Staying Warm During a Winter Power Outage

(Psst: The FTC wants me to remind you that this website contains affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase from a link you click on, I might receive a small commission. This does not increase the price you'll pay for that item nor does it decrease the awesomeness of the item. ~ Daisy)

Author of Be Ready for Anything and Bloom Where You’re Planted online course

Depending on where you live, a winter power outage can quickly become a life-threatening emergency.

Winter storms with heavy snowfalls, high winds, and a coating of ice are a threat to our vulnerable power grid. Making winter even more of a threat recently is the current economic upheaval. In economically depressed places like Detroit, many residents have had their utilities shut off due to an inability to pay their bills. With temperatures in the negatives, people could quite literally freeze to death in their homes.  You don’t have to be a prepper to realize that secondary heating systems, some specialized skills, and a frigid weather plan could be vital to your survival in the winter.

Are you prepared for a winter power outage?

No matter how you heat your home, it’s vital to have a backup method. Even if you have a non-grid reliant method as your primary heat source, things can happen. Chimney fires occur, wood gets wet, furnaces of all types malfunction…while these scenarios could be unlikely, you have to remember, “Two is one, one is none.”

Here are some options for heat that doesn’t come from a thermostat on the wall.

  • Wood Heat: Everyone’s favorite off-grid heating method is a fireplace or woodstove. The fuel is renewable and you have the added bonus of an off-grid cooking method. Unfortunately, if your home doesn’t already have one, it can be a pretty expensive thing to install.  If you rent, it’s probably not going to be an option at all to add wood heat to someone else’s property. If you have wood heat, make sure you have a good supply of seasoned firewood that is well-protected from the elements.
  • Propane Heaters:  There are several propane heaters on the market that do not require electricity.  I own a Little Buddy heater.  These small portable heaters are considered safe for indoor use in 49 states.  They attach to a small propane canister and use 2 oz. of fuel per hour to make 100 square feet extremely warm and toasty.  A battery-operated carbon monoxide alarm provides an extra measure of safety when using these heaters indoors. If you have a bigger area to heat, this larger unit will warm up to 200 square feet. Be sure to stock up on propane if this is your backup heat method.
  • Kerosene/Oil Heaters:  Kerosene heaters burn a wick for heat, fuelled by the addition of heating oil.  These heaters really throw out the warmth.  A brand new convection kerosene heater like this one can heat up to 1000 square feet efficiently.  When we lived in the city I was lucky enough to have an antique “Perfection” oil heater, which was a charming addition to our decor that was called into service during grid-down situations.  Click here to read more information about the different types of kerosene heaters that are available.
  • Natural Gas Fireplaces:  Some gas-fueled fireplaces will work when the electrical power goes out – they just won’t blow out heat via the fan.
  • Pellet Stove:   Most pellet stoves require electricity to run, but there are a few of these high-efficiency beauties that will work without being plugged in.

What if you don’t have a secondary heating method?

Sometimes things happen before we get our preps in order. If you don’t have a secondary heating method, you can still stay relatively warm for at least a couple of days if you are strategic. Even if you do have a secondary heat source,  in many cases it’s important to conserve your fuel as much as possible.

If you have no additional heat at all, you can usually keep one room tolerable for 2-3 days.  If the cold is relentless and the outage lasts longer than that, you may need to seek other shelter.  Watch your temperatures. If the daytime temperature in the house dips below 40 degrees, the nighttime temperature will be even colder, and it won’t be safe to stay there, especially if you have children or family members who are more susceptible to illness.

These methods can help you stay cozier during a storm.

  • Heat only one room.  One year, our furnace went out the day before Christmas. We huddled into a small room with just one window.  We closed the door to the bedroom and used a folded quilt at the bottom to better insulate the room.  If you don’t have a door to the room you’ve opted to take shelter in, you can hang heavy quilts or blankets in the doorways to block it off from the rest of the house.
  • Cover your windows.  You can use a plastic shower curtain and duct tape, topped by a heavy quilt to keep the wind from whistling through your windows.  Take down the quilt if it’s sunny outside for some solar gain, then cover it back up as darkness falls. If you have reason to be concerned about OPSEC, use heavy black garbage bags to cover the windows to keep light from escaping.
  • Light candles.  Even the small flames from candles can add warmth to a small area.  Be sure to use them safely by keeping them out of the reach of children and housing them in holders that won’t tip over easily.
  • Use kerosene lamps.  Those charming old-fashioned lamps can also add warmth to the room.
  • Use sleeping bags.  Cocooning in a sleeping bag conserves body heat better than simply getting under the covers.
  • Have a camp-out.  This works especially well when you have children because it adds an element of fun to an otherwise stressful situation.  Pitch a tent in your closed off room, get inside with a flashlight, and tell stories.  When you combine your body heat in a tiny space like that, you’ll stay much warmer.
  • Get cooking. If you have a propane or gas stove in the kitchen, your cooking method may not require electricity.  So bake a cake, roast a turkey, or simmer a soup. You can use it to warm the room while making a hot, delicious feast.
  • Heat some rocks.  Do you have a place outdoors for a campfire?  If so, put some large rocks around the edges of it.  They retain heat for hours.  When it’s bedtime, carefully place the rocks into a cast iron Dutch oven and bring this into the room you’re going to be sleeping in.  Be sure to protect your floor or surface from the heat of the Dutch oven. The stones will passively emit heat for several hours without the potential of a fire or carbon monoxide poisoning during the night.

