The Complete Guide to Winterizing a Cabin

Spending time at the cabin is one of the best ways to spend time.  Throughout the year, it’s a fun and relaxing place to be.

Winter is one of the best times to get away to the cabin.  I love to use the cabin as a home base for sledding and playing in the snow.  It’s also one of the best places to go to for spending the holidays.  But if you have a cabin, you need to take some important steps to get it ready for winter.  That’s true even if you’re planning to use your cabin during the winter.

There are really two different ways to winterize a cabin.  Whether you’re planning to be back throughout the winter or planning to leave it until spring, you need to take some steps to prevent damage and minimize energy usage while you’re away.  However, there are some things that might differ a bit if you plan to visit throughout the winter or lock it up until spring.  So let’s talk about the steps you need to take to get your cabin ready for the winter.

How do you winterize a cabin for the whole winter?

A lot of people have grown accustomed to what they call a 3-season cabin.  It’s a cabin that gets used in the spring, summer, and fall.  In the winter, this cabin gets completely shut down and buttoned up for the season.

If that’s how you handle your cabin, then you need to make sure that when late fall comes around, you take the time to do a full winterization on your cabin.

My recommendation here is that you create your own detailed checklist of all of the things you need to do.  I’ll give lots of examples here, but not all of them will apply to your cabin.  Make a checklist, print it out, and actually check each item off when you winterize your cabin.  Missing even one thing could be costly.

Let’s start with things to do outside

  • Rake up all leaves, sticks, and pine needles within 30 feet of the cabin.  This is the area around your cabin called the defensible zone.  Keeping it clear of combustible materials on the ground is important for keeping your cabin safe from fires.
  • Gather up all of your outside toys, furniture, and appliances and store them for the winter.  Grills, outdoor tables and chairs, anything that gets used outdoors around the cabin should be packed away if you don’t want it getting snowed on and frozen.  Having snow accumulate on these things and then thaw and freeze can cause damage forcing you to replace these things much more often than necessary.
  • If you have a lawn, give it one final mow.
  • Winterize outdoor lawn equipment, transportation, and toys.  Lawnmowers, chainsaws, ATVs, dirt bikes, whatever you have.  Anything that’s powered by a battery should have the battery removed.  Put these batteries on a trickle charger to keep them charged up.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself replacing them in the spring.  You should remove the fuel or put an appropriate amount of fuel stabilizer in and fill the gas tank with fresh gasoline.  These two steps will make your stuff easy to start-up in the spring.  Neglect to do this and you may end up needing repairs come spring.
  • Take appropriate steps to winterize any boats and dock that you may have at your cabin.
  • If you have sprinklers or even a hose at your property, clear out all outdoor water lines.  Disconnect any hoses from the hose bib, empty the water out, and then store it in a shed or closet.
  • Clean out gutters and inspect the roof shingles.  Look for broken shingles and raised edges.
  • Look for cracks or openings in your foundation, between the foundation and the walls, and around vents.  Any openings like these are like neon welcome signs for pests.  Fill any small cracks with caulk.  For larger cracks, you can fill them with a wire mesh or even steel wool and then some expandable foam.  The metal will keep pests from chewing through.
  • If you notice damage to siding, you probably have larger animals chewing on the wood.  If this is happening, spray the lower siding all around your cabin with an anti-chewing spray.  While you’re at it, spray some bug barrier both outside and inside all the way around and around any openings like doors and windows to keep insects and spiders out.
  • Turn off the breaker to the outside water pump and any other powered outdoor things.

Again, these won’t all apply to you, but make a list of the things that do and check off that list every winter.

