The humble refrigerator is the most taken for granted appliance in America. this ubiquitous contraption that runs day and night in kitchens all across the nation holds our leftovers, our veggies and our dairy products, all kept cold, fresh, and safe to eat.
Naturally, it is almost unthinkable that you might be forced to go without one. Most people alive today have never gone without one: nearly 100% of American homes have a refrigerator in it according to government census data.
But this snack repository and place of high honor for children’s drawings is far from a given; millions and millions of people around the globe have never even had access to a refrigerator, and these power-hungry appliances are completely dependent upon electricity to maintain their internal temperatures.
That is a far cry from the traditional ice chests of old. Losing power or just losing access to on-demand refrigeration may mean significant changes in your daily life, to say nothing of your emergency plans.
It is an easy thing to forget that you won’t likely have access to a refrigerator during an SHTF event. In this article, we’ll take a look at those lifestyle changes that will result from going without a fridge, as well as offer you tips, alternatives and procedures for keeping your chilled goods fresh without one.
Fast Facts on Refrigeration
In America, the refrigerator is absolutely ubiquitous. 99.8% of all homes in America contain one. Almost a quarter of homes contain two or more refrigerators.
That’s a lot of room for ice cream. American citizens are clearly unwilling to do without the refrigerator at any cost; almost 15% of power generated in America is used solely by refrigerators.
In kilowatt-hours, this is the appliance we rely on the most. It runs day and night, ceaselessly, so long as it has electricity.
Refrigerators are predominately dedicated to preserving fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and leftovers. In most American homes, people would not dream of storing those products in anything else.
Even food items that do not truly require chill temperatures to keep are kept in fridges and nowhere else, things like eggs, butter and many vegetables like lettuce, broccoli and cabbage.
Refrigeration is vital for some products, like milk, which will spoil with great rapidity unless they are refrigerated. There are exceptions, of course, but bog-standard milk that you buyout of the cooler or would have delivered from the milkman will not last any time if it is not kept cold.
Beyond food storage refrigerators serve a more important role for some people. Certain medicines, especially liquids like insulin, must be kept cold to extend their lives and potency.
Without refrigeration, many of them will go bad very quickly, potentially leading someone to an adverse reaction or suffering from various symptoms if they cannot have the correct dosage of medicine.
If you were one of these people to depend on refrigerated medicine, loss of power, more specifically the loss of an operational refrigerator, may be a life-threatening event.
It seems like refrigerators do an awful lot for us, and they do. Believe it or not, there was a time in America where people lived without them.
They haven’t been around forever! In the following sections, I’ll shed some light on the real story when it comes to storing various foods in refrigeration, what you can do without a refrigerator to try and keep them fresh and what you can do to produce a cold, or at least cool, environment if you don’t have a refrigerator or it stops working when you need it.
I’ll Never Give Up My Fridge! You Can’t Make Me!
Let’s get real: you might not have a choice. You definitely won’t have a choice most of the time in a SHTF situation. You can lose access to a refrigerator through misfortune, a bad financial turn, or honest-to-goodness disaster.
Even so, some people choose to go without a refrigerator, even in these modern times full of smart devices (including smart refrigerators)!
Be it a desire to live more frugally, save money or just reduce dependency on modern contrivances, more people than you think have been taking the plunge in recent years to live more like your great grandparents did: fridge free!
Here are just a handful of reasons you might be going without a fridge involuntarily:
- A major disaster destroys your home and everything in it, or just ruins the contents, like in a flood.
- A different disaster has left your home and its contents intact, but absolutely wrecked the power grid in your area. Without generators or your own off-grid solution, there is no way on Earth you can generate enough electricity to power a refrigerator.
- The day has arrived: The s*** has hit the fan. You’re forced to flee from your home and a life you used to know. Your bug-out location has no power infrastructure, and therefore no refrigerator.
- Tough times have forced you to tighten your financial belt. Unfortunately for you, the refrigerator is broken, you don’t know how to repair it and you cannot afford a replacement or professional inspection. Say goodbye to those TV dinners.
- A troubled economy combined with a thermometer-busting record heat wave has led to constant rolling brownouts in the hot summer months. All citizens are being asked to discontinue use of power-hungry appliances, and refrigerators top that list.
As you can see, it is hardly unimaginable that you will lose your refrigerator one way or the other. If you call yourself a prepper, you’d be best off to learn how to live and thrive without it now before you are forced to later.
With just a little practice and perhaps a different point of view on the foods you typically buy and stick in that thing, you’ll see that it’s really not too awfully hard to do without a fridge entirely. After you finish this article, you might decide to ditch your refrigerator!
