Disruptions in services during a disaster can be deadly to those who are not prepared for them. If the disaster occurs in winter, staying warm is likely the most urgent non-medical problem we may face.
Ten years ago, I watched a winter storm dump two feet of snow in my city which almost never gets snow. Tens of thousands filled the city shelters. Their all-electric homes had frozen when the power lines went down.
Even those with gas furnaces were without heat. Their thermostats quit, or their pilot lights turned themselves off when the furnace fans failed. Virtually the only people left at home were those with fireplaces or woodstoves.
With a little preparation and knowledge of cold weather survival techniques, they could have stayed home in safety, if not in comfort.
Stay dry and out of the wind. Water and moving air are the two fastest ways to carry heat energy away from the body. In a winter disaster, nothing is as important as getting into good shelter and staying there as much as possible.
You can survive for a month without food, for a week without water, but even hours without shelter can kill in severe cold. It’s often safer to stay in an unheated house than to go looking for better shelter.
Insulate the smallest volume unit. If you have only a small heat source, close your house down to one room, and insulate that room tightly. The absolute smallest unit of volume is your body and your body is an excellent heat source. Capture as much of its output as you can by staying under wraps. Two or more people together can create a lot of heat.
Conserve energy. You don’t know how long the emergency will last. Don’t heat the house one degree warmer than necessary. Reduce trips outside to a minimum. Every time you open the door, you throw away several hundred BTUs If your toilet is not working, keep a “honey bucket” with a tight-fitting lid inside the house.
Line your “honey bucket” with strong plastic bags. Tie off full ones and stack them outdoors to freeze. You can dispose of them later, when services resume, or bury them when the ground thaws.
Conserve your own energy, too. Plan for a minimum work schedule. You will tire quickly and fighting off the cold takes energy.
All furnaces and most gas or propane heaters depend on electric fans or thermostats. But even if you make your own electricity, disruption of services may affect your ability to provide heat.
Will you be able to refill your propane tank or buy generator fuel?
Plan ahead to keep your house livable in a cold weather disaster. Pick a room to heat. If you have a functioning heater, fireplace, or woodstove, that is the room where your entire family will live throughout the emergency.
If you have a portable heat source, weigh the following factors: the ideal room is protected from wind and air leaks, well-insulated, low-ceiling, small in area, on the top floor beneath an insulated ceiling, and it has good natural light.
You will never find this ideal room. In fact, some of these factors are mutually exclusive. Make the best compromise you can, then plan to make up for deficiencies. If the living room has a woodstove, but there’s a bad air leak under the door and lots of windows, you can make a fabric “door snake” and improvise storm windows.
For the door snake, cut a piece of sturdy fabric four inches wide and two or three inches longer than the door’s width. Sew it lengthwise into a tube, sew one end closed, and turn it right side out. Fill the snake with dry sand and sew the other end closed by hand. Place it against the door to stop drafts. You’ll have to replace it every time someone opens the door, but it will save an amazing amount of heat.
For the improvised storm windows, cut plastic sheeting three or four inches bigger than you need, roll the edges, and staple to the wall with a staple gun. Stretch the plastic tight, leaving a 3/8-inch gap between the glass and the plastic. A larger gap will allow air to circulate between them, transferring heat out of the house by convection.
Using space heaters
Lay in a supply of good, dry oak, maple, ash, or other hardwood for emergencies, plus some lighter woods for kindling. Be sure to have an extra axe handle in case yours breaks. With a good woodstove and plenty of wood, you’ll have no warmth problems for your home.
Fireplaces are notoriously inefficient as room heaters. Most of their heat goes up the chimney, carrying warm house air with it. The rising air draws in cold air from outside the house. It may be warm right in front of the fire, but the total amount of heat in the house is reduced.
There’s a fairly simple fix for this: install an air pipe from the outdoors, directly under the fire. Cold air is then drawn from the outdoors directly into the fireplace, where the fire heats it.
Some heated air goes up the chimney, and some goes into the room, for a net gain in heat. It works pretty well, but it has to be done before the cold weather disaster strikes.
