Big Trouble in Little Tipi

As some of you know I bought a Tipi a few months back to serve as one of my shelters on this urban hunter- gatherer adventure. I have learned a great deal about tipis in the last few months. Mostly gleaning information from the book, The Indian Tipi: It’s History, Construction and Use, which covers much more than just tipis and has tips on Indian lifestyle that I have heard no where else.

The story goes like this: I ask Erin if I can dig a scout pit in her backyard. She says sure. I take a long hard look at her yard and realize a scout pit won’t work there. She jokes about me buying a tipi and living out of that. I laugh and then think, “what the hell.” I order a small tipi online and two weeks later it’s on her front porch.

I open the box and find the canvas bag inside surprisingly small. I pull everything out. There are 5 poles, each one separates into two pieces for storage. There is the canvas cover. There are a bunch of plastic stakes. A canvas bag for all of that, and a piece of paper with the instructions on it. I set the whole thing up in her backyard in a matter of minutes. It looks really cool and is really small. I am a small guy, so what do I care?

A few days later I come back and decide I should light a fire inside and see what happens. Almost immediately the entire tipi is full of smoke and not enough air to breathe. Erin has a friend over, a guy who makes his living building wheel-chair accessible tree houses, who has known friends who have lived in tipis before. He tells me that I need to get a liner for the inside, and that will help with the smoke problem. That’s when I realize it’s time for me to do some real research on how tipis work.

I do an internet search for books on tipis and it seems there is one that everyone really respects called, The Indian Tipi: It’s History, Construction and Use. I look at the picture of the book and realize that I have it already. In fact, my mom gave it to me several months back, before Erin even suggested I get a tipi. It looked like one of those books about “Indians” from the 1970’s that would be full of misinformation and racism. So when my mom was like, “Hey Peter, I was going through my old books and I saw this one and thought you might like it,” I hesitatingly replied, “Oh. Sure. Thanks mom,” not wanting to make her feel bad.

I found the book buried under a pile of junk in the corner of my room. Of course the first thing I notice is that it was written by white people, which generally makes me, a white person, skeptical. The first chapter is everything I thought it would be; a disappointing, racist history of the tipi. This chapter however, was written by someone else. The rest of the book is written by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, a married couple who I notice as I skim the book, are pictured wearing full Plains Indian garb. They even claim to have stayed in a tipi on their honeymoon. Despite the authors continuously reminding the reader throughout the book that Indians “think were cool,” it is a really great read.

The part that caught my attention was this:

When you have pitched your tipi and pegged down the cover, you have a tent open at the top and all around the bottom, since no matter how tightly you have pegged it, the cover cannot possibly reach entirely to the ground all the way around. It should come within a couple inches of doing so, but even a two-inch space permits a lot of draft. You have, in fact, merely a temporary shelter, just a chimney, not really fit to live in. The wind blows in at the bottom and a heavy rain will run down the poles and drip on everything inside. If poles and cover are all you have, your tipi is drafty, wet, cold–or hot in warm weather–and as cheerless as a log cabin without any chinking. One reason why so many people have been disappointed in tipis is that they thought the cover and poles were the whole thing. Far from it!

The lining, besides keeping away drafts and dampness, prevented rain from dripping off the poles and served a number of other purposes. It gave increased ventilation, helping to clear the atmosphere of smoke. The warm air rising inside the tipi drew in cold air from the outside, which came in under the cover and went up behind the lining, creating a perfect draft for the fire and taking the smoke out with it. Someone once said that the Indian lived in his chimney, which is literally correct, but in effect not true if a lining was used and the fire handled properly. The air space behind the lining also served as insulation, which helped to keep the tipi warm in winter and cool in summer.

At this point I understood what Erins friend had told me, and realized that I needed a lining. I bought 6 white wool blankets from the local military surplus store. I measured and sewed them into a liner. I chose wool because it’s warm, fire resistant, and soft. I chose white because it will reflect the most amount of light inside. I will put a circle of rocks around the inside to hold the liner in the corners. The rocks will double as hot rocks for cooking and heating. I hope this works.

