Keeping Warm in a Cold House

A women's hands clenching a blanket.
As energy costs rise and natural gas grows scarce in Europe, people need to find new ways to keep warm at home.

In the winter, I sleep in a bedroom where the temperature often sinks to the mid to high 50s (that’s about 14°C). The attached bathroom is even colder. As my wife jokes, It’s not winter until the bathroom reaches 54°F, which is about 12°C.

As our friends in Europe (and to a lesser extent here in the U.S.) face an energy crisis with crazy gas and electric prices, let’s talk about staying warm inside your house when the thermostat is down. Preppers often discuss outdoor attire, but few of us want to wear a parka and gloves while inside. Thankfully, you have other options.

First, the good news: I have found my body adjusts to a new temperature scheme. After a few days of cold temperatures, something inside clicks into gear, and I don’t feel as cold. I think this is why a 50°F day in the spring feels so much warmer than a 50°F day in September. Our bodies adapt. In my experience, it takes a few days and a significant temperature change to force that adaption, so don’t worry if you feel extra cold the first few days; in time, your body should adapt.

Your body produces a great deal of heat, which is why your internal temperature is around 98.6°F, or 37°C. The job of your clothing is to capture and retain that heat before it gets sucked away by the ambient temperature in your house. Your job is to fuel your body appropriately so that it can produce heat. This may freak out perennial dieters, but it means consuming some fat. Eating warm food, warm beverages and enough calories to fuel your internal engine will also help you stay warm in adverse conditions. Exercising will also raise your core temperature and help you feel warmer.

Cold Bedrooms

Staying warm in bed in a cold bedroom is not that difficult. We use a heavy down comforter or duvet. I didn’t realize it when shopping, but down comforters come in different weights. We have a light one and a heavy version and select whichever we feel is most appropriate based on the season.

Multiple blankets also work to hold in your body heat, but if you end up needing more than four blankets, you need to switch one of them out for a heavier blanket. When stacking blankets, use a light cotton blanket with holes in it to capture and hold the hot air released by your body. Cover this with a comforter or duvet. If you don’t have down, polyfill or polyester batting is fine. If that isn’t warm enough, throw a heavy wool blanket over it. I like to have the thickest, heaviest blanket on the outside to help keep the cold air outside. As you stack your blankets, keep in mind that if you crush a comforter that counts on its loft to keep you warm, it may not work as well. Experiment with the order in which you use your blanket until you find the best combination for you.

Here are to tips to stay warm at night:

  • Use a blanket bigger than the bed so it hangs down the side. This will help you stay warm and prevent you from getting uncovered if you roll around. For example, if you have a queen-size bed, buy a king-size blanket.
  • Consider flannel sheets or other sheets designed to feel less cold when you first slide in.
  • Snuggle up with someone. Two bodies generate twice as much heat. If you don’t have a partner, consider allowing your dog or cat to sleep on or in your bed.
  • If you have an electric blanket, put it under your bottom sheet. Turn it on for ten minutes before going to bed. This will allow you to slip into a warm bed. Then turn off the blanket to save electricity. If your body heat doesn’t keep you warm after that, you need more covers.
  • If you don’t have an electric blanket, you can use a heating pad or a hot water bottle. In the distant past, people would heat a large rock by the fireplace, wrap it in a blanket and put it at the foot of the mattress. This will help keep your feet warm.
  • In a pinch, you can sleep in a sleeping bag and put blankets or a comforter over it.

Wearing Clothing to Bed

If you must wear clothing to bed, it’s a sign you need more or warmer covers. What you to wear to bed, if anything, is a personal choice. People with cold feet often wear socks. On extremely cold nights when camping or backpacking, I’ve worn a hat and thermals inside my mummy bag. If you wake up with a headache after sleeping with your head under a bunch of covers, that maybe a sign of oxygen deprivation. Put on a knit cap and keep your head outside the covers the next night.

Experts say that a waist band or other constricting point on your night clothes can inhibit the flow of warm air and make you colder. If you are cold under your covers, experiment with loose fitting clothes such as a night shirt or gown.

Keeping Warm in a Cold House

That covers nights, so let’s look at days. Your best bet is to dress in layers.

