Shelter, Sleeping and Heating

I’m not sure how many emergencies have ever forced people to vacate their place of residence and take up alternative shelter, but I can’t help but wonder if a major earthquake could necessitate this course of action. So I decided it’s probably worth talking about.

I often use the following reference when prioritizing our emergency preparation efforts. Remember these?

You can live 3 weeks without food.

You can live 3 days without water.

You can live 3 hours without shelter.

The last one, of course, would only apply to extreme cold and under terrible conditions. But an earthquake in the middle of one of our winters just might meet this criterion. So as they say, let’s hope for the best and plan for the worst.

My goal of this module is simply this: to get you thinking about potential threats that you might face and then consider a few ways in which you could mitigate these threats. I am not saying that you need to go out and purchase an expensive spring bar tent with subzero sleeping bags, propane and electric heaters, with a generator for around-the-clock electricity. But I do want you to have an idea of what you would do if you were ever displaced outside of your home. It might even be that your home is still habitable, but the utilities are down, and probably for a long time.

An article put out on February 19th of 2019 talks about a recent study the government conducted on the infrastructure (more specifically, the electrical grid) of the United States. I’ll quote some of it.:

“The Presidents Infrastructure Advisory Council has just released a new study examining the electrical grid in the United States. The Council was established by executive order in October 2001 to advise the President on practical strategies for industry and government to reduce complex risks to critical infrastructure. The committee conducts in-depth studies on physical and cyber risks and recommends solutions that reduce risks and improve security and response. Their results, a catastrophic failure is possible and probable.”

The latest study completed in 2018 found: “Unlike severe weather disasters, a catastrophic power outage may occur with little or no notice and result from myriad types of scenarios: for example, a sophisticated cyber-physical attack resulting in severe physical infrastructure damage; attacks timed to follow and exacerbate a major natural disaster; a large-scale wildfire, earthquake, or geomagnetic event; or a series of attacks or events over a short period of time that compound to create significant physical damage to our nation’s infrastructure. An event of this severity may also be an act of war, requiring a simultaneous military response that further draws upon limited resources. For the purpose of this study, the NIAC focused not on the cause, but rather on the consequences, which are best categorized as severe, widespread, and long-lasting. The type of event contemplated will include not only an extended loss of power, but also a cascading loss of other critical services—drinking water and wastewater, communications, financial services, transportation, fuel, healthcare, and others—which may slow recovery and impede re-energizing the grid. Most importantly, the scale of the event—stretching across states and regions, affecting tens of millions of people—would exceed and exhaust mutual aid resources and capabilities.”

They found a catastrophic failure is not only possible but probable and we are not prepared to cope with it.

They go on: “There needs to be more individual accountability for preparedness. People no longer keep enough essentials within their homes, reducing their ability to sustain themselves during an extended, prolonged outage. We need to improve individual preparedness. Most preparedness campaigns call for citizens to be prepared for 72 hours in an emergency, but the new emerging standard is 14 days. For example, Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii have a standard that individuals have enough food and water to support themselves for 14 days. These efforts could serve as a model for federal and state preparedness resources, campaigns, and training. The idea of individual preparedness is not a new concept. Civil defense, an older term used to elevate a level of individual preparedness and activate communities, used to be more widely accepted.”

So it seems that there are plenty of things that could put us into emergency mode. Let’s consider the topics of this module, shelter and sleeping.


Regardless of the emergency, let’s hope our homes will remain habitable. Or at the very least, let’s hope there is a large public building such as a school or church that will be habitable. But if you had to consider alternate means of shelter, what options do you have? It’s best to consider this now, verses in the freezing cold the moment it is needed. Vehicles may work, especially if they are bigger, such as a van or a large SUV. A camp trailer or RV would be great too. What about a tent? This is probably one of the more likely options. And for many of us, this falls under the camping category and therefore, may be a little easier to justify buying one, if you don’t already have one. Spring bar tents are probably my favorite, as they are very sturdy and quite roomy, but they can also be expensive and heavy. When looking at tents, consider cold weather tents. Utility sheds are usually very sturdy and would at least keep the elements out. Shelves can often be cleared off and used as bunks. Maybe give your shed a second look next time you are out there and see if there are some simple repairs or upgrades that could be made in the event you ever had to temporarily “move in.”


