How Not to Freeze: Living Without Heat

Note: This is a revised version of an article I wrote for ye olde blogge about how to keep warm if you need to.

Despite the fact that I believe people should use a lot less energy, I am not proposing here that people in cold climates go cold turkey on supplemental heating ;-). This post is, instead, about *how to survive* if you find yourself without heating fuel in a cold climate. Why do you need to know this? Because it happens, and more often than you think. How could it happen? Well, you could live in a place that requires minimal supplemental heat, and have a sudden, unusual cold snap, as much of Florida just did. Or you could rely on electric lines that are down, and find yourself without a furnace. You could find yourself unable to pay your utility bill, and despite legal obstacles to shutting people off during winter, find yourself, as some people have, without heat. Or you could rely on propane and oil and simply have no money to fill your tank, as others do. Or existing gas lines could fail or be disrupted. Or your furnace could break in winter, and you could not be able to get a repairman for several days. The reality is that heating can fail for many reasons in both the short and the long term, and people end up cold.

It is important to remember, however, that cold can kill you - but barring total lack of shelter or certain medical conditions, most of us NEED NOT die of heat or cold. The truth is that most such deaths do not have to happen - and so we need to make the information that allows people to survive cold and heat much more widely available, or we will have more deaths and more suffering.

This information is also necessary because fear of cold, particularly, may lead us to do things that make us *less* able to survive in the long run - burning wood or other sources unsafely, and causing fires, or misusing gas and propane heaters, burning toxic substances like pressure treated wood or with inadequate ventilation, etc... Or it might lead us to prioritize short term comfort over long term survival, deforesting the northern US to keep warm for a few winters, and leaving our kids with an eroded, polluted, warmer world, or burning coal in personal stoves on a large scale. Our fear of heat and cold, and our mistaken impression that if we let things get colder we'll die can lead us actually to die - or make ourselves sick, or the world less habitable for the next generation.

This is going to focus on living without much in the way of supplemental heating or cooling - how to survive and function. In some climates, this may not even be a big deal. In other climates, you will not like this experience - but you need to know how to do it - period, just in case you ever need it.

Ok, starting with heating - the first thing you need is shelter - homelessness is deadly in the winter. Find some - this is why you need community so badly. Because if you lose your house, you and yours still need a place to live. If you don't have family, you need friends or roommates, or some way of finding a place to live, whether couch surfing or using existing safety nets including shelters. And if you are lucky enough to keep your house, I hope you'll be the one opening the doors - because it could go the other way too. I will do a post at some point on staying alive outside without a house, but honestly - do what you have to to get shelter!

Even the most crappily insulated houses in the US (and there are some truly appalling houses out there - the older parts of mine not wholly excluded) are far better in many cases than the shelters people survived with for millenia. I know I keep harping on this, but badly insulated is a relative thing - yes, more insulation would be good - and contacting your congressperson to get more funding (especially including *GRANTS* for low income families to reinsulate) put to insulation is essential - but it is worth remembering that the Lapps routinely dealt with -50+ temperatures in tents made of one layer of reindeer skin and heated only by body heat, and that when people began living in the US, winter temperatures were considerably colder than they are now, and windows were made of oilskin over holes in the house and houses were heated by a central fire pit. Human beings can manifestly live without central heating. I know you don't think you can, but you can. It is in your genes.

Let us imagine you are now living in a very cold place, and you cannot buy heating fuel - or it isn't available, and you are facing a long, cold winter. Assume that social support programs are overwhelmed or unavailable (these should be your first resort). What do you do?

Well, the first thing you do is feed yourself and your family well. This may seem secondary, but it isn't. If you have a choice between inadequate heat, and enough food to feed your family, dump the heat and buy more food. There's an ongoing crisis in the US of families whose food budget gets consumed by winter heating - their children lose weight and get sick from the cold, because they can't maintain their body heat, because they aren't getting enough calories and don't have enough body fat as insulation (this is one of those things where some is good, but more is not better, obviously). Food - and good healthy food - is essential - if you are going to live without heat, put what money you have to food. Now this won't help you in the most dire situations - and there's not much I can offer if you don't have food or heat, except that you should concentrate, if you can on getting food, rather than heat.

