When it Snows in the South


Hi all, this is a bit of a deviation from my typical feature content. In light of the upcoming winter storm that is due to hit Atlanta this weekend, I thought I should go ahead and compile all of my tips for surviving winter weather in the southeast into one easily shared resource. 

A few notes before I get into it: I am not an expert. I’m just a mom who loves to be prepared (thanks, trauma). I have also lived in the northeast for periods of time so I am familiar with both winter weather and the struggles faced by those in the south when a snow or ice storm hits. Also sometimes my advice is overkill, so please take this all with a grain of salt. Not every winter storm is going to be devastating or even a significant event. But sometimes it is, and if you are not prepared a winter storm can go from inconvenient to dangerous really quickly.

The photos in this article I took during Snowpocalypse 2011 when I was living in Virginia Highlands.

It is also worth noting that winter weather just looks different in the south. And that’s not only because of the extreme disparity between infrastructure surrounding ice and snow removal, it’s also due to the way winter precipitation falls and into what kind of setting. My theory is that warm ground tends to melt snow which then gets compacted by snowfall and sleet and becomes black ice pretty quickly. I have anecdotally seen this happen a few times since I moved here in 2007. Here’s an article that gets more into the science behind different kinds of snowfall and how it can be affected by climate and other circumstances.

Another factor, beyond not having enough snow plows and salt trucks, is our lush tree canopy. I love our trees here in Atlanta! But they don’t have to contend with heavy snow and ice very often, so when there’s a significant ice event they get weighed down by the accumulation and tend to break, often bringing down power lines as they fall. Additionally, drivers not familiar with driving on ice (don’t drive too fast, and if you hit icy pavement don’t slam on the brakes, instead try pressing and releasing the brakes over and over again) have been known to hit transformers which can take out power to entire neighborhoods. No one should feel ashamed to admit they don’t feel comfortable driving on ice, it’s not easy! 

Surviving Winter Storms in the South

1- Have some nonperishable food and water reserves on hand. This is good to have year-round, it doesn’t take a weather emergency to cause a water shortage or become difficult to get to the grocery store. I’m also not a full-blown prepper: you won’t find MREs in my basement, I don’t do my own canning, and I don’t have a rain barrel. What I do have, however, is a couple of jugs of water (like $1 each), a box of instant oatmeal, some extra pasta and pasta sauce, some cans of soup, and some frozen veggies. Nothing crazy! But it’s enough that if we couldn’t make it to the store for a few days we would be okay.

I also don’t advise stocking up on anything you don’t actually eat. We don’t eat tuna, so we don’t stock tuna in our cabinets even though it is arguably a good thing to have on hand. We do have boxes of mac ‘n cheese (best if it’s the kind that doesn’t require milk/butter), cans of beans, cans of veggies, cans of soup, rice, pasta, frozen meats (just one extra of whatever we normally get, so usually sausage, chicken, or ground beef), frozen veggies and fries, and things like snack packs of Ritz crackers. Make sure you have your prescription medication and food for your pets, too!

2- External battery packs. This is one of the most used and most important things to have IMO. They are cheap and easy to come by. Having more than 1 will allow you to run your devices for extended periods of time. The best kind you can get are solar powered chargers, because with those you can recharge over and over again even if you don’t have power for a few days. I even have an all-in-one tool in my car that has a flashlight, seatbelt cutter, tool for breaking car windows, and a cell phone charger built in. And yes, it’s solar powered!

3- Speaking of solar power, another thing to think about is light. We have a pop up lantern that is solar powered and can be charged via outlet as well. That’s handy to have, along with flashlights. The problem with flashlights is they aren’t very convenient for lighting up a dark room so you can read or do other activities, they are really best suited for actively looking for things. Lanterns, whether they be solar or battery or gas powered, will make your space livable, which is what we are going for here.

Candles are a good backup but don’t cast as much light as a lantern. I do keep a stock of emergency candles on hand just in case but I’ve thankfully never needed to use them. 

4- Keeping warm. Now here is where having candles can really come in handy. Did you know that one single candle, even the size of a tealight, when placed into the bottom of a terra cotta pot can act as an emergency heater? You can also put one in the bottom of an aluminum or tin can for the same effect. A tea light in a can is able to keep the space inside of a car above freezing for hours! I suggest keeping these basic supplies (matches or a lighter in a ziploc bag, a small candle, and a can of some sort) in your car just in case you ever get stranded.

5- On the subject of keeping warm, if you think you might lose power I suggest you determine what your warmest room is in the house and shut it off in the hours leading up to the storm. If you have a space heater pop it in there and let it run. Keep the doors closed and let it get really warm. Don’t go in there until and unless you’ve lost power and it is getting too cold to be comfortable in the rest of the house. Then you can go in and be a bit better off in that small room than in the open spaces of your home.

6- Also a suggestion, go ahead and find the drafts in your house and tape them up with special sealing tape now before the storm hits. As a bonus, this helps in all seasons with energy costs. Common places to find leaks are windows, doors, and even the spaces under your kitchen and bathroom cabinets. You can insulate these spaces yourself if you’re handy or you can hire a professional, but you can definitely use some tape to sure them up on your own in the days leading up to the bad weather.

