A cozy warm home in the freezing winter temperatures is not only inviting, but can literally save your life. What would you do if your electricity and natural gas were to be suddenly disrupted in the dead of winter?
We turned off our electricity in January so we could learn just how to survive a power outage in the dead of winter. How can you survive a power outage in the winter without freezing? These are important principles and preps that we learned that will keep you from freezing when the power goes out:
1. Stock easy-to-heat foods and beverages to warm you from the inside out.
2. Store a back-up heating device that is safe to use indoors and the fuel to power it.
3. Create micro-environments to retain heat.
4. Prepare your home in advance to be as energy efficient as possible to keep the heat in and the cold out.
5. Wear a hat, shoes or slippers and dress warmly in layers.
6. Stockpile blankets and warm clothing.
We learned that if our utilities failed in the freezing months of winter we would be cold, but we could absolutely survive. Join us as we share the valuable tips and tricks we learned for surviving winter in our home without electricity or natural gas.
Our Self-Inflicted Power Outage
We cannot effectively teach something we have not had hands on experience with. In keeping with that philosophy, our family agreed to turn off the electricity in the dead of winter for a self-inflicted frigid experience.
We have to admit that we cheated right up front. Our research project, our rules. We still had a working refrigerator, freezer and hot water. No other electricity was used, including lights.
At the time of the experiment we had four small children living at home the youngest of which was not quite two years old. We lived in a well-built two-story home with upgraded insulation and 2’ x 6’ walls.
We embarked on the first day of this adventure with a great deal of excitement. Our little research assistants thought this was going to be better than camping. We began to make all of the preparations we had researched, turned off the power, and started the game.
The family room was our designated living area as it had good access to the kitchen and could be isolated from the rest of the house. We isolated the room by hanging blankets in the hallway and stuffing rolled towels under the doorways.
A friend’s parents had survived the aftermath of the 1964 Great Alaskan 9.2 Earthquake without a heat source by setting up the family tent in the living room. We were amazed that by simply creating a micro-environment an entire family could survive freezing temperatures until repairs could be made. We were determined to test this theory during our own “power outage”.
Two little pup tents were set up in the center of the room, fitted with subzero sleeping bags and piles of blankets. One tent was for the twin girls and the other for the boys.
Extra blankets were piled on the master bed for Jonathan and me, because I refused to give up my own bed for the sake of an experiment. We all dressed a little bit warmer.
Flashlights, candles, glow sticks and lanterns were gathered and placed in strategic locations in preparation for use at nightfall. We made cardboard inserts for the windows and placed them between the glass and the blinds. The blinds were closed for added insulation and we were off on our grand adventure.
Meals were simple. Foods were cooked over a collapsible stove using canned heat for fuel.
Candles were used for light in the kitchen, which was a mistake. After several attempts by the children to light various items on fire with the flame from the candle, we gave up and used the battery powered lanterns and flashlights.
At bedtime, we dressed the children in sweats, gave each one a glow stick, and tucked them in sleeping bags inside their little tents. We went to bed in our queen sized bed, which was covered with a heavy stack of blankets. Jonathan and I slept comfortably snuggled together in our bed.
During the night, I suddenly awoke terrified that the little ones were going to freeze to death. I ran out into the family room sure that I had made a terrible mistake turning off the heat.
I frantically unzipped the first little tent and was struck in the face by a blast of warm air. The twins were sprawled on top of their sleeping bags all toasty warm.
Those cheap little pup tents had worked exactly as intended. The micro-environment they created was keeping the precious contents of the tent snuggly warm. This is an important principle to remember!
Cooking takes much longer when you are dependent on an alcohol stove to heat the water. Eventually scrambled eggs and hot cocoa filled up tummies and we proceeded through the day.
I was excited to take a hot shower to warm up. Remember … my rules … we still had hot water. I neglected to think it through well enough. After a delightful shower, I returned to the cold with a wet head and no blow dryer.
I dressed quickly, but could not stop shivering and was having difficulty thinking clearly. Soon I realized that I was in trouble. Hypothermia had entered the game. I needed a heat source quickly so I took the children across the street to a neighbor’s home and warmed up in front of a fireplace in a warm house.
I had a mild case of hypothermia. I knew better, but got careless and put myself in serious danger in my own home all for an incredibly delightful hot shower.
It is interesting to note that productivity ended with nightfall. The dark was depressing and I found it quite difficult to function. No television for entertainment, only games or reading by dim lights. Bedtime was a blessing and I allowed it to come early.
There was no showering for me on the third day. I was short-tempered and tired of the slow single can alcohol stove. I was much too cold to think about cooking outside. At this point, I honestly stopped caring about safety and used a portable butane stove to speed up breakfast. I am actually not a fan of using a butane stove to cook indoors due to the production of carbon monoxide and the need to ventilate.
