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Surviving a Power Outage

Polaris Ranger

By Todd Ratermann


One of the most common survival situations Americans, and many others, face is a long term power outage. Here in the United States, especially in rural areas I am most familiar with, short term power outages lasting 10 minutes to 2 hours are fairly common. Short term outages are often caused by auto accidents or blown transformers and are generally more of a nuisance than an actual threat to a families safety. Long term outages on the other hand can leave you cold, without access to fresh water, the ability to cook food, or carry out day to day tasks.

When I think of long term power outages I'm talking about being without electricity for 48 hours or more. Although this isn't something most of us have had to face very often, these outages actually occur more often than you think. Long term outages are usually regional and are most often caused by natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes or tornadoes and sometimes severe winter weather like ice storms or blizzards. Another serious threat we face to our power grid is either a terrorist attack to major relays stations or the more hands off threat of computer hackers shutting down entire regions of the country.

No matter what the cause of the outage or which expert you turn to for advice, it all falls back to the basics of any survival situation: shelter, water, food, fire, self defense and first aid. Although each survival situation will often change the priority of the list, the list itself remains unchanged. This particular ordering is what I would consider priority for myself in the event of a long term power outage. 

A worst case scenario for a power outage would probably be if it happens during freezing temperatures, so that is what we will cover in this article. If your actual outage doesn't occur during those conditions, you can adjust your plan accordingly.

Alternate electric sources are often overlooked. These are not usually sources that will power your house, but electric that can make life a little easier. The easiest of these is probably an inverter for your car. An inverter simply plugs into your cars cigarette lighter you can then plug in an extension cord into the inverter and run that into your house to power some basic items like a light or to charge a lap top, tablet or cell phone it's also a great way to recharge batteries for items like flashlights or radios. Don't have an inverter? Bring your car battery inside and use it to power a light. Solar walkway lights can be brought inside at night and used as a light source.

If a powr outage occurs it's a good idea to turn off all the light switches in your house and even turn the breakers off on appliances. Power surges can damage appliances and impede the utility company from restoring power.

A list of bug-in items can be found near the end of this article.


Although shelter may seem like the least of your concerns during a Bug-in situation there are actually quite a few major issues to consider. Of course staying dry and warm is always my most important concern in any survival situation. You can live three weeks without food, three days without water, but only three HOURS in hypothermic conditions without shelter.

The biggest issue with shelter as it relates to a power outage Bug-in is that most outages occur during severe weather conditions; hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms. For most people electricity is a requirement in keeping our houses warm.

To reduce resource use the first thing you need to do is create a warm room within your house. If you have a fireplace or fixed propane heater you need to use that room, if not, choose a comfortable smaller sized room preferably with standard height ceilings. Some people recommend using a bathroom or other really small rooms, but who wants to spend days in a bathroom? In my case I would choose our living room. Take blankets hang them over the windows and doors to help insulate the room and reduce the foot print of the area you need to heat. Close all the other interior doors of your house and put rolled up towels at the base of at least all exterior doors to reduce air leaking under doors.

Within your warm room, you could also set-up a tent if you have one. This makes a great place to sleep that will warm up just from your body heat. If you don't have a tent build a fort out of blankets or sheets. Don't forget to insulate the floor under wherever you sleep. If you run out of blankets you can use couch cushions, towels, exercise mats, or even bring in a mattress from a bed room. Just about anything you put between you and the floor will add a layer of insulation from the cold floor, and hopefully add a little cushioning comfort to your sleep.

Being confined to one room can be pretty uncomfortable for some people, especially kids. Board games, cards,  or even a portable tv/dvd player can help make the waiting easier.

Shelter Heat

If you utilize a wood burning stove or fireplace, propane (portable or fixed), kerosene, or another heating source that doesn't require electricity to either generate heat or force the air through your house, you are a couple steps ahead of most people. IF, you keep enough fuel on hand to last through an emergency.

Wood is far and away my favorite heating option whether you are in a survival situation or not. If you are capable of running a chain saw and have access to a truck and/or trailer, one or two people can cut and haul enough wood in a couple of days to last a winter. If you are not physically able, or would prefer to pay someone else to do the labor, most people can still save quite a bit of money off of your utility bill by burning wood. Other advantages of burning wood include the fact that  wood stoves do not suffer from mechanical failures and the expensive associated repair costs, they work during power outages as both a heat source and cooking alternative, and they allow you to be less reliant on utility companies. For a home owner with a desire to be more self reliant I can't think of a better investment than a wood burning stove.

