First Time?

Feb 16

How to Stay Warm in Winter, Mind, Body, Shelter


In this post, I would like to invite you to deepen your relationship with a fundamental human need, How to Stay Warm in Winter and Shelter. Knowledge of the principles of shelter is something ALL humans used to have as an essential human know-how. It was (and still is) a part of everyday life and survival.  

Knowing the basics can help you survive a disaster, a night in the woods, design a more energy efficient and disaster resilient home, or just be more comfortable on an excessively hot, cold, windy or rainy day.


** Make sure to check out the "Home Survival Shelter Video" at the bottom of this post


What would you do if the power went out for an extended period of time, lets say 4 days+, and temperatures were in the -20 range? In the video I’ll show you how to make a survival shelter inside your home to keep you and your family warm. This is a great disaster survival skill.

I like to break shelter into 3 different layers:

  • Layer 1 - Mind & Body
  • Layer 2 - Clothing
  • Layer 3 - Physical Shelters ( A building, home or survival shelter we built)
Igloos are great survival shelter designs

A Little Context...

In the world of survival and disaster preparedness, there is a commonly used concept called the Rule of 3’s. People can survive approximately:

  • 3 minutes without air
  • 3 hours without adequate shelter
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

As you can see, shelter is high on the list of priorities. People are often surprised that shelter comes before food and water, yet you only have to think about the toll of the elements, wind, rain, heat, to realize what is dangerous versus what feels uncomfortable to you right now. 

Principals of Shelter 

The following are points I use when teaching wilderness survival shelter building. They are just as relevant when considering your clothes or the design of your home.

A. Heat Source

When it comes to humans, heat comes from one of two categories, internal or external. Internal heat refers to the heat our own body creates through the

burning of calories and the functioning of all our organs and internal systems. External heat refers to any other source, including the sun, a fire or the multiple options to heat our homes such as propane, electric, gas, etc.

How to stay warm during a blackout, woodstoves

B. Insulation

Layers of fibre that create pockets of "dead air space” to allow heat capture and slow down heat loss, or materials that act as thermal mass, storing and slowing the movement of heat.

C. Drainage

The ability of our shelter to shed water and keep us dry.

D. Durability

The ability of our shelter to hold up under duress and friction from the elements and other activities.

E. Efficiency

Does the amount of resources (could be physical work or $$$) put into the shelter warrant its ability to provide adequate shelter?

There is a book I recommend, by educator Tomas J. Elpel, about these principles, called "Living Homes." A good read if you want a deeper understanding of these principles.


The Three Layers of Shelter & How to Stay Warm

Let’s now take a deeper look at the 3 Layers of Shelter and how we can make the most of them and prepare for prosperity in a world of climate change and uncertain times. 

Layer One: Mind & Body

The first line of protection from the elements is your own body and mind. What are they capable of enduring, or even enjoying? Remember, your body has been adapted over a long time to handle stress (physical and mental). Your DNA has a blueprint for resiliency. You should be able to rely on your mind and body as a protective layer, at least to some degree.

Humans have lived in harsh outdoor environments for hundreds of thousands of years. We are capable of training our bodies and minds to be very resilient and hardy when it comes to extreme conditions.

I would purpose that the comforts of our modern world have made us relatively un-resilient and even soft. This is compared to our generational predecessors who lived outside 365 days a year regardless of the weather.

As I make that point, please know I recognize there are many legitimate reasons people may not be as resilient to the elements as our ancestors, such as a medical condition or living situation. This statement is non intended to shame anyone for being “soft”. It is a statement about the general trend of humans becoming less resilient to the elements as the world becomes more modernized, as we drift away from our ancient and important connection with nature.

How do we increase our resilience to the elements?

When exposed to small amounts of certain types of stress, our bodies natural response is to adapt and bounce back stronger.

This is one of the reasons why exercise, a type of low level stress, is so beneficial to our health and makes us stronger over time. There is a ton of research coming out these days on the health benefits of saunas and cold exposure as well. These are also low level stresses on our bodies that trigger a regeneration process that makes us stronger.

Most people are capable of intentionally training themselves to be more resilient to the cold, the heat, going days without food, and other stressful situations. This training is the same as push-ups or crossword puzzles: reaching the potential of your body and mind.

  • You might ask, well why the heck would I want to do that? That does not sound fun. I’ll argue the contrary.

