Old Man Winter has struck back at us meddling kids in the north country with a vengeance. All across the Upper Midwest of the United States, temperatures have dropped below zero, and the wind chills are approaching -50 degrees Fahrenheit. The extreme cold is life threatening, especially to those caught outside unprepared. In this article, I will discuss  How to Prepare for the Polar Vortex.  While it isn’t necessarily part of our Health and Fitness Renew You Kickstart, how to prepare for the polar vortex is first and foremost on everyone’s mind in the Upper Midwest. After all, being prepared might just save your life in these conditions!

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Polar Vortex 2019

Homesteading, Prepping, How to Prepare for the Polar Vortex
The Polar Vortex brought subzero temperatures and blowing snow making roads and work outside dangerous – January 2019

In the Upper Midwest, we finally got a solid dose of winter this week.  Up to this week, we haven’t had a ton of snow, and we seemed to miss the subzero chill that hammers the region in January.  

That changed this week.  

Wind screamed over the drifts on the north side of the roadway, grabbing loose snow and throwing it into the frigid January air.  The snow fell down to the pavement and streaked across the roadway to the ditch on the other side.  When the wind died down a bit, the snowflakes would snake across the road like a thousand hungry white pythons looking for prey.  I sat in the seat of my truck watching the wind and the snow for a minute before I pull up the collar on my Carhartt jacket, put my hard had over my stocking cap, open the door and step into the frozen hurricane.  

Welcome to my Tuesday working in the polar vortex!

A winter storm raced across the Upper Midwest and dumped snow on Sunday and Monday, and the frigid Arctic dropped down and stalled over our region.  Temperatures dipped below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind made it feel like it was -50 degrees Fahrenheit in some places.  Parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota were colder than Anchorage, Alaska; the Antarctic and Siberia. 

Somehow this just doesn’t seem right, but regardless, we have to deal with these cold temperatures. After all, we will be planting seeds and gearing up for garden season before we know it! 

How does one prepare for the Polar Vortex?  

Homesteading, Prepping, How to Prepare for the Polar Vortex
Our new furnace is working hard – January 2019

I asked this question to Small Scale Life Facebook Group Member Adam Rick, who was working outside on rooftop HVAC units in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Adam provided the following advice for how to prepare for the polar vortex:

  • Dress for the weather.  Wear several layers, especially on your feet.  If you are working outside and your feet are cold, you are going to have a miserable day.  Exposure to temperatures like these will cause frostbite in a few minutes, so dress accordingly. 
  • Limit your time outside. If you’re going to be out there take your time don’t be out for too long 30 minutes at most then warm up.
  • Communicate with others.  Make sure someone else knows that you’re outside. A real simple injury can become a life threatening in weather like this. Basic communication is key.
  • Don’t worry about trying to melt ice.  Salt does not work to thaw ice at these temperatures.
  • Keep the cold air out of your house. Heat will seep out of cracks and joints in your windows and around your doors.  Keep the heat in and the cold air out. Feel free to put blankets over windows keep curtains drawn sit down and enjoy a good movie.  Also, if you have an attached garage, keep the garage door closed.  Keep your exterior doors closed as much as possible, and block drafts coming into your house from under the door.
  • Don’t let your pipes freeze!  When water freezes, it expands its volume by approximately 9%.  This is why pipes burst when they freeze! If you think pipes may freeze, keep the cupboard doors open. Many houses have a closet doors on the outside walls. Open those closet doors. You can also let faucets trickle to keep water moving.  It is not efficient, but at least you won’t have burst pipes and water gushing out of the cracks!  
  • Keep your furnace intake/exhaust clear of ice and snow.  Snow can block these pipes, creating a potential carbon monoxide issue.  In addition, moist air coming out of the furnace can freeze and block the exhaust pipe.  Make sure you check the pipes and clear the ice; I had to do this to my own pipes yesterday!
  • Make sure your air vents and radiators are open and clear of obstructions. This will help heat from your furnace to warm up your room and your house.
  • Check your animals and livestock. Make sure your animals and livestock are not exposed to these extreme temperatures and have water and food. Water tanks will freeze with these cold temperatures, so check them often.

