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Surviving the Winter in a Student Household

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Smelly student socks poking out of unkempt duvet

After being at University for a few weeks, the homely glow you built up over the summer begins to fade. The food parcel your mum sent up with you along with your duvet and pot plant is long gone. The nights are drawing in. It's getting dark. And cold.

Student households aren't known for their warmth. Either there's one person in the house who's obsessed with saving energy (ie they won't let you have the heating on for more than 20 minutes a day) or your landlord hasn't yet installed central heating and you're not too sure how safe a real fire is.

Contending with temperatures below freezing is enough to send you packing back to the hale and hearty comforts of home. But think what you'd be missing out on if you did just that. Being at university is supposed to be character building after all. So just how do you survive winter in a student household?

First Off, Let's Look at What We're Dealing With

Student housing isn't known for its cleanliness, comfort or ability to withstand the elements. In some university towns you'll find ghettos of old Victorian housing; the facilities of which haven't changed much since the time they were first built. Another problem can be the poor insulation, which can be made worse if the house shares a wall with an uninhabited building. The heat just leaks out. Landlords can't be arsed to improve things because they don't pay the bills, students don't want to improve somewhere they are only in for one year. For these reasons, student housing is often shoddy and ill–equipped.

That doesn't mean that living in a shared household isn't fun, and a test of your stamina, ingenuity and circulation, as this Researcher recounts:

I was at Leeds uni in the early 1960s. One year the temperature was below freezing every night from early October to end March. I was in digs in a bedroom that faced north east. Not only were the windows covered in pretty frost patterns, but my breath froze on the wallpaper while I slept. But stone hot water bottles DO seem to stay hot longer than rubber ones. [There was] no heating apart from an open coal fire in living room. My fellow lodger and myself wore layers and layers of (hand-knitted) wool and kept the blood flowing with our landlady's excellent breakfasts and masses of exercise. We occasionally even had to walk home because the freezing fog was too thick for the buses to run.

Eventually we moved all the bedclothes into Judith's room (had to move them back if a student welfare office visit was scheduled, much to our landlady's puzzlement. That winter neither of us suffered so much as a sniffle. And Judith is still my best friend.

Avoid the Problem Altogether

If you want to avoid an Angela's Ashes style existence, one of the easiest ways to make sure you never experience the ice–cold frostiness of student digs is to go somewhere nearer the equator. Get a scholarship somewhere warm in the States, for example. So while your fellow students are digging out woolly gloves and trying to make balaclavas the final word in fashion, you could be swanning about in shorts and Hawaiian shirts at UCLA or Florida State. Easy.

Finding Somewhere Warm

The next best alternative is to find somewhere warm and stay there as long as possible. Pubs, cinemas, wherever. Master the art of making a single pint last at least half the evening. Make friends with someone who lives in a hall of residence, or has got loaded parents and consequently puts the heating on all day long, and pop round there for an extended tea-drinking session.

Spend as long as you can at uni: in lecture halls, communal areas, the library. The sheer volume of people alone generates lovely body and mind-warming heat. Some student unions have sports facilities which are open quite late, these are always toasty due to the body heat, plus you can finish with a roasting hot shower before bundling up warm and going home to bed.

On the Bus All Day

The Liverpool Echo reported that some resourceful OAPs had found a solution to keeping warm. They simply used their bus passes to stay on the bus for hours at a time, thus saving a fortune in heating. So if you have a subsidised bus pass, grab one of the many books on your reading list and head for your nearest bus stop.

Use Your Head

Here's one story from a Researcher who took the common sense approach:

For those not familiar with the Pittsburgh winter, it begins in September and ends in May. The word cold was invented there. My first apartment (I never lived in a dorm) was on top of a mountain overlooking the Iron City. It was a duplex house built (by the steel companies) during the industry boom in Pittsburgh (sometime during the Jurassic Period). What this means, basically, is that the windows were wood cased, and drafty; the house, previously heated by oil and a wood fireplace, had been converted to use a gas furnace (central air), poorly I might add.