By late afternoon, I decided that I had learned what I needed to know and it was time to abandon the experiment. I phoned Jonathan, who had been sitting in his heated office at work while I was freezing at home with the children.
Of course, Jonathan claims he turned off the heat in his office, but how cold can it get in the middle of a heated building? I proudly announced that I had suffered enough and expected a pat on the back for my valiant effort.
Instead of well-deserved praise, Jonathan told me to put on a hat. It was a good thing he was several miles away or he may not be alive today. After a considerable amount of venting, I resigned to “hat hair” and put on a hat. He was right, I was much warmer.
As a reward for mostly good behavior on the fourth day, today we got to experiment a little with heat sources. We had a gas log fireplace, which worked without electricity. It was nice to sit up against as it would warm our backs, but it did not affect the temperature in the room. Without the fan to move the air, the fireplace did very little good.
We tried the Mr. Buddy propane heater (U.L. Rated for indoor use), and I was finally one happy mama. I placed my new best friend on the kitchen table and, for the first time in days, I enjoyed playing games with the children.
To see our favorite devices for safe indoor heating check out our post Best Alternative Heat Sources to Use During a Power Outage.
I enjoyed my hot shower today with the Mr. Buddy propane heater on the bathroom counter. It heated the small bathroom nicely.
The house felt significantly colder today even though the outside temperature had increased.
Lessons Learned from Living Without Electricity
We learned valuable lessons from this experience. I had originally agreed to go for one week without electricity. It was much more difficult than I had imagined. My entire focus centered on trying to stay warm.
This was a self-imposed experiment and I decided to bail. Jonathan is a smart man and agreed to call it good. The cold had not brought out the best in me. As a result of these cold days, I determined that I would do everything in my power to prepare for an extended winter power outage.
We had intentionally avoided using alternative heat sources until the fourth day, because we wanted to see how cold the house would get and if we could survive. Here is what we learned:
You Can Survive!
You can survive the dead of winter in your home without electricity. I much prefer my spoiled fully-electrified life, but by implementing a few important principles you can make it through a winter without power. Advanced planning and preparation will make a significant difference in your comfort level.
Cold results in survival mode. Keeping warm becomes an all-consuming activity. Prepare in advance to simplify required activities during a crisis.
Light is Critical
Insulating the windows to reduce heat loss is important. Our mistake was that we covered the windows with cardboard, which made the house dark all day. Use something transparent, such as plastic sheeting or bubble wrap, to insulate while still allowing in the natural light.
Safe alternative sources of light are important. It takes a lot of lighting devices to accomplish what a single electrified light fixture can do.
Avoid Open Flame
Open flame is dangerous. Children are fascinated by open flames. Even after serious education and reminders curiosity wins out. Accidents happen quite easily and a house fire will make a bad situation much worse.
Store a supply of easy-to-prepare foods. Cold results in reduced productivity as much of your effort is channeled into getting or staying warm. Hot cocoa, hot apple cider, canned soups, hot cereals, and other warm foods are a life-saver for warming bodies from the inside out.
Be sure that you have a safe way to cook your food indoors without power. There was no way I was going to go outside to cook in zero degree weather when I didn’t have a place to warm up. Check out our post Safe Indoor Emergency Cooking Solutions to learn how to safely cook indoors during a power outage.
Prepare to Dress Warmly
Layers of loose lightweight clothing allow you to adjust to changing temperatures. Tight-fitting clothing can restrict your circulation and put you at greater risk for hypothermia and frostbite. Heavy coats and clothing may induce sweating which will wick the heat away from your body (refer to the section on the 5 ways you lose heat later in this post).
Keep your core warm and your entire body will stay warmer. We define the core as your head, torso, and half way down your thighs. When the body gets cold, natural defenses kick in constricting blood vessels in the skin to keep blood flowing to the vital organs.
Wear a hat! Wear a hat! Wear a hat! Yes, Jonathan was right and even today I am a little bit annoyed by that realization. Most heat is lost through the head and neck. Experts disagree on the exact percentage of heat lost through the head, but all agree that you feel warmer when your head and neck are covered.
Wear shoes, slippers or at least socks on your feet, even in the house. Make sure that footwear is loose and does not restrict blood flow. Toe warmers may be a nice addition, when available. Liner socks worn under a nice thick pair of socks will provide an additional layer to keep your feet warm.
Keep hands warm by wearing gloves or mittens. This can be a bit challenging when performing routine household duties. I found that while gloves were impractical, pockets were a fantastic place to warm my hands a bit between tasks.
Store Warm Clothing and Blankets
Store LOTS of blankets. Blankets may be used to cover windows, separate rooms, as well as for bedding. It requires many more blankets to stay warm without a heat source. We were scrambling to find enough blankets to meet our needs during our “power outage”.
