If Your Power's Out in the Cold, Stay Warm With These Expert Survival Tips

Millions of Americans have found themselves without power in recent days after dangerous winter storms swept across the country. Many people suffering power outages are in southern states, where snow and ice storms are the exception and not the norm. Newsweek spoke with some experts in cold weather and survival to get some tips for anyone who may find themselves in such a predicament.

Texas snow
Pedestrians walk on an icy road on February 15, 2021 in East Austin, Texas. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather to Texas, causing traffic delays and power outages, and storms have swept across 26 states with a mix of freezing temperatures and precipitation. Getty

"Insulation is key, both on the body, and in shelter/home," Scott Oeth shared via email. Oeth is a lifelong outdoorsman and considered a master naturalist who owns the wilderness guide company Bull Moose Patrol. Much of his training for camping in extreme cold translates to dealing with freezing temperatures indoors.

Keeping your neck and head warm is particularly important, he said, and suggested improvising a scarf or headwear with a sweater, towel, or even a pair of extra pants. Some other tips Oeth offered include: "Crumple up newspapers, magazines, paper towels and stuff inside a large shirt and pants for extra warmth. Cut an 'X' in the middle of large towels to place head through and wear towel like a vest. Socks can be worn on hands as mittens. Try to wear loose footwear (circulation), but you can boost warmth by making cardboard insoles, or insoles [made] from mouse pads, or other foam...Foam from inside of furniture can be an excellent insulating material."

If you're in a house or multi-room apartment, consider staying put in one room as much as possible with the door closed and insulated, physiologist Gordon Giesbrecht told Newsweek. The University of Manitoba professor is so respected in his studies of extreme environments and the effects it has on the human body that Outside Magazine nicknamed him "Professor Popsicle" in a 2015 feature story. Like the other experts, he cautioned against using gas heaters or generators indoors, as well as against turning on gas stoves or using outdoor grills indoors. The chance of carbon monoxide poisoning is much too high to risk such methods.

Giesbrecht recommended finding relief in motor vehicles if one finds themselves without power and nowhere else to turn. He said, "If it's below freezing temperatures outside for a day or two, it likely will be inside your house, too. I would go inside a vehicle then. If you have it in a garage, make sure your door is open so that you don't get carbon monoxide poisoning. Just run it for 15 minutes every hour to get it to heat up, and then get the sleeping bags, quilts, whatever. No insulation is off limits if you're cold enough."

"Humans aren't designed to hibernate. Leave that to the bears and ground squirrels," Dr. Andrew Gracey of University of Southern California said in an email. As his message insinuates, his expertise is with hibernating animals, as well as fish. However, he did offer some advice for humans. He wrote: "From a physiological perspective, the best thing you can do is to move your body. Walking, jumping, swinging your arms around, will all cause your muscles to produce heat and help fend off the cold. I wouldn't recommend really vigorous exercise that results in you sweating because the subsequent evaporation of the sweat will have a cooling effect."

Kylene and Jonathan Jones spoke with some hands-on experience. They maintain the website The Provident Prepper, which is designed to help people be better prepared for emergency situations. Back in 2008, the couple, with four of their children, spent four days with their power turned off to learn how to be better equipped in the event that they find themselves in this sort of situation involuntarily.

A post of that experience, along with another on tips for preparing for a winter storm, offers much insight for those unaccustomed to such weather events. Among the various tips they discussed with Newsweek, Jonathan suggested to "do everything that you can to make sure your home is energy efficient, so that you can keep them warm in, and the cold out."

To do this, he said make sure the windows and doors aren't letting in a draft, which can be blocked by fabrics, or even bubble wrap. Kylene also noted that anyone with children should try their best to not show fear around them, no matter how cold and scared you may be. "You have to be confident," she said. "Children will reflect the emotion that they see on your face and in your eyes."

There are physical signs in your body to be mindful of, though, said Giesbrecht. Namely, watch out for frostbite and hypothermia. He said, "The number one thing to watch for for frostbite is your skin is numb." For hypothermia, he said to be aware of "shivering for extended periods of time, like 15 minutes. If you're in the house and shivering, change environments to the hospital, shopping mall, or some other large venues that are opening up in areas affected by outages... So more insulation, more heat, change environment."

Staying hydrated is also essential. No matter how cold you may be, it's important to keep drinking water. Proper hydration improves your immune system and fights off the risk of infections. Drinking water can also help you stay warmer.