Giving Up the Fridge
It might be hard for you to imagine, but there are some people who voluntarily give up their refrigerators, and go without electric cold storage entirely. Why would anyone do such a thing? Reasons vary, but there are indeed benefits that accompany such a lifestyle choice:
- Expense – Refrigerators are expensive to buy and operate, and some people want to increase their financial fitness by giving it up.
- Independence – Fridges are massive power hogs. For people who want to live completely off grid, a lone fridge can easy bust a power budget. Giving it up entirely makes the equation much simpler.
- Environmental Concern – There are those who worry over the massive consumption of resources, and want to be a little kinder to the planet by using less. A fridge is a “big ticket” item when it comes to waste and therefore fuel, so they cut it out of their lives to be greener.
- Cramped Quarters – For those who live in close confines like a studio apartment or even a vehicle refrigerator are out of the question. Since the return-on-investment of smaller fridges is less, many choose to forgo them entirely if they live in a cramped space.
- Reducing Dependency – The true adherents of prepping are aware of the shock that can accompany a massive “sea change” in lifestyle when a major paradigm shift occurs and want to wean themselves off of luxuries ahead of time. Giving up the fridge and other bulky appliances is just another part of that.
As you can see, there are intelligent reasons to abandon the refrigerator entirely before you are “forced” to. If you assess your lifestyle and see if doing the same will make sense for you. You’ll be one step ahead in that case if the SHTF!
Reexamining Cold Storage Foods
Contrary to what you are probably thinking now, not all of the foods we typically put in our refrigerator must actually be refrigerated. Sound crazy? I promise you it’s not.
We’re going into the major food groups that we typically store now in refrigerators and how we will keep them without a refrigerator, or rather, how well they keep without a refrigerator, but first we’ll deal with The Troublemakers.
The Troublemakers are food items that are really just not worth the trouble, or are flat-out difficult to keep unless you have dedicated cold storage. This doesn’t have to be refrigerator, necessarily, but it does have to be cold storage. More on that a little later. The Troublemakers are:
- Processed frozen foods. Think things like TV dinners, frozen pizzas, packaged food items, and anything that is born and lives its shelf life in a freezer. Not only are these things overpriced and not particularly nutritious, we definitely won’t be able to get them in a SHTF situation, so it is best to cut them out now. Alternatives: None, ditch these entirely.
- Milk. Yep, you were probably expecting this one. Milk goes bad in hours if it is not refrigerated. There are very few exceptions to this rule. For liquid milk, you can try and track down what is known as Ultra Heat-Treated milk which will supposedly keep, if it is unopened, for a few months. I’m not entirely sure I would trust it even if I could find it. Alternatives: Powdered milk, or an actual dairy cow so you can enjoy raw, farm-fresh milk before it spoils.
- Meat. I’ll need to clarify this one. It is absolutely possible to preserve or prepare meat in such a way that will keep for a very long time without refrigeration. But fresh meat will not last without refrigeration or preservation. We are talking tens of hours, maybe, maybe a couple of days if you are lucky. Alternative solutions: use canned or pouched meat rations, can it, cure it, dry it into jerky, smoke it, or slaughter fresh game/livestock to produce fresh, healthy cuts, and have a plan to preserve the remainder.
And that’s really it for the troublemakers. There are some vegetables and fruits that will last a little bit longer if they’re refrigerated, but everything you enjoy today can be kept outside of cold storage healthily and safely. We’ll talk about all those veggies and fruits just below.
Here’s a fun fact for you: did you know that most of the produce you buy that’s fruits and veggies, actually loses shelf life if it get refrigerated at all? You read that right; if you refrigerate fruits, even for a short time, and then stop, they still go bad faster than if they were never refrigerated at all.
Now, did you know that most of the produce you buy at your local grocery store is refrigerated? In fact almost all of it is, at some point, before it reaches the store shelves.
To make matters worse, you can further shorten shelf life by washing your food before you put it away. It turns out that most fruit and veggies don’t respond well to water, or to being moist.
In the grocery stores, they don’t spray them with mist to keep them fresh. They spray them with mist to make them look more appetizing so that you will buy them. This practice will actually accelerate decay of the produce.
About the only way to beat this crooked practice is to either grow it yourself, or to buy it farm direct, specifically from a local farmers’ market, or directly from the farmers themselves.
That’s the only way you can ensure that your produce is not refrigerated or dampened in order to make it look more appetizing. Also important to ensure you get maximum shelf life from your food is to choose healthy, nominally ripe produce that does not have any obvious defects.