While the shelter options may take more consideration and money, sleeping bags are definitely something you should have for every person in your family. And again, this can almost always be justified when put in the camping category, and then repurpose it for emergency prep, if necessary. (Really, most of your emergency prep equipment will fall in this dual purpose “camping” category anyway.) Look for a sleeping bag that is rated for cold weather, preferably sub freezing. You may also want to consider a good ground pad/tarp to go under your tent, as that extra layer against the elements will most certainly be a must. You are also going to want a sleeping pad of some type. There are several options here, all having pros and cons. Sleeping pads offer insulation against the cold ground and will keep you warmer, but they leave you vulnerable to rain and moisture as you are still on the ground. You do not want to contend with sleeping bags that have gotten wet because the floor of the tent failed to keep all the elements out (rain almost always finds its way in). Air mattresses and camp cots, on the other hand, are more comfortable and will keep you off the ground, but they offer no barrier between you and the cold air that is now between you and the ground. The best bet is to use both…put a camp pad directly on your air mattress or camp cot.


Keeping your shelter warm will be the next consideration. This shelter may be your home, minus the utilities, or you may be displaced outside of your home, and forced to use a tent or other means of shelter. Either way, you might be faced with the challenge of keeping warm. If you use a heater, make sure it is “indoor safe”. Many heaters put off some amount of Carbon Monoxide, or CO. CO is a colorless, odorless and highly poisonous gas that is produced from incomplete combustion, often because appliances are improperly adjusted. CO interferes with the blood’s ability to transport oxygen to the lungs and can result in flu-like symptoms including headache, nausea and dizziness. Increased exposure without exposure to fresh air can lead to death by asphyxiation. Typically, “tank top” or “torpedo” propane heaters put off a lot of CO and are rated for outdoors only. There are some indoor safe heaters. One such heater, which I own, is the Mr. Heater portable Buddy Heater. It has a built-in oxygen depletion sensor and an automatic tip-over shutoff switch. You can even buy an extension hose to attach it to a large propane canister. There are other such “indoor safe” heaters. Just do your homework and find one that works for you. Even with an “indoor safe” gas heater, you do not want to run it all night. Use it to get your shelter warm, and then shut it off when you go to sleep. Your shelter should stay warm enough to get you through the night. Electric heaters are great as they do not put off fumes, but the problem with electric heaters is, well, they require electricity. If you have a generator (remember, the power is still out), then you are good to go. (Generators and electrical options will be covered in a later module.)

Tips on keeping warm at night:

  1. Have a knit hat in your 72-hour kit. A lot of your body heat is lost through your head, so just by wearing a knit hat, you can keep a lot of that body heat in you. Wearing a hat is better than putting your head inside your sleeping bag because when you put your head inside of your sleeping bag, your breath creates condensation inside the bag which can ultimately make you colder.

  2. Make sure that your socks are completely dry. Even slightly damp socks can cause you to lose a lot of heat through your feet. It’s also important to make sure that you don’t bundle up too much and start sweating. If you get so warm that you start sweating, you can be sure that you will end up cold and damp in the end! If you start to sweat, remove some layers.

  3. Use a Mylar Thermal Blanket to reflect the heat from the heater back down at you. Most people just think of these blankets as emergency blankets. Whether you use a heater or just your own body heat, this tip can really help a lot! Just attach the thermal blanket to the ceiling of your tent with duct tape (you included this in your 71-hour kits, right?) and it will reflect much of the heat inside the tent back down at you.

  4. Most people don’t realize that you need to keep your tent ventilated at night. This may sound a little strange and counterintuitive at first, but there’s a good reason for it. The heat from your body and the moisture in your breath will condense onto your tent walls and make everything in your tent slightly damp…and cold. Now that we mention this, you’ve seen this before, haven’t you? Now you know.

  5. If you’ve built a fire, heat up a few 5 to 15-pound rocks by your fire for about an hour or so. Pull them away from the fire and let them cool down for a bit. Once they are cool enough to handle (but still very warm) wrap them in towels and put them in the foot of your sleeping bag or place them in the center of your tent. Remember those mylar thermal blankets that you taped to the tent ceiling? Well, that will reflect all that heat back down at you and your tent should stay warm for hours.

  6. Fill a water bottle with hot water and put it in your sleeping bag. Works great.

Heating Fuels:

  • Coal stores well if kept in a dark place and away from moving air. Air speeds the deterioration and breakdown of coal, causing it to burn more rapidly. Coal may be stored in a plastic-lined pit or in sheds, bags, boxes, or barrels. It should be kept away from circulating air, light, and moisture. Cover it to lend protection from weather and sun.

