South of Chicago on the wind-swept plains of upper Midwest, the highway stretches like a black icy ribbon toward the horizon. Ominous clouds boil above as the needle on your gas gauge plummets past “E.” Sputtering to a stop, your car rolls to the side of the road. You’re alone, unprepared, and if you know the slightest thing about local weather, in big trouble.
Cold winds push in from the north, and on their backs are borne one of Mother Nature’s most devastating natural phenomenon: the blizzard. If you don’t reach shelter soon, your mid-sized sedan might end up being your frozen tomb.
Blizzards occur most often on the Great Plains, coastal states in the Northeast, and states surrounding the Great Lakes. Due to the chilling effect of the high winds, which can often reach hurricane-level speeds, frostbite and hypothermia can occur much more quickly than in normal snowstorm conditions.
Because blizzards combine all of the dangers of snowstorms and the winds that accompany them can be hurricane-force, they pack quite a punch. The weight of the snow can collapse roofs, and bring down trees and powerlines. They cause whiteout conditions, leading motorists or pedestrians to be disoriented and stranded.
The worst blizzard in United States history occurred over four days in March 1888 and impacted the entire northeastern United States from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston were completely paralyzed. Railway and telegraph lines were obliterated, and people were confined to their homes for up to a week until the storm subsided. Snow drifts reached 40 to 50 feet high, and 400 people were killed as a result. Because emergency services were as disabled as the rest of the infrastructure, property loss from fires were estimated at $600 million in today’s dollars.
A blizzard isn’t just a term used by the weather girl on TV to make your heart skip a beat. It’s a severe winter storm supported and fed by powerful winds that can last for only a few hours or up to many days. Blizzards happen anywhere in the North America where very cold and dry air from the north meet warm and wet air from the south and west. When these three forces collide, tumultuous weather is the only outcome.
There are three kinds of blizzards:
Snowstorm Blizzard: A traditional blizzard, the snowstorm blizzard includes heavy snowfall and below-freezing temperatures with winds over 35 miles per hour. For a regular snowstorm to be categorized as a blizzard, it must meet the above criteria and visibility must be reduced to no more than 1,300 feet.
Ground Blizzard: These types of blizzards are more common but they don’t dump any significant snowfall. Instead, high winds blow around already fallen snow. There are three kinds of ground blizzards, each named for the direction the wind and snow is blowing: horizontal advection, vertical advection and thermal-mechanical (which is a combination of the first two).
Lake-Effect Blizzard: Seen most commonly along the Great Lakes, these blizzards form when cold winds blow across a relatively warm lake. The winds lift the water vapor into the atmosphere and it comes back down as snowfall along the shoreline.
“Because blizzards combine all of the dangers of snowstorms and the winds that accompany them can be hurricane-force, they pack quite a punch.”
SURVIVING A BLIZZARD
Like any disaster, the best way to survive a blizzard is to be prepared for it. In these modern times, with satellites and up-to-date news information, blizzards rarely strike without warning (but snowfall amounts and the storm’s intensity cannot be predicted for your exact area). This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stay prepared at all times.
In your home, you should keep a well-stocked pantry of food (at all times—you won’t be able to restock during the storm) and water that has a long shelf life. When the weather is bad enough, expect your pipes to freeze, so all the water you have in storage is all the water you can expect to use. Because of that, keep supplies of water available in an area of your house that won’t freeze, and plan on having a gallon of water for each person each day. Sure, you can melt snow into water, but that poses three problems:
1) You have to go outside to get it;
2) It takes a lot of energy to melt snow;
3) You’ll need to filter it.
You should have a working flashlight and batteries, a charged cell phone (if towers aren’t affected), any medication that is needed (insulin and Epipens, for example), general first aid supplies, heating fuel or firewood, and carbon monoxide and smoke detectors. In addition to a flashlight, have on hand a couple of lanterns (battery, solar- and servo-powered), which are better for general use than a flashlight.
Caught at Home:
The best place to ride out a blizzard is, of course, your home. If you’ve prepared for just such an emergency, you’ll be toasty and warm by the fireplace telling ghost stories to the kids while rummaging through your food supplies for supper. However, that isn’t to suggest that all dangers have been eliminated. It is important to stay inside. Depending on the severity of the storm, going outside can be very dangerous. There are too many stories of people who stepped off their porch into their own front yard during whiteout conditions and got lost only to be found dead a few feet from their front door. Close off unneeded rooms to conserve heat. If you are running a fireplace or a wood stove, the heat from either will warm the room you are in but will actually make the other rooms of your house colder.
