Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Emergency Preparedness: Staying Warm Without Power

A while ago we started talking about Emergency Preparedness, with special attention to the needs of families.  Given recent events, this is a good time for another entry.

Previously we discussed preparing for the most common serious family emergency, which is a house fire.  Then we talked about having enough water in an emergency.

Now we are discussing the most common emergency most people will encounter, the power outage, and its implications for preparedness.

Previously, we discussed how to have light without power. Today, let's discuss staying warm without power.

Keeping Your Body Warm

Stay Dry

For areas that get significantly cold (even if only at night), staying warm during a power outage is a critical skill for survival.

Start with staying dry.  If you get wet, it's very difficult to stay warm or to get warm again. So stay inside if possible, and use tarps and good rain/snow gear to stay as dry as possible if you must be out. If you have to go out and might get wet, wear synthetic clothing or wool under your rain gear, as these help retain warmth when wet better than cotton clothing.

Change into dry clothing as soon as possible if you do get wet and cold.  If it's early in a power outage, take a warm shower when you get indoors. The water in your water heater will stay warm for a few hours and this is the quickest way to get warm if you are damp and chilled.  Dry off quickly and dress in warm dry clothing afterwards.

Utilize Layers

Next, wear layers. Trapping air in between several layers keeps you warm more efficiently than one heavy garment. Have a base layer that insulates well, then intermediate layers as appropriate, and an outer layer that is waterproof and windproof.  Add, subtract, or unzip layers as needed to adjust to changing conditions.

Layering is important for your extremities too.  For your feet, start with a thin sock next to your feet, then put multiple extra socks over top.  Wool is best.  If you are not a big wool fan, try hybrids like SmartWool or DarnTough socks, which are more comfortable on the skin than straight wool.

For hands, wear a thin inner glove first, and then a thicker/more waterproof outer layer.  Also wear a hat, because a lot of heat escapes through the head if it's not covered too.

Keep Your Insides Warm

Heat your body from the inside out by drinking warm liquids periodically.  Plan for a way to heat water without electricity so you can consume tea, hot chocolate, or soup.  Heat a bunch of water at once, then use a thermos to keep it warm so you don't have to keep using up fuel to boil water.

Keeping the body going under cold conditions takes a fair amount of calories, so be sure to keep eating or drinking plenty of warm, nutritious food.  Also be sure to stay well-hydrated.

Stay Active

Stay as active as you can under your circumstances.  Moving your body helps keep the blood flowing more efficiently, and keeps you warmer than sitting still.

Schedule periodic bouts of moving around if you are cooped up for a while.  Move enough to get warm, but not enough to sweat (so you won't lose body heat via evaporation).

Body Warmers

Chemical hand and body warmers can be a real comfort item in a power outage, especially for little ones, people who tend to be cold, or for anyone who has to go outdoors.  These stay viable on the shelf for quite a while, so don't be afraid to invest in a whole box.  (Store a few in your car too!)  These are especially helpful for extremities (like hands and feet) that are more difficult to keep warm than the rest of the body.

As an alternative, you can heat up water and put it in a hot water bottle for a low-tech body warmer. Or you can make like a pioneer and heat up a brick or dry rock in a fire, wrap it in a towel, and use it as a body warmer instead.

Keeping Your House Warm

Warm Rooms

In your house, try to keep one or two key rooms warm and focus only on heating this "Warm Room." Choose a room that has a bathroom nearby, that doesn't have large windows or uninsulated walls, and that can be closed off easily.

Close the doors to the rest of the house and bring the most important stuff into the Warm Rooms so you don't have to keep going in and out of the Cold Rooms.

If you can't close a door between rooms, hang a blanket over the doorway as best you can. Alternatively, you can use bedspreads, shower curtains, cardboard, or plywood to separate off the Warm Room.

Within your Warm Room, hang a blanket over windows. If you need the light, put a layer of plastic food wrap/shower curtain over the window instead.  Close the drapes or blinds at night. Stuff a towel under doors or window sashes to minimize drafts.  A blanket or towel hung on a wall that is exposed to the outside may also help reduce drafts.

