Living in a modern, industrialized society, winter is more of an inconvenience than anything else. For the average American, the worst problems that wintertime produce are higher heating bills and having to shovel snow out of their driveway. We don't worry about keeping our homes warm, finding water, feeding our livestock or having enough food to last through the winter.
Yet for much of history, life revolved around preparing to survive the next winter. Bringing in the harvest, preserving food and chopping firewood were all major activities during the warmer months; not because they were needed at the moment, but to ensure survival through the coming winter. Failure to prepare properly could easily result in death at the hands of Mother Nature herself.
Even in our modern society, Mother Nature takes a few lives every winter. Mostly, these are elderly people whose bodies are more fragile. Generally speaking, when the police investigate the death, they find that the people in question weren't adequately heating their homes... because they couldn't afford to.
The Farmer's Almanac has predicted an unusually cold winter this year, which probably means that a few more of the elderly living up north will die due to the cold. But for most of us, the cold really doesn't matter. It means we'll have to wear a warmer coat, be sure to put on a hat and gloves and may result in us throwing an extra blanket on the beds, but the only problem for us will be simple inconveniences, ones that we can readily overcome, thank you very much.
But what if one of our enemies hacked into the power grid this winter, creating a nationwide grid-down situation? Would we be ready to survive? Is this part of our prepping plans, or have we been a bit too idealistic in our planning?
It's easy to envision a survival situation in a particular way and expect that to be the scenario that we'll face. Unfortunately, when we do that, we tend to picture a "best-case" scenario, rather than a worst-case one. But reality says that we should prepare for the worst case, as that's much more likely to occur. Disasters and crisis don't occur when it's convenient for us; that's something you can count on.
What's Your Worst Case?
Winter is always, without a doubt, a more difficult survival scenario than summer. Not only is it colder, forcing us to provide our homes or survival shelters with heat, but it is also a time when many of the resources we need for survival are hard to come by. Depending on nature for survival during the wintertime is a very iffy proposition, one that I wouldn't want to bet on.
The biggest survival problems in the wintertime, besides heat, are food and water. As we all know, water freezes in the wintertime, meaning that to get to it, we have to break through the ice. While snow can be melted for water, it takes an awful lot of snow to make a glass of water. Besides, if you don't stir the snow while you're melting it over the fire, it's actually possible to scald it.
Finding food in the wintertime is all but impossible. Many edible plants die off in the wintertime, waiting for spring to sprout again. Fruit-bearing trees and vegetables that we eat don't produce fruit, so we can't pick it to eat, no matter how diligently we look for it. Animals are a problem as well, as many stay in their dens, waiting for better weather. Most either hibernate, live off of food they've gathered, or live off their body fat until they can forage once again.
To really understand how grave a problem this is, we have to look at it in the light of the annual calendar. Once the first frost hits in the autumn, food availability pretty much dries up. Any plants which can be used for food either die off or the fruit does. Animals take that first frost as a sign that winter is upon them and hide away, waiting for spring. So, from that point on, like the squirrel, we've got to count on whatever food we've got stockpiled.
At the other end of the winter, we've got to wait for Spring to thaw things out, before we can count on having much of a chance of finding much food again. But it's actually worse than that, as it will take plants time to begin producing anything edible. So, just because the weather has warmed up, doesn't meant that there's anything to eat. That may still be weeks away.
So the question we each need to ask ourselves is how much time are we going to be living in the cold, specifically from that first freeze to the spring thaw? Not only how long, but what's the worst case scenario? We don't want to make plans on hope, but rather on reality.
That time is going to be different for different people, depending on where they live. People in the south have very little winter and can often grow food year round. But the farther north you go, the shorter the growing season. That means that people living in the north have to take full advantage of whatever time they do have available to them.
In some of the northern states, especially in the mountains, warm temperatures only last three to four months, with the first frost occurring sometime in late August. Growing any sort of crops in such places is extremely difficult, as the growing season is often shorter than what plants need to come to maturity.
