So you stay comfortable when the power goes out

Are you visiting a distant destination? The supply of electricity and other utilities becomes less reliable and more prone to failure the further you are from civilization. Treating and planning power outages and other supply bottlenecks as inevitable will add to your comfort in the likely event that one does occur.

My wife, Virginia, and I were fortunate enough to spend a month at our cabin in northern Montana over the holidays. Five days before we were due home, a storm turned off the power. Instead of ending our trip early, we made it, but we could have been more comfortable if we’d packed a few more important things. Based on what we’ve learned over the week, here are a few tools and approaches that could have made our experience easier – and added convenience if the power went out.

An Explorer 1000 with two SolarSaga 100 solar modules. (Photo: Jackery)

Pack your own strength

Portable power supplies (generators) used to be huge, expensive, heavy, noisy and dirty. No longer. Simple, inexpensive boxed batteries are now able to handle most normal electricity needs with much more convenience. The Jackery Explorer 500 ($ 600) is a good example. Equipped with USB ports, a three-prong 110 volt socket and a 12 volt car adapter, it can charge your phone, power some lights and power a TV. And with a maximum output of 500 watts, it can probably do all three tasks at the same time.

I’ve been using an Explorer 500 for nine months to charge devices, run lights at camp, and power my pellet grill at home. (It’s more convenient than an extension cord in certain circumstances.) I didn’t remember bringing it to the cabin this time, but I wish I had. We had previously downloaded a number of movies to an iPad because the satellite internet connection is slow and unreliable at best, much less extreme weather. That was a good plan until we couldn’t charge the device anymore.

Batteries in such boxes are great for lightweight devices, but they are usually unable to power high-consumption devices such as space heaters or power tools. When shopping, compare the technical data of the battery with the power requirements of the devices that you want to supply with power. If you are independent of the grid for a longer period of time, you should couple your battery with solar energy. By adding Jackery’s SolarSaga 100 folding boards ($ 300) to the Explorer 500, we can meet most of our electricity needs indefinitely.

The price of these lights makes them special.  By hanging a pile, you can light a very large area for little time for little money. The price of these lights makes them special. By hanging a pile, you can light a very large area for little time for little money. (Photo: Wes Siler)

Let there be light

I always have a flashlight on my keychain and we have headlights in our travel bags. While these are great for responding to immediate lighting needs, they are less able to provide long-term area lighting.

We keep candle lanterns in the cab, and I remembered the truck’s tool kit included a battery-operated LED work light. However, we agreed that a couple of battery operated lanterns would have made nighttime chores such as preparing food and navigating the confined spaces of the cabin a lot easier.

To better prepare for the next time, I ordered a dozen of these $ 3.25 bulb lanterns that I recommended last year. We’ll keep them in one of the cabin’s closets along with a large pack of lithium batteries (with a ten-year shelf life) and never again do without adequate indoor and outdoor lighting.

If you use one of these ovens instead of one with a built-in pot, you can use any of your existing pots or pans to cook as you normally would.If you use one of these ovens instead of one with a built-in pot, you can use any of your existing pots or pans to cook as you normally would. (Photo: MSR)

Cooking as if you were camping

When my wife’s family remodeled the cabin a few years ago, they combined a propane stove with a huge outside tank so we could light the stove with a lighter. If we had relied on an electric stove or if we were out of fuel, we would not have been able to do so Boil or boil water.

Simply throwing a small camping stove in your car with the fuel of your choice is easy insurance. I only ever use Mountain Safety Research ovens for backcountry adventures as they are made in Seattle and the company takes the time to verify that each unit is working before shipping. At just 2.6 ounces, the Pocket Rocket 2 ($ 45) is my first choice. It takes a minute to bring a quart of water to a boil at sea level, but the oven also offers fine heat adjustment so you don’t burn your bacon. Carry a 16-ounce bottle of branded isobutane fuel (starting at $ 5) and you’ll cook for a week or more, regardless of temperature or altitude.

If you’re cooking on gas, make sure you’re doing it in a well-ventilated area, and make sure the fuel flow is completely off when you’re done. I always disconnect the stove from the fuel when everything has cooled down.


