Types of Winter Storms and How to Prepare for Them

Blizzard with low visibility on the road

If cold weather isn’t a rare occasion in the region where you live, you are likely to have witnessed heavy snowfall. While it can look beautiful, some types of winter storms impose risks you should be aware of. 

Read ahead to find out what winter storms are, why they can be dangerous, and how to prepare for them.

What Is a Winter Storm?

A winter storm can range from moderately snowy weather that lasts for a couple of hours to a severe blizzard with blinding snow and harsh wind that doesn’t stop for multiple days. 

While some winter storms happen to be large enough to affect several states, others are much smaller and might impact only a single community. 

Winter Storm Vs. Snowstorm

The terms "winter storm" and "snowstorm" mean roughly the same thing, as snow is the most common type of precipitation during the cold season. 

It’s possible for a snowstorm to happen if the temperature is at or below 32°F between the cloud and the ground. 

However, if the air close to the ground is above freezing temperature, the precipitation will melt and create rain or freezing rain instead.

How Winter Storms Form

Three basic ingredients are necessary for a winter storm to occur:

  • Cold air. Temperatures below the freezing point in the clouds and close to the ground, which make it possible for snow and ice to form.
  • Moisture. Humid conditions, which facilitate the formation of clouds and precipitation. 
  • Lift. TIt’s the process of warm air particles moving upward and cool particles sinking downward.

With a combination of these elements in winter, it is highly likely that an area will experience a storm.

Why Are Winter Storms Dangerous?

Heavy snowfall during traffic

A major winter storm can feature heavy snowfall accompanied by strong winds, freezing rain or sleet, and extremely low temperatures. 

Some of the most common risks that come with various types of snowstorms are:

  • Being trapped inside the house - it can get really cold indoors with no utilities available. 

  • Getting stuck in a vehicle - attempting to walk for help can be a deadly decision.

  • Hypothermia -  abnormally low body temperature can threaten your health and life.

  • Increased chance of car accidents - lower visibility and slippery roads increase driving risks.

  • Frostbite - Body tissues exposed to extreme cold can sustain this injury.

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning -  heating up the car or keeping the engine running for extended periods can release excessive amounts of CO2, which is toxic to humans.

  • Heart attacks from overexertion - cold temperature makes blood vessels constrict, so the body needs to work harder to move blood around.

Any person is potentially at risk during a winter storm. However, recent observations highlight the following groups face an elevated risk:

  • About 70% of injuries related to ice and snow occur in vehicles and approximately 25% of victims are caught out in the storm. The majority of people registered in such situations are males over 40 years of age.
  • Of injuries related to exposure to cold, about 20% occur inside homes, 50% of people involved are over 60 years old, 75% of victims are males.

The impact of various types of winter weather is major. In the first half of 2021, snowstorms caused a record $15.1 billion in insured losses in the USA alone.

Different Types of Winter Storms Explained

It’s crucial to understand the distinctions between winter storm types to be prepared for their impact and avoid injuries. 


Two people walking during a blizzard

A blizzard is a severe snowstorm defined by the strength of the winds instead of the amount of precipitation it brings. The wind speed of a blizzard typically reaches over 35mph, which enables it to pick up snow from the ground, causing reduced visibility and the accumulation of snowdrifts.

Such weather conditions typically last for three hours or longer and lead to significant snow accumulation.

Lake Effect Storm

A Lake Effect Storm approaching

If the wind and temperature are right, the air plays the role of a sponge that sops up water from the lake and wrings it out on land as a snowstorm. The water that was picked up typically travels for about 25 miles, but there are known cases of it moving 100 miles away from the source.

This type of winter storm happens in locations near big water sources, such as the Great Lakes area. Lake Effect Storms usually occur between November and February and form when cold air passes over warmer waters. 


A woman with a red umbrella standing in a snowfall

This type of storm is named for the winds that bring heavy rain and snow to the Eastern Coast of North America, frequently in the New England region. 

A nor'easter can happen at any time of the year, but these storms are fiercest in winter and spring. 

They can cause weather conditions such as:

  • Coastal flooding
  • Coastal erosion
  • Hurricane-force winds
  • Blizzards

Ice Storm

A blue house and trees covered with ice

Ice storms result in the accumulation of at least a quarter-inch of ice on outdoor surfaces and create dangerous conditions for driving and walking. It’s vital to be especially careful at bridges and overpasses, as they tend to freeze first.

Besides, the ice layer often makes tree branches and power lines snap under its weight, which could limit the city’s energy grid for some time.

How to Stay Safe In the Event of a Winter Storm

Winter Storm Warning signboard


Checking the weather forecast for information regarding winter storms in your area is essential for those living in locations with a cold climate

The National Weather Service publishes alerts based on a three-tier system:

  • Winter Weather Advisory. This means that the weather conditions are not severe. Yet, it’s still recommended to be cautious when staying outdoors.
  • Winter Weather Watch. A winter storm is likely to occur. Be prepared for heavy snow or ice, strong wind, and low temperatures.
  • Winter Weather Warning. The likelihood of a winter storm is really high. Outdoor exposure in such weather conditions is very dangerous.

Preparing for Harsh Winter Weather

For your home to be prepared for all types of winter weather, ensure that:

  • You have proper insulation, caulking, and weather stripping
  • You’re keeping enough supplies in case you are stuck at home for some time
  • Pipes are protected from freezing
  • Your house has functioning smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in place

You should also ensure that you have some essentials stored in your car in case you get stuck while traveling. 

Create an emergency supply kit with the following items:

  • Warm clothes
  • Gloves 
  • Sand or kitty litter
  • Jumper cables
  • Flashlight with spare batteries
  • Blankets, bottled water
  • Non-perishable snacks

You can find a complete list for your Vehicle Kit in the Guidebook included in the Grab + Go Box.

With these safety tips and the knowledge about various types of winter storms, you are sure to minimize the risk of potential negative impacts from cold weather conditions.