How To Stay Cool Without Air Conditioning

By Sunday, May 18, 2014 2 0

When we’re rich in what matters we’re resilient. We create fun and comfort in ways that are sustainable.

We’ve heard this will be a doozy of a hot summer. This week’s post is on how to stay cool without using air conditioning, which burns lots of the fossil fuels that drive climate change. These self-cooling skills don’t just create comfort and fun. They create safety. Why?

Far more people will die in the U.S. this summer of heat-related causes than died in the entire past year from hurricanes and tornadoes combined. The latter frighten us more, with their telegenic violence, but as with many things in modern life, fears do not reflect facts. Among extreme weather events, heat is the biggest killer in the developed world. Climate change will only exacerbate this over time. And, older people are the most vulnerable to heat.

What we need is to keep our bodies cool. That’s a different, much cheaper thing, than keeping entire houses or rooms cool. It takes far less energy to keep bodies cool than houses cool. That’s true whether your energy source is coal, natural gas derived from fracking, or solar panels, which provide my home with as much electricity as we are using here in Portland, Oregon.


Use fans liberally. Fans are great for cooling people and pets; they create breeze that evaporates even the slightest perspiration. Fans don’t actually cool rooms, per se, so you’ll save energy by turning them off when you leave the house. The exception is if you’re clever enough to have created a fan-exhaust system that blows warm air out one window (typically upstairs) while bringing cooler air in through a different window (typically downstairs or by a well-shaded area).

Slow down. Our physical movements should be much slower in hot weather than in cool weather. Bluesy music and songs you would slow-dance to are good to play during hot weather, because they help us pace ourselves nicely. Our expected pace of accomplishing tasks should be slower, too.

Soak your feet in a tub of cold water. Feet and toes have a great deal of surface area, and therefore great power to heat us, or cool us. Do this while you’re relaxing, reading, talking with others, etc. If you’re short on time, as in rushing out the door (even though you’re trying to slow down :), putting your hands and wrists into a bowl of ice water can help.

Make and eat cool things
. See my easy curried tuna salad recipe. If you’re going to cook eggs or potatoes to make egg salad or potato salad, cook them in the morning when it’s cool. Or cook them in the microwave; unlike ovens and stovetops, microwaves create focused heat that doesn’t spill into the room. 

Fresh mint. Some varieties taste like chocolate, orange, etc. Very easy to grow.Use mint for a cooling effect. You can use fresh mint in tea, salads, ice cream, cheesecake, fish, etc. Also, chewing mint eradicates bad breath. Mint grows like a weed, so it is best grown in a pot. If you’re a Portlander, come over and I’ll give you a mint start. Another thing: mint is drought-tolerant. See the next item.

Consider creating a lovely xeriscape garden. This will not necessarily make you cooler. But it will save water, and water conservation is crucial in our warming, increasingly thirsty world.

Create and use shade. Pull shades and curtains shut before the sun starts hitting them. Get thicker shades or curtains. Plant or transplant shrubs or trees, or move potted ones, so that they shade west-facing windows and outdoor eating areas. Shade is a golden currency in dealing with heat. See the next item on personal shade.

Wear a hat when outdoors. Keep it by the door so you put it on automatically. Hats are portable shade. Baseball caps seem to be the most popular, but really, the bigger and floppier the better. The more hat, the more shade. If you have long hair, sweep it up into your hat to avoid the blanket effect of hair sitting on one’s neck.

Change where you sleep. Downstairs is cooler than upstairs, if you have the choice. Basements are ideal. Outdoors is often cooler than indoors, come nighttime. My friend Vicki who has no a/c sleeps happily on a cot in her backyard in the summertime. If you’re indoors, sleeping with your head at the foot of your bed is a cooling maneuver, because there’s more breeze near the centers of rooms than by the walls.


Take sponge baths. Rubbing a wet, squeezed-out cloth over your body cools you off immediately. Sponge baths use far less water, and time, than showers or traditional baths. They were a staple for me 

Don sunscreen in the morning the way that you don your clothes. Nothing makes us feel hotter for longer than a sunburn. I also keep sunscreen in the car, in the pocket at the bottom of the driver’s door. I slather it liberally onto my left arm before I drive, and onto the backs of my hands. If you do get a sunburn, use the gel from an aloe vera plant to soothe it. Aloe vera is one of those great plants that are abuse-tolerant as well as drought-tolerant.

Get a cheap spray bottle and fill it with water. Spritz it on yourself, your clothes, your pets, etc.

Wear a wet or moist bandana around your neck to bring your body heat down. Get a variety of colors and think of them as part of your summer garb. They don’t have to be real bandanas. For example, you could cut up a soft old pillowcase to make several at-home bandanas. Your “dress bandana” for leaving the house could be the cheery red or blue “real” bandana.

Wear shirts straight out of the washing machine, moist. This will maybe go over best on days you’re not going into the office.

Our species thrived for more than 99.9% of its history without any air conditioning. True, our ancestors often felt less comfortable than we do, but they were also more resilient to their environment. When we habituate ourselves to air-conditioned temperatures, our bodies become less able to adapt to natural outdoor heat, and we’re more likely to experience heatstroke when we eventually do get hot. 

All of this said, I know it’s really hard to avoid using a/c, especially in humid climates, and especially when we need to accomplish things. Enduring heat, like enduring any difficulty, uses up our personal energy.

It’s not my intention to judge anyone for their choices, around air conditioning or anything else. It is my intention to expand our range of choices, and bring options into our awareness that the mainstream culture tends to hide from us. The above options don’t increase any corporate profits, by and large. But they can make us richer in what matters

What are your favorite ways to stay cool in hot weather?

  • Dani
    July 12, 2014

    We don’t have air conditioning here in Germany, but we still have some very hot and humid days in summer.

    A few of my favourite ways to keep cool are:

    1. Wetting a muslin cloth (in a similar way to your bandana idea) and wearing it around my neck. When I get onto really stiflingly hot public transport (also with no A/C) I put the wet cloth over my head. Ok, I look a little crazy, but it means I’m breathing in cool air and the top of my head is also cooled down. It works so well in those really high heats that seems unbearable otherwise. Because it’s muslin, you can still see and breathe through it.

    2. We run a cold shallow bath in the morning and both dip in and out of it all day to cool down. The hot weather tends to warm the cold water to a perfect temp where getting into it for a few mins provides such perfect relief.

    3. I’m also a big fan of getting my head and hair wet every so often and allowing evaporation to cool me down.

    4. I also occasionally sleep under a damp sarong, and maybe even with that damp muslin cloth on my forehead - though the latter usually comes off before I go to sleep.

    As you can see they are all based around the same theme - water!

    I’ve also had a positive result wiping my body with a damp cloth. (something my mother used to do when we had temperatures when we were young). I was at the top of a temple I’d climbed to in Cambodia when I thought that I might be getting heat stroke. I was incredibly hot and wasn’t sweating. There was no shade up there. So, I walked down again slowly, trying to stay calm. At the bottom I bought a fresh coconut (a luxury of cambodia), drank the water, and sat in the shade wiping myself down again and again. After about an hour, it had really brought my temperature down. I was then able to return to the hotel, take a cool shower, and sleep it off.

    The hot weather abroad has really kicked my butt a few times and rather humbled this naive European on more than one occasion.

    Oh, and I am also a big fan of honouring the season and slowing down, and of using ayurvedic principles to relieve pitta.

    • Alison
      July 13, 2014

      Dani, I’d had no idea that there is no A/C on Germany’s public transit. These techniques for staying cool are excellent. You could write your own blog! But I really hope you keep sharing your wisdom here, whether or not you start your own blog.

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