How to stay warm with less heat

Not only do we need to be concerned about a power outage due to the weather, but we also need to realize that utility bills could be extraordinarily high this year due to rising prices and an increased need for heat as temperatures plummet. When we lived in our drafty cabin up North, we had to take extra steps to keep warm. Here are some things we learned that will help out in either circumstance.

  • Keep your wrists and ankles covered.  Wear shirts with sleeves long enough to keep your wrists covered and long socks that keep your ankles covered.  You lose a great deal of heat from those two areas.
  • Get some long-johns.  Wearing long underwear beneath your jeans or PJ’s will work like insulation to keep your body heat in.  I like the silky kind like this for indoor use, rather than the chunkier waffle-knit outdoor type.
  • Wear slippers.  You want to select house shoes with a solid bottom rather than the slipper sock type.  This forms a barrier between your feet and the cold floor.  We keep a basket of inexpensive slippers in varying sizes by the door for visitors because it makes such a big difference.  Going around in your stocking feet on a cold floor is a certain way to be chilled right through.
  • Get up and get moving.  It goes without saying that physical activity will increase your body temperature.  If you’re cold, get up and clean something, dance with your kids, play tug-of-war with the dog, or do a chore.
  • Pile on the blankets. If you’re going to be sitting down, have some blankets available for layering.  Our reading area has some plush blankets which we top with fluffy comforters for a cozy place to relax.
  • Use a hot water bottle.  If you’re just sitting around try placing a hot water bottle (carefully wrapped to avoid burns) under the blankets with you.
  • Use rice bags.  If you don’t have the cute ready-made rice bags, you can simply place dry rice in a clean sock.  Heat this in the microwave, if you use one, for about a minute, or place in a 100-degree oven, watching carefully, for about 10 minutes.  I keep some rice bags in a large ceramic crock beside the wood stove so they are constantly warm.  You can put your feet on them or tuck them under the blankets on your lap. (The insert from a defunct crockpot will work for this as well.)
  • Insulate using items you have.  A friend recommended lining the interior walls with bookcases or hanging decorative quilts and blankets on the walls to add an extra layer of insulation. It definitely makes a difference because it keeps heat in and cold air out. If you look at pictures of old castles you will see lovely tapestry wall-hangings – this was to help insulate the stone walls, which absorbed the cold and released it into the space.
  • Layer your windows.  Our cabin had large lovely picture windows for enjoying the view.  However, they were single pane and it’s hard to enjoy the view if your teeth are chattering.  We took the rather drastic step of basically closing off all the windows but one in each room for the winter.  First, we used the shrink film insulator on every window. Then, we insulated further by placing draft blockers at the bottom of the window sill (I just used rolled up polar fleece – I’m not much of a sew-er.)  This was topped by a heavy blanket, taking care to overlap the wall and window edges with it.  Over that, we hung thermal curtains that remained closed.
  • Get a rug.  If you have hardwood, tile or laminate flooring, an area rug is a must.  Like the blankets on the walls, this is another layer of insulation between you and the great outdoors.  We have no basement so our floor is very chilly.  A rug in the living room protects our feet from the chill.
  • Wear a scarf.  No, not like a big heavy wool scarf that you’d wear outdoors – just a small, lightweight one that won’t get in your way and annoy you.  This serves two purposes.  First, it covers a bit more exposed skin. Secondly, it keeps body heat from escaping out the neck of your shirt.
  • Burn candles.  Especially in a smaller space, a burning candle can raise the temperature a couple of degrees.
  • Wear fingerless gloves. Gloves like these allow you to still function by keeping the tips of your fingers uncovered, while still keeping chilly hands bundled up.
  • Drink hot beverages. There’s a reason Grandma always gave you a mug of cocoa after you finished building that snowman. Warm up from the inside out with a cup of coffee, tea, cider, or hot chocolate. Bonus: Holding the mug makes your hands toasty warm.
  • Cuddle.  Share your body heat under the blankets when you’re watching movies or reading a book.