Close off those rooms and stuff towels underneath the doors and around windows to further insulate the room. Keep the windows covered at night with a layer of plastic or blankets. Although some find a blizzard to be a beautiful natural phenomenon, by keeping the windows covered at night when it is the coldest, the biggest heat suck in your house will be contained.
If your house is lacking a fireplace, where your laws allow, consider keeping a space heater in your stockpile of gear. A simple 5,000-BTU unit will heat a 200-square-foot room effectively. Caught Outside: If you pay attention to the weather and news broadcasts, you’ll know when the temperatures are expected to dip and when blizzard conditions might bear down on you. Because of this, you’ll likely dress appropriately to be outside.
That’s an important first step. By layering your clothing and preparing for the worst, you can adjust the temperature of your body by adding or removing layers.
It is important to stay hydrated if you are outside for longer than a few hours. High winds can sap moisture from your body quicker than you realize (and a well hydrated body stays warmer). Try your best to get out of the wind. Duck behind buildings if you are in a city or get behind large rocks if you are in the country, somewhere where the wind won’t affect you. Most every expert suggests digging a snow shelter if you are stranded in a blizzard, and that is good advice if you have the means, such as a shovel or a digging tool of some kind.
Yes and no.
Though consuming snow will provide you with some much-need water, doing so will significantly lower your core body temperature. The main problem with eating snow for the purposes of obtaining water is that it takes a lot of snow to get a little water. A conservative ratio of snow to water is about 10 to 1.
When in dire situations, it is better to chance being cold than it is dying from dehydration. A better option would be to use the body heat from your activities to melt the snow. If you have a sealable container, put it in between your layers of clothing near your core and go about your business.
Snow is a spectacular insulator, as it has been proven that a single candle can warm a good-sized igloo.
However, without digging tools, constructing a lean-to against the wind will help. If you don’t have a tarp or rope, huddle under the branches of a low-hanging tree or quickly gather branches and lean them at a 45-degree angle against a tree or rock. Keep your body and all exposed skin covered as best as possible. Always wear a hat and gloves to reduce heat loss. Do simple exercises to stay warm and maintain circulation, but do not work so hard at it that you break a sweat. Stay in one place as long as practical and safe. Walking in deep snow can wear out the body quickly, as you will expel a lot of energy climbing through the snow.
If possible, build a fire and begin thinking of ways to signal for help: Burn some green branches that will create a lot of smoke, or spell out H.E.L.P on the snow with materials that contrast the white. If you don’t already have food with you, obtaining it will be difficult given the constraints of movement the blizzard places on you. Though
the human body can last a couple of weeks without food, water is a different matter. If you have a water bottle or
other container (but no fire to melt the snow), pack half of it with snow and shake it (the friction will help it melt). Put it in your pocket or keep it under your coat.
Caught in Your Car:
A very scary situation is to be caught in a blizzard while you are stuck in your car. If snowdrifts have left you stranded, the best advice is to stay put in your car unless there is an immediate danger in doing so.
Inside the car is the safest place. A car’s engine can idle for quite a long time. For example, a V6 Toyota Tacoma uses approximately 0.3 gallons an hour, so this means that its 21.1-gallon tank will be depleted after 70 hours, which is nearly three days. That means you can run the heater and keep the insides of your car warm enough, but only do so for 10 or 20 minutes every hour or so.
When Old Man Winter begins to rear his head in late fall, putting together a well-stocked in-car survival kit can mean the difference between life and death. The kit should be kept where you can reach it without going outside
(not in the trunk), and the semi-perishable items should be rotated when appropriate.
- High-protein snacks: One or two MREs, a good supply of simple trail mix that includes nuts (peanut butter is perfect)
- One or two gallons of water
- Cell phone battery
- charger with a car adapter
- Two or three thermal blankets
- Tire chains and traction pads
- Flashlight and chemical sticks
- Extra pair of boots, a hat, gloves and parka Knife and/or multi-tool
- Duct tape and paracord
- Jumper cables and a tow strap
- Fire starting kit
Points of caution:
Don’t let snow accumulation block the tailpipe or exhaust fumes could back up into the car, and be mindful that your car doesn’t get covered by snow. Keep a window slightly cracked if you begin to smell engine fumes. If you have them, it is a good idea to use chemical light sticks as visual markers for would-be rescuers to see your car. Tie one securely to the top of your antenna or hang one out the windows on both sides of your car. Keep on your hazard lights so people can still see you. For food and water, it is always a good idea to keep a couple of days’ worth of supplies in a bag that you can access from the cabin of the car. Include a flashlight, a window breaker and a portable radio.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 print issue of American Survival Guide.