10 Ways to Survive a Snowstorm

By: Charles W. Bryant
A snowplow and pickup truck brave the roads during a winter storm. See more pictures of trucks.
Rob Casey/Getty Images

There's no truer statement than the old adage "you can't control the weather." You can't­ even predict it with complete certainty. As advanced as our meteorological forecasting techniques are these days, weather systems are changeable forces of nature. They can come on quickly, switch direction without notice and build in intensity in a short period of time. Whether you're at home, on foot, in your car or at work, a winter snowstorm can catch you off guard.

The Nation­al Snow and Ice Data Center defines a blizzard as a "violent winter storm, lasting at least 3 hours, which combines below freezing temperatures and very strong wind laden with blowing snow that reduces visibility to less than 1 km."


If a blizzard is bad enough, snow plows and salt trucks won't even brave the elements. Roads become desol­ate ice paths, businesses shut down, schools close and grocery stores get picked clean. If your home loses power and you have no backup heating system in place, your very life becomes at risk. In this article, we'll give you 10 tips on how to survive a snowstorm.

10. Be Prepared

These pipes should be insulated to keep them in good shape for possible winter storms.
Kim Steele/Getty Images

One thing you'll want if a blizzard hits is runnin­g water. Water pipes tend to fr­eeze in temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit (about -7 degrees Celsius). Prevent this by wrapping your interior pipes with foam insulation. If the temperature is dropping, leave your faucets running at a slow drip.

You should also do simple things like pay your utility bills on time and keep your cell phone charged. Losing gas or electricity to an unpaid bill before a snowstorm hits is a mistake you won't want to make. If a blizzard knocks out your power and home phone service, turn your charged cell phone off and save the charge for emergency calls.


Head on to the following pages for the next snowstorm tips.

9. Stock Up on Food

A good stock of healthy food is essential for a winter storm. Try to shop for canned and dry goods that will store well.

As wi­th preparing your home,­ it's also vital to have your stock of food supplies ready when the storm blows in. In places that don't typically get severe winter weather, grocery­ stores are often jam-packed with shoppers when a storm is imminent. To avoid walking the crowded aisles and staring at empty shelves, stock up ahead of time. Make a list of items you'd need for each member of your household to live for seven days, more if you live in a cold-weather region. And make sure you don't forget your pets -- keeping a stash of dog and cat food is a good idea. You should also include medicines and personal items like deodorant, toothpaste, soap and shampoo.

Canned and dry goods are the best way to store food long term. Canned fruits and vegetables may not be the best, but they're good to have on hand to ensure that you don't eat boxed macaroni for a solid week. Also keep at least five gallons of water on hand. If you can't live without that morning cup of coffee, buy a stove-top percolator or French press to use if your power goes out.


8. Buy Batteries

Keep a stash of well-charged batteries in a convenient location in your house -- you never know when the power will go out.
2008 HowStuffWorks

Get a box and fill it with some emerge­ncy equipment, then store it out of the way. Includ­e a flashlight or two with plenty of extra batteries. Hand-crank flashlights are good for a long-term situation, but not really necessary. Buy a battery operated AM/FM radio or weather monitor to keep tabs on the storm system. If you have electric heating, buy a kerosene heater and enough fuel for a week of steady use. It's important to make sure the heater is ventilated properly. If you have fireplace, keep a stash of emergency wood on hand and don't use it unless you're snowed in.

Sleeping bags and wool blankets are also a good idea to have on hand. If you have an electric stove, it's smart to invest in an inexpensive camping stove and some fuel canisters. You can find dual-burner propane models for about $100 [source: refrigerator goes out, use a cooler packed with snow or ice to keep your food fresh.


7. Shovel Smart

Digging out your buried car is a tiresome task -- why not stay inside and drink?
Stockbyte/Getty Images

People die every year from heart attacks­ while shoveling snow. During New York's blizzard of­ 1996, a large portion of the 4,600 911 calls received were heart-attack related. No one knows if they were all shoveling snow, but at least seven people in New Jersey and Long Island are reported to have died while clearing their driveways [source: exercise leap from their couches and start lifting 40-pound heaps of snow. This kind of sudden increase in activity isn't a good thing if you aren't in shape. If you need to clear your driveway, get help from a young neighbor. If not, go slow and steady, taking breaks as often as you need.

