Camping & Survival

How to Survive a Summer Power Outage

A map of the August 2003 blackout.

On August 14, 2003, in just three minutes, 21 power plants shut down knocking out power to 50 million people in the Eastern United States and Canada. The blackout stopped trains and disrupted cell phone service, the cities’ water service, traffic lights, airports, and hospitals. From mid-July to the end of September all of the United States has the threat of suffering from black outs. Bad weather, overworked power grids, and rolling black outs are all a consequence of the hottest months of the year.

Blackouts can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days and preparing for the loss of electricity is just like being prepared for any other emergency, you will need food, water, a way to heat food, lights, and batteries. However, during the summer months, there are extra precautions you should take. It is important to stay as cool as possible and hydrated. To read more about dealing with 100-degree temperatures, read our blog Extreme Heat Survival.

A map of the August 2003 blackout.
A map of the August 2003 blackout.

The first thing you should do when the lights go out, besides grabbing your flashlight, is to go inside, secure the doors and windows, and then turn off everything you had turned on except for one light. When the power is restored, it will take a surge to turn everything back on, which could cause the power company further problems. The one light will let you know when power had returned.

Water

When preparing for an emergency, experts generally say to stock up on supplies that will last you three days. For example, you will need one gallon of water per person per day. If you have a family of four you will need 21 gallons. During the hottest months, I suggest making that at least two gallons of water per person per day. When it is so hot, you need to stay hydrated and drink water even when you are not thirsty. Further, applying cold compresses to your forehead and neck will also cool you down.

Food

When the power goes out, obviously so does the fridge, so stock up on non-perishable foods. I like canned items. They store well, are cheap to buy, and easy to heat up. Plus, you don’t have to add anything to them like pasta and rice boxed dinners. The Canned Food Alliance says that the minimum amount of food you need is two cans of food per person per day. Personally, I keep three cans a day for myself. For three days, that is only nine cans of food. I take advantage of my local grocery store’s 10 for $10 deals. Alternatively, you may choose to store MRE and MRE-style meals for such an emergency.

One of my biggest pet peeves in a power outage is the loss of my refrigerated items. If the power is out for less than two hours, your refrigerated foods will be fine. Just make sure to keep the fridge door closed as much as possible. Keep your ice trays full and have a bag of back-up ice in the freezer all the time. Instead of a bag of ice, you can fill up plastic jugs with water and keep them in the freezer. If your freezer is full, the food inside will stay good for two days. If it is only half-full, the food will be good for 24 hours. As with the refrigerator door, keep the freezer door shut as much as possible.

You will also need a way to heat up your food. A camp stove, a BBQ grill, or any type of emergency stove will work. You cannot use charcoal or gas camping stoves indoors, however any emergency stove that uses Sterno is safe for indoor use.

Lights

 A lantern is safer than candles and will put out more light.
A lantern is safer than candles and will put out more light.

Sitting on the front porch finishing off the beer when the lights go out by candlelight is relaxing—until the beer runs out. It is next to impossible for me to sleep without AC in the hot summer, so the nights can be long without electricity. Besides candles being a fire hazard, they really don’t give off much more than mood lighting. I keep a variety of lights in my house in case of a black out. I have a D-cell Maglite on the bedside table, a keychain light in the living room, and a keychain light in the kitchen. These little lights shine bright enough to allow me to get to my camping equipment where I have a camp stove, fuel (such as propane or butane), and a lantern. The brightness of a lantern allows me to read, write, and play games. Remember to check your flashlights periodically to make sure the batteries are still good and always have plenty of back up batteries.

Other Items to Consider

I keep books, cards, and board games, not just because I like them, but also because they provide entertainment when the lights go out. Some people, especially if you have children, will want to keep a battery operated portable DVD player so that the kids can watch movies. Also, always keep your laptop plugged into the wall if possible, so you will still have a few hours of battery life when the lights go out.

Texsport makes a battery-operated fan for under $20 which will help keep you cool. Frogg Toggs makes a chilly pad that you simply get wet. As it dries, it cools itself. To chill out, wrap around your head or neck.

You will also want to have a stash of cash someone in case you need to get out and pay for something. ATMs might not work in a power outage. Gas pumps may not either. Even though it is best to keep your car half full of gas at all times, I know that it is not always feasible, so keep a gas can full of gas for backup.

