Of all the possible scenarios one can find themselves in, wintertime is one of the most difficult to survive in. It also happens to be one of the most common, so it merits our attention. Any long-term survival situation is going to see us having to survive through one or more winters and the challenges that they present.
Throughout history, mankind has struggled with the challenge of making it through the winter months. Much of our ancestors' efforts were centered around that one challenge. If the harvest was good and food was in abundance, getting through the winter would be easy. But if the harvest was bad, there would be famine, sickness and probably death.
This is why the harvest festival is so important in many cultures, especially agricultural societies. It celebrates not just the harvest, but survival itself. The people rejoice in knowing that their work has been effective and that they have enough food to get them through the winter.
Even here in the United States, we celebrate a harvest festival. The roots of Thanksgiving go back to the first harvest festival celebrated here on these shores. After struggling through their first winter, the Pilgrims had a successful year and celebrated that, along with the Indians who had befriended them. Their joy in knowing that they would make it through their second winter gave them reason to celebrate, and today we celebrate with them.
In a sense, we can call Thanksgiving the "Prepper's Holiday." It celebrates being prepared to survive through a difficult time, winter. But we can't allow ourselves to sit on our laurels for what they endured, we too need to be ready to face our winter.
What Makes Winter So Hard?
Okay, so if winter is such a hard time to survive, what makes it so hard? We might all recognize that in generalities, but we need to understand it in specific, so that we can be prepared to face what winter brings, in all her glory.
The first thing we face is the cold weather. Maintaining our body temperature is the number one survival need. That's easy when the weather is mild, but when it turns cold, chances are we're going to struggle. A lot of what we do to survive is simply to overcome cold and keep our bodies warm.
That cold causes additional problems as well. Most plants go dormant in the wintertime, eliminating them as a source of fresh food. While the plants may still exist, they are not producing the parts we eat. The sap has moved down into the roots and in many cases, the part above ground has died. About the only thing we can do to get food from plants in the wintertime is to dig up the roots. Assuming there isn't too much snow and we can find the right plants, that is a possibility.
Those plants that don't go dormant die once the first freeze comes along. Plants don't have the capability of producing their own heat through muscular movement or through their metabolism, so the temperature of the plant is usually about the same as the ambient temperature. When that drops below freezing, it causes the water in the plant's cells to freeze, rupturing the cell walls and killing that part of the plant.
This is why plants leaves turn brown and fall off in the autumn. If they didn't the leaves would die anyway, as soon as that first frost came. So, any leafy vegetables are inedible during the wintertime. Likewise, the same freezing action happens to above-ground fruit, so any vegetables which grow above-ground fruit are also inedible after that freeze.
Finally, animals aren't out and about in the wintertime, providing us with the opportunity to hunt them for food. Some hibernate, like bears, staying hidden through the winter months. Others, like squirrels, store food and eat from their stores during wintertime. Still others migrate to warmer climates, even if that means nothing more than going to a lower elevation on the mountain. These will also reduce their activity and their food consumption, preferring to stay hidden and warm.
So the problem basically boils down to two issues; that of staying warm and that of having enough to eat. If we can solve those two problems, we can survive the winter. But if not, nature is merciless and will not hesitate to kill us.
Modern technology has reduced the need to keep warm to one of convenience. Our homes and offices all have built-in heat, which requires no more work than to flip a switch. Insulation keeps a large portion of that heat indoors, so that we don't have to waste energy in heating. It has become easy enough that we hardly give a thought to our needs for heating, other than to complain if we are too hot or too cold.
Yet if modern technology were to fail, such as would happen if the grid went down, keeping ourselves warm would become a constant preoccupation. Whether we were in an urban environment or out in the wild, shelter, clothing and fire would be needed, to ensure that we were properly protected from hypothermia.
Heating most modern homes, without electricity, is challenging. Our heating is usually forced-air, which requires quite a bit of electric power, even when the heat is produced by burning natural gas or propane. Just forcing the air through the ductwork is enough to require more electricity than most preppers' solar power systems can produce.
The time-honored solution to heating our homes is to burn wood. Coal can be used as well, and is actually more efficient, but it is harder to get your hands on coal, than it is to get them on wood. Unless you have an exposed coal seam near your home, you're probably going to have to use wood to heat your home.
That means having somewhere to burn the wood. If you have a fireplace, you can use that; but most fireplaces aren't very energy efficient. They don't give you much heat for the fuel they burn. You're actually better off with a wood-burning stove, than you are with a fireplace.
The wood-burning stove is more efficient because it is housed in a metal box, allowing it to radiate heat from all sides. Set closer to the center of the room, the heat is able to disperse more efficiently, heating a larger portion of the room where it is installed. So, even in cases where a fireplace exists, adding a wood-burning stove and using the fireplace chimney for it is more effective.
Installing a Wood-Burning Stove Temporarily
A wood-burning stove can also be installed temporarily during a survival situation. This requires preparing a place for the stove, as well as someplace for the chimney. In a two-story home, running the chimney up through the attic can be difficult; but there are ways around this.
The first thing needed is someplace to set the wood-burning stove. For safety, they have to be set on an inflammable surface. Brick or tile are often used. If you have carpeting in your home, you'll need to cover this with a layer of brick or tile. Start with a plywood base and layer the brick or tile on top. If you use brick, stack them close together, so there is no room for sparks to get in-between. If you use tile, use two layers, staggering them so that the seams of the top layer are not over the seams of the bottom one.
This area needs to be large enough to catch any sparks that might fly from the stove. Generally speaking, one foot of space is enough for the sides and back. The front should have at least two feet, or even better, three.
If you don't have a chimney from a fireplace available and can't go up through the attic, run the chimney out through the upper part of a window. You'll have to remove the glass and replace it with either aluminum or plywood to do this, cutting a hole in the aluminum or plywood for the chimney to go through. It is essential that the chimney go at least slightly uphill from the stove to the outside, to ensure that the heat of the smoke will cause it to leave the house.
Modern chimneys are triple-walled, making it possible for the outside to be cool, even when in use. For this reason, you're actually better off with the older style single-wall chimney. You'll have to instruct your family to be careful around it, as it will be hot, but the hot chimney can radiate heat into the room, making the stove more efficient. This is something which a triple-walled chimney can't do.
Seal the area around the chimney as well as possible to prevent air leaks. Even so, you will need some fresh air coming into the room, preferably down at floor level. The stove will burn oxygen, so you have to ensure that enough oxygen is entering the room for both it and for breathing.
Other Forms of Heat
While a wood-burning stove is the best possible off-grid heating option for most people, it isn't the only one that exists. Heating with wood requires a lot of fuel, as much as four to six cords per winter. So, if you live in an area where there aren't many trees, wood may not be the best option for you to use.
Another option is to use natural gas or propane. Whether natural gas will be flowing after the grid goes down is a major question that hasn't fully been answered. Much of the natural gas grid is self-powered, burning natural gas to drive generators for the electricity they need. However, there is no published information about how extensive self-powering is.
Propane is more reliable in this regard, as the use of propane means having a propane tank on-site, with propane delivered by filling that tank. The only problem with this is that the amount of propane that one has on hand is limited to what fits in the 500 gallon tank.
Both propane and natural gas can be used for heating with highly efficient ceramic catalytic heaters. These are great for survival heating, as they allow your available fuel to last the longest possible time. However, like a wood-burning stove, they only radiate heat, not force it into other parts of the home.
Another option is to use kerosene. Kerosene space heaters are also rather efficient, burning about a tank of kerosene per 24 hours and putting out quite a bit of heat for the fuel they consume. However, like anything else, this option requires having a sufficient supply of fuel on-hand to operate the heater. If you have a means of storing large amounts of kerosene, this can be quite efficient.
Preparing Your Home for Survival Heating
Developing a means of heating your home is only one part of the equation. The other part is making sure that your home is ready to keep you warm. A poorly insulated or drafty house is not going to keep you warm, unless you consume an inordinate amount of fuel to do so.
The first place to check is the attic. Heat rises, so it will leave through the attic faster than anyplace else. Attics are typically insulated on the floor, not the roof, so as to keep the heat in the living quarters of the home. But this means that gravity will pack the insulation down over time. If your home is more than ten years old, you probably need to add more insulation, making it at least two feet thick.
Other than the attic, the worst part of any home for insulation is windows and doors. These don't provide much insulation to start with and tend to be places that leak air as well, causing drafts. Start by sealing off all drafts, by replacing or adding to any work weather-stripping. Once you've done that, you can add more insulation value to the windows, while still allowing light in, by covering them with bubble wrap or clear plastic. Using heavy curtains, such as quilted curtains will add a lot of insulating value as well.
You can't add layers of insulation to doors, but you can ensure that there aren't any drafts around or under them. The weather-stripping around doors and at the threshold tends to wear from use, so it needs to be changed every few years.
The other problem you're going to encounter is that you can only heat one or two rooms, not your whole house. Modern houses are much larger than they were in the past, but wood-burning stoves and the other methods we're talking about won't can't provide enough heat to heat all of the rooms. You'll have to choose one or two rooms to heat, and block off the rest of the home.
That means closing off the rest of the home with doors or by hanging blankets across doorways. While some heat will leak through and those rooms won't be as cold as the outdoors, they won't be as warm as the rooms you are heating either. You will have to limit the time you spend in those rooms.
Dressing for the Winter
Everyone knows to dress warmly in the wintertime, but that has to be modified a bit in a survival situation. There are two major considerations that you have to think about when selecting your clothing. First of all, your home won't be as warm as it would be with forced-air heating. So, you'll need warmer clothing even in the house, than you normally would. The second issue is that you will be doing more physical work, so your body will be generating more heat.
The solution to this is to dress in layers, which will allow you to take layers off and put them back on again, based upon your activity. If you are doing something that is physically demanding, such as chopping wood, you can take layers off; then, when you finish, you can put them back on. While you are inside, you will remove layers as well, or at least your coat. Then, you'll put it back on when you go outdoors.
