With winter just around the corner, people's thoughts are turning to cold weather. For some, that might mean winter sports, such as skiing and ice skating; but for most of us, it means keeping ourselves warm, no matter what Old Man Winter might throw at us. According to the Farmer's Almanac, this is supposed to be an unusually cold winter, so we might want to be sure we are ready.

Of course, modern society doesn't have much of a struggle with cold weather. We heat our homes, our cars, our offices and even our sports arenas, just to keep ourselves comfortable. A huge amount of fossil fuels is consumed every year, just to keep us warm. As long as everything keeps working and the fuel supply doesn't run out, there's little we have to worry about.

But what if things don't keep working; what then? Are you ready to live in a world without central heating? Our ancestors did just that... for centuries; and while their lives weren't as comfortable as ours are, they managed to survive through it. Of course, they were a bit hardier than you and I are today.

We've got to accept the fact that when the lights go out, the heat does as well. I remember winters, when I was living up north, and the storms were bad enough to bring down power lines. There was more than one time when our lighting and heat went out, and we had to rely on alternate means of keeping ourselves warm. We couldn't just go someplace else either, as the same storm would usually make the roads impassible and fill our driveway with snow.

What most preppers think of for those situations is heating with wood. I have nothing against that idea, as wood is both a renewable resource and one that we can harvest on our own. Of all the energy sources we can use for heat, about the only one which is more readily available for personal harvesting and use is sunlight. But that requires building your home for passive solar heating.

While wood is a great option, I have to say that you're not going to heat your whole home with wood. Homes are much bigger today, than they were in pioneering days. The children don't sleep in a loft. And few homes have more than one fireplace or wood burning stove that they can use for heat.

In pioneering days, the average middle-class home was one big room with a loft. The kitchen was off in one corner of the room, the kids slept in the loft and the parents' bed was under that loft, giving the could a little bit of privacy from small prying eyes. It was easy to heat that home, simply because everything was together. A single fireplace could provide heat to the whole home, without ductwork, fans or anything else.

Americans being Americans, our ancestors weren't happy with that. So, they started adding on to their homes, building bedrooms, a separate kitchen, living rooms and dining rooms. But that caused them a problem. How could they heat all those rooms from a single fireplace? Obviously, they couldn't.

Wealthy families (the ones who were most likely to have all those extra rooms) added fireplaces or wood burning stoves to those rooms, as they were built. Later, when coal became fashionable for heating, the wood burning stoves were replaced with coal stoves. Rooms were toasty warm, because there was plenty of heat to go around.

But few homes today even have a fireplace or wood burning stoves. We've progressed to central heating; which is great when it works, but a disaster when it doesn't. Worse than that, our home design has changed drastically, making it all but impossible to heat the average home with a fireplace, or wood burning stove, no matter how big a fire it contains.

If you've installed a wood burning stove or fireplace, than you have to realize that it is only going to heat the room that it is in. For most homes, that means the living room. If you are able to cook indoors, perhaps by using a gas stove, then you'll have at least some heat in the kitchen as well, from the stove. Even so, you should never try using your stove or oven as a heater, when you are not cooking on it. Doing so creates danger of accidents and fire.

Ultimately, what this means is that the majority of your home will be unheated in a crisis. That either means that you're going to have to limit yourself to living in one or two rooms, or you're going to have to come up with other ways of keeping warm.

Home Modifications for Better Wood Heating

Some more modern homes use an open-living concept, where there aren't walls between all the rooms. Most specifically, these homes don't have walls between the living room, kitchen and dining room, although they still have private bedrooms.

Opening up the living area like this allows a fireplace or wood burning stove to provide heat to the entire living area. While the heat won't be even, with areas farther from the heat source being colder, they will still be warmer than if they were separated by a wall. In a sense, this is a "retro" design for a home, going back to the one room home of pioneering days.

Some homes can be modified to make them more like this, creating a more open floor plan. Many interior walls are merely partition walls, not load-bearing walls. Those can be removed, without any structural risk to the home. Even many load-bearing walls can be modified, allowing air passage, without taking away their structural strength.

The first thing to do is determine which interior walls are load-bearing and which are merely partition walls. If you have a two-story home, then you definitely have load-bearing walls inside. But if you have a one-story home, it is possible that you don't have any load-bearing walls at all.

A two-story home will always have a wall through the middle of the home, which goes the length of the home . For most homes, this will be parallel with the front of the home, as most modern homes are built parallel to the street. You might also find such a wall on a one-story home. This wall is load-bearing in two-story homes, holding up the ceiling and the floor above. In one story-homes, you have to look in the attic to determine if this is a load-bearing wall. If there are trusses, it isn't; but if there are rafters, it is.

With the load-bearing wall identified, you can safely remove all other walls. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll want to remove them all, just that you can. You'll want to keep walls in place for bathrooms, utility rooms and bedrooms. But walls between the living room, kitchen, family room, den and dining room can all be safely removed, if they are not load-bearing.

