Preparing for Winter in Montana
Is this your first winter in Montana? Are you thinking of moving to Montana and wondering what winter is like in the Flathead Valley?
The answer is, like anywhere else, you never really know. It could be an easy winter, or it could be a cold one … what we do is prepare, so we are ready no matter what happens. It’s not as hard as you might think, and you will soon be managing Northwest Winter like a pro.
Chimneys and Firewood
If you have a home with a wood stove or fireplace, be sure to prepare in late summer and fall. Learn proper operation of your woodstove for efficient burning and heating; the dealer that sells your brand of stove can provide you with loads of information. As with most household tasks, there are plenty of excellent tutorials for efficient wood-based heating on YouTube.
If you have never cleaned a chimney, call a professional to do it for you the first few times. Cleaning your woodstove chimney is the key to a safe winter wood-burning season, as well as efficient operation. Ask the chimney sweep to recommend how often you should have your chimney cleaned: this can vary depending on frequency of use and the quality of dried wood you are using.
You will see ample trucks and trailers filled with firewood in the fall as hardy Montana folks head into the mountains to cut their winter supplies. If you are unfamiliar with harvesting firewood, you may want to buy wood that is already cut, split, and dried for your first few winter seasons.
When purchasing firewood, be mindful that you are buying quality hardwood that is already ‘seasoned’ or dried. Tamarack (or Larch), Douglas Fir, and Lodgepole are ideal for hot, clean burning. You can purchase a device for testing the moisture content of your firewood, but learning to judge by weight and feel is your best long-term skill.
When you are ready to venture into cutting, splitting and drying your own wood each season, the U.S. Forest Service provides loads of information on where to cut, where to buy wood-cutting permits, and other regulations.
Gutters and Ice Dams
One of the single most important tasks that you can do to save money and headaches each winter is to clean your gutters, or call a professional company to have them cleaned each fall. Leaves and debris in your gutters and downspouts will collect moisture in the fall, then freeze in the winter. Frozen gutters will not only swell and split—they can pull away from the eaves of your home, causing further damage.
When should gutters be cleaned? The general rule of thumb is to wait until the last of the leaves (and needles) around your home have fallen.
Another winter hazard that you may encounter in the north is an ice dam. An ice dam occurs when circumstances such as heavy snow, ice along the eaves, and varying hot / cold spots on a roof combine to create a disaster in your home. While this may sound like a rare occurrence, it happens often to unsuspecting homeowners when weather conditions are right, and sudden floods and water damage are common.
The best ice dam prevention is to remove heavy snow accumulation on your roof, or call a professional or a handyman to do it for you. If you have an energy audit and roof evaluation of your home prior to winter, they can determine if there are any ‘hotspots’ in your roof that should be fixed prior to winter.
Smoke and CO2 Detectors
Winter or not, Northern Rockies or anywhere else in the nation—testing your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in your home should be a ritual! Be sure to install fresh batteries at the start of winter and test each device.
Check the expiration on your fire extinguishers or replace them with new ones. Many hardware stores in our area have two-for-one extinguisher sales each fall, so be sure to invest in a few to place in your kitchen, garage, near the woodstove, etc.
Sprinklers & Spigots
If you are not from a cold winter climate, the term ‘blowing out your sprinklers’ may be new to you! This simply means that you force all remaining water from the sprinkler lines in your irrigation before it can freeze. Why? When the weather turns cold, remaining water in your sprinkler lines could freeze and break the plastic pipes. Call a professional company or even a local handyman to do this for you the first time: if you’re a do-it-yourselfer, you’ll have the hang of it for next year!
Many of us that come from urban places have never seen a frost-free spigot before! This is a tall metal water source with a pressure-valve handle, and they are very common in cold climates and rural areas, particularly areas with livestock. A frost-free spigot means you do NOT have to shut off the water supply to that water spigot in the winter! You DO, however, have to remove your garden hoses, drain them out and roll them up and store them away – to prevent damage in the winter.
One of the most important things you can do as a new homeowner in Montana, right after getting to know your neighbors, is to get to know your plow person. Do not wait until the first snow to do this!
Ask your neighbors who they use for plowing their driveways; if you can get on the docket with the same person that plows the whole neighborhood, you are more likely to have regular, timely snow removal after every snowstorm.
An important step is to contact your plow person BEFORE the first snow! Invite them to come look at your property: every professional will appreciate knowing where your septic is located, where your special landscaping is, and what is important to you. They cannot see these things after the snow piles up!
Be Prepared for Ice
Before the big cold snap and the run on the hardware stores, get a bag of salt for your walkways. One bag will go a long way, and you will be so glad you have it on hand when the need arises.
If the temps go under 10 degrees? Have a bag of sand available—salt stops working when it gets too cold! Always be cautious of the surfaces you are spreading salt or sand on, and be sure you place extra mats at the door for shoe-scraping and snow boots to protect the inside of your home.
PRO TIP: a few bags of sand can add the extra weight you might need in the back of your car or truck when winter roads are treacherous!
Be Prepared for Power Outages
No matter where you live, power outages are a possibility. If there is a big Northern ice storm with lots of wind, you and your neighbors may find yourselves without power until crews can get services restored. Many rural homeowners invest in a small generator for such emergencies, providing just enough power to get by in a pinch. Those with woodstoves and fireplaces feel grateful for the alternative heat source in a winter storm.
Regardless of your backup plan, be sure to have a store of extra water on hand for such emergencies. If your rural home operates on a well, the pump will not work in a power outage, and you will be without water. Storing several gallon jugs of water in your kitchen pantry or basement is a great start: this will allow you to cook, flush toilets, and do basic washing until water runs again.
If you do not have a generator or a woodstove, an alternative cooking method is worth a thought: a camp stove or Jetboil type of device can at least provide hot water and basic meals during a 24-to-48-hour outage.
In the Flathead Valley of Montana, we have an excellent resource to track the severity and progress of outages year round with Flathead Electric Outage Map.
While most of us enjoy the convenience of weather apps on our smartphones, you may find yourself in new territory as you read about Montana winter weather alerts. It is very helpful to know the difference between the types of alerts you will see flash across your phone:
Winter Storm Watch: makes everyone aware of potentially hazardous conditions.
Winter Weather Advisory: issued when ice, snow, or wintry mix is expected.
Winter Storm Warning: a significant amount of winter weather is coming! Expect school cancellations or delays, and warnings regarding emergency travel.
You can tune in to any of the local radio stations or television for school closure announcements in the early mornings. But don’t be surprised if what looks like a ‘snow day’ to you turns out to be business as usual! Montanans are winter-hardy folks, and it takes a lot of weather to cancel our plans!
Harsh and snowy or mild and bright, every winter and every day in Northwest Montana brings something new to experience. We think the challenges of winter are worth every minute we get to spend here, and we hope you will love it, too. Ready to join us? Check out our listings and find your new winter adventure!