There are two major considerations here. The first one is that you stay warm enough to avoid hypothermia. The second, and contradictory one, is that you don't overheat and sweat. Perspiration can freeze against the skin, when you stop working, causing you to lose body heat very quickly. That's why you have to take layers off and not overheat.
Don't forget the importance of hats, gloves and boots. Twenty-five percent of your body's blood supply goes to the head, supplying oxygen to the brain. If your head is uncovered, that's a fast way to lose a lot of body heat. Put on a hat and keep the rest of your body warm.
If your body gets cold, one of its first defensive mechanisms is to reduce blood flow to the extremities. That's why fingers and toes can easily become frostbitten in the cold. You need to provide good insulation for hands and feet, in order to protect them from that possibility. Mittens are better than gloves, even though gloves are easier to work in, because mittens allow your fingers to share heat.
Food and Water
Water will probably be the least of your worries in the wintertime, unless you live in an area where it doesn't snow. Snow can be readily melted down for water, although it loses a lot of volume in the process. In fact, you'll probably only end up with about ten percent of what you start with. So, get a big pot or bucket and make sure you get lots of snow, even if you're only going to be able to melt it in a small pot.
When melting snow, it's important to stir it. Believe it or not, snow can actually scorch while melting. So, unless you want bad-tasting water, make sure you keep stirring it while it's melting. Once it's melted, it's not necessary to continue stirring it.
Food is another story. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, finding any food sources in the wintertime is almost impossible. About the only sure food source that can be found is fish; but ice fishing is an extremely slow and tedious process. The fish's metabolism is slowed by the cold water, so they move very slowly.
You will need to eat off of the food that you harvested during the warmer months. That's what preserving foods is really all about; making sure you have food to survive the winter. Properly preserved, any food will last through the cold months of winter.
One advantage, in the food preservation department is that nature provides natural refrigeration. So any animals you manage to kill, hunting, don't have to be dried or canned. Their carcasses can be butchered and the meat kept because of the cold weather.
Pioneers built food cribs for use in the wintertime, which had slats on the side exposed to the weather, rather than a complete wall. This allowed the cold weather into the crib, freezing the food. At the same time, the stout slats would keep animals out of the crib, so they couldn't steal the food. A door on the inside of the food crib would open into the kitchen, allowing access to that food.
If meats thaw that are stored in a crib like this, they must be cooked. They can be re-frozen after cooking, but if they are re-frozen without cooking, they can make you sick. Care must be taken to prevent the meat from thawing until it is ready to be used.
Your body will actually need more food in the wintertime than it does in the summertime, especially carbohydrates. These are broken down into simple sugars, the body's own fuel. A lot of fuel will be burned by your body, just to keep warm. So, you need to give it fuel to use for that task.
Soups and stews are especially good foods for the wintertime, as they provide a lot of heat to your body, in addition to providing nutrition. They are also a great way of stretching your food, as well as getting your family to eat things they don't normally eat. If you put a pile of okra or squash on your child's plate, they may not be all that willing to eat it, but if its cut up and put in a soup, it will go down nicely.
Let me tell you a little secret here. The smaller you cut things, the easier they are to hide in soups. So, when you know that you have something your child won't want to eat, the easiest way to get them to eat it is to cut it fine and add it to a soup, stew or sauce. My wife has done this for years, putting chopped carrots and broccoli in our spaghetti sauce and chili. The kids didn't notice that it was there and ate it right down.
The final thing that makes winter survival difficult is transportation. Anyone who has driven in ice and snow knows that it's much more dangerous to drive in it, than it is to drive on a dry street. In olden times, people avoided driving around in the snow any more than necessary. Snow and ice were as dangerous for horses and they are for cars. The difference was, if a horse slid on the ice, you might have to shoot it.
Minimizing the need for travel in the wintertime reduces fuel consumption, as well as the risk of getting hypothermia from being out in the cold too long. While there will always be some things which require traveling, even in the wintertime, if travel is not necessary, it's better to sit tight at home.
I realize this is contrary to our modern, highly mobile society; but we have to realize that a grid-down situation would mean that we would no longer have our modern society. We're going to have to give up a lot of things, and travel may very well be one of them. Better to stay home and safe, than to attempt an unnecessary trip with all its inherit risks.
More than any other time of the year, survival in the wintertime requires proper preparation. While you can eat off the land in other times of the year, you really can't in the wintertime. About your only chance of survival, if you aren't prepared, is to kill animals for food. But that means being able to find animals that you can kill.
Finding and cutting firewood in the wintertime is also much harder than in the summertime. Deadfalls will most likely be hidden under the snow, making them hard to find. While you could cut new wood, it will be extremely difficult with the water content frozen. That wood won't dry either, which means that you would end up burning green wood. Better to cut it when the weather is nice.So, in all your prepping plans, make sure that you take into account surviving through the winter. Never expect events to cooperate with you and provide you with a survival situation where you have good weather. Assume the worst (wintertime) and prepare for that. In doing so, you are sure to have what you will need in better times. Then, if you have to survive in the wintertime, you'll be ready.