How to stay warm in a cool house: 20 tips

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

thermometerI like to keep the thermostat turned as low as I can stand it (15.5C/60F when I’m up, 10C/50F when I’m in bed), both to save money and to minimize my carbon footprint. Sure, I can fire up the wood stove, but in this small house, that often makes the house uncomfortably hot — and then there’s the hassle of cutting, splitting and hauling wood. The best solution, of course, is to live in a passive solar house like our neighbors do, where even on an overcast winter day, their heat-exchange unit rarely kicks on. And if you own your home, you should definitely make sure it’s well-insulated to cut down on the drafts. My house, being old and hard to insulate, is uncommonly drafty, which is mainly what qualifies me to offer the following suggestions on how to survive the winter.

  1. Work up to it. If you’re used to a 70-degree house, turn the thermostat down in increments — say, one degree a day — while implementing some of the other suggestions in this list, until you’ve toughened up.
  2. Adjust your circadian rhythms. If your work schedule permits and you’re not at too far north a latitude, try to rise with the sun. Why not spend the coldest hours snug in bed?
  3. Dress in layers. I really can’t stress this one enough. Usually, I find that people who complain about the cold are simply unwilling to dress for it: sweaters, hoodies, quilted shirts, turtlenecks… there are lots of sartorial options. But yes, high fashion may have to be sacrificed. You might find yourself wearing some truly heinous footwear.
  4. Wear long johns and/or lined pants. Yes, it’s important to keep the torso warm, but don’t neglect the legs. Thermal underwear bottoms are a must as far as I’m concerned. You might have to go to a sporting goods store and look in the ski supply section to find the super-warm ones. The ordinary, thin kind can be combined with lined pants. I don’t wear the latter, but I gather that the retailer Eddie Bauer is a good place to get lined jeans, while lined chinos can be ordered from Dickies online.
  5. Wear a wool cap. If you’re perfectly warm without a hat, I’d say your thermostat is too high.
  6. Grow your hair out for the winter. Yeah, I know, the shaved-head look is cool — I’ve done it myself — but why be cold? Let it grow. Stop shaving beards and legs. Get in touch with your Paleolithic roots.
  7. Try fingerless gloves, which keep the hands warm while still enabling you to type, text, read, pick your nose, or handle a remote.
  8. If you find gloves too cumbersome, you can generate quite a lot of heat in the hands by rapidly rubbing your palms together, then cupping the hands and blowing into them. Remember, even if you’re not a writer as I am, you are still full of hot air — a valuable resource!
  9. Use an afghan. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, draping the folded afghan over my legs even while I sit at the desk. Obviously, if you have someone to cuddle with, afghans are a big plus. (More on cuddling below.)
  10. Use a laptop rather than a desktop computer, and hold it on your lap. This isn’t an option for me, but I do sometimes find myself wondering how I might take advantage of all that wasted heat going out the back of the computer on my floor. I just don’t think I can hold it safely in my lap.
  11. Drink warm beverages: coffee, tea, hot chocolate, mulled cider, maté… A thermos mug is a must-have, letting you sip a hot beverage more or less continuously throughout the day. Save the soda pop for the warmer months. And if you’re the wine-drinking sort, give hot saké a try.
  12. Cook and eat hot meals. Obviously calories in any form warm up the body — I find I rarely get cold during the first couple hours after supper — but using the stove or oven heats up the kitchen. Why let some takeout place keep all the heat?
  13. Do dishes by hand, in the sink. I know some people find this an onerous task, but if you live in a cold house, you’ll relish the opportunity to thrust your hands and wrists in hot water. (Just don’t be one of those people who runs the hot water continuously — that’s such a waste.)
  14. Be strategic about baths and showers. In Japan, people have been taking scalding hot baths right before bed for centuries. It was one of their main strategies for surviving the winter in thin-walled, uninsulated houses with paper windows. Me, I take advantage of the heat from my morning shower to bundle up and sit outside every morning while I drink my coffee.
  15. Stay in close proximity with other warm-blooded creatures. I live alone and don’t have any pets, so I am not sure if it’s quite worth hooking up with a significant other or getting a pet from the animal shelter just to stay warm. Nor am I entirely certain whether cats are, in the main, heat sources or heat sinks: a cat in the lap can help keep you warm, but a cat occupying the warmest seat is a competitor for limited heat resources. Other, more useful creatures might be preferable. I am kind of averse to keeping any animal that couldn’t be eaten in an emergency.
  16. Get up and exercise. It’s amazing how a brief walk can warm you up for hours. If the weather is inclement, consider housecleaning. They tell me some crazy people even do what are called “exercises,” but to the extent that such unproductive exertion risks burning off valuable body fat, I advise against it.
  17. Confine sex to the bed until spring. Look, I know it’s your god-given right as an American to have sex anywhere in the house at any time, but winter is a time of sacrifice.
  18. Get a down comforter for your bed. Yes, you’ll still need at least four blankets and a quilt, too, but adding a down comforter lets you turn the thermostat at least five degrees lower.
  19. Wear flannel pyjamas or long underwear to bed, plus socks and a non-itchy knit cap. That is, if you’re sleeping alone. I have a feeling that wearing a nightcap is a pretty effective way to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
  20. Try an electric blanket. I had one once, and it was O.K., but I have a friend who swears by hers — rarely leaves her bed on the weekends, I gather.

Of course, there are plenty of other options for heating that might allow you to save money on your bills: for example, if you can stay in one room with an electric space heater, and keep your thermostat just high enough that the pipes don’t freeze. The one winter I lived in Japan, we stayed warm the semi-traditional way with a small electric heater under the table, and a tablecloth-quilt that went all the way to the floor. Four or five of us could squeeze around the table at once, bumping knees as we read, did homework, and drank hot sake. Good times.

What did I miss? Please add additional suggestions in the comments for the benefit of all the frozen people coming in from Google.