Kerosene space heater
Kerosene space heaters work much better than fireplaces. They are cheap, portable, fuel-efficient, and easy to store. Discount stores sell them for less than $200. Even a small one will heat a 16 by 20 foot room for a gallon a day or less.
Kerosene will keep for years if you just add an algae inhibitor, and it is not explosive. Good quality kerosene costs three to five dollars a gallon or more, so it is a bit pricey for the long haul.
If you don’t have a woodstove or fireplace in a downstairs room, your best bet to stay warm may be an upstairs bedroom. Upstairs rooms are much better insulated than ground floor rooms.
Heat rises, so the most important side of any room to insulate is the ceiling. Nobody insulates between the floors, but upstairs rooms usually have lots of insulation in the ceiling or attic. When the disaster strikes, it wouldn’t hurt to move extra insulation from above other parts of the house to the area directly above your chosen room.
Bedrooms rarely have more window area than is absolutely necessary, seldom have leaky exterior doors, and are usually carpeted—another source of insulation from the cold air below. If your house is already pretty tight, and you have another source of light, you may be able to make an upstairs bedroom really cozy by insulating over the windows.
An inch or two of foam insulation, cut to fit the inside of each window opening, can work wonders. Use duct tape to seal any cracks. Even ordinary, fiberglass batting will help a great deal. You can remove some of the insulation during the day for light.
Don’t run any space heater with open flames in a tightly insulated room without adequate ventilation. At night, you can button up tight with the heater off. Just snuggle up with another warm body under blankets, or climb into a good sleeping bag such as an old Army down-filled bag.
In the day time, people going in and out of the room provide adequate ventilation. If it starts to feel stuffy, pull the door snake away from the door, or even briefly open it a crack. Moderate, controlled ventilation causes much less heat loss than a small, uncontrolled leak that continues around the clock.
You will feel much more comfortable if you can eat at least one hot meal per day, or at least drink a hot drink in the morning. Contrary to manufacturers’ instructions, you can safely use a propane camp stove or barbeque indoors.
Millions of homes already have natural gas stoves and ovens that run on the same principle as propane campstoves and barbeque grills.
The actual danger is that propane is heavier than air, so it can collect in basements, where furnace or water heater pilot lights can ignite it. If you have a propane leak, you will smell it.
If you suspect one, brush a solution of one part water to one part detergent on all connections and joints. Even tiny leaks will blow lots of bubbles.
A small amount of propane will dissipate harmlessly in the air. The real danger is from a leaking tank that does not shut off completely. Store your propane tank out of doors when not in use to avoid these problems.
You and your family are not the only things in your houses that need to keep warm. Pipes will freeze and burst unless you leave the water running. Moving water resists freezing at temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Adjust every faucet to provide a constant, steady drip.
Set “one control” faucets to provide a mix of hot and cold water to prevent the hot water pipes from freezing too. Adjust toilet float valves so the water level is above the top of the overflow tube.
Disconnect washing machine hoses at the machine end, and let them drip directly into the drain. Do the same thing with the refrigerator ice maker or any other machine directly connected to water pipes.
Check faucets a couple of times a day to make sure they are still dripping. If they are not, or if temperatures are in the low twenties, you may want to turn off the water service to your house and drain all the water lines. Fill the biggest containers you’ve got with drinking water first.
Drain pipes can freeze too. This can be a worse problem than frozen water pipes, as they are often embedded in concrete and very hard to replace.
Pour automotive antifreeze into floor drains, toilets, and sink or tub traps. Pour in enough pure antifreeze to completely fill the trap. The dripping faucets will dilute it.
Use the recommended dilution chart on the antifreeze container for any drains that will not be used. Any drain that is being used regularly, such as a toilet, will need to be topped off with antifreeze after each use. Where water is dripping into drains, refill with antifreeze daily.
A word of advice about using antifreeze
Do not use antifreeze where there is any possibility that someone may drink the water, even years later. For example, do not add antifreeze to a water heater tank. Even if you drain it later and wash it out, it can still contain enough residual poison to kill someone.
