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What Is a Yurt?

Aug 04, 2023Aug 04, 2023

From history to how to buy, build, or rent one for yourself, this definitive guide explores all aspects of life in these classic circular structures


Field Mag Editors

You may not typically think about staying in a yurt when planning a camping trip, but we’re here to say, maybe you should. Somewhere between a tent and a prefab cabin, these bad boys are built using ancient techniques, handed down through generations of nomadic tribes. Built to withstand extreme climates, portable, and spacious, they may just be the unsung hero of outdoor accommodations. So, the question isn't "Why stay in a yurt?" but, "Why not?"

Below, we dive further into the history of the yurt, how it's constructed, and even offer up some rentals to get you started on your own yurt adventure. Dig in and enjoy,

A yurt is an ancient version of the modern tent. Traditionally, they were used by nomadic tribes and herders across Central Asia, designed to easily dismantle when a community needed to move from one place to another. Yurts are one of the oldest shelters used by ancient civilizations that are still used today-with some deviations.

Yurts are circular structures that are assembled much like a tent. They are sturdy shelters that work well in extreme weather conditions. These structures are usually constructed from all-natural material, and thus their construction has a small carbon footprint. The circular shape of a yurt also gives you the most internal space in relation to the number of building materials used to construct it.

Although they are traditionally shelters, people also creatively convert them into modern offices, restaurants, and glamping sites. Yurts are becoming increasingly popular as tiny homes for many who are drawn to yurt living. Some national parks or campsites offer yurt rental for those who want to try out yurt camping. They bring inhabitants closer to the earth and are often used by retreat centers and as part of spiritual practices like sweat lodges.

Originally, nomadic people used yurts throughout the dry, grassy plains of the Eurasian Steppe, which spans from Hungary to China. People have used them for as long as three thousand years. Different cultures have different names for the yurt structure. For example, in Russia, they are called ‘yurta,’ while this structure is known as a ‘ger’ in Mongolia.

Although different cultures call them different names, the meaning of the words mostly stays the same, translating to ‘home’, ‘homeland’, or ‘kinsman’ in English. These structures are so closely linked to the nomadic people who traditionally inhabited them that these homes even inspired the word ‘nomad’.’ The original word, ‘nomad’, stemmed from the word ‘felt’– the material used to cover the structure. Thus nomads, or yurt dwellers, were known as ‘felt people’.

The first written description of a yurt is credited to Greek Historian Herodotus, who noted the circular dwellings of the Scythian people, a horse-riding nomadic nation who roamed Central Asia from 900 BC to around 200 BC. Then, and now, yurts are used as dwellings throughout most Central Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, where even the national flag hosts a depiction of a yurt.

However, the circular tent is the most associated with the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols. Genghis Khan, the Mongolian leader, even ruled his empire while living in a large yurt. Many Mongolian people still use yurts as their homes today. In fact, around 61% of inhabitants in Mongolia's capital Ulaanbaatar live in gers, as do nearly 90% of the rural population.

In the 1960s, William Coperthwaite introduced yurts to the United States after reading an article about Mongolia in a 1962 edition of National Geographic. Thereafter they were periodically featured in such counter culture publications as The Whole Earth Catalog as a cost efficient DIY living alternative. The first modern yurt manufacturer in North America (Pacific Yurts) was founded in 1978 by Alan Bair.

Traditionally yurts have a collapsible wooden frame covered with wool felt and a door frame from which you can hang a wooden door. Many flexible wooden poles made from birch, willow, poplar, or bamboo are woven and bound together to form lattice walls. Nomads customarily used leather or animal hair to bind the poles together. The lattice often consists of sections made up of a series of collapsible, interwoven wooden poles. Each section is known as a khana.

Once the frame is built, the fabric is draped over the structure. Although traditional yurts used wool felt or animal hides topped by a waterproof material, more modern coverings include a tarp and canvas. Felt is wool that has been pressed together instead of woven, making the material a better insulator. You could add multiple layers of felt to increase the insulation to protect from outside temperatures.

You can get yurts in different sizes, but usually, the walls are about six feet high, and the domed roof adds approximately another three feet to the total height of the structure. The size of a wooden yurt makes it easy to fit in normal-sized beds, although bunk-beds are common to see in camping-yurts.

Traditional yurts have a wood-burning stove with a chimney in the center of the living space, with the chimney extending through a hole in the roof.The central piece of the roof is called the crown, which is traditionally handed down from father to son. The more smoke stains the crown of a traditional Mongolian yurt has, the longer the family's heritage. In modern yurts, this opening is often replaced with a protective, domed acrylic skylight.

The crown is partially open, allowing for air circulation. The other roof poles are radial rafters connected to this circular structure when the yurt tent is being assembled. Poles called bagana can be used to support the crown, especially in larger yurts.

Yurts that do not have bagana are self-supporting and held together by the ropes used to tie the poles and compression caused by the weight of the felt cover. A weight hung from the center of the roof could assist the compression of the cover.

Yurts usually come in two different styles: bentwood yurts and Mongolian gers. Mongolian gers’ roofs are constructed with straight poles that are attached to the crown. The roof of these kinds of yurts has a gentle slope.

