Power outages, of course, can happen any time of year. That said, blackouts in winter—caused, for example, by the season’s often-higher winds, heavy snowfall or ice storms, or tree damage from extreme cold—are of special concern given the colder temperatures, making the loss of a house’s primary heating system serious business. Harsh conditions can also mean it may take longer for utility crews to restore power.
Here in the U.S. (and in parts of Mexico and Canada), we only need to look to last winter for a reminder of how disruptive power outages can be. With its march across eastern North America, so-called Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 knocked out power to millions, with many homes and businesses in the affected area contending with prolonged blackouts.
As another winter gets underway—and parts of the country have already seen some truly wild weather at the start of the season—now’s the time of year to review basic power outage tips and tricks. In this post, we’ll look at ways to prepare and respond to winter power outages, and along the way steer you to some other Mountain House articles on blackout preparedness in general for further reference. (For starters, check out our guide to prepping for long-term power outages!)
From staying warm to illuminating a suddenly darkened home, here are some basic power outage survival tips and hacks to bone up on before you find yourself enduring a cold-season blackout.
Whether connected to severe weather or not, a power outage can make meeting your daily needs challenging. Assemble an emergency kit—also called a 72-hour kit or disaster kit—so you’ve got the supplies and tools you need to get by when the grid’s down. From a hand-crank or battery-powered radio to extra medications, a first-aid kit, and (naturally) duct tape, learn more about a standard emergency kit’s fundamental components over at Ready.gov—and read more on the subject in this Mountain House post on how to build an emergency kit.
Part of a properly equipped emergency kit? Enough food and water to last three days at a minimum. Select non-perishable provisions, and be sure to periodically check on your supply and rotate out and replenish foodstuffs as needed. (With an industry-leading shelf life and just-add-hot-water preparation, Mountain House meals and emergency supplies are very much tailor-made for disaster-kit inclusion! We’ve also got a blog post on emergency food storage you might want to check out.)
Along with your emergency kit’s stockpile of bottled water (and, ideally, a water-purification system), consider filling up jugs, sinks, and bathtubs ahead of a big winter storm or right at the start of what might be an extended blackout. If municipal water ends up becoming unavailable, this gives you a water supply for essential purposes (including flushing the toilet!).
(Learn more about how to boil water during a power outage here.)
Sometimes when the power's restored to the grid there'll be a brief spike of higher voltage. These power surges can damage electronics. To avoid that issue, unplug appliances and devices when a power outage hits. But leave a lamp left plugged in and switched on: That way you'll know when the electricity's flowing again, and when you can safely plug the other equipment in.
You should have multiple flashlights—including, ideally, a hand-crank model—at the ready in your house, along with backup batteries. But for additional illumination, and to preserve battery power over the long haul, you may decide to (carefully!) use candles for those blackout evenings. If you don’t have any on hand, crayons, believe it or not, can do the trick. Light the pointy tip of one, then pool some of its wax on a small plate or saucer. Set the base of the crayon in that wax for a readymade crayon-candle, which should burn an hour or two.
If you’ve got solar lights in the yard, haul ‘em inside for another off-grid source of illumination! Use them at night indoors, then recharge during the day in a sunny window or back outside.
Food spoilage can be a troublesome issue even during a fairly short power outage. But if you minimize opening your refrigerator and freezer, you can often save most of your perishable items, depending on the blackout’s duration. A fridge kept shut should keep food safe for four hours or more, closed freezer doors for upwards of a couple of days. Filling coolers with ice—washing machines also work, in a pinch—gives you another option for keeping perishable eats cold. Depending on how chilly it is outside, you could also keep items outdoors in a secure container—one advantage, any way, of a wintertime power outage.
Keep your cell phone and other essential devices juiced up during a power outage using your car battery. Portable battery packs with USB ports and standard outlets are also a good idea.
Having a stash of hand warmers in your household emergency kit (and, incidentally, in your vehicle’s) comes in real handy when you’re shivering in an unheated home.
If your water heater is a gas-powered unit that can function without electricity, you can utilize it to provide at least a little extra ambient warmth during a winter power outage by filling up your sinks and bathtubs with hot water. Drain these when the water turns tepid.
Frozen pipes are one of the main negative consequences of a power outage in the midst of winter’s deep cold. Water expands when it freezes into ice, placing pressure on conduits and, often enough, rupturing them, leading to costly and potentially catastrophic leaks. Insulate your water pipes with foam sleeves, old sweaters, and the like, and let your faucets drip or trickle when the power’s out in subfreezing weather: Moving water is much less likely to freeze up. In deep cold, consider shutting off the main water intake valve and draining the pipes altogether.
Carbon-monoxide poisoning is an insidious risk during power outages, especially in winter. Don’t use a gas range for household heat, and only operate portable stoves, charcoal grills, and generators outside and at least 20 feet away from any windows. Don’t use a propane heater indoors unless it’s specially designed for that purpose. And, of course, make sure your carbon-monoxide detectors are working on a regular basis!
Maybe you’re lucky and have a woodstove on hand to help heat your house when a power failure’s disabled your furnace. If not—and if swaddling yourself in winterwear and blankets isn’t quite doing the trick—there are a variety of DIY heaters you can consider assembling, from tea candles set in flower pots to toilet-paper rolls lit in tin cans. Use extreme caution if making and operating one of these DIY heaters, and ensure they’re used with adequate ventilation.
A power outage, especially in winter and especially a prolonged one, can definitely be a stressful situation, especially if you’re unprepared. It’s important to keep a clear head and not let frustration, confusion, or panic overwhelm basic caution. Besides the danger of carbon-monoxide poisoning when improperly using stoves, heaters, and other appliances indoors, the risk of injury from, say, splitting or sawing wood for the woodstove or fireplace may be amplified by temporarily diminished emergency and medical services due to a widespread power failure.
Power outages are just about inevitable, and responsible emergency preparedness means readying yourself for the possibility of multiple days without electricity. Make sure you’re ready for the next wintertime blackout with a storehouse of Mountain House emergency provisions!