Depending on your plumbing system, it may be possible to shut off the water heater, then drain it. Use a hose to run the water into a floor drain or outside. Leave the drain at the bottom of the water heater open, with the hose attached, then open the supply valve just enough to drip water into the heater tank.
Excessive snow loads can collapse a roof, though most winter storms are not likely to destroy houses. But other disasters can still occur in winter, including fires, floods, earthquakes, toxic spills, and acts of war or terrorism.
If your house is in danger of collapse, has already been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, or if you are caught in transit, you will need to seek other shelter quickly.
Permanent buildings usually offer better shelter from the elements than tents, and are safer to heat, but can be very hard to insulate. Consider erecting a tent inside a garage or shed. Seal overhead doors with duct tape, and improvise insulation from loose hay or straw, crumpled up newspapers or rags, etc.
Baled hay or straw is good for building a quick, temporary shelter, but has a lower R-value than loose hay. A hay bale igloo can keep you plenty warm. Build up the floor of the igloo with bales, covered with a tarp, blanket, sheets of plywood or drywall, etc.
Leave a crawl hole in the floor for the entrance. Cold air sinks, so you can keep your entrance open for light and ventilation, if it’s lower than the floor.
Stuff loose hay between bales, and cover the igloo with plastic tarps, to keep out wind and water. Then bury the whole thing in snow. Snow makes a very good insulator. If you’ve got enough bales, make double walls and dump loose hay between them.
Don’t bother providing for fires or heaters. Your own body heat will keep you warm, and you don’t want to build a fire in the center of a tinderbox.
For light, improvise a lamp from a car taillight bulb, some wire, and an automotive battery. You can use electricians’ tape, or even duct tape, to connect the wires to the bulb and the battery terminals, but hose clamps work better.
Such an improvised lamp with a fully-charged battery should be good for a hundred hours of illumination or more.
Stretch your time by using flashlights briefly at night, with the “main” light off. Keep the battery inside the igloo with you. Just like you, batteries lose energy when they get cold.
What if a disaster or emergency renders the whole area uninhabitable, or you get stuck in a blizzard?
Your car can provide temporary shelter. It’s best not to run the engine for heat at all, if you have warm clothes and blankets in the car and there’s any chance you could have knocked part of the exhaust system loose. Running the engine could fill the car with deadly carbon monoxide. You’d never even know it.
If there is more than one person in the car, huddle together for warmth. One “space blanket” can keep two people warm enough to survive this way. If you absolutely must run the engine for heat, run it just long enough to warm up the car, then shut it off. There won’t be enough gas to run it all night anyway.
You might as well conserve gas and minimize the carbon monoxide danger, too. Don’t play the radio more than a few minutes when the engine is not running. You want to be able to start the motor after the blizzard quits.
Melt snow to drink by putting it in a cup or other container inside the car. Eating snow will make you lose precious body heat. You’ll do much better if you have some hard candy or other source of energy on hand.
Beef jerky is not good for winter survival. It makes you thirsty. Even if you have plenty of water handy, you will have to pee a lot, losing body heat in the process. If you don’t have food, plan to sleep a lot.
Eskimos have a saying, “Sleep is food.” The more you sleep, the less food you’ll need.
The worst danger in winter survival camping is not snow, but wind. Snow is actually a pretty good insulator. Stay inside the car and out of the wind as much as possible. Nevertheless, you do not want to get buried.
Preserve air circulation by checking every two or three hours, to make sure you are not completely covered, and can get the door open. Let someone know where you are. If you have a cell phone, call 911. If you do get buried, at least they will know where to look.
You may have to abandon your car. Do not depend on your car for shelter. Be sure any tents, sleeping bags, and other emergency equipment in your car are easily portable.
If you are caught in the open in cold weather with no “real” shelter available, you have a true emergency. Two cardinal rules apply: stay dry and out of the wind. Use any available shelter from the wind—rocks, trees, etc.
