The general rule for keeping warm in wilderness in cold climate is to make fire, as big as possible. While being effective, it's not sustainable in longer perspective because it is depleting natural resources very quick. It is also not always possible, for example in subarctic zone, or high in mountains.

What are the techniques to get warm without fire or with limited usage of fire? How to survive not 2-3 weeks as climbers, but the whole winter? What must be taken into account when housing in such conditions, to create housing conditions using as little timber and other burning materials as possible?

  • 1
    And you specifically mean in the wilderness?
    – user2525
    Jan 29 '13 at 20:53
  • Well, it could be as well used to reduce energy usage by suburbia house. Jan 29 '13 at 20:56
  • Surviving temporarily or building a house there?
    – jkj
    Jan 29 '13 at 21:53
  • 2
    Cave, rockshelter, or a building helps keep warmth from a fire better than open space, but it's bad for the house/cave/rockshelter. I used to help rangers protect rockshelters and their natural inhabitants (bats and like) from those who used fire efficiently :-) However, situation in a house and open area is completely different, other strategies would be the best. A cave or a partially demolished house are something in between, closer to open area.
    – Pavel
    Jan 29 '13 at 21:55
  • 4
    Grow your own thick layers of fat and fur ;)
    – gerrit
    Jan 30 '13 at 13:27

An Igloo is an efficient shelter made of snow/ice blocks. At first thought, the snow is cold so how could it keep one warm. The true value is in the insulation. The design creates a small insulating shelter. The cold weather stays out, the body heat stays in. This is part of the reason they are built small, like tents. The small volume is easier to heat by residual body temperature alone. The more people in the structure, the quicker and warmer it will become.

The human body averages 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37°C), the reason for hypothermia is the environment is sapping too much of that heat energy away from the body. By creating an igloo or similar structure, it is possible to prevent the body heat from moving too far away. As the body releases heat energy, it becomes trapped in the igloo by the thick snow walls, and builds up. The interior will not reach 98.6, but it is possible to raise it to a much more comfortable temperature than the frigid outside air.

One thing to remember with igloos is that they are cut down into the snow pack, not built on top of it. This allows a smaller surface area presented to the outer environment. Also, the orientation of the door must be taken into consideration. Allowing the cold wind to drive right in through the door is not a good idea.

Further, the snow itself will still be cold to the touch. Proper clothing is essential, the igloo just helps to maintain an environment with a higher ambient air temperature, thereby slowing the rate of heat loss from the human body. Any structure performs the same function, the igloo works with body heat because of its small size compared to the size of the occupants. Obviously, if the igloo is built too large for the number of occupants, it will not be possible to heat with residual heat alone.

  • 2
    Be careful though, building an igloo is not easy. See Outdoors SE here and here.
    – gerrit
    Jan 30 '13 at 13:26
  • While it may not be easy, it will warm you. First, while building it, the physical activity will help to warm you. Second, after it is built, it will have the insulating benefits as described. The request to survive a winter with minimal fire in subarctic or high mountain regions immediately made me think of an igloo.
    – Prymaldark
    Jan 30 '13 at 13:32
  • 1
    IME an igloo is not hard. But experience does make subsequent igloos better. One issue not addressed in this answer is the effect the variability of the climate has on the igloo. In subarctic conditions it can last a whole season. In more temperate locales you have to do repairs every day and move to a new igloo every week or so.
    – andy256
    Jun 3 '14 at 9:35

A fire is a very inefficient way to get warm and keep warm. However, if your fuel is renewable, and your usage rate is lower than the replenishment rate, there is no sustainability issue.

To make a fire more efficient, use a stove rather than an open fire:

enter image description here

Use a good design, to ensure as little heat goes up the flue/chimney, and as much stays in the room, while venting enough to get rid of the fire's emissions.

To reduce the amount of heat loss, curtail losses from radiation, convection and conduction. To curtail radiation, avoid materials that allow infra-red to pass through them; and prefer materials that reflect it. To curtail conduction, use materials with high insulation values (aka very low U-values) - particularly in warm layers of clothing. To curtail convection, have as little air flow through as is needed to prevent the concentration of pollutants, and to keep carbon dioxide levels down below 1000 ppm. Ideally, have a way to transfer heat from outgoing air to incoming air.

Add a lot of thermal mass, to convert the fire's short burst of high temperature into a long slow burst of lower, more useful temperature.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.