The winter storm rages outside, and the power grid goes down for an extended time. The temperature in your house or apartment is dropping, and the roads are impassable. If the power is down for just a day, you will probably be fine, but you will need to know what you can do to survive if days turn into weeks. Do you have the right things in your prepper supplies to survive an extended period of sub-zero temperatures indoors? Do you know what you need to do immediately to increase your odds of long term survival?
1- Move to One Room
If you are an urban dweller, when the power goes out, your heat probably goes out too. Thanks to insulation and objects around your apartment retaining heat, the temperature won’t drop to the outside temperature right away; however, you need to take precautions against losing your dwelling’s warmth and keeping the cold out. If you feel that the outage may go on for some time or after a major disaster happens and you know power won’t be back for a while, you will want to move to one room of the home, likely near the kitchen. In this way, if you cook, you will also be generating heat in your environment. The room you choose should not have vaulted ceilings and should be sealed off from places that do. Your home’s heat will race to the highest point in your home, so you will want to seal the loss of air at the tops of doors and doorways as well as at the bottom.
Immediately seal windows, cracks under doors, and doors to hallways and other rooms. Sealing off the room can be accomplished with blankets or towels, a tarp, but even plastic sheeting or garbage bags affixed with painter’s tape can hold back pockets of cold air and stop the flow out of warm air. Any covered windows with direct sunlight you will want to uncover during full sun hours, as the direct sunlight can significantly warm your room.
Likely, your windows are already closed, but make sure the doors to other rooms are closed as well. You want to slow the exchange of warm and cold air. The second law of thermodynamics is entropy. That is to say that the warm interior of your home will lose heat to the cold exterior until equilibrium is achieved. That equilibrium is the outside temperature because Mother Nature is always more powerful. To combat this, you want to leverage insulation and stop the points where cold and warm air is exchanging.
If you are near the kitchen, as we advise, you will want to put your faucet on at a drip. Flowing water, even at a slow rate, is less likely to freeze. If icicles start forming from the droplets, you will have a good indicator of how cold it is getting in your home. You may also consider placing a small candle under the long section of the faucet’s spout assembly. Water is precious, so make sure it is dripping into a container, and let that container be your reminder to stay hydrated.
2- Layer Up and Pull Out the Gear
Of course, pull out the clothes and layer up. You will want to slow the exchange of heat between your body and the exterior air. There are three main layers and three special considerations. Your base layer wicks away moisture and can be as light as silk or as breathable as cotton. Your mid-layer insulates and retains body heat. And your outer layer really protects you from the outside elements, but indoors it creates another barrier between you and the temperatures outside. The three special considerations are your head, hands, and feet. Make sure you have gloves on whenever possible. Double layer your socks. Wear a hat to help you retain heat. You lose ten percent of your body heat through your head, so make sure you have your head covered. Don’t wait to feel cold before you layer up.
You should also plan to move into the room your prepper supplies, food stores enough to last at least a week, water, camping supplies, and every blanket you own. Now might be the time to do your prepping inventory since you will have little else to do in a snow storm. As odd as it may sound, you should pitch your tent. Tents are designed to retain some heat within them. At the very least, they further slow the exchange between cold and warm air. If you are in your home, in your layers, in your tent, and your sleeping bag, it would have to get well below freezing in your apartment before you became at risk of hypothermia. Your tent can create a microclimate significantly warmer than the room it is in and tremendously warmer than the outdoors.
Emergency blankets are excellent reflectors of heat, so they reflect your own body’s heat back to you. Unfortunately, they leak out the sides and are difficult to wrap tightly around yourself. You can use them as great vapor locks on your windows. You can also cut a hole in the center and use tape on the sides to create a highly effective poncho for yourself.
3- Creating Warmth
If you cannot leave your apartment or home for over a week during and following a winter storm and a grid down situation, you will need to prioritize warmth. Your body is the most efficient heat generator, and we will cover that in a moment, but you will want to generate heat in your living space to combat the temperatures outside.
Even with the power out, you may still have natural gas flowing. You will need to use a match or lighter since electric starters will not be working. There are indoor safe propane heaters available. Even with these, though, and with all indoor flames of any kind, you should have water or fire extinguisher nearby, and you absolutely should have a carbon monoxide detector. Even the cleanest of fuels give off some carbon monoxide, and CO2 can build-up as well. When cooking or heating with open flames, even cracking a window a half-inch can bring in the fresh air and vent some of the carbon monoxides. Take this seriously as many people pass away annually due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
There are several options for heating and open flames. Not everyone has a fireplace. You may have seen the isopropyl alcohol-soaked toilet paper roll in a paint can. We would only suggest that if you are truly desperate, as the flames can be unruly and dangerous, even with the addition of rocks on top. A simpler option is several tea candles in a paint or coffee can. We like this method because you can easily store over a hundred tea candles in a paint can in your prepper supplies. Each tea candle will burn for about three hours, and you only need about six in the bottom of your paint can to create enough heat with which to cook. Hurricane or prayer candles can also be grouped to provide you a higher concentration of heat that will last much longer than the tea candles– an incredible three to four days. Inverting a flower pot with foil inside or placing a pot or pan above the flame will create a radiating heat source and increase the candles’ or tea lights’ warming effects. Even a can of Crisco or jar of tallow with a wick in it will provide you some light and heat enough to warm liquids.