After this experiment, we NEVER discard old blankets. Old blankets are boxed up and stored on a top shelf in the garage.
My Buddy Heater became my best friend during the final days of our power outage. It was comforting to have a safe, reliable heat source. It is important to only use heating devices that are rated for indoor use and to ventilate appropriately.
Check out our post Best Alternative Heat Sources to Use During a Power Outage to learn more about safe alternative heat sources to use when your electricity goes out.
Cold Induced Illness
Cold weather brings with it sickness. Exposure to cold can suppress the immune system. Viruses spread more readily in dry, chilly air. The elderly, infirm, and very young are especially susceptible to cold.
Preventable cold-weather illness include carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia, and frostbite, which can each lead to serious illness and death. The good news is that they are largely avoidable. The first step is to understand the illnesses themselves and the conditions which create them. Then take the necessary steps to prevent them from occurring.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide is a deadly byproduct of burning some fuels. Charcoal, gasoline, diesel, Coleman fuel (white gas), kerosene, natural gas, and wood all produce this deadly gas as a byproduct of combustion. It is possible for any flame to produce carbon monoxide if sufficient oxygen is not present for complete combustion. Always provide adequate ventilation.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas. It is known as the “silent killer” because people often have flu-like symptoms which are attributed to other causes. Symptoms include; dizziness, headache, weakness, nausea, impaired judgment, confusion, irritability, and flu-like symptoms. Carbon monoxide interferes with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the cells of the body. It may reach toxic levels in minutes or hours. Carbon monoxide replaces oxygen in the blood until suffocation occurs.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is preventable. Keep a working carbon monoxide detector with a digital readout and battery back-up in your home. Provide adequate ventilation when burning anything.
Learn about fuels and use them appropriately on our post How to Safely Store Fuel for Emergencies.
Hypothermia is a serious, life-threatening condition. The victim is usually is not aware of his own dangerous situation. Hypothermia occurs when core body temperature drops below 95 degrees F (35 degrees C) and the body is losing heat faster than it can produce it.
We usually associate hypothermia with the outdoors. Mild hypothermia can be developed indoors after prolonged exposure to cool temperatures. The elderly and infirm are at greater risk than the young and healthy.
Hypothermia may be a risk when the temperature in homes is less than 60 degrees F (15.5 C).
The first warning sign is shivering, then uncontrollable shivering, but when shivering stops, it is a sign that death is approaching.
Hypothermia can develop rapidly and progress quickly. The best protection is to recognize the threat and actively work to prevent it.
Put on a coat before you get cold. Stay out of wet and cold weather. Plan for ways to stay warm during cold weather without electricity. If you do not have the ability to stay warm in your home, where can you go to keep warm during a power outage?
Frostbite occurs when the skin and body tissues freeze just underneath the skin. When body parts are exposed to temperatures below freezing for too long, blood flow stops to the exposed area and body tissues are damaged. The nose, cheeks, ears, fingers, and toes are most often affected.
Frostnip is the first stage of frostbite. It will irritate the skin causing numbness, without resulting in permanent damage. Symptoms of frostbite include; a prickly feeling, numbness, burning, hard, waxy-looking skin, discolored skin (white, red, pale, grayish or yellow), and cold skin.
Frostbitten skin may be red, swollen, and painful when it warms up. Severely frostbitten skin may become blistered or turn black. Seek medical care as frostbite can lead to complications including; infection and nerve damage.
Avoid frostbite by wearing warm clothing which protects against windy, cold and wet weather. Dress in layers of loose clothing. It is important to avoid tight shoes, or clothing, which may restrict blood flow.
Completely cover your ears. Mittens provide better protection than gloves. Avoid drinking alcohol as it causes your body to lose heat quickly. Warm, sweet drinks, like hot cocoa, will help you stay warmer.
Principles of Heat Loss
Understanding how to prevent heat loss is critically important when you are trying to survive in your home during a power outage. I was freezing at a Friday night football game last week. I remembered these principles and wished I had planned ahead a bit better. Empower your family by taking time to teach them how avoid heat loss.
What are the primary ways that we lose heat? There are five primary sources of heat loss from your body:
Heat loss by touching or sitting on something cold is referred to as conduction. Avoid sitting or lying on a cold surface (ground, bench, rock, or anything cold) where heat is literally sucked out of your body and into the cold surface.
Sitting or sleeping on foam pads can significantly reduce heat loss due to conduction. Lying on a carpeted surface is warmer than the tile floor. Wear thick wool socks and shoes to keep the floor from sucking the heat from your body through your feet. Avoid direct contact with cold surfaces to reduce heat loss through conduction.
Convection is heat loss due to air movement. Think wind chill factor. It can be 30 degrees outside, but it may feel like it is only 15 degrees due to the wind pulling heat away from your body.