If you live in such a place, you need to make your plans accordingly, growing or gathering your food in the short period of time you have available. This is a much greater challenge than that faced by those who live farther south, where Old Man Winter takes his time to arrive and doesn't stay for long.
Match Your Gardening to Your Climate
I think it's important to say that each growing zone has its own challenges. People living in the south may have a longer growing season, but are faced with the challenge of their crops burning up from too much heat in the summertime. These areas are often more arid, meaning that it is difficult at best to provide enough water to crops. So, while they may have a longer growing season, that doesn't mean that they can necessarily grow more.
There is also a greater problem with insects that damage food in the South, than there is in the North. So, there really is no ideal growing climate. You're going to have to learn how to work with the climate you have, and that means starting now, before you need to live off what you grow.
One important factor in effective gardening is to match the plants you are growing with the climate you are living in. The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has established growing zones, based upon climate. When you buy seeds, you should check to make sure that they are intended for the growing zone that you live in. Plants that need a cold climate will die off in hotter ones and those that need a hot climate won't thrive in a cold one.
But there's a little more to it than that, especially for those in the south. As the seasons change, different types of produce will grow. So, while lettuce is a cold weather plant and won't grow in the South in the summertime, there are many places in the south where it will grow in the wintertime, especially in the areas where it doesn't ever freeze, such as south Texas.
Fruit trees can be greatly affected by climate as well. Many of these trees need a minimum number of days of freeze, or they won't produce any fruit. While the tree may be healthy in all other regards, it won't provide any produce, because of the climate.
Harvesting From Nature
If you live in an area where there is an abundance of edible plant life, you don't want to ignore that as part of your food plan. Many types of plants are edible and few people are aware of which ones they are. This gives you an advantage, if you take the time to learn to recognize them and where they grow.
This varies by region, but you can pretty much count on some sort of edible plants growing wherever you live. The trick is finding out which ones they are. Of course, then there's the work of going out and foraging for them.
Let me say right here that foraging isn't as efficient as growing your own. If it was, mankind never would have started farming. There is a certain amount of time lost in the foraging process, simply through trying to find the edible plants. Then, if you harvest them, there's no guarantee that they will grow back for the next season.
However, one good thing about wild plants is that they might very well provide you with some badly needed variety to your diet. I remember picking and eating wild raspberries years ago, when I lived in New York. They were there all the time, but nobody had seen them. So my family got to eat its fill of fresh raspberries, while everyone else was complaining about how expensive they were in the store.
Animals, Your Other Harvest
Not all of our food is grown in the soil however, most of us tend to eat a fair amount of animal protein as well. Typically, growing animals requires much more space than growing plants does, because you need to grow feed for those animals as well. For most of us, this can be a problem, as we don't really have all that much space to work with.
Yet there are some animals you can grow, which aren't going to take a lot of space. Specifically, you can grow rabbits, chickens and fish in a very small amount of space. The other nice thing about these three types of animals is that growing food for them won't be all that big a challenge. Rabbits will be fat and happy off the produce you don't eat from your garden, fish will do very nicely off of mosquito larva or a worm farm and chickens will eat literally anything, even leftover chicken.
Rabbits and chickens will continue to reproduce and grow year round, unlike most types of livestock, which only reproduce once per year. This means a more constant source of food, even in the winter months. But you have to make sure that you take feeding your animals into your plans and stockpile food for them to make it through the winter.
Be Prepared to Preserve Your Food
Growing enough food doesn't end your problems with making it through the winter without starving to death. You've got to keep that food from spoiling before you can eat it. That means having the means to preserve large quantities of food, hopefully quickly and easily.
How much food will you need to preserve? Well, if you currently have a food stockpile, you can use that to give you an idea. A six month stockpile of food will be pretty close to the same amount of food that you will need to preserve, so that you can make it through the winter. Of course, you have to consider waste in that as well, as freshly picked produce takes up more room than produce that's been cleaned, pitted, cut and canned.
