When does your character need to start preparing for winter? What is a freeze line? What are micro-greens and chicking? Find out on this episode. 

Welcome to Writing Rural with Alley, the fiction writer’s weekly inspiration station for rural life and lifestyles, from historical to post-apocalyptic, helping you bring your rural stories to life! I’m Alley, and this is episode #63, Off-The-Grid Winter Prep. Stick around to the end to find out all the ways things could possibly go wrong. Now, let’s get into this.

Whether you’re writing historical, off the grid, or post-apocalyptic, there are many things your character will need to prepare for, to get them through the winter. In this episode, we will assume your character has shelter, or a home, and will focus on what else they will need for the winter. 

The first thing that will need to be considered is water. Humans can only live three days without water, so it makes the top of the list. Water can be hauled in everyday. Many farms have wells and many historical villages had community wells. Most water inside of a well is below the freeze line. The freeze line is how far underground that liquid will freeze. I believe it is four feet in my area of the world. However, in Alaska is 100 inches. That is 8 feet and 4 inches, or for those using metric 254 cm. 

However, historically, people carried water in from rivers, streams, ponds, springs, and more. If the water iced over, they would have to find a way to cut through, or chop through, to get to the water. 

However, there are ways to store large amounts of water. Water towers can be used in warmer climates. Cisterns were large storage tanks normally found under the home. They were originally made of rock, or cement, but today are made of heavy duty plastics. 

Another way was in a baoli. This is what my area of the world calls a stone stepping well. Around here, wells are dug in large areas that allow for things such as milk jugs (the old metal kind) to be stored in them to keep the milk cool. Here we dig down to the groundwater. However, in other places in the world, this is not a groundwater source, but a place water was hauled into or brought in with aqueducts, so they could store water there for when it was needed. The oldest I can find with a web search is from 11th century India. 

Some people stored water in clay pots. In modern times, rain barrels can be used for gathering and storing rainwater. However anyone who does this more than once will only allow the water level to get to 3/4th full in winter. That way, if the water freezes, it has room to expand without breaking the barrel. 

Something we have done in winter is place several water barrels in the house and filled them on the warmer days. We also kept a single metal barrel to be placed by the wood stove to melt any snow or ice we needed to, and it was convenient for having warm water on demand. Meaning, I didn’t have to boil it. 

Next up is food. While this makes second on my list, it is likely the first your character will be thinking about and preparing for. You see, they want to store enough for the winter, and that means starting as early as possible to save as much as they can of each thing, when it is in season. Spring crops include, but are not limited to, (And please remember this is regional, and their list might be different where your character lives) Beets, carrots, onions, peas, cauliflower, turnips, kale, lettuce, spinach, and more. 

As each season comes, they will have different crops they will be growing, and or foraging for. Walnuts fall from the trees in the fall, and berries come in the late summer to early fall. Pumpkins are ready to harvest in the fall, along with squash. 

Now, while this sounds like your character will have tons of food for winter, that is not always the case. Your character will need to eat at the time they are gathering food, so this is what they eat, plus what they will need to eat. How many people are in a family can affect this? Also, what stage of life a person is in can affect what will be needed? A small child will not eat as much as an adult, but I know from first had experience that a teen-age boy might require more food than a grown man. Women who are pregnant will require more food during that time, and when they are nursing their body requires even more food to make milk to feed the baby. 

For anyone who is wondering how much food your character will need, let’s look at how much the average adult will need to sustain them. According to the medical sites Google links to, because I’m not a doctor, the average women needs between 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day, and the average man needs 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day to maintain weight and keep out of the starvation zone. The exact number depends on height and activity levels. 

If you are interested in figuring out how much your character will need per day, I will link a calorie calculator in the show notes. Don’t forget, they have to grow and store enough from the beginning of winter until the first crops of spring are ready to harvest. Depending on where your character is, this could be a long wait. 

Next on the list is keeping warm. This covers a few things. If possible, your character will want as much insolation in the home as possible. There is modern insolation. I remember my grandfather saying he lived in a tar shack as a child, and they insulated it with newspaper. I’ve heard of people in the 50s and 60s stapling bags of leaves to their walls for insolation, and cardboard in the 80s.

Another way is through warm clothing. As my parents always said, if you are cold, put more clothes on. In history, people used layers and wool if it was available. Today, we still use layers and wool. We also use fleece, among other things. 

Having plenty of warm blankets somewhat falls into this category. Whether quilts, comforters, or wool blankets. What will your character have? Only you can decide. 

However, the main thing people think of is heating. I have several episodes about non-electric heating, if you want to check them out. Some of the ways include, but are not limited to, a fireplace, wood stove, propane, natural gas, pellet stove, solar, wind, and more. What era you are writing, and what is accessable to your character will be important. I’ve heard of desert tribes burning camel dung to stay warm. I mean, they don’t have a lot of trees there. 

Your character will also need a way to cook. Normally this is done with whatever they are heating with, but sometimes it is not the same. I’ve known off the grid homes that heat with wood, and cook with propane. 

The next thing any character with animals, livestock, or whatever you want to call the fluffy or feathered creature they keep in the barn, or coop, they will need food. Making sure that there is plenty of feed for the livestock is important. They should have been saving this up all summer and fall, as well. 

