The 26 Best Ways You Can Prepare for a Frigid Winter
Use these techniques to ready your home, garden, car, and family for whatever winter brings.
By Manasa Reddigari and Savannah Sher
Be Ready When the Cold Comes
What do frozen pipes, skidding tires, and high heating bills have in common? They’re all winter-weather nuisances that can be avoided with adequate preparation. If you use these strategies to winterize your home, garden, car, and personal care routine, no amount of snow or ice will spoil your enjoyment of the season.
1. Tend to Tree Branches
Winter storms can deposit heaps of tree branches onto your roof. These can then snap under the weight of snow or ice and go on to pierce holes in your roof, loosen shingles, or get swept onto a neighboring roof where they can cause damage. To avoid surprise leaks in your (or your neighbor's) roof, periodically prune branches that hang over the house, and use a roof rake to clear away any branches that fall onto the roof. (Call in an arborist if the job's too big for you.)
2. Safeguard Your Exterior Spigots
Even after you turn off an outdoor spigot, water that lingers in an attached garden hose can freeze and cause pipes behind the spigot to burst, spouting water into your house. Always disconnect and drain garden hoses after using the spigot in cold weather, and consider shutting off the valve inside the house to protect your pipes.
3. Clear Out Rain Gutters
When your gutters become blocked with leaves or twigs, snow and ice that would ordinarily get directed away from the house will collect (and eventually melt) on the roof or run off onto the ground, leading to rotting fascia boards boards below the roofline, cracks in the foundation or walkways, or leaks in the basement. To avoid costly structural damage, inspect and, if needed, clean your gutters before the first freeze. Use a trowel or scoop for large debris, and rinse away smaller debris with a garden hose.
4. Wrap Exposed Pipes
Gifts aren’t the only thing you’ll want to wrap up this winter: Many unsuspecting homeowners have gone out of town during a particularly cold stretch only to return to a flood caused by an exposed pipe that froze and burst. Wrap insulation sleeves around pipes that run through unheated areas, such as attics and crawl spaces, to protect pipes from freezing and heat loss—and keep your home dry and your heating bill low.
5. Seal Gaps & Other Openings
Applying caulk or weatherstripping to drafty windows and doors can keep the cold out and the heat in, maximizing indoor comfort and saving you anywhere from 5 to 10 percent in energy costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Sealing up gaps can also prevent melted ice or snow from rotting exterior features. So, take a day before the temperatures dip to caulk joints between walls and window frames and door frames, and place weatherstripping around window sashes.
6. Insulate Walls & Attics
An underinsulated home is subject to cold spots and higher heating bills, while a properly insulated home enjoys evenly distributed warmth, increased indoor comfort, and energy savings. The most effective places to insulate are exterior walls, attics, and unheated garages, but it's important to find and repair any leaks in those areas before adding batt, spray-foam, loose-fill, or blown-in insulation.
7. Bundle Up Your Water Heater
Have an older hot water heater? If its R-value is less than 24 (or if it’s warm to the touch), consider wrapping it with a water heater insulation blanket designed to fit your size tank. Made of materials that range from foil to fiberglass, these flexible accessories are like a jacket for your water heater—and they can reduce heat loss by 25 to 45 percent. With the 7 to 16 percent you’ll save in energy costs, you can recoup the purchase price of the blanket in less than a year.
8. Focus on the Fireplace
If you haven’t had your chimney inspected this year, have a CSIA-certified chimney inspector give it a once-over before your first burn of the winter to eliminate creosote or obstructions that can spark chimney fires. When the fireplace isn’t in use, close the damper above the firebox to keep warm indoor air from escaping and cold air from entering the house through the chimney.
9. Reverse the Direction of Your Ceiling Fan Blades
If your fan blades are still set to turn counterclockwise, the warm air you crave will float to the ceiling, while cold air will get pushed down toward the floor level where you are. To avoid wintertime chills, switch your ceiling fan direction so that it rotates clockwise and the blades push warm air down to you.
10. Lay Off the Lawn
Before the first frost, it’s important to aerate the lawn to allow the soil to breathe after all the natural compaction that has occurred over the past year. This can be done with an aerator, a tool with spiked tines that pierce the soil, or, for larger lawns, with an electric- or gas-powered aerator or one that can be towed behind a lawn mower. But once your turf has gone dormant for the winter, keep kids, pets, and equipment off it as much as possible; heavy traffic can damage the turfgrass crowns that grow at soil level, resulting in bare patches of grass in spring.
11. Have Your Car Serviced
A car breakdown is unwelcome at any time of year, but it’s positively horrible when you have to prop open the hood and diagnose the problem in freezing temperatures. To avoid getting stranded in the cold, check your car's manual to see if you’re due for a service, and be sure to make that appointment before the first freeze. If you can’t afford to make all recommended repairs, focus on the battery, brakes, cables, spark plugs, and tires.
12. Keep Ice Melt in the Trunk
You can't wait for snow to thaw before you hit the road, which is why it's a good idea to keep ice melt in the backseat of your car. Don't keep it in the trunk, which can freeze shut. Keeping ice melt handy means you'll always be ready to prevent nasty slips, falls, or car accidents on driveways and walkways. Carry a bag of sand, too: You can throw it over the salt to provide needed traction when you're trying to get your car out of an icy spot.
13. Winterize Your Wheels
If you regularly venture out into heavy snow, consider swapping your traditional tires for a set of snow tires—the treads on these tires have large gaps, which helps improve traction. To preserve the tread on snow tires, wait until daytime temperatures are consistently 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below before installing them.