The smoke hole flaps don’t work. I don’t understand how they are supposed to go together. I’m going to tie the off to the ground or something. It came with two sticks to hold them upright, but the sticks aren’t long enough. They look limp and floppy. I’ll need to figure that out soon.

The five poles that came with the tipi are not going to hold up under the weight of the wool liner. They look like dowels made in a shop. I’m not sure what kind of wood it is. They are already starting to grow mold. I will need to get real lodge poles at some point. Pine is the classic, but I may go with Doug Fir, which is more available around here.

I’ve covered the floor of the tipi with Western Red Cedar bows from Irving Park. This will hopefully prevent rot, provide a nice aroma, and create insulation from the ground.

The authors in The Indian Tipi suggest piping in air to the fire pit from under ground, especially in small tipis. Since mine is very small I’m going to do this with some sort of metal pipe I find. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for anything I can harvest for it.

Using the Tipi requires several elements. The first is transportation and size. My Tipi is very small (8.5 feet in diameter) and can only fit maybe two to three people max. That’s with a fire and not much supplies. Although the tipi is small, it is not something I can carry around with me like a modern backpacking tent. The Indians used dogs, then horses to carry their tipis. In place of animals I suppose I could use a cart that attaches to my bike. This would only work so far as there are roads wide enough and easy enough to roll a cart. This would limit the amount of other useful items I could carry on such a cart, like firewood. While I appreciate and honor the invention of the tipi, I acknowledge there was a time and place for it and the urban environment ain’t it, unless you don’t mind being sedentary.

The second thing about the tipi is that it is not designed for rain forest conditions. Here in the NW coast, everything is wet almost year round. People here rarely wore buckskin, mostly keeping it warm and dry inside for blankets. Their houses and clothes and canoes and everything were made from the Western Red Cedar, whose high tannin content make it very rot resistant. The tipi is not a shelter that would last long in the Northwest.

The bottom line is, the tipi was design for open country environment and with the ability to transport the shelters with the aid of animals. What does this mean for me? Nothing. I’m still going to use it, and still get the best out of it that I can. Tipis are awesome shelters, regardless of the conditions I have mentioned. Luckily for me, I don’t need to transport the tipi anywhere, and even if I did I could just make a few trips on my bike since nothing in the urban environment is too far apart. I wouldn’t be taking it for miles and miles. I might however, retire the tipi during the wintertime to avoid getting it moldy. I may build a cedar plank shack for the winter or get a small wood stove for the tipi. We’ll see.

This brings up a lot of the philosophy behind shelters. It seems there are three distinct shelter strategies used by nomadic indigenous people; carry your shelter with you, move from stationary shelter to stationary shelter, build small temporary shelters wherever you set up camp. Each one seems to be an adaptation to habitat, weather patterns and available methods of transportation.

I am planning on utilizing all three of these methods. I have several sedentary shelters, in various friends’ yards, that I will migrate from. I will also build temporary shelters in parks and such. And I will also carry my shelter with me, in the form of a sleeping bag and a tarp. In fact, it seems the best kind of shelter for the nomadic urban hunter-gatherer may just be a tarp and a sleeping bag. Of course, homeless people figured this out long ago. I differ than homeless people since I’m utilizing my friendships for access to garden space, fire pits, bathrooms, tap water, etc. This is so I can avoid trouble with the authorities and deepen my relationships with the friends I have.

Current Questions

1. What should I use to pipe in air?

2. What should I do about the smoke hole flaps?

3. How well insulated will it be?

4. Was the wool the right choice?

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20 Comments on “Big Trouble in Little Tipi”