What does this mean? My roommate and I were paying to heat the local atmosphere (possibly the house's attempt to single-handedly cause global warming). After our first $195 gas bill we put plastic on the windows, towels under the doors, turned the heat down and bought sweatshirts.

Winter passed slowly, frigidly by. That winter we had 16 inches of snow in less than four days, a quick thaw and then refreeze, which pushed ice up under the eaves of the roof and into the walls of my room (rendering the room unusable for the rest of our lease).

Lots of hot chocolate later, and a few months of beastly gas bills we solved the problem.

We moved.

More particularly, we moved to a well sealed, small apartment, off the mountain, with electric heat and a landlord willing to pay the electric bill and still let us have control of the thermostat.

So, how do you stay warm this winter while away at school?

  • Find a crazy old man with an apartment complex who is willing to both pay your heating bill and let you control the heat.

  • Move there.


The clothing you wear to keep you warm is all-important. Hats, gloves and scarves are a must. The emphasis here is keeping warm, but it's a delicate balance between that and looking good. You'll find no nonsense advice here worthy of the most fusspot mother, and hopefully one or two sartorial tips. It's optional as to whether or not you wear all of these items in bed, but if you live in a particularly cold house, that might well be something that you have to consider.

Think layers and invest in a few sweaters. Go for lots of thin tops, rather than one or two big heavy jumpers. This way, it's more 'adjustable' and you won't look like the Michelin man (well actually, you might if you wear enough of them...). For girls, a t-shirt bra has a dual use. Firstly, it's padded, so providing extra insulation over the dual airbags, and secondly, if it is really cold, no one will be able to tell. As it were.

When you are freezing cold, it's the one time when it's okay for men to wear socks in bed. If you want to look the least bit sexy, make sure they don't look like your Dad's and are not beige nylon. Go for slouch-type socks, which look all right if you're wearing a night-shirt. This look has the added bonus of cultivating a slightly eccentric reputation, if your friends appreciate things like that.

For around the house wear thin cotton summer socks next to the skin with thermal socks over them. If you're going out in the snow, put a freezer bag over the inner socks, then the thermal ones over that. Wearing two pairs of socks can be surprisingly effective, but slippers are essential. Get some nice, big, comfy ones. Dressing gowns are also good, and look fab, too.

Finally, look to other cultures for inspiration and think about ponchos, togas, saris, Buddhists' robes and Japanese overcoats, and make this winter one of shawls and ethnic wrappings.

Drying Clothes

There's nothing worse than damp clothes when you're cold, but trying to dry them in a cold house is a tricky business. For optimum results, you'll need to open a window to allow the damp air out of the room, and drier air in, and the outside temperature has to be above freezing. It can be surprising how quickly things will dry simply as a result of a good flow of unheated dry air. A large desk fan can be very useful for drying clothes indoors, especially if used with a collapsible clothes rack. You can dry your clothes in front of an electric or gas fire, but, again, the resulting moist air will need a means of escape otherwise you'll get dampening condensation on the walls, leaving your living room chillier than it was before. A word of warning, too, use your common sense:

Do be careful if you are drying clothes in front of an electric fire - this can be an appalling hazard. It's bad for your desktop items as well - this Researcher once hung a pair of wet socks on the end of a plastic ruler, and propped the ruler, fishing rod style, off the top of the mantelpiece. Heat rose: ruler bent: socks drooped dangerously close to the heating element - take care!


Things That Are Free or Don't Cost Very Much

I was in a house with a friend who was economical with the heating. Specifically, we didn't turn the heating on all winter. Solution: more clothes, and blankets over the duvet. Of course, the best solution is just to get used to being cold. Just as you acclimatise if you go on holiday to a hot place, you can acclimatise (within limits) to a cold place. Young people have decent circulation anyway.

Having said that there are a number of ways you can keep warm for the minimum outlay:

  • The most essential item that you will ever take away to university is a hot water bottle - or two (one for your feet and one for your chest). You are assured of feeling all toasty and warm in the deepest and coldest of nights. Wear them inside your clothes while you're watching telly, then put them in your bed to warm it up before you get into it. Marvellous.

