15 Tips to Survive a Polar Vortex- or Any Other Freezing Cold Day

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ice skating in Howard County- late 1960’s

I don’t ever recall hearing the words “Polar Vortex” before, but when I was a young whippersnapper the winters were so cold that we could skate on Lake Kittamaquandi and the local ponds.  (One year (1977) it was cold enough to skate on the Chesapeake Bay!)  Each Fall, road crews prepared for winter by placing red picket snow fences along major roads to keep the snow from drifting across the roads. More often than not, the vehicles that plowed our roads were huge yellow graders with double blades instead of dump trucks.

As the wintery weather approached we went through preparations at home. We knew then what needed to be done to get through the coldest or wildest winter weather. We knew to fill the tubs and extra jugs with water in case the pipes froze or we lost power. We knew that the car should be topped off with gas to prevent the gas lines from freezing and in case we had to trek out in an emergency. We positioned ladders near frozen ponds and were reminded how to test the thickness of the ice and what to do if we- or a friend- fell through into the frigid water. We brought pets inside, and the livestock into the barn. (Although I did know a man that brought his chickens into the living room).

My father would carefully line up the heavy rectangular linked tire chains and painstakingly affix them to the tires of the station wagon.  (Driving with tire chains was neither smooth nor quiet, but it sure got us up the long driveway and through the worst of the snow). Snow clothes of every size were brought forth from the closet and boxes of boots were matched to ever-growing feet. Mittens, hats, gloves, and scarves- all essential to outdoor work and play- were sorted and sized. (Nothing says winter weather like the smell of wet wooly mittens steaming on radiators mixed with the aroma of hot scorched cocoa)

Nowadays when the weather turns cold, the lists about what you should or shouldn’t do to “weather the storm” and the pilgrimage to the grocery stores have become a part of our suburban traditions. Some old-timers scoff at that and say things like;  “When I was growing up we walked 3 miles to school through snowdrifts and attached ropes to our waists so we could find our way home.”

I can appreciate that experience, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t the wild west… or even the wild west of Howard County, anymore. A large percentage of our population consists of people that don’t have experience driving in the snow, or have never owned a house with an outside spigot or ever experienced sub zero temperatures. So this list of 15 things to do to get through a cold snap is for them- but you old-timers should feel free to read along in case I’ve forgotten anything!

  • Dress in layers– (wicking, thermal and shell). Layers help conserve your body heat and keep you dry, but not all layers are created equal
  • Wear a Hat that covers your ears- while it is a myth that you lose most of your body heat through your head- you still need to keep your head warm and your ears covered, as they are susceptible to frostbite. Wear mittens or gloves for the same reason
  • Wear a scarf or face mask to protect your face and take the chill out of the air you breathe, especially if you have asthma or other respiratory conditions
  • Understand hypothermia and frostbite and their symptoms
  • Keep lip balm or cocoa butter in your coat pocket and apply it generously to keep your lips from chapping
  • Understand wind chill and why it matters
  • Turn off your outdoor faucets and turn on your indoor faucets and let the water drip. Fill bottles with water in case of a power outage or burst pipe
  • Let warm air gain access to pipes in areas that are colder (leave doors open to an unheated basement, or open cabinet doors under the sink)
  • Do not warm frozen pipes with an open source of flame. (We learned that one from the very nice firefighters who visited us suddenly one winter!)
  • Make sure your carbon monoxide detectors are working
  • Fill ‘er up. Make sure your car has a full tank of gas and charge your cell phones, laptops and flashlights
  • Have emergency supplies in the car including extra hats, mittens, boots, water, flashlight and extra batteries
  • Keep your children indoors when the temperature dips below freezing- children are more susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia and often ignore the warning signs. And what child knows to come inside when their mittens get wet?
  • Check on elderly neighbors who are also more susceptible to the cold- especially if there is a power outage
  • Call the Grassroots shelter if you or someone you know needs to come in out of the cold. For Howard County: 410-531-6006.  For the Baltimore area: 410-433-5175