During a sustained crisis when the lights go out for an extended period, you will be faced with camping out in your home. When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, we had a few power outings each winter when an ice storm rolled In and felled power lines. My father would plant us kids in the family room with our JC penney sleeping bags, my mom would bundle us in sweaters and snow-pants, and then they would get the fireplace blazing. My father would then seal off the other rooms and hallway with visqueen and tape. He’d slightly crack open a window to prevent carbon monoxide buildup and then turn on a camping lantern.
These outings were short affairs lasting only 1-3 days, but the emphasis wasn’t on trying to heat the entire house and resume our previous lifestyle. It was to heat the body and a very small space and then only intermittently to conserve fuel. Both of my parents grew up during the first Great Depression and knew well what a life of austerity and improvisation looked like. For us kids, it was an adventure, but for the adults, it was like stepping back in time to a life of perseverance.
When the power is out long-term, focus on heating (or cooling) the body and not the house. The Japanese live like this full time, emphasizing personal warmth over heating a large space. If it’s wintertime, then get down the jackets, hats, snowpants and sleeping bags or blankets. Gather up family members in one room for sleeping to concentrate heat, but remember to have 24-hour ventilation by keeping a window slightly ajar, especially if a woodstove or propane heater is involved. Seal up the rest of the windows with visquene and duct tape. At night, employ the old camping trick of placing a warm bottle of water at the bottom of each sleeping bag. Then go to sleep with a wool hat on and food in the belly, which will keep your internal woodstove cranked up.
Some ranching friends of mine use a propane heater to warm their 12’ x 12’ bunkhouse, and it works perfectly for this small setting. I use them in canvas tents for a few hours when we don’t want to run the woodstove. These devices are intended for small spaces and won’t heat an entire house. The nice thing is that the propane tank can also be used as fuel for a campstove or lantern. There are “tree” fixtures you can purchase that will allow for multiple branches off the main propane tank.
Remember to crack open a window in the house to prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning. In mildly cold weather, you can extend the life of your propane fuel by running the heater for 15 minutes every hour during the day. Remember to seal off the unused rooms in your home during a winter blackout as a propane heater is designed to only heat small spaces. Used conservatively and for small groups, a large propane tank can last for several weeks. Big-box hardware stores sell both the (empty) propane tanks and heat fixtures. Keep propane stored outside when not in use.
The one sleeping bag that my instructors and I have used for many years is the Wiggy’s Brand. Their design is brilliant, reasonably priced and will outlast any other sleeping bags on the market. Wiggy’s uses a continuous layer of insulation rather than the baffling and panels found in other bags so you don’t get cold spots, even after years of punishment. When not in use, store them in a non-compressed state in a trash bag. For ground pads, I’ve always stuck with Ensolite closed-cell foam pads, but the Therm-a-Rest brand is comfy, too. The latter require more maintenance (patching) long-term, which is why I prefer the closed-cell pads.
Keeping cool in summer
While teaching one of my urban survival classes in Phoenix, students asked about how to stay cool in the triple-digit heat of a desert city during a long blackout. An older woman in the class relayed her simple advice from a childhood spent in Phoenix before the advent of air-conditioning. She said that all the homes used to have a screened, enclosed porch off the back of the house. This was lined around the outside with shoulder-high bushes.
During the heat of the day, her mother hosed the bushes and concrete porch down with water for a few minutes. This provided an evaporative cooling effect that lowered the temperature and enabled them to make it through the sweltering afternoons. At night before bed, her mother would again spray the bushes and concrete, and then the entire family would sleep on cots in the enclosed porch. On extremely hot nights, they went a step further and followed the old pioneer trick for staying cool by wrapping up in wet cotton sheets.
Again, it is the same principle mentioned previously with cold weather situations, only reversed, where you cool the body, not the home. You can further augment the above time-tested system by purchasing a few battery-operated fans. These can be found in the RV or camping section of an outdoor gear store, as well as some that are solar-powered.
Batteries—how many to stock up on?
We tend to burn through mostly AA and AAA batteries on our camping trips and at home, so we keep three dozen of both on hand. Nine-volt, C and D batteries aren’t in as much demand, but we have one dozen of these for various gadgets. While a little pricier, Lithium batteries will far outlast standard batteries, and I recommend these for critical gear like flashlights and emergency radios.
As a professional wilderness guide, this is an indispensable item for checking on the weather prior to heading out on a trip. Get a weather radio from Radio Shack as this has the NOAA weather band. NOAA (ie. National Weather Service) is where every TV and radio station in the US gets its weather report from, so you will be getting information straight from the source for your city. My radio works on either AA batteries or can be recharged using a hand-crank and has a USB port and cellphone charger capabilities.