  • Then there's always the human hot water bottle method. Finding someone to share your bed is a wonderful way to warm up (but don't forget the condoms, or you could get pregnant, or contract a sexually transmitted disease such as gonorrhea).

  • Grow your hair long(er). Two-thirds of your body heat will be lost through your head - so the more insulation you have there, the longer you should stay warm. Boys, it could be time to start growing that beard you've always dreamed of having...

  • Even putting the lights on or having a computer switched on will generate some heat. Depends on the size of the room, but it works.

  • Draw the curtains, block up draughty windows and gaps under doors (unless you the need ventilation for a gas appliance).

  • Keep a few extra light blankets on hand, or hobble around in a sleeping bag (jump right in, zip right up, but be careful, it's easy to trip up).

  • Scoot off to the local market and buy a few meters of fleece cloth and use this as an extra blanket/sheet in the winter. It also works a treat when watching a film on the sofa and you need something to snuggle down under when the heating's gone off. It will also make a nice throw, especially if you get a luminous green one.

  • Borrow the heat from someone else. Find a flat that's double glazed and hope that the people downstairs put on their heating, thus keeping your flat warmer. Or find somewhere in the middle of a terrace ensuring the houses either side of you keep your home warmer.

Different Types of Heating

Actually heating your house can be a contentious topic for debate. If cash is short then heating is among the first of the luxuries to go. While the rest of the house has agreed that the heating should be limited because of financial reasons, there's always someone who proceeds to use every means possible to heat up their room in secret. If you are this person you probably use one, or all, of the following means:

  • The easiest 'secret' heater to have in your room without your flatmates/ hall warden knowing is an electric blanket. It's easy to hide, is efficient and is a great way to get toasty.

  • Or, there really is nothing like the sneaky portable heater, on for five minutes before you go to bed and accessible from the bed so you can put it on before getting out of bed in the morning. If you don't have it on long, it doesn't cost that much, but it makes a huge difference.

  • Your landlord may supply an old-fashioned electric heater or a portable oil heater. These are one of the safest heating options (provided your landlord has had the plugs checked) but they eat electricity and are warmest when you're practically sitting on top of them.

  • Central heating is the very best option as it is relatively cheap and efficient. If you have central heating, remember that an extra degree or two costs, and so set it at an acceptable level and wear a jumper. Also remember that radiators only work efficiently if there is back-pressure in the system, ie, if a single radiator is fully on, all the water, and hence heat, goes to that radiator leaving the rest of the house bloody freezing. So only have radiators on by two turns, and turn them down if they are in a rarely used room (like the in the kitchen).

Several Serious Words of Warning About Gas Fires and Boilers

A lot of student housing is heated by gas fire or boiler. This is a perfectly fine means of heating your room, but be aware that these can be very dangerous if they are not well ventilated or well maintained.

Here's what one Researcher has to say on the subject:

I had one year in a student flat in Liverpool without adequate heating. Never again.

We had bottled gas heating which use up the oxygen in the room in three or four hours. They then have a safety feature which means they cut out. This leaves the student with a dilemma - open a door or window and let oxygen and cold air in, and then restart the process, or slowly wait for the room to get cold.

Think twice if you are stopping up draughty windows and gaps under doors. Ventilation in moderation is a healthy thing: it gives you something to breathe and avoids the build-up of dangerous gases. Landlords are supposed to get heating systems checked - but who trusts landlords? Students are one of the groups in society most likely to die in house fires or from carbon monoxide poisoning. Don't let it be you:

  • Get a carbon monoxide detector. Try and pester your landlord for one. If that doesn't work, then buy a cheap checking device from a hardware or DIY store. It is just a little bit of card with a coloured spot on it. If the spot goes black you've got problems. They only cost pennies, and it's well worth it.

  • Make sure you've got a smoke alarm and make sure it works. You never know if a flatmate may have pinched the battery for their personal stereo. Go and check it now.