Next is heat yourself - this seems obvious, but I'm continually surprised by people who skip this step - or don't go about it thoroughly. You should be wearing warm clothing - and lots of it, in layers. If you are going to be going in and out of different temperature spaces, you want layered breathable fabrics if possible. Getting good clothing is far cheaper than heating your house - the same goes for blankets. Think lots of layers, insulation of extremities (multiple layers of warm socks, hats indoors, fingerless gloves, pulse warmers, leg warmers (yeah, yeah, I know it isn't the 80s, but they still have their place, especially if you wear skirts in the winter a lot - and personally, I find skirts over heavy tights or leggings warmer than pants and more comfortable).

If you have the skill set, you can make them - and if you can't afford yarn, get old wool sweaters from goodwill, and unravel them and use them for yarn. Here are some patterns:

Various warm knitted objects for hands and head:

Although traditionally, mittens have been the primary thrummed object, you could thrum fingerless gloves, hats, socks, etc... Thrumming is a good thing. Also useful - angora and alpaca, if you can afford or find them (or have a bunny or alpaca lying around your house) are very, very warm.

Crocheted socks (google around to find more relevant objects):

You also could sew them out of already felted (ie, shrunk in the wash) sweaters - I don't have a pattern for fingerless gloves made this way, but someone creative could adapt this mitten pattern. Certainly, leg warmers wouldn't be hard (and could probably use sleeves sewn together - be creative:

Layer your clothes - lots of them - long johns under tshirts under turtlenecks under flannel shirts, and throw a bathrobe over it (at our house, bathrobes aren't just for bed). For children, blanket sleepers are your friend. You can get them to very large sizes at lands end (boys 16) and to adult sizes here My kids sleep in bedrooms that have no direct heating, only ambient from the wood heat downstairs, and sleep comfortably blanke wearing long johns and socks with blanket sleepers over them. You could put sweatpants and sweatshirts over the blanket sleepers, if necessary. And the kids can stay in the sleepers all day long if you don't have to go out (so can the adults, for that matter).

Ok, once you've got so many clothes on you look like the Michelin Man, you next have deal with retaining heat - that's where the calories and hot beverages come in. That means you need some capacity to warm food. This means either keeping some traditional energy source (gas, electric, propane, oil) or burning some burnable that you can afford in a way that will warm your tea and your hands as well. Sterno or a kerosene stove, or even a hot burning candle (there are multi-wick emergency candles) will work, but these are short term solutions. What you probably want is a rocket stove:

Once you have a stove, you can probably heat enough water for hot water bottles, or warm up a hot stone, or some grains or beans in a bag, and either put these near your body (with a layer or two of cloth to prevent accidental burning - be careful with this when using it with children, especially curious children who open things easily), or in your bed to warm it. Elderly people and those who can't move much to keep warm will probably need a regular supply of hot water bottles, tea and other warming items to keep comfortable - or a warm body, a cat or several cats, a dog, or a human.

It is very important to understand hypothermia - most of the people who die of cold, besides the homeless are elderly or young or disabled. Hypothermia muddles your thinking - you can even start feeling warm and strip off your clothes. So it is important to move around, eat regularly, be checked on. Most of the people who die from either heat or cold in a sudden temperature shift die as much from isolation as for the temperatures themselves - had someone been there to help them adapt, they would have survived. If getting up and moving, eating and taking care of yourself is difficult for you, you may slow down, start feeling sleepy and warm and die in a very cold environment. The best preventative to this is other people being around - either neighbors checking in or family members living together. In addition, more people in the house means significantly more warmth. Animals also have a role here - the proverbial "3 dog night" is not just a band.