Load bearing walls can't be removed. But what you can do, is put archways or wide doorways in them. You need to be careful about how you do this, as you must retain the ability to support the weight of the structure above, but it's really not that uncommon. All that's needed is a header to go over the archway or opening, which is sized to support the weight. Sizing that header depends on the width of the opening.

Obviously, you're going to need some professional help to determine how much of a header you need. You'll need to talk to an experienced contractor or architect for that. Fortunately, this information is standardized and not that hard to come by.

Remember, the idea here is to make it easier for the heat from your heat source to radiate through the entire living area. So think through what you're planning on doing from that viewpoint. Removing walls to gain access to areas that are too far away from the heat source may not provide any benefit. Likewise, opening up too much area, and not having a large enough fireplace or wood burning stove to heat that much area isn't going to help either.

Making Use of Passive Solar

Sadly, few homes are designed with passive solar heating in mind. They don't have the south-facing window area needed, nor is there an absorber connected to a thermal mass, to convert the sunlight into heat. But that doesn't mean that we can't make any use of passive solar at all, as part of our emergency heating.

We've all experienced sunlight coming through a window and warming up the carpeting or a piece of furniture. That's passive solar heating. Granted, it's an accidental form of passive solar heating, but it's still producing heat. The sun doesn't understand if it's accidental or intentional, it still provides light.

What we need to do, is improve upon our means of turning the sunlight we already have, into heat. That way, we can at least partially warm our homes with solar power, hopefully without a lot of expense.

Of course, adding additional windows or replacing existing windows with ones that are larger would increase the amount of sunlight allowed into the home and the resulting heat we could get from it. But that's a rather expensive option, which is extremely difficult to do in most homes; so, we'll limit ourselves to methods we can use, which don't require adding more windows.

Solar Absorbers

I mentioned a moment ago that the reason that we don't get more heat out of the sunlight streaming through our windows is that we don't have an adequate solar absorber connected to a thermal mass. However, we can do something about this, even if it is only something temporary.

The darker an object is the more sunlight it converts to heat, with black winning the prize for the best solar heat conversion. So you want to have the sunlight coming through the window hitting something black on the floor. This could either be a piece of black slate (rock), a piece of metal painted black, or even a black throw rug.

Ideally, that would be sitting on a slab of concrete, so that the heat that is absorbed by the absorber could warm up the concrete, which would then store the heat. Then, at night, it would radiate that heat into the room. But even if you don't have a concrete slab there, having a good dark solar absorber, to convert the sunlight into heat, would help heat your home during the day.


I know I said that I'm going to avoid suggesting  adding windows, but adding skylights is usually cheaper than adding windows. Cutting a hole in the roof and making a shaft for the light to travel down really isn't as hard as it might seem. It's a whole lot easier than cutting a hole through brickwork and then trying to make it look like it was designed that way.

Keeping Warm - Solar Heat Exchanger

Skylights not only allow more light into the home, but if placed in a southern sloping roof, will give direct sunlight. With a dark absorber under it, that will generate considerably more heat than what you'll get through a window.

One thing you want to be sure to do though, is get double or even triple pane skylights, so that the heat being generated doesn't all radiate out through the skylight. Be sure to insulate the shaft through the attic well too, so that the heat doesn't radiate into the attic either.

Solar Heat Exchangers

The second option is to turn the window itself into a solar heat exchanger. This is actually very simple to do. It involves creating an absorber in the window, with a space for air to pass through. Since heat rises, the air moves by natural convection, eliminating any need for moving parts or even a thermostat.

Many people have advocated using a stack of glued together aluminum cans for this, cutting the tops and bottoms out of them and gluing them together. That works well, because aluminum is one of the best heat conductors there is. Painting the cans black makes them work as an absorber, as black will absorb the most sunlight of any color.

But there's actually an easier way to do this. That's to cover the window opening with something black, leaving only a small opening (about 1" by the width of the window) at the top and bottom. This can be done with just about anything, such as cloth, cardboard or plywood. However, doing it with aluminum will generate and transfer more heat to the air, than just about anything else.

So, the idea is to cut a piece of plywood or cardboard that is slightly wider than the window opening, but not quite as tall. Cover one side of this with aluminum flashing and paint the aluminum black. In order to do this, you'll need to give the aluminum an acid wash, which can be done with vinegar. It would also help to sand the aluminum, giving a rough texture for the paint to "bite" onto and stick.

Of course, this means that you won't be getting much light through that window. So you're either going to need another light source, or you're going to have to use this in conjunction with adding a skylight to the room.

Moving Heat to Other Rooms

Back in the days when wood heating was common, people had to be creative about how they would keep warm. With a fireplace only heating the room it occupies, it was necessary for them to find ways of making the heat that the fireplace created portable. They did this in a number of ways, two of which are quite useful.

The Bed Warmer

Nobody likes getting into a cold bed, especially those who like sleeping in the buff. But even a pair of flannel jammies aren't going to do much to make you feel warm, when you first slip between the sheets of a cold bed.