  1. hmmm. yeah tipi living can be complicated. i don’t use mine much to be honest. it’s huge so i don’t have the smoke problem. i always make sure to burn nice dry hardwoods though just in case. So since it is really rainy there you’ll want to stock wood in advance and keep it/let it dry. Also a slightly larger fire seems to burn better and smoke less, but you probably don’t have much room for that. i would guess that with the liner your tipi will be very warm when you have a fire inside no matter what the temperature outside, hot even. Throw a blanket over the hole and pour some water on the fire rocks and you’ll have a sweatlodge. I don’t know if wool was the right choice but it sounds alright. I have wool sweaters that have turned funny colors next to the fire, but who cares about that. If you cant find a pipe what if you dig a little trench and cover it with something flat like a scrap of plywood or shale stones and put the dirt back on top. I’m not sure about the smoke hole flaps, since I can’t see the problem. First get long enough sticks which go in the upper corners, right? Then in the lower corners tie a rope that you tie off somewhere in front of the tipi. Look at the bottom picture on this site: Mine never look that nice. My tipi never looks that nice. But I think it is okay if they sag a little. I made my own tipi poles. I would caution that they have small tops in diameter where they come together so the smoke hole doesn’t get gigantic and let in rain. Also they should be as straight and smooth as possible or the water running down will drip of any rough points or knotholes. Hardly any of my poles are pines. My dad helped and we did some illegal “timber stand improvement” in areas of crowded birch saplings in the national forest, haha. Anything straight will do. You’ll want to peel the bark off of the poles. This is most easily done in the spring, though in my experience throughout the whole summer as well, and any day it gets warm and the sap might be running which around here usaully starts Feb., but with global warming let’s say anytime goes. If the bark is really peeling you don’t need anything more than a butter knife to get it started, then you can use your hands. If it is not a draw knife works best. You can save the long peels of bark to make cordage. Some rain is to be expected but if too much rain coming in the hole becomes a problem there is something called a “missouri rain cap” that is like an umbrella that goes over all of the ends of the poles and anchors to the ground. With the size of your tipi you could probably just use a real umbrella for this, a beach umbrella at least. maybe one with some pineapples on it. My tipi has a lot of mildew stains after just two years. To slow this process down when choosing spots to put the tipi I would try and choose the sunniest. Mildew hates sun.

  2. Oh my god, attack of the run-on paragraph!! I just wanted to chime in with her suggestion on digging a narrow trench and covering that with something flat, you don’t really have to have a pipe. At Teaching Drum they used a trench and put in some rolls of birch bark for their tubing. Worked pretty well. And of course finding a pipe would work too, I imagine you could find some at a dump somewhere.

    If you do use an umbrella, take pictures. That’s too funny.

  3. I guess I’m kinda confused as to what the pipe is actually for. Water drainage? I’m having a hard time getting a mental picture of what you’re talking about. I have heard of people in the olden days making pipes out of cedar! Of course that would be really labor intensive. But man what an amazing wood!

  4. The pipe is for air ventilation so that the fire burns cleaner and hotter, although if your tipi is flooding I imagine it would drain water too. Haha.

    – Devin

  5. Instead of saying “i think squirrels…” I know squirrels & rabbit hide are to thin. MORE CONFIDENCE

  6. Keep up the great writing and work, Scout! I always enjoy hearing what you and your readers have to say.

    Thank you,


  7. I like the trench/cover/bark roll idea for the piping. But as far as portability goes, PVC (that white plastic pipe that poor kids use for pretend light sabers) is really light-weight. If you don’t want to pay for it (I imagine it’s pretty cheap by the foot or yard at your local hardware store), then I’m sure you can find some in dumpsters or at the dump. If you need something fast, though, use anything hollow and long enough to reach from your fire to the outside: chainlink fence posts, vacuum cleaner attachments, vacuum cleaner hoses, garden hose, etc.

    I would think the piping is pretty important in a small space not only to keep the fire going, but also to cut down on the amount of carbon monoxide the fire produces. The better its oxygen supply, the more CO2 it produces and the less CO it produces.

    Love the umbrella idea.

  8. I would suggest purchasing a small camping tent, that is available anywhere for less than 15 dollars. Walmart or Pamida does supply them. Or whatever you prefer to get them at. They can easily hold less than 4 people and they are flamable proof. They are more easier to use today than it was in the last 10 years. They made the rods easeir to assemble, and sometimes you can find ones that opens itself automatically like foldables ones. Those are useful and small that can be carried anyewhere you take trips to.

  9. Camping tents are available for less than 15 dollars and can easily fit around 5 people. They are small, and easy to transport. Its almost like a tote that you can carry on your back.