Cut or break branches from brush and trees to make an emergency “wikiup,” or crude shelter. Pile up brush to create a sleeping platform or mattress, to keep you off the cold ground. Insulate a wikiup with leaves, snow, clay, or dirt—the thicker the better. Keep door openings small and low.
Sleeping in unsupported snow caves is dangerous. If the snow collapses, you could be buried alive. It’s better to build an igloo. Do like the Eskimos.
They are able to recognize seventeen different kinds of snow; only one is considered right for igloos. It’s the hard, stiff kind that doesn’t compress easily. If the snow is not hard enough to walk on without snow shoes, it’s not the right kind.
Dig a five foot diameter pit in the snow, down to within two feet of the ground. Carve out blocks of snow with your shovel, and stack them in a circle on the edge of the pit. Lay each course of blocks in a slightly smaller circle than the last, and tipping each course further inward.
The last block, or “keystone”, must be slightly tapered, and cut to fit exactly. Dig the entrance tunnel under the wall. Excavate the floor, inside the entrance, so it’s possible to crawl in and out.
Fill cracks and smooth the igloo, inside and out, with handpacked snow. A candle or small lamp will be adequate for light, and its heat will help pack and smooth the inside walls and ceiling.
If you are not an experienced snowbuilder, or the temperature is not cold enough to prevent melting, it’s best to avoid igloos altogether. Instead, build walls of hard-packed snow, with brush or wood “rafters” to support a packed-snow roof. Not as elegant as a real igloo, but a whole lot safer than a badly built igloo.
For most of us who live in cold weather climates, keeping warm in good shelter, without a functioning furnace, may simply mean dressing indoors the way we would normally dress outdoors. Because there is no wind indoors, it may even be simpler.
A couple of sweaters can keep you quite warm, out of the wind and wet. I had a neighbor in eastern Washington State, where the winters are quite cold, who never heated his house at all. He had no pipes to freeze, so he and his family just wore lots of sweaters.
The basic principles of dressing for cold weather are dressing in layers, keeping out wind and water, and fitness for intended use. Wear thermal underwear indoors and out. When doing the laundry is difficult or impossible, wear regular underwear beneath the long johns to keep them clean longer.
Keep the layers loose. Still air is the best insulator. Thermals covered by pajamas and/or sweats make a comfortable indoor combination. Wool or flannel shirts, plus sweaters and sweat shirts, will keep you toasty warm in all but the most bitter weather.
Layering also provides different levels of insulation for different activities. If you frequently change from sedentary to active roles, dress for the most active, and cover up with a robe or blanket when inactive.
Exercise can certainly keep you warm, but don’t work up a sweat. Sweating is supposed to cool the body, and it works all too well in cold weather. Exercise also uses up energy, which must be replaced with food. The best foods for cold weather are hot and high in fats and sugars.
American Red Cross Disaster Services recommends hot coffee (not decaf) brewed strong, with plenty of sugar and cream. Caffeine helps the body release stored energy, while sugar and cream are good energy sources themselves.
Unfortunately, most strong coffee contains acid. This stimulates increased urination, causing loss of water and body heat. Low acid coffee is best, if you can find some that is not also low in caffeine.
Do not use alcoholic beverages in cold weather. They may make you feel warmer, but at the expense of diminished circulation in the extremities, where you need it the most.
Retire early. There’s not much to do after dark in the cold, so you might as well be sleeping. Bedtime can be the best time of the day, with storytelling by Mom and Dad. Children should never sleep alone in cold emergencies. Another warm body can make a bed really comfy.
If you have a stove or fireplace, heat bricks up just before bedtime, wrap them in a towel to prevent burns, and place in the foot of the bed, to keep little feet warm. It works for big feet, too.
Don’t put on too many clothes in bed. Loose, cotton pajamas or nightgowns are about perfect. Many campers have learned that it’s warmer to sleep nearly naked than with lots of layers of clothing, if you have plenty of warm bedding. I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation for this, but have verified it many times.
This article was submitted by Andrew Fallick.
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