Are you ready for the Dark Ages? At the tail end of 2018, one of North America’s biggest phone and data providers experienced a glitch that caused hundreds of thousands of people to take a cold, hard look at their reliance upon technology. A few days after that, cold weather severed the fiber optic communications cable in my neck of the woods in northwest Montana. No Netflix, disrupted 911 service, and no landlines. Gas stations and grocery stores could only accept cash and local checks, and all but one ATM relied on hard-wired internet to process transactions. That lone soldier operated on a cellular network, but was quickly emptied out.
Speaking of cell phones, those of us with iPhones and Androids could surf the net, and everyone passed around a tweet from the sheriff warning that the cable repair process could possibly (and inexplicably, as far as we were concerned) disrupt cellular service for up to 36 hours. On top of all that? The same weather that wreaked havoc on our tech threatened to shut down our power grid.
Five years ago when I first moved here, I would have thought, “ARMAGEDDON!” Now I think, “Ah, it’s just another Tuesday.” If you’re planning on visiting a small mountain town, or thinking of making a permanent move, you’ll want a few pointers to prep like a local.
First things first: Be prepared
Those of us who live in remote northern regions find it unusual when utilities don’t go belly up for few days in a row each winter, and sometimes, the weather restricts safe road travel and so-called modern luxuries for a week or more. It’s one reason why we laugh at government-suggested “72-hour kits.” Even still, the Department of Homeland Security’s Ready program offers excellent advice to help you prepare for those times when you’re on your own. This list is handy as well:
- Firewood and kindling
- Matches, flashlights, safety candles, and emergency radios
- Easy-to-cook food (and pet food) to supply your household for at least a week
- Extra prescription medications
- First aid kit
- Carbon monoxide and smoke detectors with battery backups (and hopefully, fresh batteries)
- Old-fashioned phone that doesn’t require power to operate
- A rechargeable, portable power source like pocket battery packs or, better yet, a USB-equipped portable jump starters
Most mountain and rural homes have multiple heat sources: propane and electric, or even better, wood and propane. Modern portable generators, like the compact Hondas and Yamahas, or hard-wired, high-wattage units are really popular for running the well pump and powering life-sustaining equipment—and we don’t mean Playstations.
By the way, those gorgeous oil lamps with the glass chimneys and ornate designs aren’t just cabin decorations. Nor are they necessarily antiques. Aladdin brand kerosene lamps, while spendy, are all but a must here in the boonies. The company’s been in business forever; replacement parts are easily available; and they’re safe to use indoors.
Are you just visiting? Most mountain vacation rentals are equipped with everything but food and, of course, personal items. It never hurts to ask the property owner to arrange for extra firewood and basic emergency amenities, heavy wool blankets, or for access to a compact generator in case of an outage or isolating weather event.
Take in the stars
Light pollution keeps us from fully experiencing the night sky. Grab a blanket, bundle up in your warmest winter clothes, go to an open area, and watch for meteors. You’ll get to see satellites, too. If you bring along a folding star map, use a flashlight with a red filter (brake light repair tape over a standard lens works, too) so as not to mess with your night vision.
Now for the really important stargazing tools. Even without power, that hot tub on the deck might still be simmering. If you’re careful not to get chilled, this could be the perfect time for a soak.
Enjoy analog entertainment
Choose games and activities that don’t require large areas of light. My family loves dice, mancala, and dominoes more than card games, but your mileage may vary.
Everyone loves age-appropriate “Truth or Dare,” and of course, good-old-fashioned storytelling. Just remember, if you’ve got kids, you’d better make sure you have battery-powered night lights if you’re going to dust off those classics about Sasquatch.
Try camp-style cooking
When the power goes out, so do electric stoves. Most gas stoves work if you manually light the flame, but why not rough it? I love to break out a batch of good, ol’ fashioned beans and weenies, but feel free to try out a new Dutch oven recipe in your fireplace, or any of these treats from Bon Appétit. One important step to keeping warm is eating lots of hearty food!
If you’re lucky enough to have a wood-burning heating stove, use it as a cook top. A large stockpot will keep wash water warm and, if your well pump loses power, you can melt snow for drinking water.
Never use propane stoves in enclosed spaces unless they’re specifically designed for indoor use, and never bring your barbecue grill inside.
Pile on the pups
Did you know that dogs were the original electric blanket? In the Ming and Manchu dynasties, Shih Tzus were bred to keep nobles’ feet and beds warm and cozy, and in the Renaissance, miniature French poodles held under their owners’ robes were called “sleeve dogs.”
If your pets normally sleep in their own beds at night, consider breaking the house rules and host a slumber party.
By the way, short-haired breeds (like my Vizsla Eva) are the best bed-warmers. Just keep that in mind the next time you’re on the lookout for a new pooch.
Visit your elderly or disabled neighbors
It might seem contradictory, but rural independence means looking after members of your community. Power and phone outages are a good time to check in with the elderly or mobility-challenged people in your neighborhood. Some people are reliant on power to operate CPAP machines or other medical equipment, and seniors need to take special care to stay warm. When phones, power, and internet go down, they’re vulnerable and may be scared, even if they won’t admit it. Stop by, ask if they need you to carry in some firewood, and make sure they have safe, effective heat sources available. See that they have enough light to safely get around, and take the time to listen to a story or two. You might learn some cool stuff and make new friends.
Not only do you want warm clothes, you’ll want to stay clean. Dirty clothes lose their insulating loft. Hats are essential to preventing heat loss, so cover your noggin. Keep your feet warm with wool socks and slippers, since ground contact steals body heat.
Be safe and sensible
When things go medieval, your biggest worry isn’t dying of boredom or even suffering hypothermia. It’s far more likely you’ll injure or overexert yourself bumping through a dark room, shoveling snow or chopping wood. We take for granted that medical help is just a phone call or short drive away. In weather emergencies, first responders go into triage mode when they’re able to show up at all. Unless you’re on death’s door, you’re at the back of the line so don’t take unnecessary risks.
Hypothermia is still a concern, especially when you have to resort to manual labor. That’s another reason why the right clothing is so important. You want safe, snag-free range of motion, wicking base layers to protect you from sweat’s cooling properties, weather-resistant outerwear, gloves, and waterproof boots. If conditions are icy, never go outside without traction devices on your footwear.
Embrace the magic of mountain life
No matter if you’re in the Sierras, Rockies, Unitas, or Adirondacks, it’s gorgeous up here. Just be mindful that the same magic that causes the snow to sparkle and the stars to shine casts spells on meteorologists so that they can’t accurately predict the weather. Our infrastructure, thanks to the limitations of terrain and access, isn’t as bombproof as it is in urbanized areas but power and tech blackouts only remind us why we live here in the first place. Go ahead and shut off the breaker box and put away the screens while you’re here, and enjoy a slower-paced, more intentional experience.
It’s okay, though, if you keep the power to the hot tub hooked up.
Featured image by Medena Rosa.