14. Keep an Emergency Kit in Your Car
Winter storms can descend unexpectedly when you're on the road. Always carry a winter emergency kit in the trunk of your vehicle so you'll be prepared, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way. The kit should contain everything you need to cope with a sudden breakdown and the stranding that could result. At minimum, pack a flashlight (and extra batteries), road flares, jumper cables, a first aid kit, a small supply of snacks that won’t freeze (for instance, chips or cookies), and winter accessories including gloves, boots, and a blanket.
15. Install Winter-Hardy Windshield Wipers
While an ice scraper and a spray bottle of homemade de-icer are two time-honored ways of clearing up an icy windshield, both require that you get out of your vehicle and face the brutal cold. It's safer—and warmer—to install winter windshield wiper blades, whose flexible rubber and anti-clogging arms will help fend off snow and ice as you sit comfortably in your warm car.
16. Drive Only When You Have To
When the streets are slick, home is the safest place to be. But if you must drive, inform close contacts of your whereabouts and keep to major roads; back roads are not only less frequently salted or plowed (if at all) but also contain insufficient signage, which can easily lead you astray during a winter storm.
17. Sign Up For Roadside Assistance
Seventy percent of winter-weather injuries happen in cars, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. That trusty family member or friend may not always be able to rush to your aid during a roadside emergency, so it’s a good idea to enroll in an automotive club or a roadside assistance program from your car insurance company or another provider. If you opt for any of these services, keep the customer support number in your phone contacts so it's always at your fingertips in time of need.
18. Lower the Thermostat to Lower Your Bills
If you like toasty indoor temperatures but can’t afford high heating bills, acclimate yourself to a lower, more energy-efficient thermostat setting, starting with 72 degrees Fahrenheit and then gradually reducing it to 68 degrees as you adapt to the change. A 1-degree reduction in a programmable thermostat setting can reduce your heating bills by 1 percent if maintained for 8 hours, according to Direct Energy. With a few layers of clothing on, you may never even notice the difference in temperature. Even better, if you’re away from home by day or can make do with less heat as you sleep, you can boost the cost savings by bumping the thermostat down to 62 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit.
19. Turn on the Humidifier
Even with the thermostat set to moderate temperatures, central heating can quickly evaporate the moisture in your skin, leaving it dry and flaky. Invest in a humidifier—a device that emits water vapor to increase the moisture of surrounding air—to help you maintain supple skin that glows all winter long. Regularly clean the humidifier according to the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent the growth of bacteria.
20. Take Shorter, Cooler Showers
A long, piping-hot shower may be tempting on a bitterly cold day, but the high temperature can dry out your skin and aggravate skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis, and the extra soak time can spike your water bill. Keep your skin hydrated and your costs low by limiting showers to five minutes in warm (not hot) water.
21. Take Care Not to Overexert Yourself
Winter brings a long list of physically intense to-dos, from clearing snow to scraping ice. Overexertion, coupled with the constriction of blood vessels brought on by the cold, can put a strain on the heart. Whether you’re shoveling snow, pushing a snow blower, or push-starting a stalled car, avoid overdoing it by stretching before the activity, performing tasks in stages instead of all at once, and taking frequent breaks. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
22. Protect Your Home From Rodent Infestations
When temperatures drop, rodents like mice and rats inevitably seek out a warm and cozy place to spend the winter. Prevent your home from becoming a rodent refuge by sealing up any cracks and holes that a mouse can fit through. Replace any loose weatherstripping surrounding doors and windows, which may provide another entry point for rodents. It’s also prudent to store firewood at least 20 feet away from your residence because mice can often take up residence in wood piles.
23. Take Steps to Keep Bugs Outside
Many of the strategies used to keep rodents out of the home also apply to insects, but there are some additional tips for avoiding bug infestations. Generally speaking, insects are drawn to moisture, so it’s best to avoid creating a welcoming environment for them by keeping interior spaces clean and dry. They can find their way indoors through holes and cracks in exterior piping, so it’s essential to insulate all pipes to stop them in their tracks.
24. Keep Pets Warm & Healthy
According to American Home Shield (AHS), it’s prudent to schedule a vet visit as winter approaches to ensure your pets are healthy since conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis can all become exacerbated in the winter. If pets don’t already have microchips, now is a good time to get them because snowy weather can cause cats and dogs to become disoriented more easily. While pet clothing and accessories may seem like they’re simply designed to induce “aww"s, they have a practical purpose too. Outfit short-haired dogs with warm winter jackets to keep them comfortable on walks.
25. Plan For Surprise Storms
Winter storms seem to be getting worse every year, so it’s best to be ready for when the next one hits. Luckily, there are many things that can be done to prepare in advance. First, consider investing in a generator if power outages are a common occurrence in your area. It’s also important to keep flashlights in an easy-to-access location and ensure they’re equipped with working batteries. When a storm is on the horizon, make sure cell phones are fully charged so that the household still has a means of communication if the power goes out.
26. Beef Up the Pantry
Stocking up on essentials is smart during winter storm season. You’ll want to keep bottled water—Direct Energy recommends a minimum of 1 gallon per person per day—and plenty of nonperishable food items on hand in case the power goes out. Consider stocking up on noshes like canned fish, beans, and vegetables, and packaged nuts and cereal, all of which are fairly nutritious and easy to prepare. It wouldn’t hurt to have plenty of paper products, like toilet paper, paper towels and paper plates in your stores, too.