Living in a Tipi

The author learned during six months on a Montana mountaintop that nothing beats living in a tipi.

| May/June 1979

A few summers ago I had the opportunity to be involved in a mountain goat research project. Needless to say, I was excited by the prospect of spending half a year in the wilds of Montana, but I did foresee one serious problem: my assistant and I planned to live—from summer through early winter—on top of an 8,660-foot peak, but we weren't sure just what in blue blazes we were going to live in!

I studied the alternatives and rejected everything from "space age" tents (too cramped) to geodesic domes (not practical) to log cabins (too permanent; suppose the goats moved?). No, we had to have something roomy, portable, inexpensive, easy to build, and able to adjust to a wide range of temperatures. Unlikely as it seems, such a dwelling does exist and has for some time. We soon found ourselves living in a tipi!

The "Plains" Advantages

Most folks will probably be surprised—as I was—to learn that the best movable shelter ever devised was perfected hundreds of years ago by the Plains Indians of the American Southwest. But the more I looked into the subject, the more convinced I became that—although they look like uncomplicated structures—tipis are actually more precisely designed than most of the "high technology" houses that are being built today!

As Caleb Clark, the old trapper in Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, said: "Ye kin live in it forty below zero and fifty 'bove suffocation an' still be happy. It's the changeablest kind of a layout for livin' in." And Caleb wasn't talking malarky either. A tipi can be snugged down to endure subfreezing winters or—with its skirts lifted—will keep its residents cool in roasting summer weather. Its conical shape sheds rain while withstanding hurricane winds that would dislodge any tent (and a good many stone or brick homes!). And the Indian dwelling will hold the heat—but not the smoke—of a toasty fire.

I was also surprised to discover how spacious the cone-shaped homes are. My fellow "goater" and I found we had plenty of room in our 16-foot-diameter shelter. In fact, on occasion we had five people bedded down 'round the fire without a single crowding problem. And these practical accommodations have another, more subtle, advantage: Living in a tipi provides a unique, at-one-with-nature experience. A cone dweller is in touch with—and yet shielded from—all the changing whims of weather. Tipi walls let the sun illuminate the interior by day and provide a curved screen for fire-lit shadow dances at night Chipmunks may perch on the shelter's poles , violets sprout from its floor, or moonlight stream through the smoke hole—mixing with the glow of a fading fire—and form a sight too beautiful for words. Little wonder the Indians (who revered nature) considered a tipi a temple as well as a home.

How a Tipi Works

As you can imagine, the construction theories behind this amazing dwelling weren't "built in a day." The "modern" tipi is the result of a long trial-and-error development which produced three features that make this structure a real standout among functional shelters.

7/15/2012 1:21:24 AM

I know of someone in central Maine. He can teach you the original way of living in a tipi year round. His name is Frank and you can get a hold of him by email. Make sure that you put in the subject of "Tipi Living". He's good!

michael goad_1
12/17/2008 9:22:58 PM

Where is the best plce to learn of full time tipi living?

Craig Moorhouse
10/29/2008 7:12:42 AM

I would think a "Rocket Stove" mass heater (like Ianto Evans' from Cob Cottage)would work well in a tipi. They are low cost and can produce and store alot of heat with little smoke.The chimmey would go outside under the tipi. It would be great for winter camping in a tipi with a ozan liner.

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