The best way to reduce heat loss through convection is to protect yourself from the wind. Seek shelter from the wind. Wear a wind-proof jacket or wrap up in a blanket to reduce heat loss due to convection.
Heat lost to the environment is called radiation. We are constantly losing heat as it radiates away from us.
Clothing keeps you warm by creating a barrier and insulating, which keeps the heat close to your body. Mylar blankets reflect up to 90 percent of body heat back. The best way to reduce heat loss due to radiation is to create a protective barrier such as clothing or blankets.
The little pup tents that we used to create a micro-environment to keep the children warm were effective because they captured the radiant heat and heat lost from respiration.
Heat is lost by simply breathing. Every time you exhale, you breathe out warm air. Inhaling replaces that lost warm air with cool air. Respirations decrease body temperature as well as dehydrate the body due to lost fluids.
Covering your mouth and nose with a loose scarf or mask can help reduce the amount of heat lost through respiration. Change the scarf frequently to control the buildup of moisture. Sheltering in a warmer environment increases the temperature of the air you breath in, reducing the net heat loss.
Evaporation carries away the heat along with the water. This heat loss is a form of conduction where water is the method of transport. Water is much more effective than air and conducting heat.
Have you ever tried to take a hot pan out of the oven with a wet cloth? Ouch! A dry cloth would not have burned you as quickly or at all. This is an illustration of the way water conducts heat during evaporation.
Perspiration encourages heat loss as water conducts heat much faster than dry air. Wet hair and clothing can be deadly. Staying dry is a critical component to retaining heat. Avoid sweating and change immediately if clothing becomes wet.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the various ways that heat is lost, use these principles to create an environment that will retain the precious heat that you have during a power outage. Knowledge is power!
Tips for Increasing Body Temperature
Body heat is produced by metabolizing the food we eat, the liquid we drink and by exercise. It can also be acquired from an external heat source such as a fire or another warm body. Let us review common sense ideas for staying warm.
Drink plenty of tepid water. You may not feel thirsty, but you need to drink between one half to one gallon every day. Store plenty of safe drinking water for emergencies.
Do not eat snow or drink ice water. Cold drinks will reduce your core temperature. Dehydration thickens your blood, placing you at an increased risk of hypothermia.
Increase Caloric Intake
Food is like the wood and kindling in a fire. Your body gains the energy to stay warm from the foods and beverages you consume. Eat foods high in protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Fats keep your thyroid and metabolism functioning properly and will help you stay warmer.
Warm foods will help you warm up from the inside out. Hot cereals, broth, soups, stews, chili, beans, hot cider, non-caffeinated teas and hot cocoa are great foods for a chilly environment.
Increase Activity Level
A healthy body is more tolerant of cold. Twenty minutes of exercise can warm you up, and keep you warm, well after you stop moving. Exercise increases blood flow to the extremities, preventing frostbite.
Avoid overheating by adjusting layers of clothing. Sweat can dampen your skin and clothes, which can quickly wick heat away from your body. Wet clothing is a dangerous enemy.
Dress for the Cold
Dress warmly from the start to reduce the need for heat production. Wearing layers of clothing enable you to adjust to changing temperatures safely.
Insulate from the environment. Think about the homeless man sleeping in the park when the ground is covered with snow. How does he survive? He stuffs newspapers or rags or anything available inside his coat to insulate him from outside temperatures.
Keep your head and neck covered. Wear a hat! Be sure to wear gloves or mittens and keep your feet covered.
Circulation is important. Avoid tight clothing that may inhibit good blood flow.
Humans were designed to be social beings. Our sense of well-being and happiness is increased as we interact positively with others.
Dust off the games, relax, and play together. Invite friends over to socialize. The laughter and fun will elevate the mood and result in increased body temperature from the interaction.
Positive interactions with others will shed new light on depressing aspects of the challenging situations and bless everyone with a new healthy perspective.
I had originally agreed to turn the power off for 1 week. After 4 days, I bailed because I could. We had entered this little experiment with a lot of “book” knowledge. Actually living the life and feeling the cold enabled us to determine what we really needed to do to be able to live without power.
I realized that I am not a nice person when I am constantly cold. We had not prepared as well as we thought, so we made some serious changes. We now own a beautiful wood burning cook stove which means that a winter power outage for us will just be a grand adventure. We have several ways to safely cook indoors in addition to that stove.
We invested in additional rechargeable solar powered lanterns and flashlights. That means we have renewable flameless light sources that do not require a stash of batteries.
Several boxes of blankets line the top shelf in our garage to help keep us warm. I stock up on warm clothes and gloves each year at the end-of-season clearance sales.
Our utilities are more fragile that you may think. It is worth spending the time and resources to learn exactly what you need and how you can stay warm when your power goes out in the winter.