Cars and the Polar Vortex

Julie and I were visiting friends last night, and as we were coming home, we noticed about a dozen cars stranded on the side of the road.  These cold temperatures are hard on mechanical devices, especially cars.  Any mechanical object operating at the extremity of its ideal temperature range is going to experience greater failure rate. 

Cars are complex objects with mechanical and electrical components working together, each part with it’s own limits.  Cold weather causes several of the following things to happen all at once:

  • Important chemical reactions slow down (i.e., your car’s battery)
  • Bushings shrink and get hard and introduce play
  • Metal parts have greater clearances and don’t slide/spin/whatever as smoothly
  • Solid state components start acting funny
  • Fluids like oil act more like solids and don’t flow or lubricate parts correctly
  • Things that were worn to the verge of needing replacement but not yet leaking open up and start leaking
  • Gaskets and rings get hard and brittle
  • Previously unnoticed cracks get larger as the material contracts in the cold and allow in moisture, etc.
  • Tire pressure goes down in the extreme cold

Cars tend to handle extreme heat much better than extreme cold (below freezing), being that the majority of components (brakes, engine, etc) naturally have to handle heat under normal operating conditions.

Prepare a Winter Survival Kit for Your Car

Homesteading, Prepping, How to Prepare for the Polar Vortex
The Polar Vortex can make driving difficult and vehicles break down – January 2019

As I discussed in a podcast titled “Winter Driving and Survival Tips,” you never know what can happen out on the road.  You might hit a patch of ice, a drift or have a breakdown, and you could be stranded in the polar vortex’s subzero temperatures.  The best way to prepare for the polar vortex and survive this kind of event is to prepare a winter survival kit and keep it accessible in your car.  It could save your life, especially if your vehicle slides off into a ditch or stalls in this kind of cold!  

As far as materials for your Winter Survival Kit, I am taking advice provided by the National Weather Service on their website Make sure your Winter Survival Kit has the following items:

  • Jumper cables – These are a must in the Upper Midwest!
  • Flashlights – Replace the batteries before the winter season starts and pack some extras
  • First Aid Kit – Also check your purse of bag for essential medications
  • Baby, special needs gear – If you have a baby or family member with special needs, pack diapers and any special formula or food
  • Food – Stock non-perishable food such as canned food and a can opener, dry cereal and protein rich foods like nuts and energy bars
  • Water – Have at least 1 gallon of water per person a day for at least 3 days
  • Basic toolkit – Pliers, wrench, screwdriver
  • Pet supplies – Food and water
  • Radio – Battery or hand cranked
  • Cat litter or sand – For better tire traction
  • Shovel – To dig out snow
  • Ice scraper – Even if you usually park in a garage, have one in the car.
  • Clothes – Make sure you dress for the weather in warm clothes, gloves, hat, sturdy boots, jacket and an extra change of clothes for the cold
  • Warmers – Pack extra for body, hands, feet
  • Blankets or sleeping bags – If you get stranded in traffic on a lonely road, you’ll be glad to have it.
  • Charged Cell Phone – Keep a spare charger in your car as well
  • Road Markers – Flares or reflective triangle are great extras

PRO TIP: In order to prepare for the polar vortex or any cold weather situation, make sure your car has a full gas tank.  You might also want to add a product like HEAT to your tank.  A full tank might keep you alive if you slide into a ditch and have to wait for help!

Putting It All Together

In order to prepare for the extreme cold of the polar vortex, make sure you take the time to dress warm, prepare your Winter Survival Kit for your vehicles, and winterize your house.  We can make it through incredibly cold temperatures safely if we take some time to prepare.  Since schools, colleges, businesses, restaurants and stores are closing because of the polar vortex, this is a great time to spend some quality time with your family members playing games, baking or watching some movies. 

At the same time, check in with your neighbors and friends.  Make sure they are okay.  You never know: maybe their furnace had an issue or their car won’t start.  Maybe you can help someone in need and make your community a little better.

Special shout out and thank you to Small Scale Life Facebook Group Member Adam Rick for his input and comments on this article! Stay safe and warm, Adam.

Listen to this Podcast

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Download MP3 (35.2 MB)

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