How to stock your pantry to endure a long, uncertain winter

When it’s time to shop, think like a survivalist.

This story was originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Stocking up on food and supplies is an ancient tradition in fall. Bears feed heavily to build up body fat before hibernation and squirrels bury nuts for the days ahead. But stocking up for winter is a tradition in the human kingdom just as it is in the animal kingdom. And this year it’s not just the coming winter that has people stocking up. Some are also bracing for a long, dark winter and a resurgence of COVID-19. Whatever the future may hold, you can take some real comfort from stocking up on the things that you and your family will need. And while you hope to never dip into these emergency supplies, it’s better to have them than to be caught lacking.

Take inventory

An assortment of supplies: Sardines, Beans, grains and a food storage book.
An honest evaluation of your needs and a detailed shopping list are critical components of your “stocking up” plan. Tim MacWelch

Failing to prepare at all is the worst thing you can do. The next-worst thing you can do is run off to the store with only the instinct to hoard like a packrat before winter, but no plan or list. You should always have a plan. A smart place to begin is with an inventory of the things you already have. Since most outdoorsmen and women already have some basic supplies on hand, take stock of your current inventory and weed out anything that needs to be culled (like that rancid trail mix you threw in the closet at the last election).

The next step is to determine your needs. This always reminds me of the “W”s of journalism: who, what, where, when, and why. Determine who you are supporting (or at least how many people you want to support). Figure out what they will require and what length of time you want to cover (are you building a stockpile to feed your family for two weeks, two months, or maybe two years?). Have a game plan for the location where you’ll store all this stuff and when you’ll buy it (all at once or paycheck by paycheck). Finally, you’ll need to know why you’re stocking up, as this will impact your shopping list. If it’s only a winter storm season you fear, a few weeks of food and flashlight batteries should cover most of your bases. If you’re planning for a longer emergency, you’ll certainly need a lot more.

Plan how you’ll store it

Imagine how demoralizing (and alarming) it would be to dip into your food storage in a time of need, only to find that your food had spoiled or been ransacked by rodents. If you’re going to stock up, you’ll need to maximize the life span of your stored food and supplies. Here’s how.

Keep it dark. Ultraviolet and other forms of light can be very damaging to foods, especially those in clear packaging like jars and see-through plastic bags. This damage will shorten their lifespan and it can ruin their flavor. Choose a dark spot, if you can. If that’s not an option, cover your stash with something dark to block the light and choose items to store in light-proof containers.

Keep it cool. The lower the temperature, the longer food will last. Cool temperatures are critical to food storage. It’s also helpful if those cool temperatures don’t fluctuate. If you’ve got a spare closet in a cool part of your home, you’ve already got the perfect place for a prepper pantry. If not, get creative and find a space that meets the criteria.

Keep it dry. Moisture will encourage the two forms of life that will ruin your food: fungal organisms (like mold) and food-spoiling bacteria. Start by picking a dry spot and buy food that is packaged to resist moisture.

Keep it away from pests. There are plenty of other hungry creatures in this world, not just your spouse and the kids. Keep a few mouse traps active in your pantry and package your food to resist insects. The food you save may save your life.

Know your numbers

Three packages of dry goods on a rock.
When it comes to food, a little bit of math will go a long way to ensure that you’ve stocked up adequately. Run the numbers to make sure there’s enough nourishment to go around. Tim MacWelch

In the age of dieting, the real value of calories is often misunderstood. These numbers aren’t something to fear. They are the fuel that keeps your body running. The average busy adult will need well over 2,000 calories per day to maintain good health and energy. When the temperature drops or the workload increases, you’ll need even more calories each day to avoid weight loss. We are fortunate that humans can live on a diverse range of foods, but whatever the source, there needs to be enough calories. Rather than looking at serving suggestions on food packaging, pay attention to calories. Most of the popular dry goods that are included in food storage are around 100 calories per ounce of dried weight. This means that a pound of rice or a pound of pasta will each provide 1,600 calories. When you add some additional fats and protein to that pound of dry food, you’ve got a rough tool to measure your stockpiling needs. By planning one pound of dry goods per person per day, plus the additional ingredients to turn those dry goods into tasty meals, you’ve got one person covered for the day (only costing about $2 to $3 for a day’s food).

Focus on shelf-stable food

An assortment of canned goods and chips and bottles of water.
Fresh and frozen foods are great, when you have the electricity and appliances to keep them at the right temperature and easy ways to prepare them. When that’s not the case, shelf-stable food is the way to go. Tim MacWelch

You’re already familiar with many shelf-stable foods. These are things you can buy and bring home, which do not require a refrigerator or freezer to maintain their quality. Shelf-stable foods include dried goods like flour, sugar, rice, and salt. The list also includes canned goods and food in jars. These last ones will generally need to be used soon after opening, but they are typically long-lasting before that. Even some of our favorite snacks are shelf-stable. Cookies, crackers, chips, and many other snacks will keep for months at room temperature without any special treatment (other than avoiding heat, light, and moisture). Shelf-stable meals can be as simple as peanut butter and crackers with a can of fruit cocktail for dessert. You don’t have to rely on weird survival rations to make it through tough times. Many of your favorite name brand foods will fit the bill as shelf-stable nourishment.

