Of all our survival priorities, being able to maintain our core body temperature is the one we need to pay the most attention to. This is our highest priority, since we can’t do anything about making sure that the Earth always has oxygen for us to breathe. Loss of body heat, more properly known as hypothermia, is the biggest killer in the wild.
Shelter is one of the main things we use to protect our bodies and ensure that we can maintain our core body heat. Our homes provide us with protection from the rain and wind, both of which can suck the heat out of our bodies. They are also insulated, helping to hold in the heat that we create via our home’s furnace, as well as keeping excess heat out during hot weather.
But what do we do when our home furnace isn’t working? If the power goes out, so does your heat, even if you have a gas furnace. At a minimum, the controls and blowers use electricity. If you’ve got gas-fired hot water heating, then the controls and pump use electricity. If the power is out for a day or two, you can probably survive. But if it’s really cold and a power outage lasts longer than that, you’re going to be without heat, possibly even for several days.
That means needing an alternate means of producing heat, one that you can use safely and that will provide enough heat to keep your family comfortable, even if it doesn’t exactly keep them warm. Using your stove or oven for heating isn’t safe, as many people have found out the hard way.
Heating with Wood
The simplest and most common means of heating, without a modern furnace, is with wood. We humans have used wood fires to heat our homes for millennia. Wood heat is relatively inexpensive, although it can be difficult to retrofit it into your home. But the big advantage is that wood is the only fuel you can harvest yourself to heat your home with.
There are two choices for wood heat; a fireplace or a wood-burning stove. If your home already has a fireplace, than you’re set; but if not, you’re much better off installing a wood-burning stove, than installing a fireplace. Not only is it easier to install, but it should provide you with more heat per log you burn. Wood-burning stoves radiate heat from all sides, rather than just the front. That’s what caused the move from fireplaces to wood-burning stoves in the first place.
Please note that many modern fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are more decorative than functional. If you start shopping around for one, you want to make sure that you’re buying one that is made for heat. It would also be a good idea to ensure that it has a flat top, which you can use for cooking on. You might actually be better off with an older used unit, if you can find one.
The other big plus that a wood-burning stove has going for it, is that it can be installed temporarily, if needed. Of course, you’d only want to do this with a smaller unit, but the idea still holds. In an emergency where you don’t have heat, all you need to do is create a fireproof base to put the stove on and then run the chimney out a window, closing off the remaining space with flashing or plywood so that air can’t come through.
If you have to run the chimney halfway across the room to get to the window, that’s actually an advantage, although it is also an inconvenience. The chimney can radiate heat all that way, making the wood-burning stove more efficient. This was common in stores and churches during pioneering times.
One important thing to know about heating with wood is that it takes a lot of wood to keep your home warm. People who heat with wood typically go though four to six cords of good hardwood firewood per winter. If you were to try using pine, instead of hardwood, you’d need twice as much.
Heating with Propane
Another workable option for heating your home is to use propane. Many people who live out in the country have furnaces which use propane, rather than natural gas. But that’s not what I’m referring to. Rather, I’m referring to ceramic catalytic heaters, burning propane. You can buy either portable or permanent mounted heaters, running them either off of a portable tank or a 500 gallon tank outside.
The advantage here is that these heaters are simple, working without electricity. So they will continue working, even if the power is out. The bad thing is that they will only keep working as long as you have propane. So a lot depends on how much propane you have available. They are efficient, but this isn’t an energy source that you can harvest from nature yourself.
Heating with Kerosene
Kerosene heaters are in fairly common use in the northern states, as portable space heaters. Since they are used there, the cost of propane is fairly cheap, often available at local gas stations, which makes them a cost-effective alternative. But in the southern part of the country, where propane heaters are not commonly used, the only way you can buy propane is in the paint department, which makes it very expensive.
While kerosene space heaters are fairly efficient, few people keep much kerosene on hand. A five gallon can of kerosene will only heat your home for a couple of days and few people keep more than 10 or 15 gallons on hand. However, if you are willing to store more than that, this can be a very viable option, although it is more expensive than propane.
Dealing with the Limitations
None of these heating options is likely to heat your entire home, unless your home is very small. Our ancestors who heated with wood usually only had small houses and only heated the main room of the house. People with a separate kitchen would also have a wood-burning stove there. Only the wealthiest of people could afford a fireplace in every room. In many cases, children slept in the loft, which was the warmest part of the home, while the parents had their bed under the loft to give them at least a little bit of privacy.
There are a number of other strategies they used to make it possible to withstand the cold, even with the minimal heating they had in their homes.
- Sharing beds allowed them to share body heat, especially if the bed is piled high with blankets. While shocking to us, children often slept all together in one big bed.
- People wore warm clothes, even indoors. If necessary, they would keep their coats on.
- They became more accustomed to the cold, allowing their bodies to adapt to it.
- They used a bed warmer to warm up their beds, before getting in. This was like a pan with a lid and a long handle. Rocks, heated in the coals of the fire, would be placed inside the pan and slid between the sheets to warm up the bed.
- In a similar manner, they would have a soapstone to use as “portable heat.” The soapstone was heated in the coals of the fire and then taken out with tongs, to be wrapped in a fabric carrier. Then it was placed under the bench in their wagon. People sitting on the bench would cover their legs with a blanket, allowing the heat from the soapstone to keep their legs warm. People sitting in the bed would sit with their backs to that bench, also covering their legs with a blanket. In this way, everyone got some heat.
- The soapstone was also brought into church and placed under the pew to keep the family warm. That’s why some old churches had family boxes around the pews. It wasn’t snobbery that did that, but rather an attempt to keep warm.