  10. 1. What should I use to pipe in air?
    (A)recycled materials such as rain conductor or water heater vent pipe.

    2. What should I do about the smoke hole flaps?
    (A) smoke flaps usually have sockets for sticks/poles. Insert poles into sockets and adjust till you get a happy medium between draft and weather protection. The “smoke poles”usually cross behind the lodge.

    3. How well insulated will it be?
    (A) with a proper liner and a small fire,you’ll be quite comfortable.

    4. Was the wool the right choice?
    (A) Paint stores have canvas runners available cheap. Its your best bet.
    Leave ground space at the bottom of your cover and install the liner tight to the ground.
    Also tilt your cover back,in the picture the lodge is too upright.
    Save the wool to insulate you from the ground.
    (Q)Where can i get a little lodge like that?

  11. Hi urbanscout, i think i would just use the one you have for supplies, and build a new one from scratch. I built a 16 footer and have been using it for over 10 years and its just as good today. I dont want to offend you but what you have is a toy. Best of luck


  12. I/we had two teepees, that my wife and I had made. The first, where our son was conceived (too much information!), we had made out of one piece, no sewing needed. It was about 16-17 feet in diameter. We cut it out of some kind of synthetic and extremely tough material, but quite porous. So to make it waterproof wasn’t easy. It is what the paper mills use to let the paper pulp drain itself on. The second one we made with sewn strips of canvas just like the ones sold on the market. The canvas one was also about 17 feet diameter and although the fabric had been treated against mildew, it only took a few months and the teepee was spotted almost all over.

    I doubt that the plains peoples had that problem though with theirs made of buffalo hides. The other thing to consider is that when a person or family constantly lives in one, it gets really smoked out
    and that probably helps prevent mildew and I know for a fact that it improves a hell of alot its “waterproofness”. One thing that can be done is to install the teepee cover inside out on the poles and close
    it as much as possible, and then smudge the hell out of it! It will definitely make it waterproof.

    One thing I’d like to add is the importance of “rain pins”. Now those can make the difference between a whole night sleep and one where you constantly get bombarded with raindrops on your face. Rain pins are
    simply small pegs about the size of a cigarette or bigger. They are placed on the “in” side (facing the fire) of each pole, between the rope that holds the liner (lining) and the pole. Two on each pole. The idea is to let the rain drops travel all the way down to the ground instead of dropping on your face because of the liner rope blocking its way. So you leave more or less a couple inches between both pegs. And if ever you encounter a rebelious rain drop(s), simply use a feather or finger and help it(them) make its way down, then the rest will take the same track.

    Smoke was something. I never did master that part. I was doing ok but I’m sure there was still room for improvement. Lack of experience, or I.Q., I don’t know!

    The first teepee we made, we (wife and I) lived in it for 10 weeks during the summer of 1999. It was great.

    There is something about living in a circular lodge…and hearing and smelling all that goes on around…

    I had a Yurt for a while and that was very comfortable. I had a small wood stove in it. It’s warm in winter. I’d live in one the rest of my life no problem. Just make sure you anchor the roof material with ropes to the ground real well because it tends to catch the wind much more than a teepee cover. I’ve experienced it!

    Now we’re living in a urban environment after about 13 years in rural areas (long story)…but we’re adapting or resisting and keeping “some” sanity inspite of the civilized surroundings.

    Later alligators

  13. I built a small tipi for a friend using a scaled down pattern from “The Indian Tipi” It was a 9 footer. Because it’s so small the standard height liner didn’t work well. So we made a short liner…48″ fabric..with the 8″ fold to lay an the ground it made for a 40″ liner and that was still too tall but it worked. If you made your wool liner to fit all the way to the top…or close to the top…it won’t work like it should. Don Strinz (he makes tipis) says that the tipi works like a vacumn through venturi action. Air blowing across the smokeflaps causes air to suck in around the bottom of the tipi and rise up the liner. It then pulls to the center due to the heat from the fire…hot air rises…the venturi action pulls the air and smoke out the smokehole. Adjusting the smokeflaps to changing wind conditions keeps the vacumm working. Air pulls in from the base…rises up the liner…pulls to the center…mixes with the smoke and hot air and out the smokehole. With a short liner you need to be spending your time sitting or laying down. Some tribes made a very short liner…18 to 24″…just enough to keep the air off your back.
    Wool blankets…hmmm…part of the reason scraped buffalo hides were used was to have a smooth surface for the air to rise…same with canvas…smooth surface..wool isn’t all that smooth. The liner doesn’t have to be sewn from canvas….make it pretty…get colored fabric from the dollar pile at wallyworld.