What if you’re stranded due to icy roads?

What if you’re not at home when a winter storm strikes?  In a previous article about preparing your vehicle for winter, I brought up a couple of situations that occurred last year.

During one scenario, a freak snowstorm struck the Atlanta, Georgia area.  Because weather like this is such a rarity, the area was completely unprepared, officials didn’t have the experience or equipment needed to deal with it, and traffic gridlocked almost immediately. Hundreds of people were stranded as the freeway turned into a scene reminiscent of The Walking Dead, with bumper-to-bumper vehicles at a standstill.  Those without food and water in their vehicles went hungry, and many people ran out of gas as they tried to keep warm. No matter how comfortable you are with winter driving, in a situation like this, you are at the mercy of others who may not be so experienced.

The next situation had a lot more potential for a tragic ending, had it not been for the survival skills of a father of 4 small children.  A family of six had taken off for a day of snowy adventure, when their Jeep flipped over in a remote part of the Seven Troughs mountain range in Northwestern Nevada. James Glanton, a miner and experienced hunter, kept his family alive and unscathed for two days in the frigid wilderness using only the items from his vehicle and the environment. Due to his survival skills and the things he had on hand, none of the family members so much as suffered frostbite while awaiting rescue. You can learn more about the hero dad’s resourcefulness HERE.

Regardless of why you’re stranded somewhere besides your cozy home, you should have supplies in your vehicle to fend off frostbite (or even death) due to frigid conditions.

Include things like:

Even if you aren’t a prepper, it only makes sense to get ready for a storm.

Unless you think the entire process of weather forecasting is some sort of insane voodoo, then it’s pretty undeniable that a big storm is coming. Winters in America have been setting records for bone-numbing, snot-freezing cold for the last couple of years, and it appears that this winter will be no different.

While some folks aren’t quite ready to plunge wholeheartedly into prepping, it’s hard to deny the common sense factor of preparing for a likely scenario.  You should have at the minimum, a two-week supply of food and other necessities.  Before the power goes out, develop a plan to keep your family warm, even while the mercury outside reaches near-Arctic depths.

Resources

Staying Warm During a Winter Power Outage
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

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  • I swear, I got cold just reading this. I like to think that up here in Maine, we’re already prepared for the frigid onslaught, but Daisy’s little lists always remind me of a few things I could still use. My newest acquisition: a Carhartt Arctic coat. I figure if it’s good enough for all those construction workers out in the cold, it’s good enough for me. We’ll see, I guess. As for long Johns, up here, we’re start wearing them in September and don’t take them off until May. You know, except to occasionally launder. As far as you know.

  • Glad you mentioned about the hot water bottles. I bought two of the velour-covered ones from Fashy, and they aren’t for even me. One is for my cat, if he needs it, and one is for my parrot. (I needed something that wouldn’t poison her. Kerosene fumes are toxic to birds.) I don’t use them now, but they are there for heating or power problems, and I tested them already, so I know they don’t leak and that they hold the warmth of the water for several hours.

    One thing I remember from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books was that people used to bake potatoes and use them to warm their feet and hands. In the scene I’m thinking of, it was the end of Christmas day. Mrs. Ingalls had baked potatoes in their jackets and wrapped them to put in the bottom of the sleigh for their relatives’ drive home.

    In our house at the moment, the spare bedroom is closed off, the temperature is kept lower (I have to use a space heater in my bedroom to keep the temperature warm enough for my bird). I have thermal / light-block curtains on the windows, too. It seems to be working better for me this year than the plastic did last year, but I’ll probably get more of that stuff for the windows, too.

    I do something similar to the tapestry thing. My bedroom isn’t very well insulated, so it gets way too hot in summer and way too cold in winter. Part of the reason is that it’s in the attic and there are half-cabinets with slatted shutters to inclose the storage space. So, I fastened some Velcro strips to the top edge inside the spaces, and sewed the matching Velcro strips to the edges of a couple spare thermal curtain sheets. I stuck Velcro front to Velcro back, and voila, removable inner curtains, totally hidden by annoying shutters. (In retrospect, I probably should have just sealed all the seams of the joining pieces of wood that comprise the storage spaces, but this works too, and it was stuff I already had on hand.)