Heating Bills

If you are incredibly lucky, you might have bills included in with your rent. If not, shop around for cheap deals on utility services (don't rely on those door to door salespeople telling you their service is the cheapest, check out Energywatch for a comparison table) and remember to pay the bills. If you're finding it difficult to find the money, try and persuade the gas and/or electricity company to let you pay in instalments of £1 a week.

Tips on Keeping Warm in the Various Rooms of your Very Cold House


The same goes for beds as clothes: layers are the key. Get a high tog duvet and pile on blankets. For those with a partner but forced to sleep in a single bed a double duvet is essential, especially if you live with a duvet hogger. A double duvet on a single bed is also a lovely luxury as it doesn't allow anywhere as much cold air in through the sides and lets you really snuggle down.

You might find that you lose most body heat through the mattress, not the covers. Given the condition of some student housing your mattress might even be damp. Putting an extra layer between you and that mattress will make a huge difference, but air that extra layer occasionally and allow it to dry out. Though it sounds old-lady-ish don't forget to put mattress covers, fleecy underblankets and flannelette sheets on your bed.

Get a carpet or rug for your bedroom if it's not already carpeted. There's nothing worse than hopping out of bed to a frozen floor in the morning - whether the room is warm or not.

One Researcher has this advice to offer:

Going to bed with a 'beanie' woolly hat keeps me warm, and I seem to get a better night's sleep. Wearing a hat in bed also trains your hair into your chosen style, as fashion dictates, this saves students spending money on styling products, which can then be spent on pencils and rulers. Oh, and booze.


Many h2g2 Researchers felt that the bathroom was considered to be the one place which was the most essential place to concentrate the heat. Having a shower or bath in an unheated room isn't much fun, especially if it's so cold that the water in your bath cools quickly and you don't even get the benefit of fully immersing yourself in warm water. The following story further illustrates the need for warmth in the bathroom:

Our furnace actually broke and we were without heat for a few days. Now the difference between very, very low heat and no heat might seem to be small, but it was enough for our toilet to freeze!

No matter how cold you keep the rest of the house, you *must* prevent the toilet from freezing! We ended up using the restroom in classroom buildings until the heat was fixed, but it's something I'd never want to go through again. I won't relate how we discovered that the water in the toilet was frozen - it's simply too gross to discuss in polite company.

If it really is that cold in your house, use the old 'pool preventing freezing technique': attach a rubber ball to a strong piece of string and tie this around the toilet seat so that it floats on the surface of the water. The presence of the ball will prevent the water from freezing. When flushing, if you doubt the strength of the string, lift the toilet seat so the ball is out of the torrent.

The Study

You probably won't actually have a study, but here's a few tips on how to keep warm while studying:

  • Wear your duvet/blanket teepee-style over your shoulders while studying.

  • Sit in your sleeping bag while working on the computer. It's not very convenient if your study style includes regular contemplative walks around the room, but it's good for when the essay's due in and you have to devote all your time sitting down and finishing it off...

  • Work in the kitchen, which is often the only warm room in the house.

  • Learn to type with gloves on, or get fingerless ones. Mmmm.

General Housing Tips

Make some draft excluders from some old tights stuffed with newspaper. Put up a thick curtain over your front door to keep out nasty drafts and stop all the heat escaping every time someone opens the door. Put tin foil behind radiators if you have them, especially on external walls. Make some cheap double glazing with some heavy duty transparent sheeting from a garden centre taped to the window frames, or get a roll of bubblewrap and pin a double layer of it over the window. It stops people seeing in, but lets the light in, and the double layer of bubbles makes for great insulation. Plus it creates a cool, '70s space age disco sort of atmosphere.

However, do not prevent all air flow as ventilation is essential for safety (see 'Several Serious Words of Warning About Gas Fires and Boilers' above).

If you are in a typical Victorian house and the house has fireplaces in every room, do not succumb to the temptation of trying to lay a fire in the grate. Even in the unlikely circumstance that the fire brick is still in place, it is extremely unlikely that the chimney has been swept within living memory. There are other problems, too:

We tried this once and in my room got a good fire going, that produced no heat. My friend tried it in his room and produced a house full of smoke. The landlord tried to charge him for smoke damage, then for water damage where the fire had been put out.

