Ethnic shelters around the world

Today’s bivvies and day shelters are high tech and lightweight, but mobile shelters are certainly nothing new.

Next time you pack your bivvy ready for a fishing trip, spare a thought for these nomadic hunter gatherers past and present, whose shelters took a little more effort.


Traditional Mongolian Yurts

Traditional Mongolian Yurts
Image: Shutterstock

Temperatures on the Mongolian Steppe can range from 40 C during the daytime to below zero at night.  In the winter, the thermometer can dip below -30 C. The traditional way of life for people who live on these harsh, windy plains, is as nomadic or semi nomadic herdsman.  In a land of extremes, accommodation has to be warm yet portable.

The yurt is perfectly adapted to the geography and climate of the region in which it evolved.  Round and with a conical roof, the finished structure has no flat or concave surfaces to trap the wind, making the tent all but impossible to blow over.

It is also incredibly strong.  The downforce generated by the weight of the roof is counteracted by the tension band that runs around the lattice of wood that forms the yurt’s outer rim.

The Mongolian yurt covering is thick felt, warm yet relatively light weight.  Here in the West, yurts are increasingly popular alternative dwellings – when constructed from waterproof canvas, they make a surprisingly sturdy and cosy shelter.



You’d need your thermals if you were sleeping here!
Image: Shutterstock

A properly constructed igloo can bear the weight of a full grown man standing on the roof.  In a land where there are no trees, building materials are in short supply.  But there is no lack of snow in the frozen North.  And as a building material, it has a lot going for it.

Snow contains a lot of trapped air, making it a superb insulator.  It can be -45 C outside, but inside an igloo, body heat and a small oil lamp can raise the temperature to as much as 16 or even 20 C.

We’re used to representations of tiny one or two man igloos, but these were temporary structures erected by hunters on the move.  Snow homes can house as many as 20 people sleeping on raised beds of ice covered with caribou skins. Light comes from a single polished block of ice in the wall.


The gypsies first wandered out of India over 1000 years ago.  They travelled in extended family groups throughout Europe, with populations in the Middle East and the Americas.

Most people think of Gypsies as living in caravans or ‘vardos’, but this was a relatively modern invention.  For far longer, gypsies meandered along traditional routes sleeping under their wagons or in benders.

Take some supple hazel rods, plant in the ground and bend to the middle.  Cover with blankets or waterproof cloth and you have a basic bender.  For centuries, travelling people lived like this, moving from place to place, practising country crafts like besom broom making, weaving, metal and leatherwork.



North American natives bivvy of choice
Image: Shutterstock

No collection of native shelters would be complete without mention of that most famous of bivvies, the teepee or tipi.  Until white settlers drove them off the land, the North American plains were peopled by natives whose lives were intimately tied to those of the buffalo they hunted.  And as the herds moved, so did the people.

Their teepees are iconic – symbolic of ultimate freedom.  Long poles clad with hides made for warm, waterproof accommodation.

Because there were few trees on the prairies of America, poles were in short supply.  Whenever camp was struck – tribes could be on the move in under an hour – poles had to be transported.

When the conquistadors brought the horse to the continent, the men of the plains developed a horse culture second to none – and because their tents were now easier than ever to move, so their size grew.  Some of the tent poles were as long as 25 ft.

Reed houses

Reed House

You’ll need reeds aplenty to fashion yourself one of these!
Source: Wikipedia

In 1991 after the first Gulf war, Saddam Hussein began a ruthless campaign to drain the marshlands of Southern Iraq.  This was retribution for a failed Shia uprising and ultimately led to the displacement of all but a few thousand of people.

But with the fall of Saddam and the reflooding of the waterways, this ancient culture survives – just – and along with the last of the marsh arabs, the last of the Mudhifs.

It’s incredible what you can build using nothing but reeds.  A Mudhif is a reed house built with bundles of the stuff lashed together with yet more reeds.  Walls, ceiling, floor, beds, baskets, fences, boats – all are fashioned from reeds.