  • outstanding article Daisy and thanks. Now, let me throw one out, and see if anybody can verify this…. When the Navy gave us survival training for having to be outside for hours in severe cold weather, such as standing lookout in the crows nest (oh yes we did have them back in the 1960’s..) one of the items that they stressed to us was to stay away from hot drinks–specifically hot coffee. They told us it would decrease the time necessary to go into hypothermia… US Navy wouldn’t lie to us would they? lol…

  • What a great article,

    My wife and I worship our woodstove in the winter months. During the summer months we stockpile wood like a squirrel stores nuts.. This cold snap is reason enough for homeowners who don’t have one to take the plunge and get one.. it’s one of those investments that you never regret, if they are installed right. we have an open floor plan house and heating with wood makes total sense..right now it’s 10 degrees outside.. and 78 in the house.

  • Use beeswax candles instead of the usual paraffin ones, if possible. Paraffin candles can make the air pretty nasty in not too much time. I’m told the beeswax ones burn longer, thus making up for their greater cost, but I haven’t verified that.

  • Just a word about the castle comment. Cold is not a commodity, it is the absence of heat. In other words the heat is being sucked out of the room towards a colder place. Hence the need for insulation.

  • Another excellent article by Daisy. We live in the Pacific Northwest. ‘Heat only one room’ is our plan. Having the benefit of designing (and building) our own home, we were able to incorporate all of our water pipes in this area. Also we insulated the exterior of our foundation so the crawl space never drops below freezing.

  • Every time I read articles like this, I thank my lucky stars I live in FL. The coldest it has gotten in my 21 years here is about 20 F. I still have occasional nightmares about the two winters I spent in Omaha, when it hit -25 F more than once.

  • Daisy, that was great tips about keeping warm. I did NOT know about using the shower curtains over the windows. Not sure exactly how good that would be or would they keep out the cold air that seeps in, but it might be worth a try. I had plastic sheeting on my list, but I think the shower curtains might not cost as much as may be just as good.
    We’re in a camper that is 35 feet long but it has 1 long and 1 shorter slide out and the air does come in there. The problem with this one is that it has too many windows. They are great for letting in the sunlight first thing in the morning, however in the cold of winter they are NOT good to have and the camper is very chilly b/c they don’t have the right installation. Therefore I am currently looking for something that will take care of this problem of the “cold” seeping in and it not being warm enough in here. The dog doesn’t like the cold either, and even with her sweater on, she still has has a cold nose and has shivered, which normally she wouldn’t do.
    ANY suggestions from you on this situation would be SO appreciated. THANKS!!!

    • Hmmm…that’s a tough one. You want to let the sun in first thing in the morning, but then be able to keep the drafts out. One thing I might do if possible is turn the camper so these windows are South-facing for more solar gain. You can also try a layered approach. Start with that sheeting you apply with a blow-dryer. Then, you could make yourself some heavy curtains to go over this – even consider lining them with a mylar blanket in order to keep more of the cold air out. The blackout curtains tend to have more of an insulating effect if you are purchasing them.If you have a draft at the bottom, those draft dodgers are really helpful. If there isn’t enough of a lip for those – this sounds hideous but the curtains will cover it – you can duct tape them on. Get it right into the edge where the draft comes in for best results.

      • Thanks for the reply. I don’t have a sewing machine so I’m not going to be making my own curtains. I was thinking of using the clear plastic shower curtains b/c it would be easier for me to put them on the windows with tape. The light would still shine through. With layered dark curtain it would be awfully gloomy in here, very depressing I would imagine.
        Plus, I have the Mr. Heater (1 large and 1 small) and they require some ventilation, so at least one window needs to be open slightly to let some air inside.
        Using the sheeting requires a hair dryer and I don’t have one. My short hair air dries in minutes. That process is a big pain. My friends out in Missouri did that for me on a few windows in a condo that I was renting one winter and it took them along time to do just two windows. This camper has 11 windows and 2 doors. But one things for sure there’s plenty of light coming in when I want it.
        As for turning the camper to face the other direction, that’s not going to work for people who live in assigned spaces like campgrounds etc. All the meters are on one side and we have to connect to the septic, elect etc on that one side only. So you’re right this is a tough one and I don’t see many options here unfortunately…

    • You can go to YouTube and ck out Bob ..cheap rv living. He has chosen to live in his van & he shows you how to do it. He also interviews many other people & shows you how they live in their rv, campers,vans,cars,. & How some make a living while on the road. He has a meet up 2x a yr where you can trade or buy or even get stuff free. While there you can meet others who love this life & swap info & stuff. While there you can also hire help with something you might not be able to do your self. Pray this helps ????????

