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Staying Warm During Bitter Cold & Windchill

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: July 4, 2019
Staying Warm During Bitter Cold & Windchill

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Staying warm during the bitter cold takes some planning. There are plenty of people that survived with very basic means in very cold places. Luckily we have some more convenient options.  This winter is starting to look like it will be a cold one in my area, so I have been thinking about how to stay warm, especially during an emergency situation. All too often bitter cold comes with snow and ice storms too. Bitter cold is easier to handle as long as you have electricity.

A lot of gas or propane heaters do not work at all or at least work less efficiently when the power is out. Oil heaters may not function either. My Dad has one of the older Monitor heaters, and it requires power to use even though it is oil.


One of the preps I have started putting back recently is a few inexpensive fleece blankets. You can get a dozen for pretty cheap, or you may find that you can get good ones a few at a time at your local grocery store. Of course, you may want some nicer blankets to stay cozy too. The post I link to below has a lot of options in a wide price range.

Best Wool Blankets For Survival and Emergencies

Classic Mylar Emergency Blankets

These are so inexpensive and useful that every prepper should have a dozen or two. Emergency blankets can be used for signaling or as reflectors for lights too.

Hand warmers

There are many types of hand warmers. The disposable kind is nice but they only last for 8 hours. You can get Zippo hand warmers that take lighter fluid so you can keep them going for as long as you have fuel.

Consolidate into fewer rooms

A smaller space is easier to keep warm. While you naturally don’t want pipes and plumbing to freeze, you can keep some rooms quite cold and heat a few rooms nicely if needed. Sealing off rooms to a large degree can be helpful.

Draft guards

Placing anything under your door to block drafts is a good idea. Any drafts around window seals and other areas of your house may be able to be sealed with spray foam insulation. Of course, you need to be careful not to seal a house up so well that oxygen is an issue. Some heaters can deplete oxygen levels too.

Layer your clothing but be smart about it

Dress in many layers but be sure you can move around well. If you are dry, then cotton is comfy and okay for some clothing, but if you have to go outside, you need to make sure you don’t get wet and not be able to get dry and warm.

Winter Clothing Preparation For The Whole Family

Best Clothing To Have On Hand For SHTF

Use multiple heat sources

While I live in the Southern United States, we still have several sources of heat. We could stay warm enough to make it with just the woodstove, but it would be cold in our front room, and the fire would require constant attention. When temps start getting in the 20s here, we make sure to have our electric furnace set to come on at around a 60-degree indoor temperature. My husband and I enjoy this luxury after years spent using just a wood stove in the house. It is not the easiest thing to get up 3 times a night to put wood on the fire.

On the rare occasion we both slept through the whole night, we would wake up to a cold house that was hard to get back up to a livable temperature. We are not people that feel they need an 80-degree temperature inside but waking up to 50 F, and 20F outside is no fun. Some of you may remember me mentioning that when we lived in our camper, we had to use a single space heater and the gas oven to stay warm. We spent two winters in that camper, and it got below zero more than once. We just put on layers and enjoyed 50-60F when we could get it that warm.

I firmly believe that everyone needs a source of heat that does not rely on electricity during an emergency. Wood is the most common in my area, but anything is better than just relying on the power grid during an event.

You might consider taking a look at my post on back up heating methods.

Cuddling is better than freezing

Don’t sleep in separate beds

I realize plenty of couples have separate bedrooms for various reasons, but if bitter cold and lack of heat become an issue, it is going to be a lot easier to stay warm in a bed that has double the body heat or more. Even if two people don’t cuddle at all, the bed will be warmer, and you can double the blankets if you pull them off one bed and consolidate into one.

Kids can consolidate together too if needed or at least share a bedroom so you can concentrate on heating less space.

Don’t let your house get too cold to start off

Once a house cools down it can take longer than you might think to heat all that mass up again.

One time Matt and I were having one of our in-depth house talks and we added up a rough estimate of what our house weighs. I think we came up with something like over 50000 lbs before we put any furniture or our stuff in it. Our house is made of dense stuff. We used a lot of wood and concrete. One thing we noticed was that those times when we let the house get down to 50 degrees inside, it took a long time to get it back to 68. The fact is that a large mass takes a long time to warm thoroughly after it has set at a cool temperature for very long. This means you are setting in the cold for longer than you want to be.

Some house designs are made specifically with sleeping upstairs in mind

The old cabin designs of the mountain folk in Western North Carolina were well thought out. The loft was where everyone slept if they did not sleep close to the fireplace. With multiple people in a smaller loft and the way heat rises, even if temperatures got lower in the first floor, it was cozy upstairs. When you build a design like this with modern building materials and heating units such as new and well-designed woodstoves instead of fireplaces and additional back up the heat you get into a situation where the loft can get too hot. Matt put in a blower fan to help with circulation, but with modern insulation and an old-fashioned house design, we have found it a challenge to regulate the temperatures throughout our home. What you need to realize is that if you have an upstairs area, it may be substantially warmer naturally than downstairs.

Avoid outdoor activities whenever you can

Plan your trips outside and wear appropriate protection for your face and hands. Breathe through a face mask or scarf to protect your lungs and respiratory tract from extreme cold.

Exercise inside

Movement warms you up. You can do a lot of different exercises inside. Even jumping jacks are going to keep you warmer. I also find if I move around some in the winter I feel better. It can be hard to get enough exercise during the winter.