Solar panels and lights
There are a wealth of portable solar panels to choose from that mainly cater to the RV and Marine industries. The brand that I have used the most at home and on extended vehicle-based trips are Goal Zero products. I have the 150 powerpack, solar panel and two LED lights and these items have held up well under extreme conditions.
Most Colorado River rafting companies in Arizona use coolers for 14-18 days straight on their trips while in the heat of the desert, and we’ve used them at our basecamp for 7 days in triple-digit heat. A couple of tips will help for extending the life of your food in a cooler:
- Keep the cooler in the shade and on the north side of your house. Then pile on some blankets or wet towels (if you have water to spare) to extend the life of the ice inside.
- Bury the cooler in the ground on the north side of house under a protected overhang (so rainwater doesn’t leak in). This can be done with or without ice. This method is similar to one used
by the pioneers who buried wooden crates in the ground filled with vegetables and fruit with a generous layer of straw inside for further insulation. Using this method, we have had carrots
and potatoes last for weeks in 80+ degree weather. Just secure the lid with duct tape or rocks on top of the lid to prevent critters from getting in.
- Only open when absolutely necessary.
- Don’t drain the ice water out once it has melted as this reduces efficiency. Just make sure all food is secured in Tupperware or Ziplocs or it will turn into slush!
Below is the ice-longevity rate for an 8-gallon cooler that is half-full of food and half covered in ice with an out- side air temperature in the 90s during the day:
• Standard 10-pound bag of ice cubes: 24 hours
• One block of ice: 4 days
• Dry ice: 7 days
• When using dry ice, be sure to wear gloves.
LIGHTING LED lanterns are the way to go as these will far outlast high-beam and standard lightbulbs. Some even come with solar chargers. We also use Coleman propane lanterns at our wilderness basecamps. The latter can really kick out a wide swath of light around the campsite or home, but you have to be aware of ventilation issues (carbon monoxide) and potential fire hazards along with needing a constant supply of replacement mantles and propane canisters. For getting started, I would recommend getting one or two of the Coleman 6-volt LED lanterns or the d.light brand solar LED lights. We have used these lanterns on our family camping trips, and they last remarkably long compared to the older, clunky battery-powered lanterns.
Regarding candles, the Nu-Wick candles make an excellent addition to both home emergency kits and roadside survival kits for your vehicle. These candles come with multiple wicks so you can control the heat/light output. For years, I have used the 44- hour Nu-Wick candles in my truck for heating water on trips, melting snow, and have heard of stranded drivers using these candles to warm the interior of their car (just crack a window!). These candles are non-toxic and unscented and can be used simply for lighting (with the addition of 1-2 wicks) or heating food (3+ wicks) or making a cup of coffee. They also make 120-hour candles. Chem-sticks or Cuyalume glo-sticks are handy if you have children and need a temporary night-light in their rooms. Glo-sticks can provide low- light illumination in a house for those times when the power goes out for a few nights, but, given their low-output, they should be used to augment your other lighting sources and not relied upon as a primary tool.
If you’ve already got your favorite backpacking stove or JetBoil, then use it. Otherwise, I recommend a propane stove as, again, propane can be used for not only cooking but lighting and heating. If you don’t want a bulbous propane tanker sitting in your backyard, then buy a 6-pack of propane canisters. One of these canisters will last for two days of cooking or 4 nights of lighting with a Coleman lantern. I’ve used many camp-stoves over the years but have found the tried- and-true Coleman brands to hold up the best. A 2-burner will handle a family of four’s cooking needs.
You will want to store the propane outside when not in use rather than in a closet to avoid any fume buildup. If you are lucky enough to live near the woods or out in the country, then campfire cooking is another option. This skill is best learned before you need it, however. A 64-ounce stainless steel or enamel cooking pot will work just fine for most meals or you can use a large coffee can.
We have lived for 2-3 weeks on “stews” cooked in a coffee-can over the fire, and this method is the best for ensuring that nutrients don’t get lost. Cooking in aluminum foil has been around the camping field for ages. It’s a great method for short-term situations, but it’s not so great for long-term family cooking unless you have a few hundred rolls of foil. I’d stick to boiling up meals in a 64-ounce pot or grilling up food on a rack over the hot coals.
I’m a huge fan of Dutch-Oven cooking and own 6 DOs myself. This is a skill that takes some trial and error; so if you’ve not done it before, do some research first, get a pre-seasoned Dutch-Oven, and then try your hand at cooking up a simple dish like a stew, chili, or casserole. Anything that can be cooked in your home oven can be cooked (even better!) in a Dutch-Oven.