  • One option we have used with our pellet stove during a power outage was to plug the stove into a small inverter attached to a deep cycle battery. We ran the stove like that for 22 hours during a winter power outage. Now we have a wood stove.

  • I very rarely see mention of our non-electric propane heater. Our main heat is a kerosene heater, but it requires electricity. So we bit the bullet and spent about almost a thousand dollars for a non-electric propane heater for use during our frequent power outages here in rural northern Maine (where it’s cold!). Both of these heaters have a stove pipe which takes their exhaust to the outdoors; both pull the air they use from the outdoors. Both do a very good job of heating the whole house (I mean, either one alone). We have a fire alarm and a carbon monoxide alarm. Our kitchen stove also burns propane; the oven is not usable without electricity but we light the stovetop burners with a match. So really, we’re fine in a power outage. We decided to go with flashlights and battery-powered lanterns (good ones) for lighting and – food in the fridge or freezer goes out onto the unheated porch so it keeps just fine in winter (or a nearby snow bank). We have a very small generator which will not everything but it will keep the fridge and freezer both cold in a warm-season outage (thunder storm usually; once a truck hit an electric pole and took the line out). When it will not freeze, we keep a 55-gallon plastic barrel filled with water from our well. During the winter, we store water in 5-gallon buckets indoors and we have seven of them tucked into various corners. We also fill the washing machine when we think the power might go off. (Well water is pumped by electricity – we cannot put the generator on the well, it’s quite far from the house and we cannot get there in deep snow. Heck, we cannot even get to the generator in deep snow.

  • Passive solar building design.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_solar_building_design

    There’s a lot of information regarding passive design on the internet for letting in the sun ‘s heat during the day, storing it and letting it heat your house at night. Look up diagrams of the sun’s path from sunrise to sunset in relationship to your houses orientation to learn how to receive the most sunlight possible.

    Even minor details such as having vertical window blinds on the south side of the building to let in the noon overhead sunlight and horizontal blinds on the east and west sides to let in the sunrise and sunset’s low angled sunlight helps.

    Consult your local USDA Extension agency for helpful information for heating pertaining to your area. What works in one region might not work in yours.

    Best, keep warm

  • When we moved out here 35 years ago, power outages were almost a weekly thing.
    We installed a propane floor furnace. No electricity required. It runs of a 500 gallon tank out back. We did add one convenience item; a setback thermostat which runs on 2 AA batteries.
    More recently we added a small backup genset. (8 KW). It runs the well pump, the kitchen circuit, and a few others for lights. Runs off the same tank.

  • On the Little Buddy, the manufacturer makes a bigger one which uses the small disposable tank and can also use a hose to connect to larger refillable tank. Much cheaper. Northern Tool sells an adapter that y will allow you to refill the disposable tanks. Look on You Tube for videos showing how to do it. Avoid the propane tank places that offer to let you swap your empty tank for a full one as it is much cheaper to take the tank to get it refilled. Many gas stations can do it as can propane distributors,

    We had our well pump replaced last year and the guy doing the installation used PVC pipe. although we are not getting the low temps that the mid-west is getting we are in for a hard freeze warning. How cold does it have to be for PVC to fracture?.

    One thing not mentioned in the article is hats. 9% of yur heat loss is through your head, A good hat or hooded coat can be a life saver.

    On the cocooning and cuddling beware. This can lead to an uptick in unexpected births about 9 month later!

    • For really cold weather I like gaiters and over mitts. The gaiters attach to your boots and go halfway up the calf of your leg. It is just another way of layering and it helps keep snow from melting on your pants. Over mitts are just non-insulated nylon mittens that go over the gloves or mittens that you would normally wear. Surprising how much of a difference they can make. Not much of a problem where I live now but I used to love to go snow camping. Look on eBay foe the above and you will find many.

  • If using candles or a lantern for heat and light, hanging a mylar emergency blanket behind it can help reflect both heat and light into the living space. It basically doubles the oomph of that light source. I used it to good effect while trying not to freeze my butt off in a tent, one cold Nevada winter. I also found, another time, that hanging any sort of cloth – blankets, even plastic tarp, can do a surprising amount to block warm air from flowing away from your living space. Pay special attention to the upper parts of your living space and remember that heat rises. It’s one of the reason why people used to have four poster canopy beds.

  • i’ve found clear shower curtain liners at the ‘dollar’ stores. they would let the sun shine in. great for many uses. have at least 5 on hand for those ‘just in case’ events.

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