Starting from the inside out, consider wearing thermal underwear, even if you never set food outdoors. I prefer wool, followed by polypropylene. Cotton thermals are to be avoided for outside activities where you might work up a sweat, but they are cheap and can suffice for use inside. Keep in mind that thermals work best when covered with traditional clothing. Wearing a wool undershirt may be warmer than a poly-cotton t-shirt, but it will be warmer still when worn under a covering layer.

Wear your regular clothes over your thermals and wear a sweater, a sweatshirt, or a fleece over them. I find insulated hoodies are perfect because you can zip or unzip the front to control your temperature. If you have to step outside or somewhere cold, throwing up the hood is quite helpful. I have insulated hoodies with both the waffle knit cotton lining and what is called Sherpa fleece, and while both work, I prefer the latter because it is lighter and wicks away moisture.

If a sweater or sweatshirt is too bulky, consider a fleece vest or a sweater vest. These can help keep your core warm and you can wear a hoodie over them if necessary. For office settings, a vest may also be less informal than a sweatshirt.

Hands and Feet

Wearing warm socks and slippers indoors will also help keep you from feeling the cold. Carpets and rugs can also insulate the floor and protect your feet from the cold. As long as you don’t have radiant heating in your floor, installing some foam and a carpet in your basement or using a throw rug on a wood floor can help you stay warmer.

We have hardwood floors in the bedroom and ceramic tile in the bath. We use narrow rugs on each side of the bed and three or four small throw rugs in the bathroom to make walking around in bare feet survivable on those cold mornings.

I know two people who wear fingerless wool gloves at work. One of them is an older woman with a nerve issue that makes her hands cold. The other is a younger fellow who works in a cold warehouse. The fingerless gloves give them the dexterity they need to type, use a calculator, and dial the phone while keeping the rest of their hands warm. Even a thin cotton glove is better than nothing.

Having a small blanket you can throw across your lap is also useful if you sit for long periods of time. We use these when settling in to stream a movie.

Closing off Rooms

The core of our house is quite warm because the wood stove radiates heat and it flows upstairs. It is the bedrooms, which are furthest from the stove, that get cold. To help the rest of the house stay warmer, we close off the guestroom and keep the laundry room and closet door closed. The idea is to heat only those rooms where you will be.

If you work at home and spend most of the day in a home office, turn down the central heat and use a baseboard heater or space heater to keep the office warm. You can do the same for a TV room, and your TV may even generate some heat.

Other Appliances that Make Heat

You’ve probably noticed that the temperature in the kitchen climbs when you bake something in the oven. While that may be the largest appliance to generate heat, don’t overlook lightbulbs, televisions and other electronics. Even the warm air blown out by your refrigerator when it cycles can make a slight difference. If you have a cat, look where it sits. They will often find warm spots in your house. Opening the shades to let a beam of sunlight in can also warm the room.

If you use the oven to bake or roast dinner, enjoy the warmth it provides, but don’t use it to heat your home. Do not leave the oven door open while it is operating. After you have finished baking and the oven is off, you may open the door a crack and let some heat out into the room.

I do not recommend venting your dryer inside your home, as it violates building codes and can be dangerous. Even though the warm, moist air may seem desirable, it can cause mold and be a fire hazard. Venting a gas-powered dryer into your house can be deadly thanks to carbon monoxide. Of course, if energy consumption is a big concern, you should line dry or hang dry most of your clothes as dryers consumer large amounts of energy.

Your Other Heat Source

I always recommend an alternative heat source. For many, that’s wood or even coal. For others, it might be a portable propane or kerosene heater. Burning wood produces high-quality heat, but there’s a reason all those old farm houses had multiple fireplaces. The heat from a fireplace or even a woodstove doesn’t spread as far as heat pushed through ducts by modern forced air systems. One solution is an outside boiler that burns wood to heat water, which is then run through a heat exchanger and used by your forced air system. This kind of hybrid system can be far less expensive to operate than a natural gas, propane or electric heat, but unlike a traditional wood stove, it won’t work in a power outage.

If you expect rolling blackouts or the possibility of longer blackouts, avoid fireplace inserts that rely on a fan, pellet stoves that have automatic feed from a hopper, and other wood burners that require power.

As you face the possibility of a cold winter with reduced heating options, keep in mind that our ancestors survived cold winters in log cabins, thatched huts, and canvas tents. We have modern building materials, advanced insulation, and double pane windows. You’ll be fine.