Bentwood yurt roofs are made from, well, bent wood. The wooden poles of the roof are steamed and bent before they are attached to the crown. They also extend down to form part of the walls. This gives bentwood yurts a taller and steeper, almost conical roof. These types of yurts are also sometimes referred to as Turkic yurts.

Modern yurts found in North America generally come in three types: the traditional fabric yurt, the tapered wall yurt that William (Bill) Coperthwaite introduced, and a frame panel yurt designed by David Raitt. The fabric yurt is portable and can sometimes be purchased in the form of a yurt kit.

The yurts created by yurt builders like Coperthwaite and Raitt are intended to be permanent structures built on foundations. Sometimes these permanent structures are referred to as yurt derivations because they stray from the original purpose of a yurt – to be collapsible and transportable while maintaining the traditional look and style of Mongolian yurts.

A yurt is an excellent alternative to a tent when you go camping. Because nomadic persons throughout history have used it, they are designed for easy transportation. That said, don't expect a yurt to be as compact as a tent. While tents are created specifically for camping, yurts are meant to be homes and places for a community to gather. That means a yurt offers more space and more options to create comfort when you go yurt camping. They are usually larger than tents and can accommodate more amenities.

You will probably not lug around everything, including your kitchen sink, if you plan on setting up your own yurt. But it is nice to know that you can if you wanted to. More permanent camping yurts can offer a luxury camping experience while still keeping you closer to nature than a cabin or hotel would. These types of yurts are becoming more and more popular amongst the glamping community.

Depending on the size, yurts can accommodate separate rooms, comfortable beds, bathrooms, kitchens, and even have electricity. Some yurts can comfortably lodge between five and fifteen people, making them ideal if you want to camp with a large group of people.

A yurt can take anywhere between half an hour to three hours to set up. This depends on the size of the yurt and the number of people helping. Most modern portable yurts can be erected or broken down in around an hour. While this does seem significantly longer than a traditional camping tent, it is worth the added space and comfort, especially if your camping trip is longer than a couple of days.

Yurts are designed with the environment and year-round elements in mind. They can keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The round shape of the living space means less surface area is exposed to the outside temperatures. It also provides less wind resistance as the wind moves around the curved edges of the yurt instead of catching on straight sides. Yurts are robust and can endure strong winds, snow, and even earthquakes.

Yurt camping gives you the experience of spending time in a Mongolian ger without traveling to Mongolia. It is a fun alternative to tent camping and can add a bit of glam to your trip, especially when you stay in a luxury yurt. Yurts have plenty of space inside and provide ample protection from harsh weather. While they are portable, they are still not as compact as a more modern tent. They would make an excellent home base for longer camping trips but may not work as well if you plan on doing a lot of hiking while carrying your shelter with you.

Several yurt companies produce these shelters for the North American market, both for yurt camping excursions and permanent installations with on-grid and off-grid set-ups. Below are five manufacturers across the states for your browsing pleasure, as well as seven yurts for rent for your very own glamping excursion.

Ranging from $27,027 to $55-900, these wooden houses may not technically be yurts but they’re certainly beautiful. Although more expensive than your typical yurt, their all-wooden walls allows for more windows and customizations, making this a good choice for a permanent yurt-dwelling.

The granddaddy of American yurt manufacturers, Pacific Yurts was founded in 1978 by Alan Bair. After more than 40 years in the biz, they remain a leader and mainstay in the industry, promising excellent customer service, reliability, and environmentally-conscious techniques and initiatives.

Launched in Maine, this young company eventually moved to the Sierra Foothills of Northern California with a passion for sustainable lifestyles. Their 16’ and 20’ base models start at $7,000 and $8,000 respectively. Not bad for a brand new home, eh.

A woman-owned and operated company in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, Blue Ridge Yurt is the only yurt manufacturer to offer 10’ walls-tall friends, take note.

Shelter places an emphasis on building climate resistant yurts, as their Montana home proved a good testing ground for extreme conditions. Models range from 12’ to "the epic" 40’.

This desert yurt features minimalist Southwest decor and is situated on a property featuring a main-house, multiple trailer homes, and an outdoor hot-tub for the ultimate group trip.

With 360-degree views of the surrounding farmland and Montana wilderness, this elevated yurt will bring you closer to the state's famed wide-open skies and starry nights.

Overlooking the Chama River in New Mexico is this cozy abode. The yurt itself is for sleeping, with a sweet separate kitchen and bathroom in the Annex close by.

The Reserve hosts a variety of brightly-colored luxury yurts just outside of Austin, Texas. Each yurt is outfitted with unique, handcrafted furniture, an ensuite private bathroom, a soaking tub, and a spacious deck, among other amenities.

Relax and retreat in this Vermont yurt with an outdoor shower and ideal deck for stargazing.

Surrounded by Shenandoah National Park, this custom-built yurt features a hot tub, wood-burning stove, archery, EV charger, soaring ceilings, and a wraparound porch to take in the views.

*For more guides and how-tos, check out a Definitive Guide to Downsizing

Published 03-08-2023