Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Surviving the Weather

I've dabbled recently in writing some practical advice pieces, such as one I wrote about healthily eating while living out of a car, without refrigeration.  Now, for whatever it may be worth, I'm compelled to share a couple of insights about surviving the weather.

Most anyone living in 2021 is dealing with extremes of weather that they hadn't encountered before.  I grew up in what used to be the relatively temperate climate of southern New England, as it is known, the northeastern United States.  There were a lot of things I never needed to know about dealing with extremes of weather, because we didn't have any when I was a kid.  Since then, I've spent much of my time traveling.  

Although I very intentionally tried to organize tours in such a way that I would be traveling to places during a nice time of year -- like touring Australia in Australian winter, thus entirely missing the increasingly scorching summers wherever I might be otherwise, and doing gigs in California and Florida in the winter -- things didn't often work out that way.  I have ended up spending lots of time during record-breakingly hot summers in hot places like Texas, Arizona, and Japan, and I have done multiple tours of eastern Canada and Alaska in winter.

The good news is, although climate chaos is terrible and is causing so many problems for so many people and other creatures, the planet has long had a lot of different kinds of weather.  We're just not used to having all kinds of weather in all places, like is increasingly happening, to characterize the phenomenon in lay terms, the only ones I know.  But there are parts of the world where people are used to all these kinds of weather.  I've spent time in some of them, and learned a couple tricks.


Here in the western parts of North America, things are generally very dry, except for the thin strip of land hugging the coast.  So, when the temperature goes up to 116F (46C) as it did recently in Portland, although hot, it's a dry heat.  But whether you're in the desert or in the swamp-like conditions of New Orleans or Hiroshima in a normal summer, water is your friend.

In fact, just to emphasize the point, during the heat wave when it did get up to 116 degrees, I was in Portland with my family, happily playing inside and outside, even during the height of it all.  Those of you reading this who know me well may be aware that I really don't like hot weather, so you might be surprised to hear that we're getting by OK, though I'd prefer a much cooler climate, the way it used to be.  But if it gets really hot and you have access to running water and shade, you'll be fine.

The key, however, is not removing your clothes and getting in a pool.  I mean, that's great, if you have a pool, and if you don't mind staying in it all day.  But otherwise the thing to do is to remove your clothes -- or actually just your shirt or top -- get it wet, wring it out a bit, and put it back on.  When it dries out, repeat the process.  You can easily do this all day, every day, and you can do it for every member of your family, too.

If you have kids, set the example.  Do it yourself.  Outdoors or indoors, whether you have air conditioning that works well or not at all, but especially if you don't have AC or if you're outside.  Get your shirt wet frequently, set the example, and your kids will try it, too, and they'll love it.  Everyone will be happy, no one will be grumpy, and no one will get heatstroke and drop dead either.

If you have good AC, that's great, you can fight the heat that way and stay indoors all the time like they advise on the radio.  But if you lose power and you don't have a generator, you'll still need my advice here.  Also, in hot climates outside of the US, fighting the heat with powerful air conditioning that uses massive amounts of energy is not the norm.  Even in the rich and very subtropically hot and humid islands of Japan, very few households have central air conditioning.

In very fashion-conscious Japan, men often wear a wet t-shirt beneath another layer, which is a dry shirt, so they can be cool in both senses, even in very hot and humid weather.  It's also common to wear a wet towel around your neck there in summer.


Knowing how to use shade is vital for coping with hot weather, whether it's dry heat or wet heat, but especially in dry, desert-style heat like what we're currently experiencing in the western US and Canada.

For your house or apartment, if you live in one, you need to pay close attention to where the sun rises and sets.  Reflective curtains and blackout curtains work way better than other kinds, they need to be very serious curtains, but then wherever the afternoon sun is going to hit, close the windows in that room beforehand, and the curtains.  When the sun sets and things start to cool down out there, if they do, open all the windows and keep them open all night.

When you go outdoors in direct sunlight, well, just don't do that!  Don't be too cool for an umbrella.  Women throughout Japan and Mexico use umbrellas not just for rain, but for sun.  You can do it, too, whoever you are.  If it's cool enough for grandma Yamaguchi, it should be cool enough for you.  By using an umbrella, especially in combination with a wet shirt, you can happily take the dog for a little afternoon walk in triple-digit weather.  (Although make sure you do that with a very well-hydrated dog on a grassy field, or the dog will burn up on the pavement and die.)

If the heat is really dry, I swear to you it's true that you can sit in the shade of a typical cement building in the desert when it's way over 100 degrees, and you will be perfectly comfortable and cool with no air conditioning, whether the window is open or closed.  And if your shirt is wet, you might get cold.  I'm serious, and I speak from experience.


That heading may sound like a heading for coping with cold weather, and I thought I would talk about that, too, but first it bears mentioning that layers are good for hot weather, too.  There is a common misconception that if you're hot, the best thing you can do is remove your clothing.  This may be true if you're going swimming, but otherwise, it's not.  Wet clothing, or loose clothing that provides shade, will both keep you much cooler than removing your clothing will.  People wear types of clothing we might generally characterize as robe-like in the deserts and tropics of Africa and Asia for very practical reasons.