I was recently visiting someone I knew who was relatively new to prepping and the subject of preserving food came up. They told me that they had thought of that, and had that area covered. But when they showed me what they actually had, it consisted of their barbecue grille, which doubled as a smoker, an electric dehydrator and a few dozen canning jars.
How many cans of food do you think you would go through in the average month of survival eating? That can be a little hard to judge, but if you start with one pint can of food per person per meal, you'll be fairly close.
That works out to 360 cans of food per month. Now, not all our food is canned, nor should we really plan on canning all our food. But this gives you a pretty good idea, volume wise, of how much food you need. Your canning will probably be limited to fruits and vegetables; but even that will be a large part of the food you grow.
Of course, not even all of your vegetables need to be canned, if you have a root cellar. The whole idea of root cellars was developed for root crops, hence the name. So, potatoes, corn and onions don't have to be canned or dried, they can be kept in the root cellar. But so can the various members of the squash family, like zucchini and pumpkins. So if you make good use of your root cellar, you can drastically reduce the amount of canning you have to do.
Then there's meat. While meat can be canned, that's a very difficult way of preserving it. Considering that you'll be plenty busy canning your produce, you might want to consider preserving meat by other means. What means? How about smoking it.
I would have to say that smoking meat was the number one means of preserving it in the early days of the United States and as the frontier marched westward. Smoking is relatively easy and lends itself readily to preserving large quantities of meat at the same time. But you'll need more than a smoker barbecue grill, you'll need a smokehouse if you are going to do any serious smoking.
Look at it this way. If you kill any large animals, either by hunting them or because you're raising beef, you're going to need to preserve the entire thing immediately. You can't do it in batches, expecting the meat to keep until you have room in the smoker. The longer you wait, the more of the meat will go bad.
That means being able to smoke a whole steer at once. To put that in perspective, your average 1,200 pound steer will yield about 490 pounds of beef, when it's cleaned and butchered. That's a whole lot more than you can fit into any barbecue grille, let alone one that's a smoker too.
But the good thing is, if you are fortunate enough to get an animal that large, get it home and smoke it, you'll have enough meat to last you a while; somewhere between half a year and a year, depending on how you use it. Considering that we're talking survival, you're probably not going to eat 1" thick T-bone steaks every night.
We don't want to forget about dehydration either. Most foods can be dehydrated effectively, once you learn how. Meats, fruits and vegetables alike all dehydrate well, preserving them and reducing the space they need for storage. Properly stored, most dehydrated foods will keep quite well.
But the average home dehydrator isn't big enough to do much at a time. Besides, most are electric. So, if the power goes out and you don't have enough electric power production, that dehydrator isn't going to do you much good at all.
Fortunately for all of us, people used dehydration to preserve food long before the first modern electric dehydrator was made. They even did so using green energy, drying food in the sun. Grains, meats, fish and even vegetables were dried in the sun, preserving food to make it through the winter.
Sun-drying food doesn't take a lot of equipment. All you really need is a place to put the food, where it is exposed to the sun and protected from animals that might eat it. In many countries, flat rooftops were a favorite place for drying food, laying out the food on rushes, or in large flat baskets. In contrast, the American Indians, most of whom were nomads, made frames out of sticks to dry meat, creating something that was easy to build and disposable.
Of course, both smoked meats and dehydrated foods need to be protected from being eaten by pests. Canning jars protect canned food from being eaten by insects and rodents, so that's not a problem. You'll need something as effective for storing foods that are preserved by other means, such as sealing the food in five gallon buckets.
While food is the biggest problem for getting through the winter, it isn't the only one. I mentioned earlier that Old Man Winter claims lives each and every year; lives of people who die of hypothermia.
Hypothermia is literally freezing to death. It happens when the body can't produce enough heat to keep itself warm. As the body's core temperature drops, there are a number of physical and mental affects, lowering the individual's ability to function. Eventually, they reach a point where they can't save themselves, even if they know what it is that they need to do.
So, what types of things make it so that the body can't produce enough heat?
- Lack of nutrition - The body "burns food" in metabolic reactions, which produce heat. But if the person isn't eating enough calories to burn, they won't be able to produce heat.