  14. Cool website man! Yeah, the liner didn’t go all the way up. But the Tipi was just waaaaay too small… and I could never figure out the wind flaps.

  15. ‘Brother’; I have loived in both a 16 n 20 ft. tipi yr. round. Own those n a 8′ I have weatherd out DEEP snows n 42 degrees F, many many rains, Hi winds, etc..
    Im 5’5b 1/2′ tall. The 8 to small 4 me but fine 4 r grandson. 16 Great 4 “move about”, as well as SLEEP rm for7 + gear. We’ve had 22 in it 4 “party” songfest (not sleep). I now own a 26′ as well. TO HARD TO ERECT ALONE n POLES DIFF. to “pack” (I like LONG poles). NEVER ERECTED IT!
    ALL mine r “top o the line” NOMADICs’. EACH (even the 8) has Top o The Line LINERS. 2 have OZONES as well. These I’ve “exspanded” in winter with SILVER Lite Wt. REFLETORS. This “Ceiling” bounces back the heat from the fire. NICE! (OZONEs r Inner CEILINGS, folks).
    My pit too “air from outside pipe…WITH a BAFFEL to give MORE air or less, as needed.
    My poles r TREATED via Verithane (2 coats, Gloss). Look nice even after a # opf yrs use.
    My pit (in the 22) large enough 4 both a small wood/cook stove N open fire (as wanted). Smoke Stack has a FINE Metel “Mash” atop…dos NOT go through poles but TOO the appex. A Spark Arrestore, n very wise in asreas I use (deep forests). My PIT fire coverd by the same when not useing the stove. Remember; SPARKS CAN CAUSE A DANGERIOUS PROBLEM.

    Changes Ive made to all is ADDING a Cloth “Screen” at doorway N DOUBLE Canvis DOORS. Screening keeps out insects. Double door allows INSIDE one 2 b shut without “pinning” n unpining the outside wone constentl. Aho? (understand….).

    I am not happy with ANY of my liners. So will b adding 10 more inces to thier bases. ALLOWING MORE Floor Leangth to bput things on n keep Hi winds from invadeing. NO “DRAFTS” at unwanted times. These will b of VINIL LESS ROT to bases. (These bases DO rot over time).
    I add WILLOW “cross sticks” on the INSIDE of liners to hold back Liner “Bulging”. Pressing in2 ground n tyed to the poles. A WONDER$FULL look N MORE RM. at Set Down / Sleep edge inside.

    I will b adding Fine Metel SCREENING to the “Smoke Hole” opening…less bugs / even more “Spart Stoping). Allso n “A” Frame DOORWAY COVER. A “Purch Roof” in a sence. Ive seen this at a Pow Wow n fits snug to the cover “wall”. “Mud” “Rm”…Gear rm.. Aho?
    On more “Permint” sites I trench DEEPLY around the outside…makeing sure water drains AWAY. I allso use a RUG as Flooring. REALY NICE TO STAND ON in below 0 degrees!

    In winter I raise a 5 ft (Old TiPi “cut off”)) “Wall…n pack it with Fir limbs / dead grasses / leaves n stray. EXSTRA Insalation! GREAT to do in “perminit”. My LINER allso STRAW Insalated. Aho?

    Have I “problems”? YES! Trenched TO SHALLOW n a roaring TURENT passing through my abode! Make SURE ur 2 SHOVEL HEADS DEEP! Fill the trech with Rd. Gravel so u dont trip! (Ive learned both, the hard way).