But among the weather extremes we are experiencing a lot of recently, extreme cold is another.  In Texas, known of course more for heat, and in east Texas, humidity, than any other kind of weather, it got way below freezing last winter, and stayed that way for a while.  The electrical grid froze and stopped working.  As with the heat wave that's going on now, during the freeze in Texas last winter, people died.  People got frostbite and died.

I know people who are used to cold weather were sometimes shocked to hear that people actually got frostbite and died in Texas when it was not even very far below freezing.  Pretty much any Canadian or Norwegian over the age of seven knows how to avoid getting frostbite and dying when it is well below freezing outside, while they are in fact not only not getting frostbite and dying, but are enjoying the weather, outside, for hours on end.  But in Texas, some people die when the heat goes off.

As with the heat deaths, these deaths are pretty much entirely avoidable.  Of course extreme weather will affect the vulnerable more, and more elderly people die in winter or summer than in spring or autumn, during a typical year.  (At least I'm pretty sure I heard that from a reliable source and I didn't just make that up.)  But if you know how to cope, you'll tend to die a lot less, and even be able to enjoy whatever weather you find yourself in.

This is very much true of cold weather.  I say that perhaps as someone who prefers it to hot weather, but nonetheless, all you need to know how to do is to know how to dress yourself.  This is not something people learn how to do in climates where it rarely freezes in winter, however.  

For a typical person living in Houston or Miami, the warmest article of clothing they own for the bottom half of their bodies is probably a pair of jeans.  The warmest top they own is a sweater or a light jacket.  Among the more privileged sorts who take ski vacations in Colorado and such, they may own more useful items of clothing, and I doubt any of the people who got frostbite and died in Texas when the power went out are among that set.  (Of course, they're also probably not reading this blog post.)

I've never gong skiing, but everyone has seen how skiers dress on TV.  Every bit of their skin is covered.  That's the first thing you need to do when it's below freezing.

If the warmest thing you own to cover your legs with is a pair of jeans, then you need to figure out how to have another layer either under or over the jeans.  If they're loose enough, you can wear long underwear, also called thermal underwear (if you own any or can find any to buy).  Assuming you don't have ski pants, another thing that works very well for warmth on top of your jeans are rain pants.

As with closing your windows to keep the heat out, when surviving outside in sub-freezing weather, keeping every inch of skin covered at all times means doing just that.  Not just having a top on and a bottom on, each with a few layers, but tucking things in properly, everywhere, so there is no space where air can come in between your socks and the bottoms of your jeans, or under your shirt, or down your neck.  Cover all of that in ways that it stays covered, and you don't need to keep messing with it.

Once properly wrapped and layered, with a little bit of movement, your body will keep you warm just fine, indefinitely.  You can get through an entire winter like that, without getting frostbite and dying, even if it never goes above freezing, and the heat never comes back on.  It's obviously much nicer if you have a place to live and heat, but even if you're living in a car, if you have clothing and you know how to dress, you can avoid frostbite.

When temperatures go way below they did in Texas last winter, then the advice I'm giving here is less applicable.  At least from my experience, at a certain point, there is no good alternative to serious winter clothing, like the kinds of winter pants and winter jackets that most any resident of the Arctic has hanging by their front door.  There is a level of cold where a scarf and hat is a joke, and you need goggles and a long hood, so you look like Kenny in South Park.


One of the big problems with housing of any kind in parts of the world where they are used to a temperate climate is there's no need for insulation.  Which is fine when it doesn't get very hot or very cold.  But if it does, insulation, like layers, is essential.

Of course, pointing this out may or may not be very helpful, if you can't just get your house renovated, or if you're a renter, or living in your car.  But the insulation principle is one you can keep in mind, whenever trying to avoid extremes of heat or cold.

The ground is great insulation.  The more you can into it, the more temperate the climate will be.  Basements, caves, cellars, holes in the ground, these are all your friends.  If there's no power and it's very hot out, storing food in as deep a hole as you can dig will keep it much cooler than anywhere else.

A stove is much better than a fireplace.  If you're keeping yourself warm through a fire of any kind, make it more like a stove as much as you can.  Surround that fire with objects that hold heat, like bricks, cement, stones.  After the fire goes out, even if it's been going strong for a half hour, those objects stay warm for a while, maybe even all night.  Of course, if you're indoors and working with a fireplace, this will work much better than outdoors, but the principle applies either way.

And of course, as with dressing and keeping every inch of skin covered when the weather is below freezing, even if you're in a structure with no insulation and no heat, finding and blocking every place where air may be coming in, such as cracks at the bottoms of doors, will help keep the warmth in a lot, even if the only warmth you have is being produced by your body.  Each of our bodies produces as much warmth as an old-fashioned, hot light bulb.  That can easily hot a room if it's insulated.

On the off-chance you happen to find yourself outdoors and in a blizzard or otherwise surrounded by snow and sub-zero temperatures:  the snow is your friend.  Snow is very warm.  Snow is insulation.  Make a cave out of the snow, and get in it.  If your skin is all covered, once you're in a small cave made of snow, your body will warm up the space quickly, and you'll be warm and cozy while you wait for the blizzard to pass.  You can stay that way for days if you have to, and your main problem will be the usual hunger and thirst and occasional need to expose your skin long enough to relieve yourself, but you won't get frostbite.  Just don't pee into the wind.

And thus concludes my advice for surviving the weather.