Second to burning wood, kerosene would be my next choice as an emergency heat source during a bug-in. Kerosene is readily available in most areas, and is fairly inexpensive. A kerosene heater doesn't require any special installation and is easy to move from room to room or place to place as needed. A kerosene heater can be purchased for $250 or less if you wait until winter, or for the thrifty shopper, I bought two during a spring clearance sale for about $65 each. Like a wood stove a  kerosene heater can also heat water or food although most models won't do it quite as efficiently as a wood stove.

Another heat sources that doesn't require electricity is propane. A portable propane heater can cost as little as $100 and does a pretty good job of heating a room, though they are not as cheap to operate. These heaters use 1 pound propane bottles that are easy and safe to store. The bottles can be purchased just about anywhere, or refilled from a 20 pound grill tank with an inexpensive adaptor.  Some models can even be hooked to a 20 pound bottle with an adaptor. Mr. Heater makes a popular, easy to find unit that can be found at Home Depot or other home improvement stores.

Shelter Safety

When using alternate heating sources such as propane or kerosene be sure to be aware of the dangers of Carbon Monoxide. Improperly vented heaters and/or exhaust from generators can be deadly. 

Keep a fire extinguisher handy! Using new and unfamiliar heat sources, especially those with open flames creates the possibility of a fire. Having a fire extinguisher handy is a great idea.


Most people don't associate a power outage with loss of drinking water. However, there are many situations where not having electricity does indeed cause a disruption of normal water supplies. Many people rely on wells, pressure tanks or pumps to get water into their homes. And, even though many municipal water sources rely on gravity to feed water from storage tanks to homes, it still takes an electric pump to fill those water tanks. Being without electricity also greatly increases the chances of your water pipes freezing under your house leaving you without access to water.

Hopefully you have prepared at least in the most basic way for an emergency by having water stored at your house. The easiest way to do this is probably to just buy bottled water. The rule of thumb is 1 gallon per day, per person, for drinking, cooking and hygiene. A mixture of both gallon jugs and individual bottles is a good option. 5 Gallon bottles are readily available as well.

For the person on a budget or just preferring to do it yourself you can bottle your own water in food safe containers such as 2-liter bottles or milk jugs. If you use milk jugs, be sure to use the jugs with twist on tops, not the pop off type.

Whichever previously used container type you use, be sure to clean them thoroughly. You can wash them using hot, soapy dish detergent water. Rinse the bottles with a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach with 1 gallon of hot water, adding about 1 cup per bottle and then shake vigorously. Empty the rinse solution, and with the lids off, allow bottles to dry. Add tap water and secure lid. Store in cool dark location.


Filtration and Purification 

For water that has not been rendered safe through a municipal water system, you need to be certain it is filtered or purified making it safe to drink. Water that has not been properly treated can contain water-borne pathogens such as the protozoa Giardia, Cryptosporidium, or bacteria such as E. coli, Dysentery and Campylobacteriosis that are also a health threat. Ingesting any of these can cause serious intestinal tract issues or even death for those with weak immune systems. Viruses such as Hepatitis A  and rotovirus are also a waterborne threat, although not as serious in the United States and Canada as in other countries. The main issues with viruses is that they can NOT be filtered out of water.

There are three primary methods for making water safe to drink; filtration, chemical treatment, boiling.

  1. Filtration - filters with a 0.2 micron filter can eliminate bacteria and Cryptosporidium as well as remove particulates. Filters will also usually improve the taste of water.
  2. Chemical Treatment - chemically treating your water can eliminate bacteria and viruses but usually only helps with Cryptosporidium after an extended exposure to chemicals. Chemical treatment does not remove particulates from your water. Poor taste is usually the biggest complaint about chemically treated water.
  3. Boiling - Although this may seem like the easiest option, boiling can require a lot of fuel, something you may not have an excess of during a Bug-in. However, if you are heating your house with wood or possibly even kerosene, it is possible to boil water on your heat source without using any additional fuel than would already be consumed heating your house. Boiling obviously does not remove particulates from your water.

There are literally hundreds of filter and chemical treatment options to choose from. I use and MSR Sweetwater filter and Aquamira Water Treatment drops.