The solution is to warm the bed, before getting into it. This was done with a device called a bed warmer. Basically, it's a pan with a lid and a long handle. That long handle allows moving it around between the sheets, without having to lift the blankets and letting the heat escape.

Some bed warmers are totally enclosed, while others have the tops or even bottoms pierced. They were usually made out of copper, with a turned wood handle.

Many people say that bed warmers were filled with coals from the fire, providing them with a considerable heat source. The problem with this is that the ashes from those coals and even sparks from them, could get into the bed, dirtying the sheets and even starting a fire. This would be especially true of those bed warmers that had pierced lids and bottoms. However, those bed warmers didn't use coals from the fire, but rather rocks which had been warmed in the fire.

Keep Warm - Bed Warmer


Another way of carrying heat around was to use a soapstone. These were heated in the coals of the fire and then wrapped in a thick fabric cover. A basket or wire handle made it possible to carry the soapstone.

While a soapstone could be used to bring heat to other parts of the home, they were most often used to carry heat when leaving the home. Traveling across the prairie to get to town in an open wagon would be cold. But by putting the soapstone on the floor and then covering it and your laps with a blanket, you'd have the world's first automotive heater (before autos even existed).

More wealthy churches built in this time period had boxed in family pews. These weren't as much for exclusivity, as they were for warmth. The box around the pew allowed the soapstone to be placed on the floor, providing heat to the family while in church.

Dressing for Cold Weather

Most of us think that we know how to dress for cold weather, but as I look around me, I truly have to wonder. I see an awful lot of people supposedly dressed for cold weather, who look to me like they're more concerned about fashion, than they are warmth. I also see a lot of people who ignore the most obvious things to get the most out of their cold weather gear.

Part of the problem is that most of us try to do our dressing for cold weather in a "one size fits all" sort of way. What I mean by that is that we don't really pay how much attention to how cold it really is, what the temperature is likely to do throughout the day, or what activities we have planned for that day. Unless we are doing something special, like going hunting, we dress normally and put on our normal cold weather coat.

But that one coat doesn't work for all circumstances. Temperatures can fluctuate considerably, even in one day. So what we put on in the morning may not be appropriate for the whole day. We'd do better dressing in layers, allowing ourselves the option of taking off layers throughout the day, to match changes in temperature and our activity.

The worst thing any of us can do in cold weather is allow ourselves to perspire. At a minimum, that perspiration makes the innermost layer of our clothes wet, eliminating its insulation value. At the worst, that perspiration can freeze, drawing off heat from our bodies.

The solution to that problem is to take layers off, leaving yourself with just enough clothes on to be cool. That way, you won't get hot enough to perspire. This means a constant clothing dance, throughout the day, as you take clothing off and put it on to match your activity and the ambient temperature.

This can happen even in the home. If you are heating with wood, then you'll need to take clothing off, when you are near your heat source. As you move farther away, into other parts of the house, you'll find yourself needing to put layers back on. Our ancestors never really had enough heat from their fireplaces to make it comfortable in their shirt sleeves; but rather, wore a light jacket or vest indoors, to help keep warm.

Hats and gloves are important too. One-fourth of the body's blood supply goes to the head, providing oxygen and nutrition to the brain. But at the same time, it's drawing heat out of the body's core and sending it to the brain. If the head is uncovered, that blood can quickly radiate its heat to the ambient air, reducing the body temperature. While your head may not feel cold, your extremities will begin to feel it. As the saying goes, "If your feet are cold, put on a hat."

If your body isn't producing enough heat, it will start constricting blood vessels in the limbs, restricting blood flow. This is a self-defense mechanism, intended to keep the body's core warm. But in the process, it can allow the extremities to get frostbite, especially the fingers and toes.

Good socks and boots will protect your feet, especially if they are waterproof. For your hands, mittens are better than gloves. While gloves might be  easier to work in, mittens allow the fingers to stay together, where they can share what heat they have. While it may only be something small, that little bit of heat can make a big difference.

If You Have to Venture Outside

While our ancestors tried to stay inside as much as possible in cold weather, there were times when they had to go outside. Animals needed to be fed, water needed to be drawn from the well and wood needed to be brought in for the fire. Each trip outdoors was difficult, but necessary as well.

Likewise, there will be times when we have to go outdoors in the cold as well, especially if we're trying to survive the aftermath of a disaster and the grid is down. Such trips need to be well planned and executed, so as to minimize our exposure to the cold.

Avoid the wind, as much as possible. Wind draws off heat from the body by constantly changing the ambient air that is right outside your clothing. So you never create a zone of warmed air where you are. Your body is having to constantly try to warm more air, drawing off heat from itself to do so. The wind can also penetrate outer layers of clothing, bringing cold air closer to your skin, thereby reducing the insulation value of your clothing.

You can use the sun to your advantage outdoors as well. I will e warmer in direct sunlight, than it will be in the shade, especially areas that remain shaded through a large portion of the day. This is especially important to watch out for if you are not well enough dressed. While the sun may not warm you much, it can help a little.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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