembling a power outage survival kit and knowing how to stay safe while electricity’s down. Let’s run through the fundamentals of how to prepare for power outages, including what sorts of power outage supplies to have on hand and strategies for meeting your basic needs during an extended blackout.
Among your power outage supplies should be an emergency preparedness kit. If you’re a regular reader of the Mountain House blog, you’re familiar with the importance of such a kit, but it’s worth running through the basics again—especially because it’s one of those responsibilities we tend to think about attending to, but don’t always get around to following through on. The more emergency provisions and supplies you can safely and securely stockpile, the better, but at a minimum the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends readying enough for 72 hours off-gridding it. That means a three-day supply of water—a gallon per person per day for drinking and sanitary purposes—and a three-day supply of non-perishable eats. Not long ago we published a blogpost entirely dedicated to the principles of emergency food storage, and that’s well worth eyeballing again as you brief yourself on how to prepare for power outages. With the longest proven shelf life in the industry, Mountain House products make fantastic food for power outages: They’re as useful around the house during such an emergency as they are out in the wilderness campsite. Our Just in Case...® line in particular makes storing enough backup food for the long term simple and straightforward, whether you’re prepping just for yourself or for a whole family. For example, our 14-day Emergency Food Supply provides you all the more wiggle room for dealing with protracted power outages, given it efficiently stows a two-week cache of meals for one person. (We’ll talk more about cooking during a power outage later in this post.) Other emergency supplies for power outages to put in your preparedness kit: first-aid materials; a flashlight (ideally hand-crank) and backup batteries; a hand-crank or battery-operated radio (as well as a NOAA Weather Radio) with backup batteries; a signaling whistle; a backup cell phone with charger; moist towelettes and plastic bags with ties for personal sanitation; a supply of any necessary prescriptions or other medications; and a bundle of warm clothing, blankets, and sleeping bags, which are especially critical during wintertime blackouts. Don't neglect to regularly check on your emergency kit and replenish and refresh components as needed. Want to learn more about putting together emergency preparedness kits? Check out this FEMA factsheet.
Besides assembling and maintaining an emergency preparedness kit, there are a variety of actions you can take to better ready your household for a future power outage. For example, making sure your home is well insulated will make regulating temperature if your heating or air-conditioning goes out a bit easier. Insulating water pipes in unheated rooms or crawlspaces will lessen the likelihood of their freezing (and maybe bursting) during a winter outage. You might consider purchasing a portable generator for a readymade emergency power supply and installing a landline phone so you have an alternative means of communication besides a cellphone.
Obviously you can’t predict a power outage, but weather forecasts can give you a heads-up when one may be likely. If severe thunderstorms, ice storms, blizzards, high winds, floods, or similar phenomena are expected, you should start preparing immediately for a potential loss of power. Gather power outage supplies: Check on that emergency kit (again) and locate other flashlights, lanterns, and extra batteries so you’re ready in the go-to illumination department. Charge your cell phone, computer, and other electronics. Make sure your car has at least a half-tank of gas (remember, gas-station pumps may not be working during a power outage). Make or purchase ice, or freeze water in plastic containers, so you can keep the freezer’s provisions frozen for longer. And speaking of, crank your fridge and freezer to their coldest settings. If you think your water supply may be impacted, fill jugs, pots, pans, and other containers with water as well as the bathtub (to be used for manually flushing the toilet and other sanitary tasks). Make sure you and other family members know how to shut off the main water valve to your house. If you have an electric garage door, confirm where the manual release lever is and how to use it. If you or a member of your household relies on a medical device that requires electrical power, come up with a plan of action in the event of a blackout. You should also notify your utility company if it’s a life-support system. (FEMA has more detailed recommendations on emergency preparedness for those with medical conditions or disabilities.) If you have a fireplace or woodstove, make sure you have a decent supply of wood on hand in case you need to rely on it for heat.
Unplug computers and other electronics and turn off appliances so they’re protected against the temporary surges that can occur when power comes back on. Leave a light on, however, so you know when electricity's been restored. Favor hand-crank or battery-operated flashlights and lanterns over candles as power-outage light sources. During colder temperatures, use a woodstove or fireplace (if you have one) to keep at least one room toasty. Wear extra layers to stay warm. And in the event of any winter outage, keep your water pipes in mind: Swaddle them in insulation, and if it’s really frigid outside keep the taps trickling to lessen the chance of a frozen pipe (which may burst). In an extended blackout during cold weather, you may want to shut off water to your house entirely; be sure to drain the pipes if you do so. Use generators sparingly to power the most necessary appliances. Always operate them outdoors in a well-ventilated area away from your house’s windows or air intakes. Make sure you’re using a power cord of the proper rating, and only plug in appliances that use less wattage than the generator’s output. (The American Red Cross offers more detailed tips on generator safety.)
You can use a charcoal or gas grill or a campstove to prepare food during a power outage, but only outdoors—never inside. A fireplace or woodstove can serve as an indoor cooking receptacle: For instance, you can cook meat or vegetables on skewers or wrapped in foil and placed on coals. A less desirable option is a fondue pot or a candle warmer, but make sure you’re exercising due caution at all times. It’s important to conserve fuel and water during a power outage, so choose quick-cooking and one-pot meals. Here again, Mountain House entrees, snacks, and desserts prove their worth: All you need to do is add hot water!