The next thing you need is a warm place to sleep - if you mostly keep moving when you get cold at home you'll be fine - but at night, when you are lying down, you need to be warmer. Again, good blankets aren't always cheap, but blankets are cheaper than heating oil. Check out goodwill, thrift shops, yard sales. You will need a lot of them. Space blankets are also a good insulator, layered between other cold things. Wear a hat while sleeping, warm pajamas and long johns. Down comforters are ideal - and even better are down sleeping bags designed for winter camping.

And again, other people are a huge help - sleep with someone. We live in a weird culture, where sharing a bed implies sexuality in a way that it didn't in most places, in most cultures. My four children sleep together in a bed (they have four beds, they just always end up together piled up like puppies in a heap) -we think of this as about poverty, but it is also about warmth, love and comfort. Very few people in the world sleep in their own rooms, in their own space, with no one. So find someone to sleep with - even if it is a pet.

If it is very cold, you can further insulate your sleeping area by making it smaller and tighter - one option is the classic four poster bed - build a frame around your bed, and hang heavy, warm curtains on all four sides, and over the top. Your body heat will warm the space around you. Or set up a tent in your house and sleep in there (kids think this is cool). Do NOT sleep in a tent in a room with a heat stove of any kind, and don't sleep in a tent you don't know how to get out of easily - that's a major fire hazard, and remember what I said about not doing short term things that will kill you . If you go the four-poster route, you'll want to wash the bedding regularly, especially if you have allergies.

I'll talk more about insulation in my next posts, but you can also insulate rooms by using heavy cloth for tapestries, plastic or bubble wrap over windows, window quilts - basically, you should think in terms of living in as small a space as possible, rather in a larger one. Again, think "what did my ancestors do in the winter" - and they mostly hung out together in the warmest spot. That spot will be warmer if you are all there together, and do any cooking there (if you have a indoor-safe cooking method - do not use camp stoves or rocket stoves in the house). Be careful of ventilation however - it is better to be colder and alive. I strongly recommend that everyone have a battery charged smoke and CO detector in any room they will have any kind of heater in, and that you either acquire solar battery chargers and rechargeable batteries and/or long life smoke detector batteries.

What else can you do? Spend some time if you can in a warmer public place - go to the library, visit friends, go shopping, if anyone has heat. There will probably be warming shelters in cold times - don't be ashamed to go to one. A short period of feeling comfortable makes a big difference. Keep up everyone's immune system by exercising, getting fresh air, eating well and taking care of yourself - the cold is quite tolerable when you are healthy, but tough when you are sick.

Know how to stay alive in a cold house - and how to make good and rational choices about keeping warm - it is essential knowledge.


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Excellent outline of the fundamentals.

I have a suggestion that has worked well when I lived in Montana and now in my unheated home.

For those who feel cold easily wearing a vapor barrier shirt with a knapped nylon surface against the skin retains heat very well and keeps body moisture from reducing insulative value of other layers over it.

I have given them to elderly persons and they have felt warmer instantly to their surprise and comfort.

I found them at a small family cottage business in New Hampshire over 20 years ago. The products are low cost [$25] and durable and comfortable like flannel pajamas.

Many people in my community are not prepared for this kind of weather.

I am a former South Floridian now living in New Hampshire. Up here we are prepared for below freezing weather, but down there we were definitely unprepared for frost (one morning we awoke to no hot water because the pipe from the solar hot water heater froze overnight). There hasn't been a significant freezing rain event here so far this year, so we are doing OK for now. But we have some other hazards to worry about:

-Extended loss of electric power: I live in town, so I'm not so worried about this, but out in the countryside you need to have a generator, a wood stove (most fuel-burning furnaces require electricity to operate), or both, properly installed so they don't kill you.

-Your fuel supplier going out of business: this happens every few years to some company (most recently last month), forcing hundreds of homeowners to scramble for a backup supplier of fuel they have already paid for.

-Not having proper clothing for the climate: around here, that includes waterproof boots

-Sweating: if it's cold enough, your sweat can freeze on your face.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

Another very important trick to not freezing is staying dry, and avoiding cloth such as cotton that holds in water for long periods of time. Outdoors this such pretty much be your primary concern in cold weather: getting wet can kill you as surely as taking off all your clothes.

