How Not to Freeze: Life Without Heat

Sharon August 12th, 2008

There are a lot of people deeply worried about deaths from cold this winter - and the odds are good that some will happen.  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.  I will do a seperate post about surviving hot weather today or tomorrow.

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 - because I think this will be a new reality for many people this year.  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.  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. 

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.  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 unheated bedrooms, 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, 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.  If those things are 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 serve this purpose as well.  If things get really cold, those who farm might consider taking their livestock in with them - this was done routinely in cold places - you bring the goats (mine want to come in anyway ;-) ) or sheep or whatever in.  Most of us won’t love this idea, but it is better than freezing.

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 (by choice) -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 over window, 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.  Do 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.  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.


39 Responses to “How Not to Freeze: Life Without Heat”

  1. Fern says:

    I’m trying to sell the husband on hanging quilts or insulated drapes over the garage doors in the home office (which others might call a garage). He’s willing to let me try, but unconvinced that he’ll be happy.

    We will also need to insulate the ceiling in there. Last year at this time he estimated that buying insulation for that would cost $150 to $200, and I hate to think of what that has gone up to now.

    I do love my rocket stove, and have materials to make a few more if neighbors need them.

  2. MEA says:

    One thought which I don’t think Sharon touched on -

    Damp clothing won’t keep you warm while you sleep, and clothing next to your skin gets damp even if it doesn’t feel that way to you. That’s why people with one set of clothing used to sleep naked in Europe. It’s better to change your clothes at night and let your night clothes air in the day (and your day clothes air in night) when possible. It also cuts down on the possibility of lice if you leave your clothing in the cold. Oh, and don’t sleep in boots.

    MEA, who rather enjoys the bracing experienced of smashing the ice on the washstand

  3. Mrs. Greenhands says:

    Excellent post!

  4. Ailsa Ek says:

    I have one quibble with rocket stoves - they seem great for hot climates, but suboptimal for cold ones. No thermal mass, and all the heat goes out the business end for cooking? That’d make a great wok heater, but a real woodstove retains heat and radiates it more slowly. I’m planning to do a lot of slow cooking on the woodstove this winter and have us do most of our living in the library/basement where the woodstove is located.

  5. Fern says:

    A pure rocket stove is really just for cooking. You’d do a cob stove, with the same type of firebox, to retain and radiate heat for warming an indoor area, best if combined with zig-zag masonry venting.

    The directions you can download from has directions for both.


  6. P.Price says:

    I love that you mentioned sleep sharing in this particular context!

  7. Kelsie says:

    I second whoever mentioned sleeping naked! I learned this from several winter camping trips. I know in cowboy movies, you see those rugged men stripping down to their long johns and climbing into bed…but it just doesn’t work that way. That’s like wearing your coat in the house all day, and then going outside and expecting to stay warm. It doesn’t work…What DID work for me when I was camping in temps that were below freezing was:

    a). a GOOD quality (not from Wal Mart…) 30 degree mummy bag

    b). a thinsulate “sleep sack”

    I then stripped naked, got into the sleep sack, and got into my sleeping bag. After a few minutes of shivering, I warmed right up and slept like a baby, despite waking with ice in my hair. :) I actually also had mild hypothermia at the time (a 50 mile horseback ride in an ice storm with water INSIDE your waterproof boots will do that to you…), and I truly expected to wake up sick or dead, but I survived, and was warm, to boot.

    We’re renting a 100 year old house with NO insulation and god-awful leaky windows. We kept the house at 55 last winter (and still had a $300 gas bill…) and crowded around the fireplace day and night. The fireplace was kept burning with a steady supply of wood from the yard waste facility down the street. This year, we’re looking into a fireplace reflector, which is supposed to radiate up to 60 percent more heat back into the room. If anyone has experiences- either positive or negative-with fireplace reflectors, I’d love to hear…

    Also-blown-in insulation is a much cheaper option than the roll-out kind. A hole roughly the size of a cupcake is cut into the wall, and the insulation is then blown in. The hole is patched, painted over, and no one is the wiser. It only runs about $500 for a smaller home. I’m considering giving it a try once we’re out of this rental and we inevitably move into a 100 year old home of our own. :)

  8. MEA says:

    Couple more radom thoughts

    You will die in cold weather if you sleep on concrete — you need something — cardboard, newspaper, between you and it.