Yeah, it might make you feel good in kind times buying those oddball fruits and veggies that no one else wants so they aren’t wasted, but I can promise you they will not keep as long as optimal ones.
Below is a list of common fruits and how long they will keep in moderate temperatures if they are not refrigerated and they are kept out of direct sunlight.
Presented in ascending order of shelf life:
- Berries, Grapes – A week or less. Pick these fresh and use immediately or preserve. Note grapes will keep “live” if their stems are kept in water.
- Melons – A week, maybe a little longer. Melons with firmer rinds and no soft spots last longer. Softer ones go bad quicker.
- Bananas – A week, perhaps longer depending on your tolerance for brown spots and mushy texture.
- Pears and Mangoes – About 2 weeks. Contrary to popular opinion, pears do not last as long as apples.
- Pineapples – 2 weeks or more if stem is healthy.
- Apples, Lemons, Oranges – A month or longer. The shelf-life superstars of the fruit world!
As you can see, even with the most fragile fruits you have plenty of time to acquire and then eat them. They won’t go bad in a couple of days, and any of them can be preserved using a variety of methods to make them last even longer.
Vegetables are up next, presented in the same ascending order of longevity as the fruits:
- Cauliflower, Broccoli, Eggplant – About a week, longer if stems are kept in water.
- Peppers, Zucchini, Cucumber, Carrots, Red Tomatoes – About 2 weeks, perhaps a bit longer if kept cool.
- Green Tomatoes, Beets, Turnips – 3 weeks to a month. Green tomatoes can have their shelf life extended slightly by wrapping them individually in dry cloth.
- Lettuce, Cabbage, Squashes, Garlic – About one month.
- Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Yams, Onions – One to two months. Remove potato sprouts as they appear.
- Pumpkin, Butternut Squash – Two to three months, plenty long to make it through the worst of winter!
Dairy, Other Foods and Ingredients
Most of us will not want to give up our sauces and favorite toppings. I have good news for you: you probably won’t have to.
Most of the things that preppers stash in the fridge today in order to top their favorite foods don’t need to be refrigerated at all, or at least it won’t hurt them to not refrigerate them.
All the usual suspects of burger and hot dog toppings, things like ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise and barbecue sauce will keep for months without refrigeration, and a very long time indeed if they are unopened.
Peanut butter does not have to be refrigerated at all, nor should it be! How are you supposed to spread cold peanut butter!?
And if you’re going to have peanut butter you better have jam or jelly to go with it. Preserves, jams and jellies will keep for two weeks to a month easily with no refrigeration once they are opened.
One superstar staple food that most folks are already familiar with is honey. For reasons known only to scientists, honey does not go bad.
It can harden and crystallize, but it does not go bad and is still perfectly edible in that state. If you want to turn it into golden liquid again, all you need to do is gently warm the honey inside its jar using a pot of hot water.
Eggs are one food item that will benefit from refrigeration but this is not mandatory. Fresh eggs will keep for about a week or a little longer dry and out of the sunlight. If you also you make it a point to rotate them daily they will keep longer still, a couple of weeks or perhaps more.
There is one more thing you should know about eggs: if you acquire fresh eggs from your own hens or a chicken farmer, don’t wash them! At least, don’t wash them until you need them.
The reason is that a freshly laid egg has a protective coating around the shell, called a cuticle (or bloom).
This cuticle acts as a sort of varnish that tightly seals the pores of the eggshell and keeps bacteria out while also preventing the eggs contents from losing moisture. Together, this will keep the egg fresh far longer than if it is washed.
If you have eggs that are dirty and need washing right away, that’s alright, just understand they will not keep quite as long as eggs that go unwashed. Make it a point to separate those eggs so you can tell them apart and use them first when you cook them.
One last thing: when washing eggs use warm or room temperature water if at all possible. Cold water will allow bacteria to infiltrate the eggshell and ruin your eggs.
Dairy products are more forgiving than you might think. Hard cheeses will keep basically forever without refrigeration assuming pests don’t get to them.
Americans are notorious for keeping butter in the refrigerator, but it doesn’t have to be refrigerated: It will keep just fine on your countertop for at least 2 weeks, and probably a month or longer as long as you keep it cool and covered.
That pretty much covers the gamut of typical foods you have in your kitchen, and probably in your refrigerator, right now.
As you can see, it is entirely possible to keep fresh produce and other foods ready to use and safe with no refrigeration at all.