7- In case the worst happens, and you lose power in the midst of a killer snowstorm or ice storm for multiple days. It can become unlivable in your home pretty quickly especially if you live somewhere that doesn’t normally get cold weather and is therefore not equipped. If this happens there’s a worst case scenario plan I’ll outline. For it you will need a rug or a mat of some kind, blankets, and a camping tent. 

Yes, fish that dusty old  tent out from your basement and have it handy. 

You’ll want to find a thick rug or mat or lay down thick (preferably wool) blankets on the floor. On top of that you can set up your tent, then drape another blanket on top of the tent. If you do this, ensure you allow for some air flow so that you can breathe comfortably. The best is to have mylar blankets which I have on hand both in my house and in our cars. They are not expensive so keep a couple around if you need them. They are especially life-saving if you find yourself stranded in your car. If you have these mylar blankets, lay them between the rug or mat and the bottom of your tent, so the layering goes rug first, then blankets or mats, then the mylar blanket, then your tent, and put a mylar blanket on top of the tent. 

This will keep you alive in even the worst case scenarios. 

8- A radio. Who even has a radio these days? It’s helpful to have although in all my years and storms I have weathered I will admit I have never used one. A crank radio is great because it does not rely on external power, but they are a pain to use. 

9- Walk around your property and look for hanging branches. These branches can and will fall when they get weighed down with snow and ice. Be aware of their presence and don’t park under them. While you’re at it, if you can park in a spot where you’re not stuck at the top or the bottom of a hill, do that. It’s a good idea to hire an arborist if you can afford one to come out and clean up branches in the fall before the weather turns. This is just good to do in general but can also prevent some damage in a storm.

10- If you must go out and drive on days that are predicted to have wintry weather (I strongly advise against it but I know it is a privilege to be able to stay home) then have a few things in your cars just in case. Since I’ve lived here in Atlanta I can think of two or three instances where people were trapped in their cars for hours and even days at a time, marooned between wrecks on interstates around the city. It’s not just that “southerners don’t know how to drive on snow… hyuck hyuck” it’s also that in other places that get more snow the roads are prepared in advance and regularly plowed and treated with deicer. Here in the south we are incredibly car dependent and there is very little in the way of assistance for stranded motorists. Plan accordingly.

So here’s what is in my car emergency kit:

  1. A blanket (why not? I also use mine for picnics!)
  2. The candle / can / lighter situation I described earlier
  3. A flashlight (see #2 for a link to my personal favorite)
  4. A gallon ziploc bag with kitty litter which can be sprinkled in front of tires if you get stuck to provide some traction.
  5. Some small snack and water (note: don’t leave them in the car all the time, when plastics get hot they can infiltrate the food with chemicals which can make you pretty sick. If you know you’ll be out driving during bad weather just toss a granola bar and a water into your bag just in case. If you do get stuck you’ll be grateful for it!)
  6. Wear weather-appropriate clothes. Don’t wear sandals or heels, or at least bring some boots or sneakers with you. Dress warmly. 

And that’s it! Not overwhelming, right?

Now a couple of car-related safety tips – if you get stranded it is typically best to stay with your car. Your car is much more visible than you are, and you have some protection from the elements inside. 

If you know a storm is coming, go ahead and fill up your gas tank. Not just because it’s going to be impossible to find gas the day before a storm (and with lines wrapping around the block, it’s a pain if nothing else) but also because in the event you get stranded it will be helpful if you can run the heat a bit. I try not to be a part of the fray by keeping my gas tank at ¾ or more full during winter months. 

And if you do get stranded and you’re stuck in your car, it’s ok to run the heat! However, and this is a big one, if your car is in a snowbank and your exhaust pipe is blocked it can be deadly! When there’s not space for your exhaust to filter out from your pipe and away from your car it will sometimes travel underneath your car, into your wheel wells, and fill your car cabin up. This is dangerous – so if you’re stuck for an extended period of time only run your car for about 15 minutes per hour and periodically get out to scoop snow away from the exhaust pipe.

If you’re stuck in a really big snowstorm and you’re worried people won’t see you, consider finding something brightly colored to have hanging out of your door, on your rear view mirror, or on the windshield wipers so that people will know you’re in there even from afar. Share your location with a friend so that you can get help.

One last note about car safety, and this is less about being stranded and more just about living in cold temps, don’t pour hot water on your windshield to defrost it. It can literally crack your windshield! Alternatives include a scraper (of course, but who has one of those in the south?), a credit card, or my personal favorite which is a ziploc bag filled with warm water. You just rub that across the windshield and it melts the ice without cracking the window. No mess, no fuss, no damage. 

So that’s it, those are my suggestions. I hope you don’t feel intimidated or overwhelmed by this list, you don’t have to do every single thing. Pick a few that make sense to you and implement them into your life. Check your stock of supplies at the outset of winter and replenish whatever you need once a year. Nothing that I do to prepare is particularly expensive per se, but it’s impossible to get things delivered to your house if you wait to place the order until it is actively snowing and sleeting outside.

I hope this helps! Stay warm & stay safe.

PS- this post is not sponsored at all, I’m including links to products I have personally purchased but I won’t get any benefit from you clicking on or purchasing any links whatsoever. Ace Hardware, Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart, and Target will all have some or all of the items listed above.