- Lack of movement - Physical exercise; the movement of muscle tissue, is a large part of the way that the body burns food to create heat. The less activity a person has, common amongst the elderly, the less heat their body produces.
- Lack of insulation - While our bodies produce heat quite well, they don't necessarily hold that heat in well. Clothing helps with this, providing insulation to keep that heat in. But if the clothing becomes wet, it loses its insulation ability and can actually cause the body to lose heat faster than being naked.
- Environmental factors - If the ambient air is too cold, or there is a wind, the body may not be able to produce heat fast enough to overcome the amount that is radiated into the air.
As you can see from those four points, there are a lot of things that we need going for us, in order to maintain adequate body heat. Clothing and shelter especially are important parts of protecting ourselves from the cold. Both provide the same thing; insulation against the cold and protection from the weather (specifically rain and wind).
The other thing we do to protect our bodies from the winter cold is to generate heat by artificial means, generally by burning fuel. This, more than anything else, is where mankind's long relationship with fire has come from.
But keeping a fire burning means having enough fuel to feel it all through the winter. Do you have any idea of how much wood you need to have, in order to keep your fireplace or wood-burning stove going all winter long?
This is another area where it is easy to underestimate our needs. A lot of us tend to think a cord of firewood is a lot of wood, but it's not. Even worse, few people sell a full cord anymore, but rather a "face cord." The difference is that a full cord measures 4' x 4' x 8', while a face cord only measures 4' x 8' x however long the pieces are cut. That's usually about 16". So you actually need three face cords of firewood to make one full cord.
People who burn wood to heat their homes typically go through anywhere from four to six cords of firewood per winter. That's a lot of wood. They also use hardwood, as hardwoods will burn longer and produce more heat than softwoods will.
In a long-term survival situation, cutting, splitting and hauling enough wood to get through the winter will be a major chore that has to accomplished every year. This isn't something that can be skimped on and still expect to survive.
Even then, you probably won't be able to keep your home as warm as you are accustomed to. At best, you'll be able to heat the room or rooms which have a fireplace or wood burning stove. The rest of the house will receive some radiated heat from that, but not much. The farther you get from the heat source, the colder the house will be.
That means that you'll need to dress appropriately. Warm clothing will be an essential survival tool. Heavy pants and sweaters will need to be worn inside the house, all the time. In some extreme cases, you might even need to wear a coat inside the home.
At night, you'll need to pile the beds high with blankets and comforters. That means you don't want to throw away the old ones, even if they are getting a bit ratty looking. Keep them available to pile on the bed, and when you have to use them, put a nice blanket on top to hide them. That extra insulation will make it possible for your family to sleep warm at night, even as the fire burns down.
Prepare Your Home
A properly sealed and insulated home will hold in heat much better than one which is not well insulated. This means taking the time to go through your home and find the areas which are not well insulated or not well sealed. Check all the doors and windows for air leaks and run your hands over the exterior walls, from floor to ceiling, all around the interior of your home, looking for places where the wall is colder than the rest of the wall.
Cold areas on the wall indicate that the wall is not insulated well at that point. This can happen when a home is being built, because of the need to remove insulation to install pipes or ducting. A good contractor will ensure that those are insulated as well, but sometimes it gets overlooked.
Another problem that can happen, especially in older homes, is that the insulation can settle, leaving the top foot or two uninsulated. Since heat rises, this means that the part of the wall which needs to be insulated the most, is actually not insulated at all. In such cases, a hole needs to be made in the wall, near the ceiling and insulation needs to be blown into the walls.
It's not common for windows and doors to form air leaks as a home settles. Perhaps a door was put in just a little crooked or a window doesn't close right. As time goes on, the seals used in the windows and door frames can wear, leaving gaps. These seemingly insignificant leaks can actually allow a lot of cold air into your home, making it harder to heat.There are a number of products on the market, which allow you to deal with these air leaks, reducing your heat loss and helping your home stay warm. But you've got to take the time to find where they are needed and then the additional time to install them. In the long run, it's worth it.