Power Down: Heating, Cooling and Lighting Alternatives

Power Down: Heating, Cooling and Lighting Alternatives

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 outages each winter when ice storms 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 plastic sheeting 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 one to three 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 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 don the jackets, hats, snow pants and sleeping bags or extra 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 plastic sheeting 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 foot square bunkhouse, and it works perfectly for this small setting. I use these heaters 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 to supply fuel for a camp stove or lantern. There are “tree” fixtures you can purchase that will allow running multiple branches off the main propane tank to power several pieces of equipment at once.

Remember to crack open a window in the house to allow fresh air in and 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. Full tanks can be found at grocery stores and gas stations and big-box hardware stores sell empty and full propane tanks as well as heat fixtures. Keep propane stored outside when not in use.

When the power is out long-term, focus on heating (or cooling) the body and not the house.
—Tony Nester


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. Therm-a-Rest inflating pads can require more maintenance (patching) in the long-term, which is why I prefer the closed-cell pads.


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, as well as some that are solar-powered, can be found in the RV or camping section of an outdoor gear store.


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. There are many choices available that receive multiple bands including the NOAA weather service bands. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the home of the National Weather Service that produces weather, hydrologic and climate forecasts and warnings, so you will be getting information straight from the source for your area. My radio works on either AA batteries or can be recharged using a hand-crank and has a USB port and cellphone charger capabilities.


There are a wealth of portable solar panels to choose from that mainly cater to RV and Marine users. The brand that I have used the most at home and on extended vehicle based trips is Goal Zero. I have a solar panel and two LED lights and these items have held up well under extreme conditions.

While a little pricier, Lithium batteries will far outlast standard batteries, and I recommend these for critical gear like flashlights and emergency radios.
—Tony Nester


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 base camp for 7 days in 100+ degree (F) 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 the 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 (F) weather. Just secure the lid with duct tape or rocks on top of the lid to prevent critters from getting in.
  • Only open the cooler when it is absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t drain the ice water out as this reduces efficiency. Just make sure all of the food is secured in Tupperware or Ziploc bags 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 outside 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.


LED lanterns are the way to go as these will far outlast halogen 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 carbon monoxide ventilation issues and potential fire hazards along with needing a constant supply of replacement mantles and propane canisters.

For those starting out, I would recommend getting one or two of the Coleman 6-volt LED lanterns or the d.light brand of 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.

Candles are another lighting option. The Nuwick 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 Nuwick candles in my truck for heating water on trips and melting snow. I have heard of stranded drivers using these candles to warm the interior of their vehicle. If you do this, be sure to crack a window to vent the combustion gases. 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.

Self-contained one-time-use Cyalume Chemical lightsticks or Glowproducts.com glow sticks are handy, especially if you have children and need a temporary nightlight in their rooms. They are available in a number of colors, durations, sizes and brightness and can provide safe illumination inside or outside, even in a torrential downpour.

For years, I have used the 44-hour Nuwick candles in my truck for heating water on trips and melting snow. I have heard of stranded drivers using these candles to warm the interior of their vehicle.”
—Tony Nester


If you’ve already got your favorite backpacking or JetBoil stove, then use that. 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 tank sitting in your backyard, then buy a 6-pack of propane canisters. One of these canisters will last for two days of cooking or four nights of lighting with a Coleman lantern. I’ve used many camp stoves over the years but have found the tried-and-true Coleman brand to hold up the best. A two-burner unit will handle a family of four’s cooking needs. You should 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 six of them 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.

Tony Nester is the director of the Ancient Pathways Survival School in Flagstaff, AZ. His company is the primary provider of survival training for the Military Special Operations community, and he has served as a consultant for the NTSB, FAA, and the film Into the Wild. He and his family live in a strawbale home in the mountains.

More Info

For more information on Tony Nester’s books and survival courses, visit apathways.com.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.