Although particulates do not generally pose a health risk, they sure aren't very appetizing. The good thing about a Bug-in is that there always seems to be options around the house, and filtration is no different. Particulates can be removed with a home made water filter as simple as a coffee filter. Other options include removing and rigging the filter from your refrigerator. If your house has a whole home filtration system or an under sink filtration system either one could be temporarily removed and fashioned into a gravity filter to improve your water supply during the Bug-in.


Powdered Drink Mixes

Powdered drink mixes like Gatorade or Tang can add a little variety to your drink options as well as give you a few vitamins. For example Tang is low in sodium and is a good source of Vitamin C, A, B2, B3, B6, and calcium. This can encourage you, and especially kids to keep hydrated. Drink mixes can also improve the taste of chemically treated water.

Water sources often overlooked:

  • The lowest elevation water valve at your house will often allow access to a couple gallons of water trapped in your water lines.
  • Your hot water heater is full of water that you won't be able to access by faucet if you don't have water pressure. This water can be accessed by the drain valve located at the base of most units. Remember turn off the breaker for the hot water heater first.
  • The back of your commode holds an extra gallon or two of water if you are without.
  • If you have a deep freeze that isn't full, you can store gallon jugs filled 80% full of water. These frozen jugs will help reduce the cost of cooling a partially filled freezer, help keep the food cold during power outage, and used for drinking water as they thaw.
  • Collect rain water using anything that will hold it. Coolers, garbage cans, mixing bowls, storage totes. It won't be drinkable without purification, but it could be used to flush commodes.
  • Snow and/or ice can be melted. Don't drink it unless you purify it first.


If an ice storm or hurricane is imminent, turn your refrigerator and/freezers to there coldest settings before the storm hits. This will have your food as cold as possible, increasing the amount of time the food will stay fresh before spoiling. Empty space in either the refrigerator or freezer should be filled with jugs or bottles of water as space allows. Those intended for the freezer should be about about 3/4's full to allow for expansion during freezing. This water/ice will help increase food shelf life by slowly releasing cool air into your refrigerator.

Use food from your refrigerator then freezer first. These perishable items will soon spoil unless it is cold out. Keep the number of times you open the refrigerator and freezer will also keep the food colder longer. If it is below 40 degrees constant outside, you could store refrigerated items outside, out of animals reach. If it's below freezing, you could store freezer items outside as well. Placing these perishable items in a cooler is a good way to reduce temperature variations outside, keep them out of the sun light, and reduce the likely hood of animals getting to them.  Conserve canned and other non-perishable goods for the long haul.

Beyond the items that must be immediately consumed hopefully you have stored some food items for this type of emergency. The best items are those that require very little cooking time and have a long shelf life. The best items are probably dehydrated foods designed for backpacking and emergencies. I have used foods by Mountain House and Backpackers Pantry on many occasions and they are pretty good. The ones I used you simply add hot water to the pouch give it a few minutes and eat. Some of these things have a ten year shelf life. They are similar to military MRE's but most taste better and have a longer shelf life. Another great advantage to these foods is that they can be easily gathered and packed if your Bug-in situation turns into a bug-out situation.

My second favorite option for a Bug-in meals would be canned goods and grocery goods that can be prepared with hot/boiling water. Examples of the latter would include oatmeal, rice, ramen noodles, pasta noodles, macaroni and cheese, etc... Canned goods might include vegetables, fruit, tuna, salmon, soup, etc... Honey is a great staple that can be used to add flavor, and is a great sweetener. Honey has a very long shelf life, if it crystallizes simply place the open honey container in a pan with a couple inches of water and bring it to a low boil. The honey will liquefy back to it's original state. Some canned goods can beaten raw straight out of the can. The can can also be used as a cooking vessle if it is a can that is not lined with a plastic coating, just open the can and cook over low heat.

Canned goods are easy to rotate so they don't go out of date. If you plan on cooking something for a regular meal that you have in your Bug-in stock, just buy some fresh cans, put those on the shelf and cook those that were in storage. Even if an item is out of date, that doesn't mean it is inedible, especially in a survival situation.

Items I would try to avoid, are dried beans or lentils. These items are tasty, nutritional, and have a good shelf life, but cooking time can be hours. If you are cooking on a wood stove it wouldn't be so bad, but cooking these items on a camp stove can consume a huge amount of fuel for just one meal.

If you start to run out of food, or you are out of food, your options are limited unless you live on a farm. You can try buying food if there is any available, or you can hunt for or gather it. In our winter scenario gathering wild plants is pretty tough going, but hunting can be productive with a little knowledge. Even a BB gun can help you score rabbits, squirrels, or birds. Larger game will require a larger gun or trapping experience that is not easily learned on the fly.