But, let’s say you have something that you want to keep refrigerated, or should keep refrigerated but don’t have access to your trusty old fridge, left behind as it was when the sky fell. What can a clever prepper do to create their own cold, or at least cool, storage?
Alternatives to Refrigerators
This might come as a shock to you, but even ancient cultures understood the value of creating cooler environments for food storage, and for comfort inside their homes. While our technology might be superior to our ancestors’, there is truly no new concept under the sun.
No matter what supplies you have access to, and no matter what kind of shelter you’re living in, there’s always a way to create a cool storage space for food and even medicine. Several of the methods below can be field improvised using only rudimentary materials.
Others are better for fixed structures and can be added on to your home or shelter at your bug-out location. No matter what your personal plan is for surviving SHTF read over all of them, and try to understand the concepts. You never know what kind of curveball you might be facing that may require you to implement refrigeration.
Bucket Cooler / Ice Machine
if the ambient daytime and nighttime temperatures where you live or are staying drop below freezing and stay there for hours, you can easily create your own ice on a regular basis.
Using nothing more than a couple of buckets you can fill one with water and allow it to freeze, making ice, then remove the ice, bust it up and place it inside the other before lining it with a trash bag to make a handy cooler.
This is a quick, surefire way to keep cold things cold in a pinch so long as you live in a cold environment, or can reliably depend on night time temperatures low enough to freeze so you can replenish your ice supply.
OG Ice Chest
Another option if you live in a frigid environment is to rely on the ice chests of antiquity, which were literally nothing more than windowsill boxes hung on the outside of houses, and relying on the cold ambient temperatures to chill or even freeze whatever was within.
These are not ideal for things that cannot withstand being frozen, but for keeping meat and certain vegetables preserved all through the winter, it cannot be beat.
These are easily made from found materials, and are a snap to construct from scrap wood or metal. If you’re smart, all you’ll need to do is fashion a tightly fitting cover to keep foreign debris out of them, and perhaps deter animals that are active during winter time, and you’ll be all set.
Say what you want about some fantastically overpriced brands, but I wager that almost any prepper should have in their possession a modern, high-performance cooler.
From lunch box sized travel coolers to behemoth, treasure chest sized party coolers, these modern marvels can keep ice for days and keep cold stuff cold all by itself for nearly as long if you fill up the empty space.
Even if you aren’t the outdoorsy or tailgater type it does not take much imagination to see how useful something like this could be in an emergency, especially if you rely on refrigerated medicine for continued survival and health. If you are a prepper on the go, definitely consider one of the smaller units mandatory.
You ever notice how the ground is always much cooler than the environment around it? That’s why preppers are always told to never sleep directly on the ground because it will suck all the heat out of your body. The Earth is essentially one big heat sink, and we can use this principle to our advantage by digging into it.
If you can dig down a foot, just a foot, or perhaps a little more you’ll notice the soil starts to get pretty cool. If you can locate this pit in a shady area that doesn’t get any sun, you can save several degrees off the ambient temperature.
This is in essence a root cellar on a very small scale. Simply take your container of produce or liquid and set it in the pit.
You can help keep it from getting dirty by placing a wire rack, or even some stones at the bottom keep your container and the goods within from contacting the soil directly.
The bigger brother to our previous entry. Root cellars have been used for centuries to keep veggies, typically fruits, nuts, squashes and, traditionally, root vegetables (hence the name) viable and fresh through the winter.
Root cellars may be constructed fully underground but are more typically only partially underground. Compared to other improvised refrigeration solutions, root cellars have an advantage, and they keep the produce at a constant humidity level as well as a more or less constant temperature.
It is entirely possible to add a root cellar to an existing home, or you can dig one separately from the main structure. If you are a handy, DIY-centric prepper, then a root cellar may be the ideal replacement for your refrigerator even before you need to bug out or bug in!
Evaporative Pot Cooler / Zeer Pot
This ingenious little cooler is a piece of ancient technology that works just as well today as it did thousands of years ago. This arrangement consists of two pots, typically clay pots but terracotta or ceramic are also acceptable. The first is very large, and the second is smaller to nestle within the first with room to spare.
The functionality of this cooler is simplicity in itself: first, the larger pot has its inside walls packed with wet sand. Next, the smaller pot is set within before the remaining space between the two is filled with more wet sand. What you are left with is a space in the small pot cooled by the evaporative cooling principle.
This little marvel has been used since antiquity in Africa and the Middle East, and you can create your own with next to no effort and minimal materials. While heavy, it is also nominally portable.