Portable Heaters and Generators

Portable heaters can be useful in heating up a Warm Room, but great care must be taken with their use.  Before a power outage occurs, learn about portable heaters and how to use them safely.  Know which ones can be used indoors, what fuel is needed, how to store it responsibly, and how to refill the heater safely.

Many accidental fires happen during power outages because people get careless. Keep portable heaters at least three feet away from blankets, curtains, clothes, or other flammables.  Put it on a level, non-flammable surface.  Don't refill the heater while it's still warm.

Only use heaters designed for indoor use and never use an oven or camping stove/charcoal grill to heat your room because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. As a general precaution, always turn off a portable heater when you go to sleep or leave the room.

Portable generators can be useful to power portable electric heaters, but they should not be used indoors or even in a garage because they too can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.  Use them only outside, well away from open windows, and sheltered from the rain (they must be kept dry).

Really good carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors are an absolute requirement if you use portable heaters or portable generators.

Assign someone to Fire Watch duty at all times, even during sleep hours, to make sure nothing catches on fire and that there is enough oxygen in the room.  Keep a fire extinguisher in the Warm Room, just in case, and know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Portable generators and portable heaters can be great adjuncts to your preparedness plan, but they also cause many deaths and injuries each year.  Knowing how to use them safely is critical.

Micro-Climates for Sleep

For sleeping, remember the principle of trapping air between layers for improved insulation.  Use multiple layers, including a sleeping bag, a blanket, a quilt, or a comforter if you have one.  Don't forget layers for the area underneath you, as a cold floor will quickly steal away any heat you might be getting from multiple layers on top.

Create a room within a room for sleeping or for those most vulnerable to the cold.  Remember how rich people kept warm in drafty old castles ─ they used curtained beds to create an oasis of warmth, a "warmer room within a room" so to speak.  You want to do something similar.

To create your own oasis of warmth, set up a small camping tent in your warm room.  Fill it with sleeping bags, blankets and comforters.  When it's time to go to bed, zip up the tent to create a warmer micro-climate inside (leaving a gap to let some fresh air in).  You'll stay warmer than if you slept in the same situation without an enclosing tent. 

If you don't own a camping tent, have your kids help you make a fort.  Use chairs, tables, and other furniture to form a small enclosed area, then drape the furniture with blankets and quilts.  This is another way to create a warmer room within a warm room.

Huddle together with others, so your body heat can reinforce each other.  And don't forget to provide heat for your animals too!


Hypothermia can become a genuine medical emergency. Some people are more vulnerable to hypothermia than others.  If you have older family members or young children in the family, make sure they have extra protection against the cold.

Check on neighbors who might be vulnerable, like those with chronic medical conditions.  People with hypothyroidism, the elderly, those who take sedative-hypnotic drugs, and those who are drug/alcohol abusers may be particularly vulnerable to hypothermia.

Here is information about hypothermia from the CDC:
Causes of Hypothermia
  • Cold temperatures 
  • Improper clothing, shelter, or heating 
  • Wetness 
  • Fatigue, exhaustion 
  • Poor fluid intake (dehydration) 
  • Poor food intake 
  • Alcohol intake 
Helping Someone Who Is Hypothermic
  • As the body temperature decreases, the person will be less awake and aware and may be confused and disoriented. Because of this, even a mildly hypothermic person might not think to help himself/herself. 
  • Even someone who shows no signs of life should be brought quickly and carefully to a hospital or other medical facility. 
  • Do not rub or massage the skin. 
  • People who have severe hypothermia must be carefully rewarmed and their temperatures must be monitored. 
  • Do not use direct heat or hot water to warm the person. 
  • Give the person warm beverages to drink. 
  • Do not give the person alcohol or cigarettes. Blood flow needs to be improved, and these slow blood flow.
It is important to rewarm a hypothermic person properly:  
In a hypothermic person, cold blood is concentrated in the extremities. If these extremities are warmed too quickly, this cold blood will be released into the body's central core, possibly lowering the central core temperature to a fatal level. Use the following steps to raise the core temperature of a hypothermic person.
  • Get the person into dry clothing if their clothes are wet.
  • Put on additional clothing to warm the person's head and trunk, such as a hat and vest.
  • Wrap the person in a warm blanket and be sure their head and neck are covered. Do not cover their extremities.
  • Give them warm liquids to drink, but no alcohol, drugs or coffee.
  • Seek medical attention, if necessary.
  • Hypothermia can also develop in elderly people in a cool room with few, if any, warning signs.
Hypothermia can be a killer, and cold-related deaths happen every year during big storms.  Know the signs of hypothermia and be ready to prevent/treat it properly.