It's also a good idea to shovel early and often to avoid a massive build-up of snow. A low snow level is easier for the sun to melt once the storm passes. Don't shovel after a meal or cigarette, as your blood is being used to digest food or the vessels constricted from nicotine. Push the snow straight ahead, then to one side, and don't ever attempt to toss a heavy load of snow over your shoulder.


Read on for tips on how to recognize and treat cold-weather illnesses.

6. Watch the Toes

Frostbite is a serious risk with serious consequences.
Sandra Mu/Getty Image News

If you don't wear gloves, warm socks or a wi­nter hat, frostbite is something to look for. After prolonged exposure to the bitter cold, ice crystals form on the outside of y­our skin cells. This dehydrates the cell and eventually kills it. Your outer extremities are usually the first to be affected -- fingers, toes and ears.

The two main stages of frostbite and its symptoms are:


  • Superficial frostbite - numbness, tingling, burning, itching. The skin looks frozen white and retains firmness when pressed.
  • Deep frostbite - increased and eventual loss of sensation, swelling, blood blisters. The skin is yellowish and hard and can appear blackened and dead.

To treat frostbite, move to a warm area as soon as you can and elevate the affected area. Remove any restricted clothing or jewelry to keep from further inhibiting the flow of blood. Thawing should be performed by a doctor, so get to a hospital as soon as you can. If you can't get to a doctor warm the area quickly in water between 104-107 degrees Fahrenheit (40-42 degrees Celsius). This will be a painful process, but necessary to save your digits [source: WebMD].

5. Snuggle Up

Forget hypothermia and frostbite -- curl up on your bearskin rug and sip a hot totty.
Stockbyte/Getty Images

If your home loses power in a snowstorm and you ­have no backup heating syste­m, developing hypothermia is a very real possibility. Simply said, hypothermia is when your body loses more heat than it can produce.

What you should watch out for:


  • Slurred speech
  • Stiff joints
  • Loss of coordination
  • Slow pulse
  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Puffy face
  • Mental confusion

The human body is a machine that can only operate at the same consistent temperature on the thermometer -- 98.6 degrees. If hypothermia sets in and you aren't able to warm your body, you could die. If you feel like hypothermia is beginning, warm yourself as quickly as you can. Use blankets, sleeping bags and layers of clothing. If you're with someone, snuggle up to borrow some of their body heat. Drink something warm, and then apply warm towels or water bottles to the head, neck, armpits and groin area to raise the core temperature. If you're able to, get to a hospital for treatment [source: WebMD].


4. Layer Up

If you absolutely have to go outside, the secret to staying warm is to wear layers of insulating clothing.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The best thing to ­do during a snowstorm is to stay indoors. But if you absolutely­ need to get somewhere on foot, you'll have to be very smart in order to survive. The most important thing you need to do is to dress appropriately. Loose, warm, layered clothing is the way to go. Loose clothing helps the blood flow, increasing warmth. Wearing a hat and gloves is essential because most of our body heat leaves through the extremities. Mittens are warmer than gloves because the fingers are allowed to touch each other and create additional heat. The same goes for your feet -- layer your socks and wear wool if you have it. Snowstorm conditions are usually accompanied by limited visibility, so make your outer layer a bright color so you can be seen by others.

Once you have all layered and ready to go, make sure you take a cell phone if you have one. It's likely that the roads won't be crowded with cars, but the chances of a random car sliding off the road into you are pretty good, so avoid walking roadside if you can. If you find you can't reach your destination or you get lost or stuck, get out of the elements as soon as you can. Duck into an open store or if you're in a rural area, hole up in a barn. If there are no buildings around, get behind something large to shelter you from the wind.


The final three tips await you on the following pages.