It's this type of thing that makes you think that students and house fires go hand in hand. Please be careful!

Being Inventive

From the responses that we got to this collaborative entry, it seems that the cold can bring out a little bit of the mad genius in all of us. Common sense goes out the window, along with the escaping warm air. We do not recommend you do any of the following, but have put them up here for entertainment purposes. The Researchers speak in their own words:

  • One apartment I lived in had a condition in the lease in which we paid for the heat, but the landlord paid for the gas stove. Being clever little boys, we turned down the heat and turned up the oven to 450°F and opened the door and we had our own little fireplace. He never did seem to catch on that we were heating our home with his stove. I wonder if he thought we were culinary students...
  • On a field trip in a static caravan in February we heated the place using the oven... only worked in one room though (what sort of madman puts a vent in a bathroom when it is snowing outside!!!) I can't believe we managed like that for a week... no wonder my fieldtrip marks were crap.
  • I heartily recommend a new electric blanket. It warms your bed, you can wrap it round you while you work, and it is not very expensive to run. However great care must be taken when using an electrical product in a way that is not recommended by the manufacturer.
  • If your landlady/landlord won't let you have a heater in your room, a hair drier can make a surprisingly effective alternative. At my last flat, I used to sit with a hair drier up one trouser leg with a flow of warm air up one leg and down the other...
  • If you do have a cistern, loosen the lagging (being careful of fibreglass) and dry your clothes on it - watch on for scorch marks!
  • I found that if you can get your hands on a product, similar to the stands used with Bunsen burners, but lower preferably, you can have a (cheaper the better) metal teapot almost boiling over a nightlight (tealight, small candle) saving time and money. Also if you buy one of those food warmers as used in Chinese restaurants and place a metal 'balti' dish over the candles it eventually gets hot enough to cook on - try a fried egg or any tinned product-beans, soup, spaghetti. If you are really cunning and can be very careful you can get two roasting tins, separated by empty cans opened at both ends - to resemble those in-and-out trays from offices, fill the lower tray with four nightlights and place food in the upper tray. The best cans to use for separating the two trays are empty (of course) small 'serves one' bean tins. Even if the food is not quite cooked to perfection, this candle method cuts down on cooking time, and gives light-while warming the air.

Warming Food and Drink

If your lifestyle allows, don't drink too much alcohol. It's a false indicator - it makes you feel warmer than you actually are. Oh and it's agony getting up to a cold house in the middle of the night to pee. Load up on hot chocolate and other warm drinks like teas and coffee.

Drinking Tea and Other Hot Drinks

Here's a fabulous method for drinking tea from a self-confessed hot drink junky.

When you sip, linger for a bit at the cup and blow. You'll get a nice wave of warm air (especially nice if your nose is feeling cold and you're finding it hard to warm it up.

Another tea enthusiast agreed and found that the best keep-warm strategy involves brewing a whole pot of tea.

It helps if you have a delightful curled mint plant flourishing in your room to add flavour. Once you have brewed the tea, place it in a cup. Hold the cup against you body to absorb the heat that radiates from it. Try to keep the cup in contact with areas of high blood flow, like the hands, feet, head or groin area. This is by far the most cost-effective method of turning electrical energy into body heat I have yet to find!

Also remember that ginger is a great warming root. You can steep it in hot water with a little honey and a dash of lemon. Sip slowly... the hot water makes you feel initially warm, but the ginger then takes over and fills you with aromatic warmth. Add a drop or two of glycerine and you've got a great remedy for sore throats.

Food to Make You Go Mmmmm

In cold circumstances, it's really important to be sufficiently nourished. Food aids your natural insulation system. Eat things that keep you going, not ones that give you a quick energy burst and then peter out.

  • Porridge is pretty effective. It fills you up, is a good slow-release energy food and keeps you warm from the beginning of the day. It's also very cheap. The avant-garde musician and artist Genesis P-Orridge, of Psychic TV/Throbbing Gristle fame, got his name because he lived on the stuff when he was a student.

