There is an old saying that goes something like this, “winter won’t kill you, but not being prepared for winter will”. In other words when it is -20 degrees outside and there is three feet of snow or more on the ground, it is not the time to start gathering supplies. For most people preparation for winter only involves getting snow tires for their vehicles.
I choose to live a lifestyle where I, as much as possible, rely upon what the land will provide. I hunt, fish and grow as much of my food as I can. For me that preparation for winter is an ongoing process starting even before the current winter’s snows have disappeared.
No matter where you live winter can be a very rough time. Here in northern New England winter means deep snows, blizzards, loss of power for days on end and no access to services. In other parts of the country it can mean freezing rain, ice and even flooding. Any way that you look at it things can get pretty bad. What I discuss here is what I do to prepare. Hopefully you can take something from this and apply it to your situation.
At the end of winter, which here in the Northeast is anytime from the beginning of March to the end of April, the freezer and the pantry shelves are pretty empty as is the pellet shed. The pellets can be put off for a while, but the task of refilling the freezer becomes a top priority. It is at this time of year that I start looking forward to April and the opening of trout and salmon season and the beginning of the gardening season. Late February finds me planning my garden; how I am going to set it up and what I am going to plant. The lure of fresh vegetables is almost too much to stand. I start my tomato plants indoors from the seeds that I saved from the previous year. I always plant all manner of root crops and winter squash in my garden. These crops store well and are what we eat during the winter.
As soon as the snow is gone and the soil can be worked I am out there getting the garden ready. By the middle to end of April the danger of freezing temperatures and snow has pretty much passed, so this is the time I start planting the cold weather crops. These include all of my root crops, lettuce and peas. Spring also means rain (sometimes), so this is the time I clean and set up my cistern. The water stored here is what I will use to water my plants when it turns hot and dry.
With the garden set for now I concentrate on fixing any damage caused by the winter’s snows. There always seems to be some, with some years being worse than others. This is the time to get it done as the problems only seem to get worse before they get better. When any damage to the house and outbuildings is fixed my attention is drawn to the near empty freezer. April 1st is the opening of trout and salmon fishing so any lake, stream or river free of ice is fair game. Fishing will consume most of my attention until the beginning of May when my thoughts turn to turkey hunting.
With about 60 percent of my food coming from what I can shoot, catch or grow, getting a turkey is very important. I hunt and fish primarily in Vermont and New Hampshire. Vermont’s spring turkey season begins on May 1st and New Hampshire’s season opens May 3rd. Vermont allows the hunter to take two bearded birds while New Hampshire only allows one. With each state’s season running until the end of May, there is the chance of putting three birds in the freezer, providing many meals for my family.
Come June most of my cold weather crops are up and in some cases an early first harvest can be taken in. I’m still fishing, but now I find myself along the coast taking advantage of the bounty there. Here Striped bass have arrived during their annual migration. There is also bluefish and mackerel to be caught as well as flounder. Mussels and clams are an added treat. Back at the homestead I take advantage of the warm weather to do maintenance on my generators and other tools, making sure that they are ready to go when I need them. My generators are always well maintained and full of fuel and I always have extra fuel on hand. If power is out the gas stations can’t pump. No power, no gas. I also use this time to stock up on water. Besides one gallon bottles of water I also have some five and seven gallon water containers. Remember to constantly rotate water as it does go bad over time. In my free time I start foraging in the fields and woods for the first of the berries that are ready to be picked.
Back at the garden I plant my squash and cucumber seeds as well as my tomato plants. For squash I plant summer squash, winter squash and pumpkins. While the summer squash will feed us during the warmer parts of the year, I will store the winter squash and pumpkins, giving us some vegetables during the winter. The same goes for the carrots, beets, turnip and potatoes as they become ready for harvest. The rest of the summer is spent tending to the garden and catching fish. Some of which is frozen or smoked, some is eaten for daily meals and some I will trade for things I need, like fresh eggs and milk from a local farmer.
July and August find me harvesting vegetables on a regular basis. Green beans are both eaten fresh and flash boiled and then put into the freezer. Root crops are harvested and put into storage. I also take time to continue my foraging of wild blueberries, strawberries and black berries which are now in full bloom. Collected berries are washed, put into freezer bags and put into the freezer for later use. Those tomatoes not readily eaten are made into sauce and put into the freezer or canned. These last two months of summer are also the times that I secure extra fuel for the generators and begin the process of stocking up on wood pellets. During an average winter I will need a little more than three tons of pellets to heat my home through the winter.
Come September food is still an issue. I am still harvesting crops, but it is starting to slow down. Both Vermont and New Hampshire have September hunting seasons for resident Canada geese with very liberal bag limits. October has me harvesting the last of the squash and pumpkin, securing the last of my pellets and doing more hunting, this time for migratory waterfowl, upland game and turkey. The waterfowl season is set annually, so there is no telling when it will start or end. Upland hunting runs until the end of the year and the fall turkey season is only about a week long. If all goes according to plan there will be ducks, turkeys and upland game added to the freezer.
Come November I am hunting deer with my goal being one deer from both Vermont and New Hampshire. If the weather allows I also try for some last minute trout. You never have enough. November also means the final preparations for the cold that is sure to come. In some years the cold and snow hits sometime around Halloween, but most of the time it holds off until Thanksgiving.
With the first heavy snow it is time to settle in, but that doesn’t mean that the work stops. Winter finds me doing maintenance on my fishing gear, and though I am constantly cleaning my firearms, I use this time to fully break each one down for a very thorough cleaning. I constantly monitor the weather as I don’t like to get caught by unexpected storms. I monitor the pellet usage, hoping that I will have enough to see us through. I am also monitoring the amount of food we have. If I was able to get two deer and five turkeys, combined with fish and other game, then I should be all set.
All the supplies gathered, particularly food, are no good if they are not preserved and stored properly. There are many ways to preserve meat to include drying, smoking and freezing. Vegetables can be pickled, canned, dried and frozen. While I have at some point in my life used all of these methods, today I mainly use smoking and freezing.
Long before there were large chest freezers, both Native people and early settlers alike smoked, dried or salted game and fish and every farm would have a smokehouse. To preserve vegetables like squash and pumpkins they would be cut into large pieces and then dried in the sun. Pickling and canning were other methods of preservation for meat and vegetables alike. Storage of these preserved meats, dried vegetables and root crops usually took the form of a large pit dug in the ground. Many of us know them as root cellars.
I could have dug a root cellar, but why do more work than you have to? I have found a way to replicate the function of the root cellar without the need to dig one. If your home has a basement then most of the hard work is done. All you need now is a plastic bin with a cover and a little clean sawdust or sand. In the bottom of the bin put a couple inches of sawdust or sand then add your root crops. Cover the vegetables with the rest of the sawdust or sand and then secure the cover onto the bin. Place the bin in a dark spot in your basement. As your basement is usually about 20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature in the summer months and 20 degrees warmer in the winter months, your produce will stay cool and provide your family with vegetables throughout the winter.
Every year winter arrives and every year people find themselves ill prepared to face it. Sometimes people make things much more complicated than they need to be. No matter where you live you need to stay dry, warm, fed and watered. Do what you need to in order to meet these needs throughout the year. By doing this you will not find yourself short when it really counts.