3. Stay with Your Car

This guy clearly failed to check the weather report.
Rob Penn/Getty Images

Let's say you swerv­e off the road in a snowstorm and find yourself stuck and alone. Thi­s is a pretty frightening scenario and one that could leave you struggling to survive. Following a few basic rules can help you make it through until the weather clears.

Keep an emergency kit in your trunk with the following items:


  • AM/FM radio
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Sleeping bag
  • Blanket
  • Compact shovel
  • First-aid kit
  • Flares
  • Fire-starting kit
  • Bright colored towel
  • Tow rope

The No. 1 rule is to stay with your car. It provides 911 if you can get a signal. Start your car and run it for about 10 minutes per hour -- this will allow you to run the heater as well as ensuring that it will still start. The last thing you want to do is run out of gas, so keep a close eye on the needle.

You should also raise the hood to indicate that you're in distress. Ration out your snacks and water in case you end up stuck for a long period of time. Dehydration is common in cold weather, so drink about a cup of water per hour. Check the tail pipe to make sure it's not packed with snow. If it is, clear it -- carbon monoxide will back up into the car and kill you. Finally, tie your colored towel around your antenna and keep your dome light on at night so you can be seen.

2. Stay Safe

A late night at the office is better than being stranded by yourself in the cold snow.
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Sometimes it's ­just not an option not to go to work. Some jobs depend on having ­someone there at all times, no matter what the weather is like. If you have a job like this, it's important to keep an emergency stash of food, water and blankets around just like you would in your home or car.

If you have advanced warning of the storm and you need to be at work, drive in before the snow starts and plan on staying until it's safe -- even if that means staying the night. It's a good idea to bring a sleeping bag and some extra clothes if this is the case. You should also make sure your family has everything they need before you leave.


1. Entertainment

If your house is full because you're snowed in, you might want to play a few rounds of cards to pass the time.
2008 HowStuffWorks

No matter what the situation, in your car, at home or at work -- if you're stuck in a sno­wstorm, try and keep yourself entertained. A positive mental attitude and will to live is as important as any survival technique. Many people who are stuck or trapped try and think of future goals they want to accomplish. This gives them hope for the future and keeps the mind occupied and active. Play some word games or sing songs. Do anything you can to take your mind away from your dire circumstance. Before you know it, the storm will pass and blue skies will appear.

For more information on survival and all things weather, please enjoy the articles on the next page.

Surviving a Snowstorm FAQ

What should you do before a snowstorm?
Before a snowstorm arrives, you should prepare for the worst. Water pipes can freeze, so make sure to insulate your pipes with layers of foam. You should charge your electronics in case the power goes out, and make sure you have flashlights and candles handy. It's also a good idea to stock up on non-perishable food and batteries.
What should you do if you get caught in a blizzard?
If you get caught outdoors in a blizzard, it's critical that you find coverage. Seek shelter, and if there's no shelter nearby, try to stay dry by building a snow cave, lean-to or windbreak to protect you against the elements. Move or exercise from time to time to stay warm and keep blood circulating, but try to avoid overexerting yourself.
How do you survive a snowstorm in a car?
If you're stuck or stranded in a snowstorm inside your car, make sure to stay inside. Don't get out of your car. You can run the motor for about 10 minutes every hour to get heat and warmth inside, but make sure you crack the window a bit to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
Is it safe to drive in a blizzard?
It's very dangerous to drive in a blizzard. If possible, avoid leaving home and steer clear of all roads. It's better to stay indoors, as the cold temperatures and lack of visibility can lead to serious danger.
Why is a blizzard so dangerous?
Blizzard conditions can create a combination of high winds and snow flurries, which decrease visibility to almost zero. Temperatures can also drop dramatically, which can cause dire health issues like hypothermia and frost bite.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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  • Frostbite Overview. webmd.com, 2008. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/frostbite
  • Hypothermia and Cold Temperature Exposure. webmd.com, 2008. http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/hypothermia-and-cold-temperature-exposure-topic-overview
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