  • Wood- Hardwoods such as apple, cherry, and other fruit woods are slow burning and sustain coals. Hardwoods are more difficult to burn than softer woods, thus requiring a supply of kindling. Soft woods such as pine and cedar are light in weight and burn very rapidly, leaving ash and few coals for cooking. If you have a fireplace or a wood/coal burning stove, you will want to store several cords of firewood. Firewood is usually sold by the cord, which is a neat pile that totals 128 cubic feet. This pile is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Some dealers sell wood by the ton. As a general rule of thumb, a standard cord of air-dried dense hardwood weighs about two tons and provides as much heat as one ton of coal. Be suspicious of any alleged cord delivered in a ½ or ¾ ton pickup truck. For best results, wood should be seasoned (dried) properly, usually at least a year. A plastic tarp, wood planks, or other plastic or metal sheeting over the woodpile is useful in keeping the wood dry. Other types of fuels are more practical to store and use than wood or coal.

  • Charcoal- Never use a charcoal burning device indoors. When charcoal burns, it is a voracious consumer of oxygen and will quickly deplete the oxygen supply in your little “home within a home.” Furthermore, as it burns, it produces vast amounts of carbon monoxide, which is a deadly poison. If you make the mistake of trying to heat your home by burning charcoal, it could prove fatal to your entire family. Never burn charcoal indoors.

  • Propane is another excellent fuel, and if used correctly, is safe for indoor use. Carbon Monoxide is the product of incomplete gas combustion often because appliances are improperly adjusted. Properly functioning propane appliances will produce what is called an "ideal burn" during combustion and present no danger of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Incomplete propane combustion can occur in one of two ways: Lean burn is where the ratio of propane to air is less than 4 to 1. A lean burn can be recognized when flames appear to lift away from the burner and can potentially go out. Rich burn is where the ratio of propane to air is more than 4 to 1. A rich burn is when the flames are much larger than they are supposed to be and are largely yellow in color. Always make sure you check whether the device you’re using is rated as “indoor safe” or “outdoor only.” It does consume oxygen and produces carbon dioxide, so be sure to crack a window when burning propane. Propane stores indefinitely, having no known shelf life. Propane stoves and small portable heaters are very economical, simple to use, and come the closest to approximating the type of convenience most of us are accustomed to using on a daily basis.

  • Kerosene (aka Range Oil No. 1) is the cheapest of all the storage fuels and is also very forgiving if you make a mistake. Kerosene is not as explosive as gasoline and Coleman fuel. Kerosene stores well for long periods of time, and by introducing some fuel additives, it can be made to store even longer. However, do not store it in metal containers for extended periods of time unless they are porcelain lined because the moisture in the kerosene will rust through the container causing the kerosene to leak out. Most hardware stores and home improvement centers sell kerosene in 5-gallon plastic containers, which store for many years. A 55-gallon drum stored in the backyard, or ten 5-gallon plastic containers is enough fuel to last an entire winter, if used sparingly.

To burn kerosene, you will need a kerosene heater. There are many models and sizes to choose from, but remember that you are not trying to heat your entire home. The larger the heater the more fuel you will have to store. Most families should be able to get by on a heater that produces between 10,000 and 20,000 BTU’s of heat, though kerosene heaters are made that will produce up to 180,000 BTU’s. If you have the storage space to store the fuel required by these larger heaters, they are an excellent investment, but for most families, the smaller heaters are more than adequate. When selecting a kerosene heater, be sure to get one that can double as a cooking surface (they also generate a decent amount light as well). They put off a ton of heat and are more than capable of boiling water or cooking as well. So plan to prepare your meals while you are using your heater. The heater to the right is a DuraHeat 23,800 BTU indoor safe portable kerosene heater.

When kerosene burns, it requires very little oxygen, compared to charcoal. You must crack a window about ¼ inch to allow enough oxygen to enter the room to prevent asphyxiation. During combustion, kerosene is not poisonous and is safe to use indoors. To prevent possible fires, you should always fill it outside. The momentary incomplete combustion during lighting and extinguishing of kerosene heaters can cause some unpleasant odors, so it is recommended that you always light and extinguish the heater outdoors. During normal operation a kerosene heater is practically odorless.

Kerosene vs Propane:

When it comes to portable space heaters, propane heaters and kerosene heaters are certainly the most popular. Each of these fuel types comes with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example:

Propane is a clean-burning fuel and, as a result, it is more popular in homes than kerosene heaters. This fuel produces low emissions, making it more environmentally friendly. Propane fuel is heavier than air and it is usually compressed into tanks. These tanks are sold at filling stations or hardware stores. One of the main problems with propane is that it is very combustible. When it is inhaled it can be dangerous for the health.

Kerosene fuel, unlike propane, comes in liquid form. This means that it doesn’t leak the same as propane. However, it does create small emissions, and as a result, it is harder on the environment. Kerosene is capable of producing a lot of heat quickly and can generate more heat in a single gallon of fuel. When you consider the fact that propane costs more per gallon, kerosene is a far better fuel to use if you are concerned about value for your money.

Page updated: 10/14/20