I live on a ex-rural island in the Puget Sound. Power here is distributed above ground, routed along side heavily treed roads (used to be forest, is now development buffer zones). It snows only occasionally, but we also get wind storms that topple trees and large limbs onto the power lines. So power is out frequently enough and for long enough that, after our first 7 day outage and unable to drive our 2-wheel drive cars up our 1/4 mi driveway, we installed a 7 KW tri-fuel generator, a 250 gallon LP tank, and bought an Outback. We are extremely fortunate - we can afford to do this. Now the problem is remembering to keep the generator starter battery in shape. And yes, the setup has been used, several times, and boy is it good to not lose the freezer contents every time the power goes out!

I would add one little datum to the keeping self warm at night: down covers work best when a) nothing is between them and skin and b) they have room to expand. It is the air trapped in the feathers that provides the exceptional insulation. And only real down feathers work, for this reason. Artificial down does not. I have a 0 degree F rated down sleeping bag, and have used it several times in sub-freezing weather. I know for a fact that stripping completely and not putting a blanket over it, however unintuitive this sounded at first, does actually keep me warmer. The place that needs non-down insulation is underneath where my body weight compresses the down. So, padded mattress cover, down comforter, that is our solution. Works well. As does the pot-belly in the kitchen.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hats in house -- check. Layers -- check. Food and tea water simmering on top of woodstove -- check. Adding to insulation whenever we can -- check. Lotsa blankets -- check. Plastic on windows -- check.

One thing we do is keep gloves, socks, and and sock hats on the bed to change into (important in muddy country) when going to bed, and have a sheet over the nap couch -- same reason.

I have argued for the 4-poster but no luck yet. I also argue for letting the bath water lose its heat before draining but that's unpopular too. Well, one thing atta time.

I'm the night owl and I keep an old nylon sleeping bag handy to wrap around my legs when I'm Internetting. My "office" is in a secretary in the dining room where the stove lives, but with the bag/comforter is in use I don't have to keep feeding the fire. Those who gather most of their own heat tend to be stingy with the stuff! ;)

Living out of my car right now so have personal experience of the value of this advice. I would add a little bit onto it.

Insulate your head and feet particularly well (for opposite reasons). Two of my prized possessions right now are some inexpensive wool caps. It really is true about the head being a major heat sink in the cold. Something to wrap around the neck is also really valuable. The feet need to be insulated because they don't receive a lot of heat. I got myself some tent booties and love them with a passion.

I may be wrong on this, but I think it's important to be careful to change one's clothes often. Bundled up to the point of being spherical makes it tempting to cheat a bit and wear some items longer than usual. In addition to all the obvious problems and consequences (hygiene, smell, employment), we tend to give off a lot of moisture even under chilly conditions. This reduces the insulating power of the layers it soaks into.

Just my 2 cents, ymmv.

Wisdom from the ages: wear a wool layer. Wool is even still warm when it is wet (though obviously being dry is still better). Some fabrics that are specially designed for very cold weather might be better than wool but if you can't get these real wool is best (no fake plastic wools!)

By Katherine (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

Some interesting tips. As someone who's spent a fair amount of time homeless or semi-homeless (like this Winter), I'd add that everyone's situation and what they have available to them varies.

Knitting? Sewing? I live in a 35 year old beater RV in whatever grocery store or Walmart parking lot I'm parked in tonight. Even if it were warm enough for me to work with my hands like that, I find it's just easier to dig something out of the bargain bin. A fleece sleeping bag liner goes for $10. Tons of uses and way, way worth the cost.

I have a little propane heater but between cost and the fact that insulation is a foreign word to my little motorhome, I spend most of the winter sleeping at or even below the freezing mark.