An emergency radio is essential for any type of emergency. Regardless of the outage being due to bad weather, rolling black outs, or a terrorist attack, the Kaito Dynamo and solar powered radio with NOAA weather alerts also charges your cell phone, has two different lights, and a USB port. The Kaito Dynamo will work on batteries, rechargeable batteries, solar power, crank power, or will charge via USB to your laptop.

The 1977 New York City blackout caused looting, vandalism, and arson.
The 1977 New York City blackout caused looting, vandalism, and arson.

Children, the elderly, or any ill dependents will need special consideration, as they are particularly vulnerable to the extreme temperatures. If there are medications that require refrigeration, check with your doctor to see how long they will stay good in the fridge. If you have a family member or someone you take care of that is dependent on electrical medical equipment discuss a back-up power plan with your provider or you may take the person to a hospital. Hospitals will have back-up sources for electricity.

My favorite piece of advice though is to stay connected to friends and family when the power goes out. By chance, their area may still have electricity. A hot shower, a warm meal, a temperature controlled sleeping environment, and few nights hanging out with your loved ones beats sweltering in the dark any day.

What is your plan for when the power goes out? Tell me about it in the comment section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (14)

  1. Shayla,
    You are correct. Super bad math or temporary dyslexia on my part. For a family of four for three days, you need 12 gallons of water.
    Thank you for pointing that out!

  2. “For example, you will need one gallon of water per person per day. If you have a family of four you will need 21 gallons.”

    Am I missing something here? How does one gallon per person per day turn into 21? Even with the two gallons per person for a family of four for three days is only 24.

  3. part 2
    Water!!
    What is your plan for water?
    It is one thing in the winter to be a little bit thirsty, but in the hot summer months dehydration can and is a killer! At our country home we have 2 wells; one in use, one has not been used in a longtime but the top is open and I can drop buckets down it to fetch water if needed. The thing is with a old style open well you never know for sure what has been dropped into it or has fallen down it. More on that later. In our neighborhood we have ponds, creeks, streams, and there are fresh water springs all over the place, some of these are seasonal, most are not and have water flowing all year so it will only be a matter of collecting[fetchin’] and purifying the top water. To do this there are many tried and true methods that have been written about by much smarter people that I am so I won’t take up space going over them. What we did was to buy a dome water filter from CTD and set up a 2 bucket filtration unit that cost less than 40 bux. Now this will not kill any and all spores and cysts but it will clean the debris and gunk out and then you can use your bleach or the sun or whatever method you prefer to make your water SAFE to consume. And trust me, if the power is out in the summer and you are out cleaning up storm debris or working around the house you will need clean drinking water at some point.Keep in mind folks, dirty water kills more people every year than any other disease or natural disaster ever thought about.Good Luck and be prepared. RudeDog

  4. Curiously enough, though I live in Texas, I was in PA during that blackout(aug 2003), and while a lot of people were talking about it, the effects on our group were minimal; as we were attending an Historical recreation group campout, two weeks of living like it was the middle ages. we had oil lanterns, propane cooking (and campfires) and several multi-day coolers. (and while Medieval folks didn’t have coolers, we didn’t have livestock to butcher fresh)
    If I recall correctly the stargazing was excellent those few nights that were not too humid or clouded over.
    so, yes with planning it can be done. even enjoyed!

  5. I am adding my own testament to storing canned foods; but with some additional insight. Most canned foods have a shelf life of from one to three years. When buying food to store remember two things. Buy what you eat and eat what you buy – sometimes said as “store what you eat and eat what you store.” Why waste money on something you don’t want to eat? Storage in the sense of what most people think of is a waste of money. Most of what is sold as food storage is a waste because they sell it under the guise of sticking it in a closet for 20 years and then throwing it away with the expectation that you will then waste several more thousands of dollars buying the same stuff again. Instead, buy canned foods by the case, leave the cans in the cases and store the cases where you can get to them every day. Stand the cases on end so they are taller and deeper than they are wide. Cut off the top, front corner so you can take out one can at a time. Add a two inch wide slot down the front for your thumb if you want. All the cans in the case have the same expiration date so you have created an automatic can rotation system without wasting money and space on those fancy rotation systems. Spend the saved money on more food and supplies you can actually eat and use. Once you have at least one year of canned foods stored that you are rotating naturally because you use them naturally, then start buying extra grains, legumes and other dehydrated and/or freeze dried foods that you can incorporate into your daily meals to give variety and to expand your supply of canned foods.

