Tipis: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask

Never been in a tipi? That may change. (Photo: Roland Tanglao/Flickr)

Last year I wrote a comprehensive article about yurts that was enjoyed by a lot of readers. Based on how well that article did, I thought it'd be worth the time to put together something similar about tipis — and if you’re unsure about the difference between tipis and yurts, keep reading. I'm a longtime tipi-owner and love telling people how great they are. Enjoy!

A tipi fits into any landscape. (Photo: Jacob Bøtter/Flickr)


A tipi is a conical shaped dwelling that was designed and refined by various Native American tribes living in the Great Plains of the United States. Like the yurt, the tipi was valued both for its transportability and its flexibility in terms of climate and weather. In hot weather a tipi dweller has only to open up the smoke flaps and maybe lift up part of the wrap to catch any moving air, while in cold weather, tipis can be heated by wood fires and made warmer with additional liners and windbreak fencing.

Raven Tip of Lone Chief from the Siksika Indian tribe. (Photo: Walter McClintock/Beinecke Library/Flickr)

Tipis are still an important part of the culture of many Native American tribes. Also like the yurt, tipis have been recognized for their functional and aesthetic qualities by people around the world and are used as full-time residences, backyard play-caves, and weekend wilderness getaways. I own a tipi (from the excellent Colorado Yurt Company, also makers of a darn-fine yurt) that I lived in during a Maine winter — and I survived. (There is nothing like waking up the morning in your tipi after a hard blizzard.)

The basic construction of a tipi is not complex. (Photo: McGhiever/Wikimedia Commons)

You can buy a tipi that’s not much different from the ones that Native Americans roamed the Great Plains in. The bones of the tipi are a number of straight wooden poles tied in a conical shape with a spread-out base. A wrap, made up of canvas, hide, or even birch bark, is lifted up along with the last pole placed (called the Lift Pole) and laced together around front. Stakes can be used to keep the wrap tight or you can roll up the walls to let lots of air flow. A couple of people can fully put up a 24-foot tipi (measured from the front to the back of the inside of the tipi) in just a few hours. Smaller tipis take even less time to erect.

One of the advantages tipis have over yurts is in cost — you can buy a tipi for about 20 percent of the cost of a comparably-sized yurt. If you’re thinking about buying a tipi or just curious to learn more about them, read on for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about tipis but were afraid to ask.

Sunrise with tipis. (Photo: Rachel Docherty/Flickr)

History of tipis

Sadly, the story of the invention of the tipi have been lost to time, but we do know that Native Americans have been using it as a shelter since at least when the horse was re-introduced to North America by conquistadors in the 1500s. The use of horses as beasts of burden made it possible to build larger tipis and to move them more easily. Tipi poles can be formed into a travois, a simple kind of cart that could be piled up with a family’s belongings.

Tipi in museum
(Photo: Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons)

Modern tipis

Unlike yurts, which originated in Central Asia, the tipi is firmly a North American phenomenon. Due to the fact that they’ve always been part of our cultural heritage (even if it is as the dwelling of a conquered people), the tipi never had to be “introduced” to the North American market.

(Photo: Walter McClintock/Beinecke Library/Flickr)

"Modern" tipis (built using contemporary materials like sail clothe) have been available for sale since at least 1976, when Earthworks Tipis was started. There are now multiple companies selling tipis (scroll down for a list of vendors).

(Photo: Rhys Wynne/Flickr)

Yurts vs. Tipis

There are a few key differences between yurts and tipis:

Cost: The Colorado Yurt Company’s pricing differences between tipis and yurts are fairly typical across the industry. The standard 24’ yurt package costs $8,295. A basic tipi of the same size will set you back $2,483 (add in another $808 for a nine foot inner liner). The price difference grows as the size goes down—a 16’ tipi runs $1,072 while the same size yurt is $5,915.

(Photo: Daniel Chodusov/Flickr)

Weather tightness: The reason tipis are so much cheaper than yurts is because they’ve much simpler structures. Tipis are, more or less, a bunch of poles and a wrap. Yurts are more intricate affairs whose price reflects it. The lower price of tipis is also reflected in terms of weather tightness—though you can batten down a tipi pretty well, you’re still likely to get some drips coming through the smoke hole during a good storm. You can use a tipi Ozan (an overhead canvas roof tarp fit to order) to redirect the drips down down the back of your liner.

Tipis also have much simpler doors than yurts. Yurt doors can approach the weather sealing of conventional doors while tipi entrances come equipped with roll up canvas doors. I found my tipi door to perform well during bad weather, but wind gusts still found a way in through the billowing canvas.

(Photo: m.prinke/Flickr)

Heat retention: Tipis are not great at holding in heat. Their funnel shape paired with the way they are pitched (the outer canvas wrap is staked 6-12” off the ground) and the smoke hole at the top creates a natural draft, sucking in air from below and forcing it out the top. This is a great feature when the weather is warm but not so optimal when the mercury dips towards freezing. My winter of tipi living was spent in a 24’ tipi and boy did I rip through a lot of firewood. With a good wood stove, it’s easy enough to warm up the interior enough to be comfortable with a t-shirt on in the coldest weather, but soon after you turn down the stove it gets cold. My typical wake up routine would be to hop over to the wood stove while still in my sleeping bag. I’d hop back to bed after loading the stove and crawl back under the covers (most nights I would sleep in my sleeping bag under a big pile of blankets) for 20 minutes while the tipi warmed up.

(Photo: Morten Oddvik/Flickr)

If you’re looking at living in a tipi in a cold climate, choose the smallest tipi that fits your needs as it will be easier to keep warm. One option for full time living would be to have a smaller winter tipi pitched next to a larger summer tipi that you don’t heat in the colder months. Snow is also a great insulator — the higher it builds up around the tipi, the better the heat retention.

(Photo: Cory Doctorow/Flickr)

How to sleep in a tipi

There are a lot of places in the United States where you can rent a tipi for a few nights. I highly encourage you to do so — everyone should spend at least one night out under a tipi. This is just a partial listing and is slanted towards those in America, so make sure you do some extra research to find all the options close to where you’re going.

Glamping Hub: Tipis results - multiple listings

Mohican Reservation Campground- Loudonville, Ohio

At Boulders Edge Cabin and Tipi Retreat- Rockbridge, Ohio

• Tipi Village at Rawhide Ranch USA- Nashville, Indiana

North Georgia Canopy Tours- Lula, Georgia

(Photo: Bocage Normand Tourisme/Flickr)

How to buy a tipi

Here are some companies selling tipis.

Colorado Yurt Company (I’ve been a very happy customer of these guys for years. They make a quality tipi.)

Nomadics Tipi Makers

• White Buffalo Lodges

Reliable Tents and Tipis

(Photo: Megan Coughlin/Flickr)

How to live in a tipi

Mother Earth News has a good article about some of the things you need to consider before moving into a tipi to live full-time. A good search on tipi living will also turn up other good sources.

Though I only lived in my tipi full-time for four months, it was during the winter, which forced me to figure out a lot of different tricks for keeping the elements at bay. I welcome emails from any potential tipi dweller looking for advice. You can reach me at sheagunther@gmail.com.

(Photo: Rachel Docherty/Flickr)
Shea Gunther putting up his tipi
The author putting up his tipi in Maine. (Photo: Shea Gunther/Flickr)