If you are wondering what a yurt is and why everyone seems to be talking about them, you’re in the right place to find answers! Even though the word “yurt” sounds like some kind of new yogurt, it actually a cozy tent-like dwelling – perfect for adventures and outdoor living.
This guide will help you understand more about yurts, how they are being adapted for modern lifestyles, where to find the best yurt-centric camps and some useful tips for staying in one.
Table of contents
What is a yurt?
A yurt is a circular tent made out of wool felt with a collapsible wood frame structure used by nomadic peoples of the Asian steppe since before written records began.
The history of yurts makes fascinating reading. Originally, yurts were made by draping wool felt over a collapsible wooden frame structure. They were used by nomadic Turkic and Mongol peoples of the central Asian steppe since before written records even began. In fact, “yurt” (“yurta” in Russian, “ger” in Mongolian, and “yuorte” in Khwarezm) means home, homeland, or kinsman in many nomadic languages, which goes to show how highly the wandering tribes regarded these structures.
Yurts provide the perfect housing for nomadic tribes, which is why they are used for housing by more than half of the Mongolian people to this day.
If you have any doubts as to the adaptability and comfort a yurt can offer you, statistics showing over 90% of Mongolia’s rural population still live in a yurt should be enough to convince you!
They were first introduced to the U.S. by yurt pioneer William Coperthwaite in the 1960s. In 1978, Pacific Yurts started operations and became the first modern yurt company in North America.
Modern vs Traditional Yurts
Everything You Need to Know About Traditional Yurts
Many woven lattices of flexible poles are strapped together and draped with felt, or similar fabric, when creating traditional Mongolian yurts today. The look of a completed yurt resembles a miniature circus tent. In ancient times, a smaller covering (toono) was erected over the hole in the middle of the roof (crown). This allowed smoke to waft out without the fire inside the yurt being dampened by rain.
Setting up and taking down a yurt takes about half an hour to three hours, depending on the number of people assisting. Once the yurt is up, a wood-burning stove with chimney pipe is set up in the middle and the floor is covered with carpets. Because of features like the stove, yurts are always erected on flat ground. Traditional yurts are white with a red-painted wooden door.
Traditional Yurt Lattice:
Traditionally, a yurt’s lattice-like wall structures are divided into easily transportable sections, called khana. A khana is made by tying light wood together with leather or animal hair twine, and then crisscrossing these pliable poles into a trellis so they can collapse down. When the yurt is set up, the khana are tied together to form a circular shape and placed upright upon an insulating floor covering.
Traditional Yurt Roof:
A yurt roof is the most complex section of the structure. The central ring is called the crown or tono, and it’s placed on top of two upright decorative support posts, called bagana. The roof support poles or beams, known as uni, are fastened in the shape of sunbeams around the crown during set up.
Individual crowns can be decorated with reeds, colored fabrics, and wood. Unlike the rest of the yurt that gets replaced as needed, crowns are passed down from family to family.
Yurt Crown (Tono) & Support Poles (Uni)
In traditional yurts, the opening in the crown (tono) allows the stove chimney to pass through in winter and for air to circulate in summer. Cooking is done outside in summer when the warmth from the stove isn’t needed.
In the past, yurts could have up to four or five layers of felt used as a basic covering and an outer layer of canvas, or any other waterproof fabric, on top of that. With winds of up to 10 mph hurtling over the barren steppe and winter temperatures of around -19°F, traditional yurts are ideally suited for life on the wide-open grasslands.
- They can withstand winds coming from any direction.
- The doors are made of wood to strengthen the yurt shape, flap doors could be ripped open by winds.
- The gently sloped shape of the roof prohibits wind from tearing the roof covering off the beams.
- A narrow trench is dug around the yurt to funnel rainwater away.
- The door is positioned in the south section of the yurt because the north is sacred and usually has a shrine placed there.
Large yurts, belonging to chieftains and important dignitaries, were divided into many different spaces. Large traditional yurts can even have a separate second floor or loft, called a cupola, near the crown. Traditional yurt craftsmanship was officially recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, by UNESCO.
Modern Yurts in the Western World
Modern yurts are becoming more popular in North America and Europe since they were first introduced to the U.S. by yurt pioneer William Coperthwaite in the 1960s. He first became interested in yurts after reading about them in an issue of Nat Geo magazine in 1962!
In 1978, Pacific Yurts started operations, becoming the first modern yurt company in North America.
Modern yurts are making the move from the more common campsite or backcountry settings to the alternative lifestyle sector. Glamping has also taken to yurt-life with gusto. I know that if I had the choice between staying in a log cabin or yurt, I would choose the yurt.
The Eastern way of positioning everything at floor height instead of the Western way of elevating everything to waist height is what drives a lot of the appeal of smaller size yurts.
This feature was originally designed to make a yurt’s space easier to heat, but it can imbue a modern, larger size yurt with wonderfully horizontal lines.
How are modern yurts made?
Modern yurts are often built to be permanent on top of a platform, so the interior and exterior of individual yurts will vary according to whether it’s a temporary, movable yurt or a permanent structure. However, the basics of the construction are the same.