    The second thing to remember was alluded to in the first comment by Mike. Buy as many foods with their own liquid in them as you can. This includes fruits, vegetables, meats, etc. This one thing alone could save your life. Most talk about the one gallon per day rule. This will kill you. This doesn’t even come close to being enough in summer or winter. While water usage will change during emergencies, somethings will still require more water than anticipated. Think how many gallons of water each of us uses every time we flush a toilet, wash our hands, dishes and clothes. How often do you turn on the water and let it just run waiting for it to get hot (or cold) before you make use of the water coming out of the tap. Bathing, gardening, cooking, etc. all add up to over 60 gallons of water per person, per day. Certainly, not all of these things will continue normally, but one gallon a day? Nonsense. When city power goes out, where do people living and working in high rise buildings get their water? It is gone almost immediately. If you don’t have water stored and have another source of acquiring water and purifying it, you are not going to have enough water.
    I hope this information is taken as a help, not as a put down or to be offensive. The only way I know to make a point clear is to say it outright. Good luck in all your preps.

  6. well,where to start.
    portable generator,keep stabilized gas on hand,kerosene lamps and lots of kerosene,propane stove,kerosene cook stove,charcoal grill,wood smoker,campers oven,propane lanterns,duel fuel lanterns,90 watts of solar panels and 2 marine deep cell batteries with a 400 watt and a 1200 watt inverter,5 battery operated fans with wall plug ins to use on the inverter,RV style 3 way refrigerator(110,gas,12 volt}several led portable lights and the solar yard lights,lots of back up AA,AAA 9 Volt and several rechargeable batteries.6 months canned food,1 year staple foods,portable dvd player,hand crank,solar rechargeable radio X’s 2,handy talk mobile radios X’s 5
    my advice is that if you wish to THRIVE instead of merely survive an emergency then you need to learn skills first off,then spend the time,effort and money needed to acquire the things you need to get thru ANY type of emergency.as an example.2 years ago we suffered some bad tornado storms in the Tennessee Valley,even tho’ we then lived in a major city our power was out for almost 6 days,now thank the lord the storm came in the spring and not the heat of southern summer but the thing we did was we had a freezer so on the second day I started cooking up thawed food and feeding ourselves and the neighbors,we had gas hot water so we were able to share our hot water with the neighbors and allowed some to come bathe at our house.at night when it was so dark you could barely see your hand in front of your face we were able to to read,play games,watch movies,provide security for our neighborhood and live thru this disruption with little to no ill effects on our home,health or lifestyle.Keep the old Boy Scout Motto in your life and Be Prepared!

  7. Best piece of advice I can give, relating to anything battery powered, is to try to either set yourself up with a solar recharging method for your batteries, or try to find battery-powered items that use less popular sizes.
    When I lived on Guam, which experiences tropical storms and typhoons (hurricanes), we oftentimes lost power for 2-4 weeks after a storm, due to the power lines being snapped by the high winds. After my first typhoon, I noticed that one of the first things that stores ran out of was AAA, AA & D batteries…..but that 9V and C sized batteries were there, on the shelves, the entire time during the power outages! So I found a radio (small “boombox”)that took C batteries instead of D, and a flashlight that also took C cells, instead of D’s. Along with the propane powered camp stove and lantern that I had, I never had to worry about light, or cooking, after a storm.

    You can also find battery adapters, that will fit a C cell battery inside a shell that’s sized as a D cell. While not a perfect solution, they will at least allow you to continue using D-powered items with C cell batteries.

  8. I keep some of those solar garden lights around. I use them like flash-lights without the pole sometimes.

  9. The other canned food I would recommend Spam. It can be eaten cold or fried or boiled. You can always slap a hunk between two slices of bread and slather on enough stadium (spicy brown) mustard and hold your nose if you have to. Spam has fat, protein, carbs, salt (to curb dehydration) and in a pinch supplies about 1/2 to 3/4 of the calories an adult needs per day to survive. Wash it down with lots of water and grab an apple for dessert. I’d even toss on some lettuce, tomato, and onion since they are perishable and you want to use them up quickly anyway.

  10. Regarding Canned Foods – The best option of these is cans of Fruit Cocktail.

    Top 5 Reasons:

    1) No need to heat up this food in order to eat it

    2) The contents are packed in Water. That’s water which you can drink.

    3) Fruits are packed with Fructose. This is natural sugar- Sugar fuels energy.

    4) Human metabolism processes fruits very efficiently. This means LESS waste material for the body to digest and later on, to dispose. This second item is veriy important when Toilet facilites may be non-existent or difficult to access.

    5) Fruit cocktails have a shelf life of One year. Recommended cycling is every six months.

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