Don’t forget the fire

Eager to use the newly remodeled fireplace, I grabbed a good splitting ax and a packable bow saw for the trip. It turned out that the fireplace still has limited breathing. So, for a quick burn, I had to carefully downsize the wood for it to work. With a 3.5 pound head and a generous 30 inches in length, the Hults Bruk Sarek ($ 160) did a quick job with the cut logs I had stored last summer. And the Agawa Canyon folding bow saw ($ 75) was able to shred small branches as well as large limbs to facilitate lighting.

While looking around the cabin pantry in the dark, I came across a case from Ignite-O Instant Fire Starters ($ 14 for 12). I’ve never found a commercial fire starter that can beat the petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls I make at home, so I was skeptical about these. I shouldn’t have been. The weatherproof plastic wrap went up in flames and burned for almost 15 minutes, which made it easy to light even larger logs. Since each starter weighs no more than one of my tried and tested coated cotton balls, I replace the cotton with the instant starters for all future outdoor activities. I ordered several suitcases to keep in the cabin and at home where I used them to light charcoal grills. (They won’t change the taste of your meat.)

I feared that the storm that turned off the power would also drop trees down the seldom traveled dirt road that leads to the cabin. If it had been like that, I would have only had an ax, a saw, and a vehicle winch to make our way home. But nothing was blown up that I couldn’t get out of the way myself. We’ve been lucky, but I know that won’t always be the case. To calm myself down, I bought a chainsaw that I could take with me in the future. Dewalt’s FlexVolt 60V Max battery-powered chainsaw shares batteries and chargers with my other power tools, and the 16-inch bar should be a good compromise between cutting speed and portability. That also makes processing firewood easier for me. Why cordless rather than gas-powered, especially when I consider having to use it in the event of a power outage? With no gas leaking or stinking, it should be easier to take the Dewalt with me on a trip, which increases the likelihood that I will get it when we need it.

MSR manufactures all of the U.S. military's water filtration devices and has one of the most advanced water laboratories in the world supporting research in this area.  All civil water filters are made in the same facility in Seattle.MSR manufactures all of the U.S. military’s water filtration devices and has one of the most advanced water laboratories in the world supporting research in this area. All civil water filters are made in the same facility in Seattle. (Photo: MSR)

Get serious about hygiene

In most built-up areas, tap water is provided by gravity rather than electricity. Our cabin uses an electric pump to draw water from the lake it lies on. This is not uncommon with similar properties, but it obviously means that if you lose electricity, you will lose water.

No water means no toilets, sinks, showers or a simple source of clean drinking water. Aside from being an inconvenience, it also means an increased chance of getting sick.

We are all guilty of worrying about dramatic rather than everyday dangers. Without running water, the risks we faced in the cubicle this time around didn’t come from grizzly bears – they came from the raw chicken we feed our dogs, the cross-contamination from our own droppings, and the meals we cooked ourselves.

Since we were prepared for the pandemic, we had no shortage of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and Lysol. This was just a good reminder to pack these things next year as well.

One thing I probably shouldn’t have brought was a good water filter. With the lake right there, we spend many evenings on the porch in the summer and watch the beavers go to work. Giardia is called “beaver fever” for a reason. The MSR Miniworks EX ($ 110) that I want to leave in the cabin on our next visit has guaranteed future access to clean water.

This thing is so warm it's almost obscene.This thing is so warm it’s almost obscene. (Photo: Rumpl)

Stay warm

Northern Montana is not a warm place. While this year was a little milder than previous years, we were still dealing with single-digit temperatures at night and the heat went off when the power went out.

Heating the cabin with the chimney works – up to a point. But the bedroom is far from the fireplace, and if you keep the fire on all day and night, you can’t get much sleep. For this reason, I bring a selection of puffy warehouse ceilings with me with every visit.

While Rumpl’s lighter, more packable options work better on a couch or in a backpack, we rely on the Sherpa Puffy Blanket ($ 249) to keep us warm in bed no matter what. It combines a 30 denier ripstop polyester face (durable and sheds dog hair and drool), puffy synthetic insulation, and a deep pile sherpa fleece bottom. At 4.5 pounds, the two-person version fits into a queen-size bed and is heavy enough to function almost like a weighted comfort blanket. It’s also extremely warm. Even without the heat, we could just crawl into bed and stay cozy all night.

Main photo: Wes Siler

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