Design & DIY

Disasters that can happen at the cottage over the winter

Photo by Hans Christiansson/Shutterstock

There’s no heart-sinking moment worse than going up to the cottage and discovering … disaster. Just like that, the anticipation of enjoying a little peace and quiet turns into a whirlwind of repairs, insurance claims, or worse. Winter can be nasty to your cottage, but proper preparation and maintenance can help you avoid some of the more common cold-weather disasters.

Branch falls

For a lot of cottagers, most of what’s appealing about escaping city life are the trees: majestic, sheltering, and filled with life, not to mention an endless source of kindling. Those trees closest to your cottage can turn into real home-wreckers, though, if they’re not taken care of.

Before any snow falls, have an arborist take a look at your property and assess whether any branches (or entire trees) need to come down. Even if the branches aren’t damaged, consider trimming ones that overhang the cottage—the less snow and ice that falls on your roof, the better. If you have hydro wires on your property, you’ll need to get someone to clear tree branches away from them as well—but that’s not a DIY job. Call someone who’s on contract with the local power company.

Animal invasions

Animals that don’t migrate are masters at finding shelter anywhere and everywhere that’s warmer than outside. Your shed, gazebo, hot tub enclosure, and cottage are all vulnerable—and once the animals are in, it’s hard to encourage them to leave.

If you’re closing up for the winter, board up screened windows on gazebos or sheds. Yes, it’s extra work, but it’s worth it to escape damage from squirrels and mice or larger animals like porcupines, who might chew through screens. Lock all your windows—it’s important not just from a security standpoint, but it will also make the seal between your window and the sash tighter, keeping out both cold air and critters.

Mice and small rodents like chipmunks can squeeze through holes no bigger than a nickel, so even if you’re not closing up completely, carefully inspect your buildings and fill any hole with steel wool. If your cottage doesn’t have a dug foundation, make sure the space underneath is clear of garbage, and scatter mothballs around support posts to discourage visitors.

Completely clear your kitchen of any food, including canned goods and other non-perishables. Wipe out your empty fridge with disinfectant to remove lingering food odours, unplug the fridge and freezer, and leave the door open a crack to prevent mildew build-up. Cover inside furniture with plastic sheets, and fill drawers with dryer sheets—both of which will discourage unwanted winter visitors.

Roof damage

During the freeze-thaw cycles of late winter and early spring, ice can melt off your roof, then re-freeze at your gutters, building up on the edge of the roof and creating ice dams. These block the flow of meltwater through the gutters, causing the water to back up and, often, find its way into the cottage. You can help prevent ice dams from forming by making sure your gutters are cleared of leaves and other debris before you close the cottage up for the winter. As well, make sure to fix any loose shingles or flashing to prevent any backed-up water from getting inside.

Keeping the entire roof the same temperature as the eaves as much as possible is the secret to preventing ice dams. Poor insulation can lead to hot spots on your roof, causing snow to melt, then freeze. Make sure your attic is well ventilated so it stays cool, and that the attic floor is insulated to prevent warm air from the cottage from rising up to the roof.

If the snowfall has been particularly heavy, consider paying someone to clear the snow off your roof in order to prevent damage once melting starts. If you want to remove the ice dam, clear it off with a blunt mallet—anything sharp could damage your shingles. Because this is precarious work, it’s usually best to hire an experienced roofer.

Burst pipes

Water left in pipes expands when it freezes, leading to backed-up water and burst pipes—especially in pipes that are exposed to the outdoor air, like lake intake pipes and water supply pipes in unheated areas of the cottage. Once spring thaw sets in, you’re left with water, water everywhere.

There are easy steps to take to prevent your pipes from freezing. Pipe insulation is easy to install—simply wrap it around your exposed pipes. If you won’t be using your cottage during the winter, shut off your main water line, then drain your pipes to make sure all the water is gone. Empty your toilet bowl and drain the hot water tank, then add non-toxic anti-freeze specifically designed for plumbing to the lines.

It’s a good idea to leave each tap open a small amount to allow the system to “breathe.”


A cottage in the winter is a prime target for thieves, especially in areas where there are lots of seasonal residents and very little year-round supervision. To avoid becoming a temptation, put away all outdoor furniture, including your barbecue, so that nothing is visible from your access road or driveway.

Ensure that all windows are locked, and pull your curtains so would-be thieves can’t see inside—although some experts suggest leaving them open a little so thieves can see there’s nothing to steal.

If you can, arrange to have a neighbour or a property maintenance company check on your cottage while you’re not there. Ask someone to plow your driveway periodically as well to make it look the building hasn’t been abandoned for the season.

Finally, leave nothing of value in the cottage. Take home stereos, computers and anything that might be appealing to someone who’s looking for a quick profit on stolen goods. Take pictures to make sure that everything is the way you left it once you return.


Limited access caused by snow, absent neighbours and fire services that may have a long way to travel mean that cottage fires can be not just damaging, but completely destructive.

If you have baseboard electric heaters, turn them off, as they’re a leading cause of winter cottage fires. If your cottage has central heating, turn it off or down to its lowest setting. Unplug all your appliances, and clear away fire hazards like old rags, piles of newspapers and other flammable items. Finally, clean out your fireplace, block the chimney and close the flue.

If you’re planning to use your cottage over the winter and you will be using electricity, have an electrician come in and inspect your wiring before the winter starts, especially if your cottage is older. Some systems get to the point where they can’t handle the extra load that heating, lighting and appliances require—and fire can be the result.

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