You may also have cans of Sterno or Safe Heat in your camping or prepping supplies. You can pick up a case of twelve of these little cans for around twenty dollars. Again, while these give off significantly fewer harmful chemicals and gasses, any flame at all is going to give off carbon monoxide gasses, so you should remain aware of this and take precautions. These can provide up to six hours of heat sufficient enough with which to cook. Whatever your option or solution is, always give special consideration to any open flames within your house.
We often think we need a raging fire or a blasting furnace to raise a room’s temperature. That simply is not true. If your room is well sealed from the exchange of warm and cold air, even a few small flames can maintain or even slightly raise a small room’s internal temperature. Time, consistency, location, and spread are critical factors for raising a room’s temperature. That is how long the heat source is lasting, at what constant high temperature it is functioning, where it is positioned, and how much heat is radiant. None of these solutions will create a sauna in your home or make it feel like the tropics, but the key here is to lose as little heat as possible compared to the outside and to retain as much of the heat as you can. Any net gain in temperature is a plus.
Finally, when heating or cooking, try to keep these activities to the early part of the day if your resources are limited. You will sleep warmly in a tent and sleeping bag through the night, but you will feel the cold the most in the early hours.
4- Food, Exercise, & Health
Think of your heat source as also a source of light and cooking. You want to always have heated water on hand. A hot water bottle will retain and emit heat for hours. Tea, coffee, or any hot or warm liquid will warm you and lessen the degree to which your body has to work to generate its heat. Heat soup or chili, or Ramen to warm your home and feed your body’s furnace.
You will need to make sure you are eating enough to give your best heat generator your own body, what it needs to keep you warm. If you were on a vanity diet and not on a diet for health reasons, you need to postpone that now. Providing your body the fuel it needs to regulate body temperature is the most important thing now. Snacking on candy or carbohydrate-rich chips will have to be okay because these provide your body with easy fuels to burn. When it comes to your body temperature, you want to keep your body neither too hot nor too cold. As stable as you can keep your temperature, the better. If you have ever been so cold that you could say it was “in your bones,” what likely occurred was your body’s internal thermostat was shocked and triggered enough to kick into high gear. To regulate itself again took time, no matter how many hot baths you took afterward. Your internal temperature regulation is incredibly stable, but you need to make sure it doesn’t get shocked too far in any direction–either cold or hot.
If you are fortunate enough to have natural gas in the early days of an electrical grid-down, take advantage of the opportunity to bake cookies and loaves of bread. Try that homemade jerky recipe that will keep your oven on low for hours. Cooking will heat your house and provide you a source of carbohydrates. Don’t just cook the one loaf, either. You should cook two or three at a time. You could trade the bread with neighbors or eat it yourself. Once it has cooled, store it in a window sill, and it will keep for an extended period. As a heating source with your home sealed off pretty well, even a stovetop can warm a room. The oven is a radiant box of consistent heat. When you are finished cooking, crack the oven’s door and let the remaining heat flow into the room. You may not have the luxury of natural gas. If you live in an urban environment, a prolonged period of no electricity may cause the flow of natural gas to stop, so cook early and in abundance as soon as the power goes out.
Some light exercise, physical games, or anything to elevate the heart rate and body temperature will benefit you greatly. Twenty minutes of activity will elevate body temperature for up to an hour afterward. Light exercise will also clear your mind, keep you focused, and keep your mood high.
If the grid down situation lasts more than a week, the chances are very high that water flow will stop. Municipal sources will struggle with broken pipes, and many require electricity for pumping water. In apartments, your flow of hot water from the boilers in the basement could end as soon as day one. Flushing a toilet may not be possible, but you will still need to remove biological waste for health reasons. A bucket toilet and trash bags are an excellent method to do this. It’s worked for moms and children everywhere, from parking lots to campouts, so that it will work for you as well.
Eat, drink, exercise, and remove waste. Feed your brain with a good book or a game. If you live in a family, it is easier to entertain yourself. You may have a trusted neighbor friend you might want to welcome into your warm home for a short period. You will benefit from each other’s warmth and cheer.
If you live in a home, there are many other considerations we don’t cover in this blog, like draining your water heater and toilet tanks. We have focused on more of the urban dweller because even in the suburbs and exurbs, some people have their own propane tanks or solar sources for some electricity. Though we have focused more on the urban dweller, expand upon the basics, we provide here and do other research to develop an indoor cold weather survival plan of your own. Once you have a plan developed, take a weekend and shut your heat off. Give it a trial run and see what you may have overlooked, what worked well for you, and what you still need to do to be prepared. Just as you might chop wood for fires through the winter if you lived in the country, the urban dweller needs to prepare for extended periods of cold. Invest in plastic sheeting and painter’s tape. Purchase and store some tea candles, emergency candles, and cooking cans. Even a Kelly Kettle like what I carry on my website or a teapot and camping cooking system will benefit you greatly. Get a high quality insulated sleeping bag and emergency blankets, and don’t be afraid of pitching your tent indoor. If the power goes out and the temperature outside keeps dropping, you can insulate yourself and survive for as long as you have to.
As always, please stay safe out there.