When folks want to customize their yurts, they can choose different construction materials such as native hardwoods – chestnut or ash, for example.
Others can order their yurts to be covered with more high-tech materials, such as breathable, thermo-fabric, or use aircraft cables for more secure framework construction. This is a good thing to know if you’re vegan or vegetarian, as felt is made out of wool.
The roof structure in modern yurts is often self-supporting, but large yurts may have interior posts supporting the crown. Self-supporting yurts are prevented from spreading by means of a tension band at the top of the circular wall. This opposes the force exerted on it by the roof ribs/beams.
Below you can see a basic structure of a modern yurt. As you can see, the modern spin on yurt fabrication has taken all the best features of traditional yurts and tweaked, them so that they better reflect the modern sense of space and structure.
Plus, they are a lot bigger and taller.
While researching yurts on Instagram I came across this beautiful and modern DIY construction by Zach Both, and the best part about running into their yurt is that he created a super helpful guide for anyone considering Yurt life called doitYOURTself.com
In his website, Zach covers everything he did and all the decisions he took to build his modern and minimalistic yurt.
From the platform, framing, electrical, roof, walls, the loft, to plumming and the finishing touches, if you are considering building and buying a yurt, you should definitely check out Zach’s website.
Below some pictures featuring his yurt with included lof from his Instagram.
If you want to see the full tour of this amazing yurt, check out the video below by Living Big In A Tiny House on Youtube
What makes yurts so great
Yurts give us a world view of how life can be comfortably lived outside of our expected norms of bricks and mortar. In Lapland (Sámi Finland), yurt-style homes are called lavvu.
The Sámi still live in them today. In North America, the nomadic indigenous populations built igloos, goathe, wigwam, and tipi.
Each cultural structure has been adapted over thousands of years to reflect the needs of the people, the weather through which they live, and the migratory patterns of the herds they hunt or care for.
What makes yurts so great is that by using some of their construction knowledge to build one, you can tap into the history and architectural genius of the people who originated them.
Full-time yurt living
Of course, it’s possible to live in a yurt full time. Just so long as the construction and materials have been customized for the weather and conditions experienced in your area, you will snug and happy living in a modern designed yurt.
You could choose whether to opt for a raised crown to cool you down in summer or get the builders to install an AC, it’s entirely up to you.
It’s also possible to roll up the sides of traditional yurts in summer, allowing a freshening breeze to blow through, but this wouldn’t be recommended if you live close to water (mosquitoes).
Come wintertime, the yurt’s circular shape is perfect at keeping you warm. Modern yurts can have fireplaces on the side or in the middle of the space.
If you live in an area where wood is plentiful, you could install a wood-burning iron stove for heating and cooking, although this could get a bit too hot in the summer months.
And yes…you can add on a bathroom to your yurt. The pipes would have to be wrapped really well in freezing winter weather areas but once that’s done, the rainwater catchment system will flow easily into the geyser.
Greywater systems provide adequate sink and shower water, and composting toilets are perfect as yurt toilets – better than installing a septic tank.
Where can I camp in a yurt?
Yurts are the new hot glamping structure and we can totally understand why they look amazing and have so much more room (most of them) than a regular tent.
And lucky for us there are a bunch of places where you can satisfy the yurt-glamping cravings, here are some of these spots we’ve found:
1 California – Cachuma Yurt camp
Located in Sana Barbara, the Cachuma camp is right next to the Cachuma lake, they offer different sizes of yurts, from 14′ to 24 feet wide. They all have adorable names and locations around the campground, right by the water.
Lupine, Poppy, and Sage are on the Western side of the campground and can enjoy a spectacular sunset on most evenings. Oak, Sycamore, Pine, and Redwood (ADA) are on the Eastern side of the campground and get the beautiful morning sunrise over the lake and boating marina.
2 Texas – The Local Chapter
this beautiful yurt is located at the Big Bend national park in Texas, it’s a 573 ft2 private yurt equipped with a telescope for a view of the starts, it’s definitely in our list of places to check out. Below some of the images from their Instagram, SO breathtaking!
3 Idaho – Castle Rock state park
The Willow glamping yurt is set among a grassy meadow with Almo Creek a short distance away that curves gently through the willows creating a relaxing atmosphere. The yurt is equipped with electricity, king size bed with linens, futon, electric heater, fire ring, picnic table, and propane grill. Vault toilet and water are near-by.
You can read all about this other Yurt in a post by Katie Williams in the VisitIdaho.org website
4 Vermont – The Vermont retreat
Located in Putney, Vermont. This beautiful, very comfortable and restorative escape, with private surroundings, is the perfect couple’s retreat. It is fully equipped and has a wood stove, firepit, deck, and full kitchen.
Wrapping things up
Yurts even get debated about in the House of Representatives! Rep. Craig Hall made a joke about it after a yurt deregulation bill was passed. He tweeted, “A little bit of yurt doesn’t hurt!”
And I would go as far as saying that a lot of yurt doesn’t hurt either.
I personally can’t wait to go try yurt camping with our little family! If you’ve stayed in one we would love to hear from you! Just message us and we will be happy to include any comments you have about your Yurt experience!