As such, one big tip I'd add to your list: Most of your body heat is actually lost through the bottom, not the top of the bed. I have a fleece blanket in lieu of a mattress pad and mattress sheet on top of that as normal. That I've found is the deal breaker. Fleece reacts to body heat and warms up accordingly. The layers on top of me: Cotton sheet, fleece blanket, Mexican blanket, 40f sleeping bag (open) and comforter. I hate wearing clothes to bed and find that sleeping in the nude is warmer anyway; my limbs can soak body heat from each other. I wrap my pillow in a fleece hoodie so I can throw the hood over my head at night.

To give an idea of the effectiveness: It's not unusual to wake up in the morning to find the bottle of water I set next to my bed frozen solid. Yet bare-skinned in bed, I'm toasty as can be. Although having a cat or two crawl under the covers with me is a bit of an advantage as well. ;-)

As for daytime - you said it. Layers, layers, layers. And loose layers. Other than that first layer of tights or polypropylene, tight middle and top layers make things worse and uncomfortable. Must be able to move around.

- Mary
Page, AZ

By Mary Wood (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

Greetings from Saratoga County. Just adding to the mix. If you don't have footy pajamas, wear socks to bed -- you'll tend to feel warmer if your feet are warm.

Also, echoing Gray Gaffer on providing insulation underneath you in bed. I use an old, unzipped fiberfill sleeping bag right under the sheet.

For those who have wood or coal stoves with fairly large top surfaces, keeping a large, covered water container on top of the stove not only provides you with hot water, it also acts as a heat sink and radiator that will continue radiating some heat after the stove goes out at night.

And, of course, never underestimate the warmth and comfort of a hearty bowl of homemade soup.

Oh, for anyone who still has an operational fireplace, invest the modest dollars in a cast iron Dutch oven with feet. You may find that you even prefer certain soups and stews cooked over coals in the fireplace.

brings back memories ,raised in the 70s, living in a drafty turn of the century home with a fireplace in the living room the bedrooms were on their own. I slept with my brother and my sisters slept together in another room and before bedtime we all caught our favorite cat to sleep with us! though I did have ringworm or two............
guess thats why i won't sleep with pets now?

One trick I've taken from my old Boy Scout days is to sleep with my bathrobe with me under the covers so I've got something warm to wrap around me when I get up. Having a pair of flip-flops or slippers to insulate you from the cold floor is nice too if you don't have carpet.

When we would go snow camping we'd actually get the clothes we were going to be wearing the next day and stuff them in the sleeping bag with us so they'd be warmer the next morning.

I second the comments about animals keeping you warm at night. We had a major power outage in Toronto last February, and I can tell you that even without central heating, if you put two humans and two Basset Hound crosses in a small room overnight the room will be almost too warm in the morning. :)

I'll second Unistrut on the trick of stuffing tomorrow's clothes in bed with you. The shock of getting out of a warm bed into freezing air is aided when you immediately put on warm clothes.

Part of my quasi-homelessness means no cooking facilities. But every now and then, instead of a Walmart or grocery store parking lot I'll go park/camp on BLM land, which fortunately there's tons of around where I live. Besides having nice hot soup over a campfire, there are few things as brisk as 'showering' by dumping campfire-heated water on yourself in 30 degree weather. ;-)

By Mary Wood (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

If your house isn't heated, you have to drain the water pipes before the temperature drops below the freezing point or they will freeze and burst. For the same reason you also have to empty the bowl siphon in the water closet and replace the water with antifreeze to cut off the fumes from the sewer/septic tank (the siphon under the sink is plastic so it usually doesn't burst). And obviously you can't use the toilet, so get a bucket with a cover...

By hat_eater (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

Disclaimer I forgot to add: I realize the post is about not freezing and not a general guide to surviving without heating, but I added that for folks who like me might read it as such.