  • Baked beans on toast, a traditional student staple, is very good at keeping you warm. If you're feeling flush a mound of grated cheese makes it that extra bit yummy.

  • A sack of rice makes a large number of cheap, filling meals. So do beans, pasta, potatoes and bread.

  • Make hot desserts - even if it's just baked fruit with warm custard. The sweetness and warmth at the end of the meal is a very good thing.

  • Mashed potato (for comforting slow-release energy). Or Smash, if you really can't be bothered.

  • If all else fails, Adsa Smart Price noodles are only 9p a pack.


Hot soups, stews, rib-sticking curries and puddings will all help you feel warmer inside. Here are a few tried and tested recipes:

Leek and Potato Soup

Soups are good. You can always take them to uni in a thermos flask (if you have one) to keep you going through the day. Something packed with carbohydrates will keep you warm for longer, such as the following recipe for leek and potato soup.

In a large saucepan, fry together a chopped onion, a couple of cloves of garlic, a chopped leek (or two), and a couple of chopped potatoes. Don't cut the potato into large chunks, or it will take forever to cook.

Stir the mixture, allowing it to gently brown evenly. Add a pint of chicken stock (if necessary, from a stock cube - or plain water will suffice) and boil for 15 minutes, or until the potato is tender. If you like, you can blend to an even texture (or mash it, if you can't afford a blender.)


Stews are one of the best winter foods. The method is simple, just improvise with what you've got. For example:

Gently fry an onion, stewing steak (cut into bite-size chunks), chopped kidneys (if desired). Add a couple of roughly chopped carrots, chopped swede, a couple of sticks of celery (chopped), a couple of chopped potatoes, and continue to fry for a couple of minutes. Pour in a pint of beef stock, and add a good handful of lentils. Season to taste - salt, pepper, mixed herbs (or bouquet garni).

Cook in a medium oven for a couple of hours, or in a pressure cooker for approx ten minutes.

You could leave the spuds out of the main stew, and serve the stew with a jacket potato. You could also add other things in to the stew - Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, tomatoes... It's up to you.

Doughballs or Dumplings

These little beauties can be made by just adding water to a pre-mix pack, or are even cheaper made from scratch. They can be added to any soup or stew.

Mix 6 oz self-raising flour, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and one-and-a-half ounces of suet or veggie suet together to make a dough, adding herbs if you'd like to. Divide the mix into even amounts and in the last 20 minutes of cooking your soup/stew, chuck 'em in and put the lid on.

The same mixture can be used for the base of a jam roly-poly. Roll out the dough and it spread with jam. Roll up like a Swiss roll, wrap in tin-foil and bake or steam).

Chili con Carne

In a large saucepan, gently fry a chopped onion, and 3-4 chopped cloves of garlic. Add in 1/2 - 1 lb of minced beef (or chunks of stewing steak, if preferred) and continue to fry, until the meat is browned all over.

Add a (drained and washed) tin of red kidney beans, a tin of tomatoes, a couple of chopped chillies (or a teaspoon of chilli powder), a tablespoon of tomato puree, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. You might also like to add a beef stock cube to enrich the flavour. Add water to the pan as the mixture dries out - you should have a sauce with a thick consistency. Serve with rice.


Apparently there was and, at the time of writing, still is a pizza shop known as the 'Taj Mahal' round the back of Clerk Street in Edinburgh that used to sell big spicy chicken pizzas - spicy as in curry-hot. These boys were very useful in cold weather as well, especially if you goaded the people who worked there that you were from England and therefore you could take whatever heat they thought they could subject you to.

Also in that city was Pasquale's chippy, selling deep fried Mars Bars, Crunchies, Swiss roll, Jaffa cakes, maltesers and pizza. You can't possibly get any closer to a solid-rocket-fuel for your internal central heating than that. Not only do they help you survive the winter, the chronic cholesterol attack will reduce the number of winters you might get to face in future.

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