    With babies, older people, those with poor circulation or communication skills, or sensory issues, as well as checking to make sure they aren’t too cold, make sure that hot water bottles, etc. aren’t burning them.

  9. Sharon says:

    Ailsa, the next post up talks about rocket heating stoves - I’m talking about being able to cook when you simply can’t heat anything else up - for example, for urban folks living in a cold climate who can’t gather enough biomass to heat their house at all, but need to warm their tea and hot water.

    Good point about removing clothing - having two sets is nice, particularly if you are the sort of person who will have to get up and pee in the night - because walking naked to the toilet will give you hypothermia ;-) .


  10. Marnie says:

    I’ve always slept warmer naked ;-)
    If anyone needs it, I’ve got a tutorial for legwarmers from
    sweaters for kids, especially for babies, here:

    and mittens from felted sweaters here:

    also, you can search the craft websites:

    for quick and more complicated ways of making things to keep warm.

    if that gives even one person another pair of mittens at low cost, that would make me happy :-)

  11. Marnie says:

    oops, sorry, here’s that second link:

  12. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: How Not to Freeze: Life Without Heat says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » How Not to Freeze: Life Without Heat There are a lot of people deeply worried about deaths from cold this winter - and the odds are good that some will happen. 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. I will do a seperate post about surviving hot weather today or tomorrow. Casaubon’s Book: Heating and Insulation Options August 12th, 2008 [...]

  13. madison says:

    Fleece is warmer than cotton and will keep you drier. Don’t wear cotton if you can help it - it just holds onto moisture/sweat and makes you wet. That’s why denim jeans take forever to dry. Wool is best - wool sweaters can be purchased at Goodwill for $5 (now!). You can also felt them in a hot wash and hot dryer and make wool diaper covers - wash them in a bit of lanolin to waterproof (but not too much, or your babe will smell like a sheep, lol). REI sells child sized 100% wool socks, which can be hard to find.

    A handy thing for heating water is a kelly kettle - Lehmans has them, though they call them storm kettles - It uses small wood/twigs etc. This water could be used for tea/coffee, hot water bottles, solar showers etc.

  14. Fern says:

    Oh - THERMOS’s. Heating extra water once or twice a day is more efficient than heating water 3 or 4 times a day for warm drinks or hot water bottles (figuring you have to heat the pot before you heat the water). The extra heated water goes into a good thermos for use later. Being a geek married to a regular physicist I tested all the thermos’s I bought at garage sales. Some of them keep water over 90 degrees C for 24 hours. Others of them leak heat very quickly. Those can be used as hot water bottles, since at least they don’t leak liquids.

  15. teresa from hershey says:

    With regards to footy sleepers: you can often find them with damaged or missing foot bottoms. No one seems to know that you can replace the damaged foot! Carefully rip off the rubber bottom keeping all the seam margins intact; ie. don’t cut the foot part off. Use this as a pattern and trace the foot on newspaper and add another 1/2 inch all around. Cut the new foot bottoms out of left over upholstery fabric, heavy canvas, or denim. Turn the sleeper inside out and sew them back on with the 1/2 inch seam margin. Serge the seam if you can, trim and zigzag it if you can’t. You can also hand sew the pieces together but that takes much longer.

    Replacing the foot bottoms will make the entire sleeper last for years longer.

  16. Colleen says:

    I agree with MEA and Kelsie about sleeping naked. An ex and I survived a mid-atlantic winter in the unheated hayloft of a pony barn. A warm, filling meal several hours before bed was requisite. We used a bedroll made of layers of blankets (6-8+) and only wore our socks & hats to sleep. Clothes were pulled under the covers in the morning to be warmed by body heat before dressing. No shivering in damp clothes!

