If you live in the continental U.S., you're likely to face a harsh winter this year. (As I type this, people in the Great Lakes region of New York are still digging themselves and their homes out of last week's taller-than-most-people snowfall, while everyone on the East Coast north of Virginia braces for the blizzard forecast to wallop them on the day before Thanksgiving, and residents of the Rocky Mountain states prepare for the completely different blizzard forecast to hit themthe day before Thanksgiving.)
It's never actually pleasant to find yourself stranded somewhere after a snowstorm renders your local roads-and-transportation network useless for the duration. But of course, if you must be snowbound, some places are far better than others. The ideal situation finds you safely at home with your family, alongside food and other supplies sufficient to last several days without leaving home.
Less ideally, you might find yourself stuck at work, or in some business or public establishment staying open specifically to shelter people during the emergency — none of the comforts of home, but at least you're indoors, out of the weather and off the roads. Worst of all is if a storm hits while you're out driving in it, and you're forced to spend several hours, or even a couple of days and nights, trapped in your own vehicle.
Whether you're stuck in your car or snowbound at home after utility lines go down, the most immediate and obvious dangers are from the cold: hypothermia, frostbite, freezing to death. If you're lucky, your home is perfectly capable of generating its own heat even if you lose power: perhaps you have a wood stove, with a properly cleaned and maintained chimney and a good supply of seasoned firewood; or maybe you've installed a generator plus plenty of fuel.
Trapped in a car
But these options aren't available to people living in rented apartments and other housing situations, nor are they available to anyone stuck in an automobile on a snow-paralyzed road. If you're trapped in your car, running the engine to generate heat is a bad idea for two reasons: one, even starting with a full tank you'll run out of gas in a few hours, thus leaving you unable to move even when the road eventually clears; and two, if falling or drifting snow or ice blocks your car's exhaust pipe, you and everyone else in the passenger compartment can quickly die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Fortunately, it's easy to make heat without running the engine, and you can put together an emergency automotive heating kit for less than $5. You only need four items: a large-ish metal can with a removable lid, a supply of metal-cup “tea light” candles, some matches, and waterproof resealable sandwich or freezer bags to hold the candles and matches inside the metal can. (It also wouldn't hurt to add a few metal paper clips for wick-maintenance purposes: with burning tea-light candles, once in awhile a wick will “slump down” into the melted wax, which might extinguish the flame and waste the candle, But you can use the end of an unfolded paper clip to move the wick back upright without burning your own fingers on melted wax.)
Where do you find these items? Paper clips and sandwich bags are obvious. As for metal cans, if you're a home-brewed coffee drinker who prefers one of the few remaining brands still sold in solid steel containers, your best bet is to save a few of those cans and their lids, after removing any plastic or paper outer labels.
But most coffee companies these days use plastic or metallic-colored cardboard containers – and not everybody drinks coffee anyway. So another possibility is those “gift tins” of the sort that originally come filled with fruitcakes, Danish butter cookies, and other food items traditionally given as gifts because nobody buys them for themselves.
If nobody inflicts such gifts on you, you can scrounge around and often find similar tins selling very inexpensively at thrift stores, flea markets, rummage sales and other secondhand-shopping places. Ideally, you want a metal container wide enough to burn anywhere from three to five tea light candles without them touching one another. A deep-sided container is preferable to a shallow one: if you have a choice between a tall, deep two-pound metal coffee can versus a wide, shallow two-pound metal cookie tin, go with the coffee can.
That said: if you have any such decorative cans or tins which you like for their own sake, because of their colorful painted patterns or possible antique/collectible value, do not use them as emergency space heaters, because there's a very good chance the heat from the candles will warp or discolor the paint, or otherwise damage the tin's appearance.
Tea light candles
Tea-light candles can be found anywhere candles are sold, from discount department stores to upscale specialty-candle shops. Obviously, if you're using candles as an actual heat source, you'll go through a lot of candles very quickly, and want to buy your fuel as cheaply as possible.
A tea light candle is like a votive candle, only considerably smaller. Tea lights are always sold in individual disposable cups, which are necessary because when the candles burn, the wax liquifies completely and will spill without the cup to hold it in place. Never try to burn a tea light (or a votive) candle unless it's in a properly sized cup or holder.
The most attractive, and generally most expensive, tea lights are sold in clear or colored glass cups. If you're looking to buy decorative illumination, it's easy to see why a glass candle holder is nicer than a cheap metal one. But glass is a poor conductor of heat, so even if you had the chance to buy glass-cup tea lights for the same price as metal-cup tea lights, for emergency-heating purposes you definitely want to stick with metal.
Once in awhile you'll see tea lights sold in plastic cups – and then, a little while later, you'll see that those plastic-cup tea lights have been recalled, because the whole point of tea light cups is that they're supposed to be made of something that won't melt or burn if it comes in contact with a candle-flame or hot liquid wax. Never buy plastic-cup tea light candles – not for emergency heat, not for decorative accent lighting, not for anything.
A typical tea light candle will burn for about four hours before running out of wax. I confirmed this multiple times during the winter of 2011, when I lived in Connecticut and half the state lost power for up to two weeks after a monster blizzard pounded the area. (I was relatively lucky, though; I only lost power for six days.)
I couldn't afford to stay in a hotel for the duration and did not want to sleep in the emergency shelter the city set up in the middle-school gym. Luckily, I was able to get the temperature in my apartment up to 66 degrees at night, even as outdoor temperatures dropped into the low 20s, by closing off the bedroom doors and burning anywhere from 30 to 50 candles at a time in the common areas, divided among a dozen or so empty coffee cans, gift tins and chafing trays strategically placed on appliances, counter tops and other fireproof surfaces around the apartment.
A certain discount outlet near my house sold bags of 50 tea lights for $3 per bag; at that rate I burned through about $6 worth of candles every evening. However, a few weeks after the storm, when everything had gone back to normal and I was replenishing my depleted emergency stocks, I found a store selling 100-count boxes of tea light candles for only $4 each.
So tea light candles should be easy to find, especially if you buy them before you need them. Matches are even easier – although for emergency car heating kits, a box of wooden safety matches is better to have than a book of paper matches, because if your fingers are stiff and clumsy with cold, wooden matches are much easier to handle and light.
Car heating kit
Though a basic car heating kit can be made simply from matches, candles and a fireproof metal can to store and burn them in, you should also consider, at least during the winter months, keeping some other emergency cold supplies in your car — not just the ability to generate heat, but the even more vital ability for you and any passengers to retain your own body heat.
Even if space in your car is at a premium, you should be able to stash a bag containing some basic winter clothing accessories: for every passenger your car typically carries, you keep on hand one warm hat that can be pulled down low enough to completely cover the ears; a pair of insulated waterproof gloves or mittens; a pair of winter or ski socks, and a scarf long and wide enough to cover not just your neck, but also the bottom part of your face.
These items require very little space to store. If you have space, you should also consider keeping sweaters and blankets in your car — if you have to shelter there in below-freezing temperatures, a candle heater can help keep you warm, but it can't do the job on its own.