How to Stay Cool When You Don’t Have A/C, According to Science

Heat waves and “domes” are now a common weather reality; here's how to cope, even if you don't have AC.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Exhausted girl using paper waver, suffering from hot summer weather. - stock photo
fizkes via Getty

Right now there’s a heat wave sitting over Southern California, and the Pacific Northwest is still recovering from a record-breakingheat dome” that settled over the region this June, which was the hottest June on record in North America. July isn’t looking much better. And yet, as the meme goes, this is the coldest summer of the rest of our lives! Thanks to climate change—a direct cause of the excessive heat we’re experiencing now—the planet is only getting hotter, and erratic weather patterns like these are only growing more common.


What makes heat domes and heat waves particularly dangerous is that they have the capacity, as we’ve already seen this summer, to take out vital infrastructure, like the electricity that powers our air conditioning. Whether you find yourself without power in the midst of an unprecedented weather event, or just schvitzing in the regular, hellish heat of the summertime, VICE compiled a list of no-AC ways to stay cooler (than you already are) (sorry). 

Take a cold shower or bath

An important caveat as we get into tips on how to literally feel cooler: Reed Caldwell, an emergency physician with NYU Langone Health, said that, if you’re at the point of packing ice packs against your armpits and genitals or otherwise trying to bring down your core temperature (the temperature your body is inside), you may consider medical attention. There’s a crucial difference between feeling uncomfortable in the heat (normal, healthy) and overheating (dangerous). Some signs you’re slipping into the latter, according to Caldwell, are that you suddenly stop sweating, feel dizzy or faint, feel confused, or notice that your urine is dark brown. 

That said! There are plenty of ways to physically cool off, many of them readily available online on Twitter or via the National Weather Service. The first, most common tip to step into a cool shower or bath—something the National Weather Service literally advises. Caldwell expands that advice to include talking a walk through a sprinkler or an open fire hydrant—kid activities that hold up as a grownup. 


Put ice on key body parts

As this semi-creepy graphic shows, the body has several quick-cooling points, at which you’ll get the most bang for your buck, in terms of slapping on an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas. Those points include: the back of your neck, the groin, and the armpits. Not necessarily the most intriguing places to put some ice, but these are spots where large blood vessels lie closer to the surface. 

Make a DIY air conditioner

Obviously not as good as real climate control, but much cheaper, and more accessible. There are two good methods, both of which Consumer Reports put to the test in 2016

The two methods both cost less than $30 to create and are explained in this Consumer Reports YouTube video, but to quickly explain: The first involves a five-gallon bucket filled with ice and a small fan that blows down on the ice, shooting cold air out of some plastic pipes you affix to the bucket, and the second involves doing basically the same thing but with cheaper materials, like a foam cooler instead of a bucket, and some Solo cups instead of pipe. Basically, you need a fan, a container, and some ice, and you can create some sort of DIY AC. 

DIY does, however, come with a major caveat: “Over the span of an hour, both DIY units were only able to bring the testing room’s temperature down about three degrees. After half an hour of running, the temp began to rise back up,” as Lifehacker reported. “When they tested spot cooling with the DIY units, however, they found the air to be about 15 degrees cooler. So, best case scenario, you have to sit right next to your DIY AC to get any sort of benefit from it.”


Put foil in the windows

If you don’t have curtains or blinds (or even if you do), the most effective way to cut down the temp in your home is to block sunlight by putting aluminum foil in the windows. Why foil, specifically? It’s reflective (the shiny side should face out), and it’s totally opaque; no light is seeping through, except for maybe around the edges. 

It’s not quite the same in a house as in a car, but think of how quickly a car left out in the sun heats up. In one study, researchers found that a car left out in the sun on a 95-degree day reached an average of 116 degrees within an hour, and up to 157 degrees in some places. The aluminum foil in your windows won’t keep your house from feeling hot in general, but it cuts down on heat significantly by sheer virtue of blocking out the sun. 

Create an in-home “wind tunnel” and/or a “cold room”

As detailed in a really great, thorough thread by @ArnicaxRoss on Twitter, creating a designated cooling room and a “wind tunnel” in a house with insufficient air conditioning can go a long way in bringing down inside temps. 

As the thread describes, the wind tunnel involves blocking off one room in the house as a “cooling room” where you’re pumping the AC (wherever a window unit is, or if you have central air, strategically closing vents to concentrate the cold circulation to one room). Block it off using whatever’s on hand: thick blankets, quilts, sheets, etc., as best you can from the rest of the house. 


Throughout the rest of your home, open all the doors and open one window per room. Here comes the wind part: Place a fan facing out of each open window, blowing the hot, inside air out into the hot outside, to create air flow (moving air feels cooler than stagnant air, but this might feel best at night when the air outside is less hot). As the thread mentions, this technique works particularly well for the railroad-style apartments that are common throughout the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, two regions that have already been riddled with heatwaves this summer.

Eat cold stuff

Once again, Caldwell said this won’t bring down the core temperature of someone who’s at risk of or actually is overheating, but it will feel really good. Eat the classic kid shit: those Fla-Vor-Ice pops that everyone loves in blue, ice cream sandwiches, cold Jell-o and/or pudding, etc. Hot food probably feels unappealing, anyway. This is the time for cold mush. 

Give yourself the day (or week) off exercising

Think of your heat wave journey as a really bad, dangerous vacation, in that you are not required to exercise while you’re on it. Exercise, combined with the high temps, can bring up your body’s core temperature, which can lead to overheating. Also, exercise (especially in the summer) means even more sweating, and you’re likely already sweating, just sitting there. Why do this to yourself? For health purposes, skip the workout, particularly if the workout is any kind of cardio. 

Put all your skincare in the fridge

Some people already do this in normal, non-heat wave times, but few things feel better than a swath of cold moisturizer or serum when it’s 80 degrees and climbing in your house. 

Avoid the temptation to drink or get high

Besides under-hydrating (more on that below), Caldwell said the second-most common mistake people make in extreme heat is to drink alcohol and/or do drugs. But it’s hot and I’m bored!, you may be thinking, and it’s true. It’s hot out; we’re bored; the idea of cracking a cold one beckons. As Caldwell said, though, being intoxicated or just not fully aware of your physical state puts you at risk for overheating without even realizing it. Plus there’s the fact of alcohol and some drugs being diuretics, meaning they dehydrate you. A double-edged sword! 

Above all: hydrate

It’s basic advice, but the number one mistake people make when temps get high is drink too little water, Caldwell said. “The body’s natural way to cool is through sweating; you lose a lot of fluid by sweating,” Caldwell said. The idea of “clear pee” as a sign of hydration is a myth, but you should be aiming for a light yellow. If you are feeling very, very hot, and your urine is either dark, dark yellow or brown, that's a major flag that aggressive hydration is needed.” 

Unless you’re drinking… ice cold water, hydrating won’t necessarily bring immediate cooling relief. But as Caldwell said, when it’s extremely hot out, your body is working hard, plus there’s all the sweating. Properly hydrating (meaning: about three to four liters per day) keeps the whole system working its best, which won’t feel as good as jumping into an ice bath, per se, but will make it less likely that you overheat or feel sick.

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