    In my 22, I DOUBLED UP Porch Bambo “wind breaks” n tyed accross inside back poles…streaching accross 3. This is / was my “Bathrm. n Utility rm). Wood ASH kept the stench GONE. A 5 gal. bucket with Camp Tolit seat the “pot”. Lined with 5 gal. trach bag. Tyend n Untyed after use, till “full enough” to remove. Aho? In summer I used a TRECH Tolit away from the TiPi.
    ALWAYS Covering the “spot” with earth after each “use”. Aho?
    SOLOR Hot Water bags (2) heated in the sun my “shower”. Hulla Hoop saspended from a tree limf n shower curtin hung on that (privicy). I also have slated wood flooring inside.

    TiPi liveing can b fun…or misserabel. Its realy up to u.

    For “perminit” Id go no less then an 18 I, n MANY OTHERS loved my 22. Even had police stop to look. (One bought a 16 4 his college son to live in in the back yrd when home between school breaks). N older (50s) couple laughed at me for “Tent Liveing”…till they droped in one day (winter) n smelled the new STRAW n CEDER Brows between the Liner n Cover…the sweet smell of Wood Smoke n INSIDE “Fancyness”…then they LITTERLY BEGED ME to RENT IT FOR A WK.END! (Diodnt, no where eles to go).
    MY WIFE dos NOT LIKE TIPI LIVEING. Has to have her Sq. Box n all it contains. Hi Tec “stuff”. I, on the other hand, used firewood logs to make n “entertaiment center”…Books, CB set n raido. Charged the Batt. from the car.

    Finil Advice; Get a SRONG ROPE n tye from Apex n down to “Cross Sticks” baryed close to the Pit. DEEP. Helps then to hold the whole affaid down in the HIGH winds incounterd!

    To sleep in a TiPi (larg) is like sleepimng on n old sailing ship…Poles “creak”, Canvis of a muffeled “snap”. With lightning overhead…WOW!

    I dont use a “Stick Cover” at top of poles at all. Just snug up the flaps n lite a fire. “Drips” turn to Lite STEAM befort they hit the ground. Adding to the “Flaver” of liveing inside one of theee. I HAVE NEVER HEARD OF, or SEEN an “Umbralla” OVER POLE TOPS to “stop rain”. I think its a Whit Mans idia. (May b wrong). Basicly just TO DANDIFFICULT TO GET ON! Aho?

    A “problem”, especily in cold mounths, r BARROWING RODENTS! Ur area inside is WARM…n they sure like THAT! Many times Ive been awaken by a gopher / etc. heaveing up thier tunnel dirt under me. I simply give they “going to” place a swift side-o-fist…pressing thier soil onto them. Not enough to kill but SURE MAKES UM RUN! (: Good 4 the nite at least!
    Plan ur Space well inside WELL. U cant have LIVEING Rm n a MASS of “Things” in one of these! Not if u intend to use it more then a wk.nd. Old “logh” firewood, unsplie, makes decent “seats”. Funtons r SUPER as couch N bed. Store “things” under / behind. Use Sq. Plastic containers for clothng / etc.. RODENT / BUG n DAMP Proof. WORTH THE INSETMENT!

    I use n ESKAMO “Candel” with tin reflector as “light”.

    To those that laugh…i pity YOU! Go to ur “box” n pay ur “box” utilitys / etc.. Ur welcome to it! Has its “comforts” (have one) but inslaves u to “others”. So, Laugh…Im FREE! (:

    Red Elk

  16. urban scout,

    You might join;


    in the latter is a photo album;, and in it is; There are pics of a permanent DFH exhausting smoke outside the tipi. In the message section of both is a verbal description of a Dakota Fire Hole which will exhaust smoke out underground, so there will be no smoke at all inside.
    Yes, if you want an open, “normal” fire, you absolutely need a liner; that is what creates a chimney out of compressed, cool air using the venturi principle of compressing and speeding up air.
    The other factor is that the size of “tipi” is a child size, very small “toy” tipi. Other than the small size, it looks nice, ie normal, but without a liner, it is not a “real” tipi.
    Other than that, you have some good ideas; keep it up.