Just because you’re without a refrigerator does not mean you are necessarily without electricity. If you still have electricity, or just steady breezes, you can make a swamp cooler.
People growing up in rural Southern climates in the United States are no doubt well acquainted with these systems, as they are alternatives to traditional air conditioning.
Think of a swamp cooler as an upgraded evaporative cooler. Its function is simple: you can surround a common box fan with wet towels or other cloths while running it full blast.
The box fan will push air through these wet towels and, through the process of evaporation, the air will be rapidly cooled and made a little moister.
This can be used to cool entire rooms, even a whole house, and if adapted to a container or cabinet you will have made in essence a refrigerator of sorts. Be warned you will need to keep an eye on humidity levels; no one likes mold!
If you lack electricity entirely, you can hang up a wet cloth at the entrance to a room or window that catches a good breeze. While not as reliably efficient as a running fan, it can still cool the temperature in the room several degrees.
Smoking is a method of cooking and preserving food by way of exposing it to copious amounts of (typically) wood smoke over a comparatively long period of time compared to other cooking methods, and is an ancient way of preserving meat.
Cultures all around the world have smoked everything from beef and mutton to fish and even tea in order to extend shelf life. It turns out that smoking also imparts a delicious flavor to most foods!
Smoking methods vary, but only hot smoking is controllable and repeatable enough to ensure good anti-microbial properties and consistent results.
Smoking is not particularly difficult, but it requires some preparation if done in the field and careful attention to tending the fire’s temperature and configuration to produce optimum results: too much heat or too little, or not enough smoke can spoil your results.
You can make your life a little easier if you want to add smoking to your prepping toolbox by purchasing one of several common “BBQ” smokers.
Offset, upright barrel and water smokers are all popular and common variations on this handy piece of equipment. If you get one now I promise you will get in plenty of practice, trust me! In fact, all your neighbors will probably show up and dutifully volunteer to help you test the results of your hard work!
Wood Ash Storage?
Perhaps the craziest sounding of them all, you can use wood ash- yes, common wood ash left behind from burning wood- to help preserve your fruits and veggies.
All you’ll need is a quantity of wood ash, and a small hole dug in the ground. Fill the bottom of the hole with wood ash and place your produce inside, being cautious to ensure it does not touch the other pieces or the bare dirt sides of the hole.
Now simply cover up the top of the hole with any old thing, an old container lid, a piece of wood whatever and your produce will keep longer than normal. This is a good method to use when time is money and you’re in a hurry.
Screw This, I am Keeping My Fridge!
For the very dedicated, it is entirely possible to keep your fridge running in an emergency as long as you’re dedicated to creating your own off-grid power.
This is easier said than done since refrigerators are enormous power hogs. But there are a couple tips and tricks you can use to make your power budget go further.
First, let’s work out the power storage and power generation problems. Most generators and larger solar cell installations will supply enough power to run a refrigerator but they will put a serious dent in your energy budget.
A good way to keep your refrigerator from gobbling all of your generated power is to simply run it intermittently, just enough to keep the food or medicine inside preserved and cool.
Additionally, you can make your fridge more efficient, done by packing absolutely every square inch of dead space inside with something so the fridge doesn’t have to work as hard to cool the internal volume.
The second, and probably smarter option, is getting a much smaller fridge like a dorm room or office fridge and keep it on standby for emergencies.
These modern micro fridges use significantly less power than their larger kitchen sized brethren and will significantly ease the energy burden on an off-grid power generation setup.
It is an additional investment but no matter which power generation setup you rely on, you can make your life a lot easier if you have a way to store extra power.
Rigging up a deep cycle battery bank to store accumulated power even when the fridge isn’t running is a great one-two punch along with running the fridge intermittently if you are dedicated to keeping the refrigerator going post-SHTF.
An arrangement like this might be the only way to survive for an intermediate duration if you rely on refrigerated medicine.
If you’ve already invested in your own off-grid power supply, you might as well use it, just understand that your refrigerator- no matter how big or small it is- will be the primary consumer of any power you create. Only you can decide if it is necessary or worth it.
Is the refrigerator an absolutely necessary part of modern life? When you get down to brass tacks, no it is not, no matter how much ice cream it holds.
It is in your best interest to learn how to live without one, because chances are you will be when dealing with a long-term crisis.
Even so, you need not give up having fresh produce on hand or cold storage for medicine if you know how to make use of improvised and primitive cooling techniques. Read over the information and procedures in this guide and you’ll be one step ahead when it’s time to chill out in an SHTF situation.