Most of the time a power outage is not a big deal.  It lasts a few hours and then it is over.

However, a long-lasting power outage or one that happens in extreme weather can be much more threatening.

If you live in an area that is prone to cold weather, then you need to plan how you will stay warm if an extended power outage occurs. How would you keep your family warm for days, a week, a month (or more) without power?

Think layered clothing, think staying dry, think about creating a Warm Room within your house, think about creating a Room Within a Room for sleeping, think about plans for safe alternative heating sources, and think about making plans for protecting those most vulnerable to cold-related problems.



Anonymous said...

It cannot be overstressed: If you are trying to stay warm without power, keep your exposure to the cold to a minimum. Every time you chill yourself, you have to spend energy warming your body again. This is why old-fashioned long underwear for adults had a button flap all the way across the back: the only part of your skin you actually had to expose to the air was the part that would touch the outhouse hole, chamber pot, or toilet down the (unheated) hall.

BTW, if you do have power and your hot water and room heat come from different sources, here's a tip for getting through a cold night without a furnace. Everybody huddle up in the bathroom. Fill the tub with scalding hot water and keep the door shut. Lay out bedrolls on the floor and you should be able to sleep comfortably all night. The next day, move the warm room to wherever you can cook, and drain the tub before the now-tepid water cools the bathroom instead of heating it. Hopefully your landlord will have called the furnace repair company by then.

Jenny Islander

Nerida said...

I think wool is the best fabric for keeping warm: it even keeps you warm when it's damp. It breathes, it wicks sweat away from your skin so you don't get clammy or start chafing (if you are being active) and doesn't retain odors.

I usually buy 100% wool blankets at thrift stores for $5-$10, look for sweaters in different weights at the same, and get wool underwear on eBay for pretty good prices. The soft merino underwear won't itch unless you are actually allergic to wool.

I have kept warm camping in below freezing temperatures wearing: a layer of wool underwear - liner socks, long johns, long-sleeved top; wool hiking socks; thick wool jersey pants; a light sweater under a medium sweater; leather gloves lined with wool and a wool hat and scarf.

I have also made excellent sleeping bags out of wool gabardine sandwiched with wool wadding! They are heavier than the polyester-filled ones so not great for hiking camping trips, but fine if you are taking the car somewhere. I always get incredibly sweaty and clammy in the poly sleeping bags, but the wool ones breathe nicely.

Unknown said...

The Kandle Heeter tm Candle Holder is a device that captures the thermal energy of a candle flame and converts it to Dry Radiant Space Heat. It is comprised of a steel and ceramic radiator assembly that is suspended above the candle flame on a steel frame. Made in America by Cottage Industry. More information here http://heatstick.com/_KanHeet01.htm The website also includes instructions on how to make one yourself.

Unknown said...

The Kandle Heeter tm Candle Holder is a steel and ceramic radiator assembly suspended over a candle flame on a steel frame. The radiator assembly captures and concentrates the thermal energy of the candle and converts it into Dry Radiant Space Heat. Main page http://heatstick.com/_KanHeet01.htm

Very useful when the power goes out, heat and light from the same device.

The BluBox tm Thermal Fan is a wall mounted device that, with the appropriate length of pipe, pumps the warm air from the ceiling down to the floor effectively recycling the warm air in a room. Especially effective with high ceilings, ceiling registers, and Single Point Heat Sources (wood/pellet stoves, floor furnaces, wall furnaces, etc.) Main Page http://heatstick.com/_Heat%20StkBluBox.htm

Both products Made in America by Cottage Industry.

Anonymous said...

I go camping a lot and so this kind of information is good. I'm glad that this article addressed staying active as a way to stay warm. It is important to have emergency power and heaters if it is available to you, but if not you just have to live off the elements. Thanks for the article. http://www.ppipowersystems.com