Now let’s move to what needs to get done indoors

  • If you have a thermostat and enough electricity and gas to power your heat source all winter, then just set your thermostat low, but not lower than 55°F.  This will help keep pipes from freezing.  Before you leave for the winter, clean or replace your furnace filter to keep your furnace running efficiently.
  • Shut off other power to your cabin.  Turn off any breakers to things like the refrigerator, oven, lights, and electrical outlets.
  • Remove everything from the refrigerator.  Leave the refrigerator door and freezer door open at least slightly to allow them to air out.  Leaving a refrigerator closed at room temperature all winter will cause it to smell musty when you return.
  • Close your blinds and/or curtains.  This will protect the inside of your cabin from sunlight and also help keep potential intruders out.
  • Turn off your water heater and drain it.  Also, drain all water lines by finding the lowest faucet in your cabin (maybe an outside hose bib if you have one) and open it.  With the water pump to the house turned off, this will drain out the water in the system.  Open all other faucets in the house as well until water stops flowing anywhere.  You don’t necessarily have to drain water lines if you can keep your cabin at 55°F or warmer all winter.  But if you can’t, you should definitely do this step.
  • You can take this a step further by installing a fitting for your air compressor where the water comes into the cabin, somewhere easy to get to, and then using an air compressor to blow out the water lines after draining the water.  This will help get any pooled water out of your water lines.
  • Use RV-grade antifreeze to pour down the drains in your cabin.  You don’t need a ton, just enough to fill the P-traps so that water doesn’t pool in them and freeze causing your drain lines to burst.  This includes the toilets.  You don’t need to fill the water tanks on the back of the toilet with antifreeze.  Just pour some down the toilet and it will do the job.
  • If you have an attic space, make sure it’s vented so that it can stay cold.  If your attic space is too warm, it will cause any snow on the roof to thaw and then refreeze over and over again.  This leads to ice buildup which can be very damaging.  It’s better to keep your attic space cold.

Do I need to winterize my cabin if I’m going to use it during the winter?

The answer is still yes.  If you leave your cabin and shut off the heat, even for a few days in the winter, your pipes can freeze and cause all sorts of damage.  That an all of the outdoor winterization should still get done in the winter.  Even if you’re sticking around or planning to visit throughout the winter, your outdoor gas-powered tools need to be winterized.

If you’ll be visiting throughout the winter, though, then the list above can definitely be adjusted.  In fact, if you’ll visit almost every weekend and have access to enough power and fuel to keep your cabin heated while you’re gone, then you can get away with not draining out all the water lines.  But if your cabin is heated by a wood-burning stove, or if you have a solar system with batteries that need to recharge while you’re gone, then you absolutely need to drain out all the water.

Here are some other things you can add to the list above or potentially remove if you plan to visit throughout the winter.

  • Prepare any gas-powered winter toys you’ll use.  If you have snowmobiles, then get them out and ready to ride.  Re-attach their batteries and change their oil so they’re ready to use when you arrive.
  • If you’ll be using it regularly, you may not need to put away all your outdoor furniture, grills, firepits, etc.  Just store them where they are covered and protected from ice, snow, and the sun.  But make sure they’re easy to get back out to use when you go back to the cabin.
  • You don’t need to shut off all the breakers as we talked about above.  Just do what you normally do when you leave the cabin and shut off appliances.
  • Back to water lines, if you can’t keep the cabin warm, you should still empty and even blow out water lines before you leave.  Same goes for putting antifreeze down the drain pipes.  But if you can keep the inside of the cabin warm, you can skip this step.
  • Everything else as outlined above and as applicable to your cabin.  Even if you’ll be coming back throughout the winter, the fall is a good time to clean up the area around your cabin and make sure everything is in good order to keep pests out.  Even if you’re only gone a few days, insects and animals will find their way inside if you let them.  It gets cold outside and your cabin offers protection from the elements.

Why do I need to Winterize my Cabin?

There are a few major problems that can happen if you don’t take the proper steps to winterize your cabin.

  1. Pipes freeze causing expensive damage
  2. Ice builds up on the roof causing expensive damage
  3. Your summer tools and toys won’t start in the spring
  4. Pests find a winter home inside causing expensive damage
  5. Food spoils attracting pests that cause expensive damage
  6. Leaves, pine needles, and firewood left too close to the cabin create a fire risk which can lead to a total loss or at least expensive damage
  7. Pilot lights and gas left on lead to fires causing total loss or expensive damage

Are you noticing a trend here?

Taking off from your cabin during the wintertime without taking these steps, even if only for the week, can lead to serious damage.  This damage usually expensive or difficult to repair.  So do it right.  Take the time to go through your checklist every time you leave your cabin in the winter.  It’ll save you a lot more time, money, and headache later.

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