    This was before I knew about ‘heater or heated pillows’. See comments in Sharon’s ‘Thinking About Heating and Cooling Differently’ post. Here is a link to some DIY directions.,2025,DIY_13765_4414798,00.html

    Here is a link to the Sleeping Bag Project. They offer a silmple pattern for a portable quilt made from easily aquired materials meant to be handed out to the homeless.

    I stocked up on those 2/$1 stretchy gloves a couple of years ago when I found them half-off. (K-mart I think) I cut off the fingers of some & left others whole. I keep several pairs in the car, grab-n-go bags, pockets of coats & bathrobes (they aren’t just for bed or sick days at my house either but a standard indoor winter accessory : ), near front & back doors, etc. Plus more tucked away to replace those lost or given away. I even use a pair of fingerless ones to harvest blackberries this summer. They were thick enough to prevent mosquito bites but allowed me the dexterity to pick only the ripe ones.

    I also acquired a lidded faux-leather ottoman. With a pot of hot stew & some towels for insulation, I plan to try it out this winter as a haybox/hot seat.

    Finally, I hope to get in the practice of heating water in the solar oven on my sunny days off; when I am not using it for cooking.

    Thanks for the great ideas & resources everyone.

  17. Lynnet says:

    You can also make beautiful comforters from old felted wool sweaters. Cut into smallish rectangles, sew pieces together, and tack to a backing sheet of flannel.

  18. sealander says:

    Very topical, as it is still winter here in NZ. We live in an 80 year old wooden house, of a type that is very common here. Single glazed windows, lathe and plaster uninsulated walls. Usually we confine ourselves to the lounge heated by a logburner for most of the winter, with heavy drapes and draught excluders on the door. In any other room of the house it is cold enough you can generally see your breath misting most nights, unless you run a portable electric heater for several hours which gets expensive, as the cost of electricity has risen by around 10% every year. I keep plenty of bedding piled on the bed and wear multiple layers of clothing when outside the heated rooms. It’s tolerable but I am desperately waiting for spring by this time of year - we’ve had a record breaking wet winter, and the firewood supply has run out early due to spending a lot more wet weekends at home.

  19. Heather Gray says:

    Glad someone mentioned thermoses! We love our thermoses for having tea or whatever later in the day.

    Another source of insulating materials are any off-season clothing, beach towels, sheets (we have percale for warm weather and flannel for cold weather), fabric/yarn/fuzzy craft fibers, you may have. Bag the stuff and use it along the base of cold walls in winter or hot walls in summer (vice versa in Australia, of course). Or if you have something you can lean against the wall you can layer any extra fabric/sheets/curtains/blankets/etc. over them and get the wall insulation up higher to cover more of the wall.

  20. bloofer says:

    Here’s one solution to keeping warm without central heat: The Japanese kotatsu:

    Seems like almost anyone could find a way to rig up a kotatsu.

  21. bloofer says:

    One method I discovered-and that is touched on in the article-is putting heated stones into your bed. I have slept in an unheated bedroom for several years, but I like to heat several stones in the oven or on top of the wood stove and put them around my feet when I go to bed. You should probably wrap the stones in towels, so they don’t scorch the sheets or mattress, and wear socks to bed.

    When one of my daughters got her first apartment, she filled bottles with very hot water and put them into her bed.

    The comforting warmth around your feet is indescribable! It also seems to act as a sedative.

  22. Bill Harshaw says:

    “particularly if you have a lot of local geothermal energy” ???

    I’d ask you to doublecheck that, perhaps in Wikipedia-I think you’re confusing geothermal heating, as in Iceland, with geothermal heat pumps, which can be used almost anywhere.

  23. Trace Heating says:

    You guys should consider trace heating, look it up on google and get that fitted

  24. Fairy says:

    I got a grant from the federal government for $12,000 in financial aid, see how you can get one also at

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    Why bother walking to the toilet in the night? Keep a pee jar handy to the bed and use it if you need to pee in the night. Just make sure it either has a lid or is in a place where it can’t be tipped over! And yes, women can pee into a jar standing up, it just takes a bit of practice.

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