Eat well

Surviving very cold weather and conditions is easier if you eat a lot. Now is not the time to work on your diet. If you have a lot of food, then allow yourself extra portions. High-fat foods really help. Years ago there was an article that caught my husband’s attention. People that were stationed in Antartica said it seemed like the only way to really warm up was to eat an entire stick of butter.

Drink hot beverages and eat soup

Anything you drink or eat that is hot will help maintain or warm up your core temperature. Even just hot water is better than room temperature. Hot cocoa, tea, coffee, etc are all good choices. Hot punches made with water and juice are an option for kids

Be sure to look out for real signs of hypothermia

For more information on the signs and ways to treat hypothermia, please take a look at my previous post. Treating and preventing hypothermia

Make sure clothing is not so tight that it affects circulation

I know that I have been in a position where as a kid I put on too many layers of socks, and it seemed to make my feet colder rather than warmer. This was likely due to a lack of good circulation. If you plan on wearing a lot of layers, then make sure that you do it right and wear things that will fit under your clothes without making them too tight. A lot of high-quality clothing made to keep you warm is very thin and can be worn under a lot of things. I use thermal underwear as leggings when I wear a dress or a skirt, and it is cold.

Basic and inexpensive electric heaters work well

Electric heaters are hard to beat for price and convenience if you have bitter cold conditions but the power is on. I don’t think relying just on electricity is a good idea, but it is sure nice and effective. A $30 space heater running a lot every day seemed to add about $15-$20 to my light bill each month. Now that is letting it run all the time not just using it for occasional heat.

Put a barrier between you and the ground

In a survival or camping situation, anything you can do to form a barrier between you and the ground is a good thing. Even a bunch of moss or boughs cut from surrounding trees is going to help. This is one reason why pads like Thermarest or even closed cell foam are popular choices. Of course, a pad is going to add some comfort beyond warmth too!

Windchill effects

When the weather folks start talking about windchill, it can be confusing to some people. Wind chill is sometimes called “Real Feel Temperature” as well. The more wind, the faster your body will cool off.

This handy pdf from The National Weather Service explains windchill and heatwave effects. The windchill chart included in the document is handy and gives frostbite time estimates if the skin is left exposed.

You don’t catch a cold by getting cold, but your immune system may be weakened further by excessive exposure

Extreme cold is stressful on your body. This means if you are already suffering from a disease or illness or have a weakened immune system at the time, putting additional stress on your body can make it easier to pick up germs and viruses that can make you sick.

I was one of those kids that had relatives that constantly told me I would get pneumonia or a cold if I went outside under cold conditions without a hat and full gear or if my hair was wet. Think about how much that meant staying inside during a Washington State fall and winter!

Do you have any methods of keeping warm in extreme cold that I missed? This post mostly concentrated on methods for staying warm when at home and not out in the wilderness so feel free to add tips for staying warm out in the bush too!

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected].

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10 Responses to “Staying Warm During Bitter Cold & Windchill”

  1. Great common sense post. Layering is most important, whether you are looking at your person or your environment. Me personally, if my feet get cold, I can’t get warm. I am not one to wear hats, but you best believe I do in the winter! Home wise, we do have alternate heat methods besides our electric furnace. We do close off unused spaces, and could easily consolidate to one area if needed. Don’t forget blankets over windows and doors, if needed.

  2. Please don’t forget safety measures too! Carbon monoxide detectors in sleeping areas. Ovens and grills are not meant to be heat sources, and can produce a large amount of carbon monoxide. It is odorless and colorless, so you won’t know you are breathing it. Carbon monoxide will not release from red blood cells in the lungs and prevents the pick up of more oxygen, therefore, you suffocate without knowing it, especially in your sleep!
    Also, with mobile homes and campers, make sure your wiring can take the use of electric heaters. Probably a good idea for older homes too. Heaters pull a tremendous amount of electricity. Wiring can get too hot and cause fires within attics or wall spaces, so your dwelling can be fully involved before you realize it. No electric heat near water sources like bathtubs and sinks! Make sure you have GFCI outlets in bathrooms and kitchens. These will turn off the electricity to the outlet if it senses a short of some kind, like a hair dryer being dropped in a tub or sink full of water.
    Of course, common sense rules around all heaters, fireplaces and wood stoves. Don’t hang towels or articles of clothing to close to them to dry. Keep heaters away from drapes, curtains, furniture and bedding. Lives are precious! Don’t leave fires and candles unattended.
    Thanks for the great tips!

  3. If you have a camping tent, set it up and use it. They generally hold in the heat quite well. We used one during a severe ice storm about 15 years ago in Atlanta and with the dogs sleeping inside all night as well, we were all quite warm.

  4. Use drapes to make a room smaller or as a door where there isn’t a door and of course use them on windows to keep the heat in at night and let the sun in during the day.

  5. try panty hose for the first layer for yer legs. helps feet too.
    silk long johns are the best. thin, light, extremely warm.
    everybody can benefit from this, so forget about the macho crap

  6. You need to stay well hydrated and urinate regularly. If urine isn’t clear you are dehydrated. Also clean clothes are essential for warmth. The dirtier the fabric the less effective the fiber is for warmth.

  7. you can use two summer sleeping bags inside each other to make a “arctic” style double bag. This works best if the inner bag is a mummy style bag. If you are sleeping in a bed put a wool blanket or comforter under the bottom sheet. This will make the bed sleep a lot warmer. Keep you head covered even indoors and wear wool socks even in bed. This is why there were “night caps” worn to bed.

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