By hat_eater (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'll third the folks on the value of heating the portion of the bed under you in some way. Right now we have electricity, so we turn on heated mattress pads a couple of hours before bed and let that warm up the bed. I have trouble with circulation in my hands and feet (symptoms fit Raynaud's, but I haven't been diagnosed), and it often takes awhile for my feet to warm up enough for me to fall asleep after I go to bed even with the bed pre-warmed, so I leave the pad on until my feet warm up, then turn it off. I think a good non-electric solution would be to put a space blanket underneath me, though I'd have to experiment to see if I need to lie right on top of it, or if it could go under the sheet where the mattress pad is. We put a space blanket underneath us as insulation when we tent-camp.

My bed is set up with a wool blanket, down comforter, and cotton comforter, from the inside out. I'll check to see if it's warmer if I switch the place of the two comforters. I wear a pair of pajamas in bed in winter; have experimentally determined that sleeping without them in the winter isn't warm enough. (I sleep nude in the summer.)

This winter my DH and I dropped the thermostat to 55F most of the day, a 10 degree drop from the previous winter. We set it up to 60F from 5-10 p.m. and at 50F from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. when we are asleep. Both of us are retired, so we are actually living our normal lives at 55F during the day. Layers of clothes are key. Right now I am wearing thermal underwear; a mock turtleneck (cotton); a wool sweater; a fleece vest; and a very large fleece coat with hood, and I have the hood on. Fingerless gloves cover most of my hands and extend about halfway up my lower arms. Legs are covered by thermal underwear and heavy lined jeans. Feet are covered by silk sock liners, wool socks, and fleece bootie-style slippers that extend a few inches above my ankles. The only place I feel cold is in my fingers where they are not covered. Holding a warm drink, and making sure to wash my hands with nice warm water every time I wash my hands, allows me to go about my daily routine. Washing dishes also keeps my hands nice and warm. When I'm actually doing something physical in the house, I usually need to remove the fleece coat. If I'm grinding grain, I often end up removing the vest and sweater, too.

For sleeping in unheated rooms, in my experience, sleeping bags beat any kind of blanket. They'll insulate you better, and they aren't as heavy as a pile of blankets. If you have a sleeping bag for winter camping, that should be enough on its own. If you have something less fancy, you can put one blanket on top of it, and you should be good to go.

Claire -
I'm starting to think of you as my good twin (seeing as how I would have to be the evil twin ;-) ). I have the same issues with cold feet; I wear socks to bed and my DH makes a sweet gesture out of filling a hot water bottle for my feet every night.

We spent a couple weeks with the main living room mostly at 42-52 degrees, mostly involuntarily (long story) and brrrr, was that cold - it was nice though that when it warmed up to 55, suddenly it felt GREAT! Adjusting expectations works surprisingly fast.

Great postings.
One other aspect of the cold problem, reduce the space that you live in. Here in wintry England, I'm living on the Age pension with expensive gas supplies. SO, shift every essential thing into the tiny kitchen.
Primus pressure cooker for heating and cooking. It can burn in the gas oven ( with the door open ), to heat the room or bake some meal, or go onto the benchtop for boiling the kettle etc. Don't trust the Primus to burn unattended,check it. Look out for ventilation too. A door curtain keeps the warm air near the kitchen, and not spread all around the flat.

By David Burnett (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

Lots of good tips. Thank You All. I am saving for my retirement, so I don't have central heat or air. I do have a couple of ceramic heaters that do not use a ton of electricity that I use when I want to watch TV or take a shower. Other than that, I just tough it out with clothing.

I'm one of the "Wool People". There is nothing more insulating that woollen clothing. Wool socks are the most important item I own.

However, I'm also a "Polartec People." Polartec 200 blankets (3 of them) have now taken the place of my down comforter for any sleeping done above freezing. My down is vintage and it would cost me about $700 to replace it, as it is 600-power, so I was glad to find the Polartec blankets. They are not cheap, but they do work.

I told one person a very long time ago that I didn't use central heat or air and they could not believe it; thought I was a kook and drifted away. I don't tell anyone any more...but now you know! Remember, if you can see your breaath, you ARE STILL ALIVE!!!

By KittyAtlanta (not verified) on 15 Feb 2012 #permalink