When prepping, it’s easy to get caught up in planning for big, flashy natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires. It is important to know which of these events is likely to happen in your region, when they’re likely to occur, and what to do when they strike. But there’s also a lot you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones comfortable, healthy, and safe through the fluctuations of everyday weather.
Weather-based threats cycle through with the seasons: heat and sun in the summer, cold and enclosed-space hazards in the winter, and transitional issues in spring and fall. Here are several to watch out for at various times of the year.
In most of the U.S., summer is a time of heat, sun, and unstable but predictable weather. Outdoor activity peaks, and along with it come many risks linked to exertion.
Heatstroke – This threat is fairly simple: spend too long in a too-hot environment, or exercise too hard in a moderately hot one, and your body temperature can rise high enough to disrupt your vital systems. Symptoms of heatstroke include weakness, dizziness, headache, confusion, and no longer sweating despite the heat.
To lower your risk, drink plenty of fluids, avoid strenuous exercise during the hottest hours of the day (from around 10 am to 3 pm), and keep an eye on your condition and that of those around you, especially young children, who might not realize how hot and exhausted they are. If anyone shows signs of heat stroke, get them out of the heat (or at least into the shade), give them plenty of fluids, and immerse them in cool water or apply ice packs to their armpits or groin to help bring their body temperature back to a safe level.
Sunburn – The long days and bright sun of summer are great for outdoor recreation, but they also make it that much easier to get a sunburn. Pale-skinned people are most at risk, but anyone can burn if they spend long enough beneath the sun’s UV rays.
The best way to spare yourself and your family from sunburns (and the heightened risk of skin cancer that comes along with them) is to avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight, especially in the middle of the day when it’s most intense. When you do go out, cover as much skin as you can (with long sleeves, hats, and sunglasses), and apply a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher to the rest. Reapply sunscreen as often as directed on the label, or more often if you’re sweating heavily or swimming. And if you do get burned, you can soothe the symptoms by applying a cold cloth or aloe vera gel to the affected area or by taking anti-inflammatory medications like aspirin or ibuprofen.
Dehydration – Summer heat, and the sweat you produce to cope with it, can quickly deplete your body’s store of fluids, causing dehydration. The best way to prevent this is to drink plenty of water, especially while exercising. Have each member of your family keep a bottle on hand (to get your kids on board, let them pick out fun reusable bottles for themselves) and drink from it regularly, before you feel thirst (which is a sign that your body is already experiencing the ill effects of dehydration). If you’re headed somewhere without potable water, bring along at least one purification method in case you run out: chlorine tablets or a filter straw should fit into just about any bag. And if you all start to get unaccountably tired, irritable, or lightheaded, call a water break and drink up!
Thunderstorms – The moist, hot air circulating through the atmosphere in the summer is full of energy, and one of the ways it releases that energy is through thunderstorms. These severe but common weather events can cause not just lightning, but also hail, high winds, wildfires, heavy rains, and flash flooding—nothing you want to be outside in. Some areas have daily monsoon storms that come and go in an hour; others have fewer but more severe storms; in still others, anything goes.
The best way to protect yourself and loved ones from thunderstorms is to not get caught in them. Learn the weather patterns in your area and anywhere you travel, and keep an eye on both the weather forecast and the conditions above you: if you see large, dark clouds forming on the horizon, it’s a good time to head in. And if you can’t get home (or at least to your car) before the storm hits, move away from open areas, hilltops, and ravines or floodplains; take shelter under a low object like a bush or park bench (avoid telephone poles, flagpoles, or lone trees, which are likely targets for lightning); and spread the group out so that if one person is struck by lightning, others can come to their aid.
Winter problems are all about cold: both the harm it can do and the threats you expose yourselves to in avoiding it.
Hypothermia and frostbite – There are two ways cold itself can harm the body. Frostbite is local – when parts of your body get so cold that the tissue in them freezes; hypothermia is systemic – when your core body temperature drops too low to sustain life. Signs of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, clumsiness, and confusion; frostbite shows up as numbness, most often in the extremities or face, and bright red or pale, waxy skin.
The best way to prevent these conditions is to limit your exposure to extreme cold (and to wet and windy conditions, which pull heat away from the body). When you or your little ones do go out in the cold, make sure you’re all dressed accordingly. A good strategy for outdoor expeditions, which you can adapt as needed for everyday life, is to wear an inner layer (your indoor clothes), an insulating layer (thick enough to keep you warm, but not so thick as to make you sweat), and a thin shell layer to keep out water and wind. Hats, gloves, and scarves or ski masks will keep your head and hands comfortable, and thick socks and insulated boots will do the same for your feet.
If your kids lose patience with the bundling-up process, you can try the same trick as with water bottles: let each kid pick out their own fun winter gear that they’ll want to wear. Another strategy is to send them out wearing as little as they want but call them inside sooner (and make the association clear between wearing warm clothes and getting to spend more time outside). But hopefully, you can make bundling up enough of a habit that they don’t think twice about it.
Dehydration, again – Dehydration isn’t just a warm-weather problem. Cold winter air holds much less moisture than warm air, and when it gets inside your home and heats up (increasing its capacity to hold water), it can suck the juice right out of you. Plus, your body needs water to fuel the processes that keep you warm. You won’t lose water quite as fast in the winter as on a sweaty summer day, but this subtle dehydration can cause ailments ranging from dry skin and chapped lips to impaired decision making (which, combined with winter conditions, can leave you in serious trouble).
When you venture out into the cold, make sure everyone (your kids, your spouse, and yourself) remembers to drink at a steady rate. To make this appealing, you can bring along a thermos of your favorite non-caffeinated hot drink (caffeine, which is found in coffee, hot chocolate, and some teas, stimulates your body to excrete water—the opposite of what you want here).
Colds and flu – We’ve all heard a lot about this problem lately. The physical stress of dealing with cold temperatures and the extra time we spend in enclosed spaces in the winter combine to make an ideal environment for viruses to spread. Good hygiene practices help to slow this spread: washing hands frequently, coughing into your elbow, avoiding physical contact with sick people, and keeping yourself and your children home when you’re most contagious. But the most important, most neglected preventive measure is to stay in good overall health. If you feed your family a varied diet of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, make sure everyone gets enough sleep each night (7–8 hours for adults, and a bit more than that for children), encourage frequent exercise, and manage your stress as best you can, you should find yourselves getting sick much less often than before.
Carbon monoxide poisoning – This last winter problem is another hazard of close quarters. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas produced by engines and when fuels burn without enough oxygen. When inhaled, it gets inside your bloodstream and replaces the oxygen held by your red blood cells, causing problems from headaches, weakness, and irritability to confusion, unconsciousness, and death. The worst part is, you might not even notice its effects until it’s too late. That’s why it’s so important to install carbon monoxide detectors in your house and regularly check that they’re working.
You can also reduce your family’s risk by making sure your heat sources (especially fireplaces and wood stoves) and other fuel-burning appliances are properly vented and by never running your car inside a closed garage. And if your detector goes off, get everyone out of the house as fast as possible, call for medical help if needed, and find somewhere else to stay until you’ve figured out and fixed the cause of the carbon monoxide leak.
Spring and Fall
The most dangerous thing about spring and fall weather is its sheer unpredictability. To get the best of it, you’ll have to be ready for anything, including these problems.
Temperature fluctuations – If there’s ever a month in which you might end up wearing your entire wardrobe, it’s March or November (or, for you more northernly readers, April or October). A seventy-degree day might well be followed by a dip down to the forties, with the next day right back up to where the first was. This inconsistency is just what we get for living in a temperate zone: each spring, cold air masses from the poles give way to warm air from the tropics (and vice versa in fall), but not without a fight.
Also, just because the sunlight feels warm on your skin at midday doesn’t mean you can forget about hypothermia. Fall and spring nights can still get dangerously cold, and wet and windy conditions (like the famous April showers) can cause hypothermia in temperatures as high as the fifties.
To stay comfortable through this climatic crossfire, you’ll have to be just as strategic about layering as in the winter. Start the day with enough insulation to handle the coldest weather you expect to see, take off layers as needed to avoid sweating, and keep a rain jacket or windbreaker on hand in case of bad weather.
High winds – This threat also stems from the push-and-pull between cold and warm air masses in fall and spring. Aside from increasing the windchill, garden-variety windstorms pose no direct danger to humans, but the debris they knock down can take out power lines, block roads, and punch holes through roofs and windows. To minimize the threat to your lives and property, make sure your yard is free from blow-down hazards, like dead trees and old buildings, and keep your home and roof in good repair. And, of course, you should always be prepared to shelter in place without power until the roads are cleared, and service is restored.
Seasonal allergies – If you or a family member always seem to get a runny nose, itchy eyes, or a cough at the same time each year, a seasonal allergy might be to blame. These allergies are triggered by contact with various types of plant pollen. They’re most likely to flare up in the spring when most plant species bloom and release their pollen, but some types, like ragweed allergies, don’t strike until mid- to late summer.
Once you’ve pinned down the cause of an allergy, you can relieve its symptoms by avoiding contact with the offending plants (and, if possible, removing them from your yard and the surrounding area). Various over the counter and prescription drugs can also help manage allergies. If you go down this route, keep a good supply of your medications on hand, use them as instructed by your doctor or the products’ labels, and keep an eye on their expiration dates (especially if you use them only for a few weeks each year).
I’ll end by saying that it’s important in all seasons to model precautionary behavior yourself: you want to set a good example and convince your kids that these everyday weather-based threats are worth watching out for. If you never wear sunscreen, for example, or if you go out underdressed all the time in the winter, they’ll get the impression that sun damage and hypothermia are no big deal—and then as soon as they’re out from under your rules, they’ll do as you did, not as you said.
It’s also important to strike a balance between paranoia and preparedness: you want your kids to grow up not afraid, but with a healthy respect for the natural world and the threats it poses to our survival and comfort. So, don’t overdo it on the safety measures: it’s okay to relax the rules for short trips and on special occasions. But don’t get complacent either: preparedness is an ongoing habit, not just for when disaster strikes, but for every day.