The benefits are immense and can positively impact many aspects of your life.

From your ability to focus and achieve goals, to the ability to enjoy the outdoors regardless of weather, or your ability to thrive in an unchosen stressful situation such as a disaster or extreme weather event.

Learning to regulate your emotional attachment and relationship to hot, cold, stress and hunger is incredibly empowering and brings a greater sense of freedom.

Here a few suggestions for getting started:

  • Putting the right fuel in your body as well as having a healthy cardiovascular system (good blood flow) can go along ways in this. I eat a TON of healthy fat in the winter and it makes a HUGE difference in my ability to stay warm and my energy level. Check out this article where I discuss lessons from Nature in staying warm.
Edible Acorns as Survival Food
  • If you live in a cold climate that experiences winter, try to avoid wearing a jacket as long as possible as winter begins. People are always amazed about how few layers I wear in the winter time and how comfortable I am outdoors. I intentionally under-dress in the first month of winter. It is kind of like when you leave a dog outside all day, day after day at the start of the winter. It will grow a thicker coat then a dog left inside. The same goes with humans. Mid winter when everyone feels the cold is unbearable, I finally put on a jacket and I’m quite comfortable and able to enjoy my time outdoors. Please keep in mind this kind of training compounds over time, doing it for a week is unlikely to show you amazing results. The key is commitment, consistently and knowing your why.
  • Start with short exposures to temperatures outside your comfort zone. This could be turning your shower water on cold for 30 seconds and forcing yourself to breath normally (this part is important) under the cold temperatures. Or go stand outside in shorts and a t-shirt for a few minutes a day in the winter and again focus on your breathing. Increase the duration of this over time.
  • Learn to regulate your internal temperature and stress response through breathing. An interesting starting point in cold exposure and the power of breath work is researching the work of  “Ice Man, Wim Hoff.” Wim Hoff holds many world records including feats such as sitting in ice water for over an hour and ten minutes, climbing part way up Mount Everest wearing only shorts and shoes, and running in the dessert with no water. He has trained thousands of people around the world to endure extreme temperatures through intentional exposure to stresses such as cold or heat, intentional breathing techniques and the power of the mind. Training your body and mind to be more resilient gives you a HUGE advantage when it comes to survival.
Layer Two: Clothing

The next line of defense is the clothing you choose to wear. Not all clothing is created equal when it comes to extreme (or any) weather and the elements. Remember our principles of shelter when choosing the best clothing to invest in: Heat Source, Insulation, Durability, Drainage, Efficiency. All of these = effectiveness to protect you from the elements.

Have you ever heard the saying, “cotton kills”?

 Wet cotton has no insulation value. It has the reverse effect and draws warmth out of your body. Moist or wet cotton (even just a little sweat) can cause you to get colder even faster. Thus avoid wearing cotton if you anticipate inclement weather or being in a cold environment.

This even goes for being inside your home if the heating system is not functioning. Even normal, non strenuous day to day activities, cause small amounts of sweat to form on our bodies. Before you go to bed, change to a fresh set of clothes and ideally out of cotton for a warm night sleep.

Wool is the Winner!

Wool on the other hand is still very effective in helping you retain body heat even when it is wet. 

Wool is often very durable compared to cotton and will better hold up to wear and tear in a post disaster landscape. Tight nit wool is even mildly water resistant to a light rain. The downsides are when wool gets wet, it can be quite heavy and take a long time to dry out, it can be expensive, and it may be itchy. Thrift stores and army surplus stories are great places to find good deals on wool clothing.

How to stay warm in winter with wool clothes

I went through the ice on a -15C day once while out in the woods. I got soaked from neck down but had wool socks, long johns, pants and multiple layers of wool shirts and sweaters on.

Although my wardrobe was now much heavier due to water retention, I decided to test it against the cold. I stayed out side for over an hour in wet clothing in minus temperatures and was plenty warm. It works and is now the main fiber I wear in the outdoors.

Merino wool is very popular amongst outdoor adventures and athletes as it does not cause the same itchiness as traditional wool. It will usually dry much faster, and still helps retain body heat when it is wet.

On Synthetic Clothing...

Synthetic clothing (ex: polypropylene) often dry out quickly and some help wick moisture away from your body, thus being better than cotton for insulation and drainage. The durability of these layers will not be as strong as wool. Also, if you are going to be around open fires or hot heat sources, remember synthetic clothing can melt.