That said, I know some people who save seeds from things like chia to grow as micro greens for their animals during the winter months. This can make for healthier animals, but it can also be time and space consuming. 

Any animal shelters, the barn, chicken or duck coops, and anything else the animals might take shelter in during the winter will need to be prepared. This could be fixing broken boards, adding shingles to the roof, insulating, and more. 

Another thing on the list is to make or buy any medicine that might be needed for the winter. Personally, we stock up on cold and flu meds ahead of cold and flu season. However, many people in history made salve, and other things during the rest of the year, and kept them for later. The ones I think of are plantain salve, and walnut wormer. 

Historically, and frankly, most people today will do winter prep on their homes. this could be the insulation and shingles we talked about earlier. It could also be adding new chicking. Chicking is the stuff that goes between the logs of a log cabin. At least that was what Google called. I always heard it referred to as mudding. 

Chimneys will need cleaning. I had my home burn down because of a flue fire and I promise your character will not enjoy that experience. 

Masonry of a home would also be checked and inspected. Fireplaces normally fall into this category too. 

In modern times, even off the grid homes have to prep the water lines for winter. Noone wants a frozen water line! 

Another modern one is winter prep for any vehicles or farm equipment they will need. There are some winter crops like wheat that farmers can grow. They will want their tractors for that. Non modern times will want to make sure the haying wagon is working. 

Something many modern homesteaders will do is have their septic tank pumped out every one to two years. Three years at the most. Having your septic line freeze, clog, or get backed up in the middle of winter is not fun, and the septic company does not enjoy digging frozen ground. 

Ways to light the home in the winter is something to get ready for. This could include candles, lamps, flashlights, batteries, solar, generators, and many more. Even a fireplace could be used as lighting if needed, or if they wanted to conserve on the lighting they have. There will also have to be some way to light them. Maybe matches for candles, or solar power for modern lights. Olive oil has been used for lamps from at least 1,450 BC and possibly as far back as 4,000 BC. Generators could use natural gas, propane, solar power, gas, or diesel. 

Another thing is to check and make sure everything is working properly before winter. This can be cars, wagons, tools, heating systems, water storage tanks or barrels, and anything else they will be using in the winter time. It is best to check them, and make sure they work or fix them before they are needed. 

Last on the list is something to keep your character from getting board. We have all heard of the scary cabin fever. One of the ways to stave this off is to find things to do, and that is planned before the winter. Maybe it is making clothing, new tools, whittling, or some other hobby. It could be playing cards, reading, teaching the kids to read, and much more. The point here is not to be idle and to keep busy. No one wants to stare at the wall. That is boring! Trust me, I was grounded to my bed enough as a kid to know that. 

Some considerations will need to be taken into account in your story. If your character has a family or group of ten to care for in the winter, that will take more than a single character to prep for the winter. If your story has teen boys, I can tell you as a mother, they eat a lot! If there is a baby, or toddler, your character likely needs some type of diaper, and possibly milk. Nursing mothers will require more water and food than those who are not. Elderly character might need extra clothing to keep warm. If it is modern times, there might be medical conditions that they will need to think about. Insulin needs to be refrigerated, and those on oxygen will need the batteries for the oxygen machine recharged. 

Do not forget that winter prep for next year, starts the moment this year’s winter ends. This will influence your character’s actions if they rely on these things to survive the winter. 

Fun fact: Many families in history, and even off-the-grid homes today, use root cellars to store their crops for winter. These are underground rooms that are about the same temperature as a refrigerator. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

Before we get to the best part, if you enjoy this podcast, I hope you’ll take a minute to follow, rate, and review on your podcasting platform. And if you are listening on YouTube, subscribe, hit the like button, and drop me a comment; I love to hear from you! Remember, show notes can be found on my website, Alleyhart.com. Don’t forget to share with a friend. Now for everyone’s favorite part! 

Likely to go wrong: Your character did not check the chimney before starting the first fire of the winter. There is a bird’s nest in the chimney, and it blocks the smoke from leaving. This causes the whole house to be filled with smoke. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character makes candles to light their home in the winter. However, half way through the winter they run out of candles, because they did not make enough. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character moved into a home with a fireplace for heating. This is the first time they are heating with wood, and they do not buy enough wood to last the winter. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character canned their own food for the winter, but did not can enough to survive on only what they canned. They will have to find a way to get more food or starve. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character is snowed in when their child gets sick. They have no medicine to help them and struggle to keep the baby’s fever down. 

Possible to go wrong: Your pregnant character goes into labor in the middle of a blizzard, and the baby is coming with no doctor and only candlelight. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character uses a diesel generator to heat their home. They have it delivered every week. One week there is an ice storm and they can’t get their delivery. They lose power, and the only heat source they have. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character did not make sure they had enough warm clothing for the winter. They spend the winter feeling cold and risk hypothermia. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character doesn’t get the chicken coop ready in time for winter, and when the temperature drops, some of the chickens freeze in the night. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character has to get water from the river. As they walk out on the ice to find a good place to cut through it, they fall through thin ice. This could be deadly. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character is chopping through the ice on a pond, and the water splashes back on them when they break through. The water freezes in the cold and they get frostbite walking back to their home. 

Thanks for listening! Until next time, happy wordsmithing.

Helpful Links To Learn More

Calorie calculator:



Olive oil: