When snow or ice is in the forecast, doing some things ahead of time can make your life easier in the storm's aftermath. • Photo by Molly Montag.

9 Winter Storm Hacks to Make Life Less Miserable

Everything takes longer in the cold.

Stuff will be frozen. Something will be lost in the snow. Another thing you need won’t start.

It doesn’t help that the whole time you’re dealing with these challenges, wind is pelting you in the face and most likely you are losing sensation in your hands, feet and face.

When a storm is coming, the more things you can do ahead of time to prepare, the better off you’ll be when the weather hits.

Here’s a list of tips, tricks and hacks gleaned from living through the long, cold Midwestern winters. In many cases, these lessons were learned the hard (cold) way.

1. Have a Hammer Handy

Whether it’s an ice storm or blizzard, a hammer is your friend. Use it to break or loosen the ice on gates or frozen latches, (very carefully) punch through the ice in a waterer or use the claw to (again, carefully) chip out stubborn balled-up snow stuck inside a horse’s hooves.

I say carefully, because you do not want to get carried away and punch a hole in your horse waterer trying to break a crust of ice and you also do not want to whack your horse with a hammer. However, sometimes the snow is frozen so hard underneath my horse’s hooves that a hoof pick won’t get it out and careful chipping with the claw of a hammer is the only thing I’ve found that works.

2. Position Shovels Strategically

Everything has its place, and things should be put away. That’s a given. But if there’s a storm coming, it’s never a bad idea to preposition a shovel or two somewhere where you might need it. Because, a shovel inside the barn won’t help you if you can’t get inside the barn to get it.

I lean a shovel against the outside of the barn right by the door.

3. Meet the Ice Skimmer

Ever tried to use a slotted spoon from the kitchen or, worse, your hands to pull ice chunks out of a partially frozen waterer? There’s a better way. It’s called an ice skimmer, and it’s basically a heavy duty ladle used by ice fisherman to clear ice from holes drilled into a frozen lake. They’re a lot bigger and tougher than your average slotted spoon, and also have a longer handle. 

An ice skimmer can be used to fish chunks of ice out of a waterer. • Photo by Montag.

I bought my ice skimmer online a few years ago for about $5, and it hangs on the wall of my barn next to my hammer.

4. Move Hay Ahead of Time

There’s a saying that “hay makes heat,” so if horses are colder than usual it’s good to make sure they have access to plenty of hay. No one likes to waste hay, but when the temperature gets below zero we give our horses a lot more hay than normal — which means we go through more hay than usual. Carrying an extra bale of hay through snow even a short distance is a lot of work and the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself trying to carry it across a sheet of ice.

It’s a lot easier to have a few bales stacked right outside the pen or feeding area before the snow flies — even if you have to shake some snow off the bale before you feed it.

5. Face The Door

If you’re lucky enough to have heavy equipment capable of moving snow, such a skid loader/bobcat, back them into the garage so the blade or the bucket is facing out. That said, do not ever let heavy equipment or any vehicle run inside an enclosed building due to threat of carbon monoxide poisoning from the exhaust. Experts say you shouldn’t even let a vehicle run inside a garage with a door open. If it needs to run to warm up, pull it outside and then let it run.

Also, if you’ve got a choice, it’s better to store snow-moving equipment — or any other vital piece of equipment you could need quick access to – in a building with an overhead door than into one with a hinged door that swings open. An overhead door pulls straight up, whereas snow can drift in front of a hinged door and you could have to dig out the snow around it in order to swing the door open.

If the overhead door is electric, make sure you have a long rope or cord attached to the release so you can operate it manually if you lose power.

6. Get Some Distance & Make Room

If you are able to move snow with a vehicle, pile it away from any buildings – slightly downhill from the buildings, if possible – to avoid flooding into buildings when it melts. 

Along those lines, having your yard cleared of large obstructions – vehicles, trailers, etc – makes moving snow a lot easier and faster because you have more places to pile the snow and fewer things to hit while you’re moving it. It helps to make sure smaller items are also moved, because if it snows a lot, it’s really easy to forget where things are and everything looks the same under a few inches of snow.

Can you tell just by looking at the snow exactly where the driveway ends and the steep ditch drops off underneath the snow? Me neither. • Photo by Molly Montag.

It also doesn’t hurt to mark the edges of your driveway or any potential hazards. Each fall, I put two bright orange plastic rods to mark the steep drop off into the ditch on either side of my driveway, because drifting snow can make it difficult to know where the edge is and I don’t want to find out the hard way.

7. Fill A Bucket

If possible, fill a small bucket with gravel and keep it in the barn to use as traction for you and your horses. Many people remember ice melt or grit for around their house or driveway, but packed-down snow can get slick and slippery around heavily-trafficked areas like gates and doors.

Tossing a layer of coarse gravel will help everyone keep their footing.

8. Wear A Mask

Believe it or not, those COVID masks are handy when it’s freezing cold because they can help keep your face warm. When it’s below zero and the wind is blowing, I wear one under my scarf.

I find that even the cheap paper ones make a difference. If you’ve got them laying around anyway, consider giving them a try.

9. Consider Mittens

I’ve lived in the upper Midwest most of my life, and I’ve yet to find a pair of gloves that kept my hands warm doing chores in bitter cold. If you know of some, by all means let me know. Until then, I rely on heavily-insulated mittens.

I have two pairs right now: one with a thick leather exterior and one with a tough cloth exterior. The ones with the thick leather exterior are warmer, but they also aren’t very bendable so I usually have to take them off to open gates or do anything that requires fine-motor skills. But, they’re so warm I let it slide.

Random Winter Storm Tips

  • If your snow-moving equipment has a block heater in it, don’t forget to plug it in a few hours before you’ll need it. Our skid-loader, for instance, will still start in the bitter cold as long as we plug it in first and give it time to warm up.
  • Another skid-loader/heavy equipment tip is to be careful of snow or ice build up on the moveable/hydraulic parts. If it gets to building up on ours, we park it in a heated shed so the snow and ice melts before we use it again so it doesn’t damage the equipment.
  • Diesel fuel gels when it gets really cold. Reach out to your local mechanic to ask if there’s any appropriate conditioners or additives you should buy in order to help keep engines running at low temperatures.
  • If you live in an area where power outages are a possibility, consider filling some 5-gallon buckets with water and storing them someplace that won’t freeze. They can help water your horses in an emergency and also, in some cases, you can use the extra water to flush your toilet.
  • It’s not horse-related, but make sure the furnace exhaust on the outside of your house isn’t buried in the snow or clogged with ice. I had to dig out my furnace exhaust pipe twice in one night this year (my hint was when the furnace turned off), and also had to clear the snow from around the vent for my clothes dryer.
Drifting snow and ice build-up can block the exhaust pipes for your furnace. • Photo by Molly Montag.
  • Get your grocery run in early. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but Midwesterners slam the local grocery stores whenever significant snow is forecast. We do this every single storm. With all the other things to do before the snow flies, it’s easier to go on your lunch break a few days ahead of time for a few extra gallons of water or other staples rather than to brave the crowds the night before the storm.
  • Charge everything you’ve got to 100 percent before the storm – cell phones, laptops, tablets and anything else you can power up. If you’ve got any portable chargers, plug those babies in, too. It’s easy to forget, but you’ll thank yourself for doing so if the power goes off. The newer phones seem to hold a charge a lot longer than the older ones, but cold weather still makes my relatively modern iPhone go through battery power a lot faster than usual.