The key takeaway here is to consider what types of clothing materials you are wearing if you may be facing inclement or even extreme weather or temperatures.

Do not be complacent if traveling via a car, cab, or subway and underdress, relying on the vehicle to protect you from the elements. Always assume you may have to travel outside and be ready for this.

In 2010, a snow storm struck London Ontario during the evening commute. It brought significantly more snow than forecasted and over 300 cars got buried on the highway. People driving home from work had to spend the entire night stuck in their cars in a snowstorm. How would you far in this situation?

When selecting any clothing, consider these factors:

  • Durability: Will it stay together if exposed to a higher than normal amount of friction and abrasion due to a disaster or extreme weather event?
  • Insulation: How well will it keep you warm if wet? Will it protect you from the sun and keep you cool during extreme heat?
  • Dry time: how long will it take to dry when wet? You may not have access to electricity or even sunshine for days to weeks.
  • Efficiency: how do all the above factors combine to determine how efficient and effective your clothing system is?

People often comment about how it appears that I am wearing very little clothing in the winter and rarely wear a coat even at -20C. This is due partially to my mind body relationship with the cold and partly to a really good layering systems. Here are my winter layers:

-   Merino wool t-shirt and long john layer

-   Thin merino wool hoodie

-   Thicker army surplus full wool sweater

-   Outer fleece hoodie

-   Wool plants

-   Thin merino wool base layer socks

-   Thick full wool socks

-   Wool hat

-   Snowmobile mits

Layer Three: Structure

The next line of defense is any larger physical structure you can get inside of to help protect you from the elements. Just like clothing, not all physical structures are created equally either, and the same principles apply.

One often overlooked variable to consider in construction design it how the structure is built into the landscape. Whether building a survival shelter out of branches and debris or a home out of lumber, consider the following:

  • How is the drainage of the surrounding landscape? A lot of home basements flood because the home is in a bad location to begin with and the design did not take that into consideration.
  • Where does water go when it drains off of the roof?
  • Are the tree’s and shrubs planted around the shelter species that absorb large amounts of water?
  • Which way does the predominant wind of your area blow from? Is that taken into consideration for the homes design and just as importantly, landscape design?
  • When does the sun hit your shelter and how does this change throughout the seasons?
  • Is the greater landscape exposed to the wind or sheltered from it?

You'll notice that most primitive/regionally traditional architecture meets all of these needs... historical or fantastically!

Applying the Principals to Your Home

When we bought our homestead I took many of the principals I teach in wilderness survival workshops and applied it to assessing the location of our home before purchasing. Here were a few of the main selling features for my wife and I:

  • The house was on a sand mound - really good drainage and protection from flooding and moldy basements from excess moisture.
  • The house was in a small valley - Protection from strong winds, reduced risk of tornadoes and better protection from forest fires.
  • The house was close to a clean natural water source - during a prolonged blackout we would still have access to clean water.
  • The house had a wood stove and forest around it - We will always have access to wood for heating and cooking even during a blackout and a plethora of other resources from the forest.

There are many good resources out there on wilderness survival shelters and more efficient and disaster resistant home design. For now I hope the previous questions get you thinking a little bit about how your knowledge of the surrounding ecology is useful in choosing where and how to build any kind of structure.

The last thing I will leave you with is a video on applying some of the principals of shelter to blackout during a cold snap. What do you do if your furnace stops working for several days or longer and it is very cold out? In this video I demonstrate how to build a warm survival shelter inside of your home.


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What are YOUR tips for Staying Warm? Comments and Thoughts Below

About the Author

Chris Gilmour is the creator of ChangingWorldProject.com He has a diverse background in the study of ecology, teaching traditional wilderness & urban survival, consulting in modern-day emergency and disaster preparedness and has a passion for self-reliance such as growing food and the martial arts.

  • Laura says:

    Very thought article. Interested to try more cold training as a strategy to enjoy winter more.

  • Bryarly says:

    Really enjoyed this article Chris! I too am keen to try your layering approach, using wool in each layer, and acclimatizing more deliberately early in winter

    • Chris Gilmour says:

      Glad you enjoyed Bryarly. I started experimenting with both my layering system as well as conscious acclimatization techniques about 10 years ago when I was working as a dog sled guide and outside all winter long.

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