It is not hard to imagine what it would be like: no electricity, no police protection, no running water; you are on your own. The coming breakdown could be a slow process like the fall of the Roman Empire, or it could be cataclysmic and happen overnight. Regardless, you will need shelter, especially if you have the responsibility of a family. Your family might be you and your dog, or you and a wife and kids. You need a solution. Using the “Rule of Three’s,” we know we can survive for only three seconds without hope, three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. Shelter is foundational in a survival situation. Three hours without shelter, in the worst of conditions, and you don’t have to worry about food or water or anything else for that matter. You need to have a plan before disaster strikes. There is much debate about hunkering down versus bugging out - should you stay in place or hit the road? In the end, circumstances will dictate what you need to do. Ideally, you need a shelter solution that satisfies both scenarios.
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There is a lot of interest today in something called a “Tiny House,” basically a very small, stripped down version of a modern dwelling. Why so much interest? For many, cost is a factor. It is much cheaper to build than a typical three bedroom ranch. For others it is a movement away from the acquisition of stuff while maintaining the necessities of a proper shelter. For me, it would be a search for simplicity in our overly complex, high-tech society. Would a “Tiny House” be a solution when this fragile house-of-cards we call society breaks down? What follows is my exploration of what constitutes a viable structure; a structure that is attainable and sustainable in the chaos of a future third-world environment.
The North American Indians, the Eskimos, and the Mongolian nomads all handled this problem. By modern standards, these primitives were not technologically skilled groups. They were not well equipped with all the latest survival gadgets. They could not run down to the local hardware store or department store for supplies. They could not order a new power drill from Amazon. They moved around frequently. When the animals they hunted moved – they moved. When the wood ran out, they ran out to a new area containing more resources. Yet despite abundant limitations, they sheltered. They sheltered in relative comfort in sustainable dwellings. All without mortgage payments, utility bills, televisions or electric lights. The types of shelters these simple nomadic people used were different depending on their environments, their cultures and their available resources.
This shelter must be portable if you decide staying put won’t work. It must shelter from the elements, accommodate heating in winter, cooling in summer, cooking inside, some level of privacy, storage for some stuff and be large enough for the clan you protect. Of course, it must also be attainable and sustainable. Is this a new problem, or has it been solved before?
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Before I examine their shelters, let’s consider a modern man, high-tech solution like the “Tiny House.” Put wheels on it and it is portable. In that state, it is similar enough to a camper or any other trailer that we can lump them together as a group. These trailers satisfy our list of requirements with one major critical shortcoming. Even if you are a skilled plumber or carpenter, these structures are not sustainable. You say you have the skills to repair sophisticated complex equipment, even so there will come a time when the shelter will fail, and you will not be able to fix it. You could run out of gas, and it is no longer portable. The computer driven devices could stop after an electromagnetic pulse event. A wind storm tips the box-on-wheels on its side, and you have no tow truck or crane to lift it back up. The solar panels on the roof get smashed during a hail storm; then your electric stove or lights stop working. You get the idea. Carl Sagan said, “We've arranged a civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.” Edsger Dijkstra (a computer guy) said, “Simplicity is prerequisite for reliability.” Therefore, my answer lies in simple shelters crafted by simpler cultures in simpler times.
Examples of simple shelters can be a cave, lean-to, igloo, wikiup (a tipi like structure made of sticks), tent, yurt and tipi. Even at a quick glance, some of these constructions do not meet my conditions. The cave and igloo are not portable. The lean-to, wikiup and the igloo are at best short term emergency shelters. Admittedly, Eskimos survived in igloos, and the snow house meets most of the requirements we seek. However, it is not truly portable. Yes, given the right conditions, it can be replicated over and over. However, sustainability is the problem. July in Georgia, need I say more? The tent, tipi and yurt are all structures that use some kind of framework and some kind of covering such as skins or canvas. All three meet all of my requirements including sustainability. Is one better than the others? I think so.
The tent works, but it has limitations. In order for the tent to heat in winter, you have to have a stove, as open fires in a tent could lead to disaster. Even a sheepherders stove can weigh around seventy pounds. Not a deal breaker, but a consideration. The tent design is not very efficient for heating and cooling. The tent lacks insulation. In order to walk around in it or stand in it comfortably, it must be large like a wall tent. The tent is designed as a short term camping solution and would not be very comfortable over an extended period of time. However, they are attainable and can be purchased for less than a thousand dollars in today’s market place.
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The yurt is a circular tent of felt or skins on a collapsible framework, used by nomads in Mongolia, Siberia, and Turkey. A wonderful structure that permits an open fire inside. It can be very comfortable for a large family. This shelter is portable. It shelters from the elements, permits primitive heating in winter, cooling in summer from shading. You can cook in it, and it provides privacy, storage for some stuff and can be large enough for the clan you protect. It is attainable and sustainable. If your budget permits, the yurt is attainable at a cost. Anywhere from five thousand to eleven thousand dollars.
A tipi is a cone-shaped tent, traditionally made of animal skins or canvas coverings, on a wooden pole framework. The tipi, just like the yurt, is a sustainable structure. It is also circular so usage of available space is maximized. In high wind, the conical shape permits the wind to flow around the walls and when the tipi is properly staked down, it can handle very stormy conditions. Smoke from open inside fires are vented upwards with a chimney-like effect created by warm air rising and the cooler air space between the inner and outer linings. The smoke holes and smoke flaps add to this process to keep the interior of the tipi relatively smoke free. When the temperature rises, so can the canvas. By lifting the bottom of the outer canvas wall, you have a large umbrella that shades from the sun and permits full ventilation. A tipi is a marvel of simple yet elegant engineering. The plains Indians managed to transport their tipi homes with horses and sometimes dog teams. A large, 18 foot diameter tipi can house a small family comfortably and can be purchased today for less than two thousand dollars.
You only have to watch a few news casts to know that our American civilization is in transition and having an alternative shelter may become a reality. Unfortunately, like Carl Sagan said, we are dependent on a complex system we don’t fully understand. The unsustainable high-tech tiny house/trailer solution is out. The igloo is out (not enough snow in Georgia). The short term, emergency shelters like lean-tos and wikiups are just that – short term emergency shelters, not long term solutions. The tent, the yurt and the tipi are all viable solutions. So which one is best? The tent is not efficient enough and the yurt is too expensive. The tipi, for me, is the most attainable and sustainable shelter solution. It meets all the requirements and has survived the test of time.
Kit Carson, a famous scout, refused to travel with Lieutenant John Charles Fremont on his expedition unless a tipi was brought along. Carson lived for years in tipis with his Indian wives. He knew firsthand the comfort and practicality of the tipi in a traveling existence. Good enough for the experienced Kit Carson, good enough for me.
More installments of this Tipi series coming soon!!!!!