Self Defense

Desperate people can do desperate things. People that have failed to prepare, and criminals looking for an opportunity are always a concern during disasters. Remember the aftermath of Katrina?

For self-defense nothing offers more protection than a gun in the hand of someone that knows how to use it. I personally prefer a hand gun when considering a weapon strictly for self defense. I like a .45 semi-automatic with a high capacity magazine. However, a shotgun is not only a great self defense weapon, it can double as a great method for procuring additional food from small game to large. So, if you are limited to one weapon, a shotgun serves as a dual purpose tool, especially if you have a variety of shells to suit each situation. 



Fire during a Bug-in situation is generally a much easier endeavor than in the wilderness. It's also much less necessary. Hopefully if you have a wood stove or fireplace, you also have a supply of wood  in a dry place and a modern fire starting options such as a lighter and/or matches. Dry wood in general is pretty easy to get lit using small pieces of wood and paper. Once you have a fire going there is not much reason to let the fire go out

Beyond the fireplace, fire can also be utilized in your grill or backyard fire pit to cook meals, boil water or for heat outside your house so it is good to know how to get one started. There are entire books that have been written on how to start a fire so here I will only provide a few tips on items you probably have in your house that can make fire building easier. 

Household Fire Starting Methods combined with tinder such as paper, broom straw, and/or kindling can be used to start a fire.

  1. 9 Volt Battery & Steel Wool - rubbing a steel wool pad against both of the terminals of a 9 volt battery will cause the steel to smolder allowing you to ignite tender
  2. Aluminum Foil & Battery - touch the foil to both ends of a battery at the same time, this short circuit will cause the foil to smolder allowing you to ignite tender
  3. Dryer Lint & Sparks - common lint from your clothes dryer will start to smolder when you put sparks on it, even simple sparks from a lighter that is out of fuel.
  4. Vaseline & Cotton Balls - these work best if they are made in advance, but also can be made on the fly. Take a pea sized dab of vaseline and massage into a cotton ball. These balls can be ignited with sparks and will burn in rain and wind. Don't have Vaseline on hand? You can also use antibiotic ointment, lip balm, lip stick or similar items will all work.


First Aid

As most of us know the majority of accidents happen in and around the home. Throw in a chainsaw, camp stove, ax, fire, and knives, then top that off with home confinement for you and your family. The possibility for the need of first aid should be obvious.

The best thing you can do is not become complacent in your actions. With each task at hand be extremely vigilant in terms of safety. The region being without electricity is definitely going to be a strain on emergency services and their ability to respond. Not to mention the fact that your ability to get yourself to a hospital could also be impeded by snow, ice or lack of safe transportation. 

As with any survival situation, it's best to be able to handle just about any situation on your own. This always starts with knowledge and is bolstered by the right tools for the job, or at least the ability to improvise. In this case a good first aid kit is your tool box.

First aid training is available at most community colleges and the American Red Cross offers some good, basic first aid courses. Alternately there are thousands of articles and manuals about first aid, many available on-line for free including the Army Medical Combat Lifesaver Course Manual.  


Bug-in List

Below is a list of Bug-in items to help you and your family survive during a power outage situation. You will find a list of common Bug-in items that most people will have around their house or apartment, as well as a list of Bug-in "survival extras". Survival extras are items that can be used in a large variety of survival situations as well as during common outdoor activities such as camping. For long term power outages or power grid failures it's best to have the items from both of the lists.


Common Bug-In Survival Items:

  1. Blankets
  2. Food for at least 3 days
  3. Water (10 gallons)
  4. Coleman Stove (or other white gas or multi-fuel camp stove)
  5. Coleman Fuel, 3 gallons
  6. Flashlight
  7. Batteries
  8. Candles
  9. Lighters
  10. Bleach (unscented)
  11. Fire extinguisher
  12. Basic Tools
  13. Cash, small bills (ATM's and/or banks will not work without electricity)
  14. Radio AM/FM Weather radio (battery powered)
  15. Hand Sanitizer
  16. Automobile inverter


Bug In Survival Extras:

  1. Coleman lantern
  2. Kerosene heater (if you don't have a wood burning heat source)
  3. Kerosene
  4. Water
  5. Food
  6. Chain saw, axe, hatchet
  7. Two-way radio(s)








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