Collect canned goods

Ordinary grocery store canned goods offer familiar flavors and many of them provide generous macro and micro nutrients. The only real missing link is vitamin C. The high heat used in the canning process actually destroys most of the vitamin C in canned fruits and vegetables. Other than that, these rodent-proof food containers will last for at least five years and most are ready to eat right out of the container.

Their bulk and weight are the biggest problems, as the food contains its normal amount of water. That water is the only real problem, as the cans may burst when they freeze solid. Canned goods have a best-by date that is usually 18 to 24 months after the production date, though most canned goods are capable of lasting five to 10 years. Just make sure you get a diverse assortment of canned foods and read the labels (choosing high-calorie foods as the bulk of your food storage). Never use food from swollen or severely rusted cans, just to be safe.

Think long-term

What do you get when you combine the insane longevity of freeze-dried food with the pest-proof powers of a metal can? You get freeze dried food in a can, which is capable of lasting several decades and defying every food storage foe (except for heat and can rust). While it’s one of the most expensive ways to feed your family, it is one of the best ways that food can be stored. If price is no object for you (these products run from $30 per can to gourmet options that are over $100 per can), you will have to remember that the lightweight cans are still too bulky to fit in a bug-out bag. The food will also require boiling water to be prepared. These entrée cans usually claim 10 servings in each No. 10 can, though most will only provide a total of 2,000 calories per can. Do some planning to include other foods to fill out your menu plan, so you don’t have to eat 10 servings of the same meal to get your calories for the day.

Delve into dry goods

8 glass jars full of dry good supplies.
There are many simple staple foods that are cheap, long-lasting, and versatile. If you plan for ample water and cooking needs, dry goods may be the bulk of your food storage. Tim MacWelch

This was the survival food of our ancestors, and it can still feed us well today—for cheap. Here’s the problem though, you’ll have to know (or learn) how to cook from scratch. Staple foods like pasta, rice, flour, dried beans, and sugar are easy to store and very affordable. Yes, you’ll need plenty of water to prepare the foods, but the best staple foods only require boiling to prepare. From the right supply company, you can purchase these foods pre-packed in plastic buckets with Mylar liners or in metal cans. These should all include oxygen absorbers inside, which will draw out oxygen and create a vacuum in the food container—allowing surprising longevity of the food (30 years or more, under ideal storage) with no significant nutrient loss. You can save even more money by purchasing your own dry goods, Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers in bulk, then packaging the food yourself. In general, a five-gallon bucket usually holds more than 30 pounds of dry goods, which contains more than 40,000 calories. Dry goods are generally low in fat and lacking in various vitamins and minerals (unless “enriched” or fortified). Their calories will vary a lot, depending on the type of food, but you can generally calculate the worth of starchy or sugary dry goods (like rice, pasta, flour, sugar) at 100 calories per ounce. Properly packaged, they can last for decades.

Pack your own containers

Dry goods and some other foods can be safely stored for a long time in a variety of containers, when packaged with the appropriate desiccant or oxygen absorbers. My favorite is five-gallon food grade buckets. If possible, buy new five-gallon buckets with lids—though recycled ones will still work. Next, order enough Mylar storage bags and oxygen absorbers to go with the buckets you have. You can do smaller Mylar bags for rationing purposes and modular storage, or use large bags that line each bucket (the easiest way). You don’t need the oxygen absorbers in everything. Sugar, honey, and salt will never need them, but grain, powdered milk, and other foods will definitely need them. One hundred cubic-centimeter (100cc) oxygen absorbers are a great choice, as you can parcel out the right amount of product for different jar sizes. You’ll need one 100cc packet for a one-quart jar, and four packets for one-gallon jars and containers. Five-gallon buckets of food usually take the equivalent of 1,500 to 2,000cc of product. Desiccant packs may also be placed in foods that have some residual moisture, like dried fruit and jerky, but these are not suitable foods for 30-year storage.

Don’t forget the other consumables

A collection of first aid supplies in a kit.
We’ve mentioned food a lot here, but it’s not the only resource we’d consume in an emergency. Remember to stock these supplies as well. Tim MacWelch

If the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 has shown us anything, it’s the merit of squirreling away a few extra rolls in your stockpile. A good rule of thumb is one roll per person per week. This means your one-month food supply for a family of five could be supported by a 20-roll multi-pack. Commonly used personal hygiene products are also a must. Don’t be shy or embarrassed. You’ll want to find out who needs what, before you get caught empty handed. Stock up on batteries in the various sizes you’ll need for your electronics. You’ll also want to have some candles (though flashlights pose much less of a fire hazard). If your stash doesn’t have a first aid kit, get one (including all the usual band-aids, ointments, and medications you’d expect).