One of the most iconic living quarters in the history of mankind, the yurt is most closely associated with the nomadic peoples of central Asia. Herodotus, the father of history himself, was the first to describe yurts in the written word. According to him, yurts were the primary domiciles of the Scythians, who rode horses and lived in a nomadic fashion near the Black Sea from 600BC-300AD.
Nomadic Mongolian families called their homes “gers.” Their dwellings were made up of same-sized orange mesh-like walls that curved around the center of the tent. Each yurt had 3-5 walls and between 15-30 square meters in floor space. Two posts were erected at the center and held a circle of wood that provided a ridge around the top of the yurts. Wooden slats formed the ceiling and connected to the central posts, which were intricately detailed and decorated.
The material of each yurt could be updated or changed depending on the season or temperatures. A layer of felt would be commonly used to increase insulation and each family typically had several layers varying in thickness. When temperatures dropped or precipitation fell, the yurts would be covered with a layer of white cotton cloth that was sometimes decorated. This would absorb moisture and keep the inhabitants dry.
Traditional Mongolian yurts always had wooden entrance doors that were highly decorated, wooden floors and carpets to keep the inhabitants warm and dry. Inside, wooden furniture, a centralized stove, and a small cabinet with a sink to wash yourself immediately upon entering the yurt.
Mongolian yurts are still in wide use, with three-quarters of the country’s population living in gers to this day. Large cities, such as the capital Ulaanbataar, have districts of yurts scattered throughout the city. The community around these yurt quarters is one of a shared mentality, as many of the structures do not connect with municipal water supplies. Bathhouses, saunas, and spas are very common in these sections of the city.
Yurts Move West
The modern term “yurt” means something much different than the ger of Central Asia. Credited with the introduction and popularization of modern yurts in North America is the late William Coperthwaite, who adopted a David Thoreau-like philosophy with his off-the-grid lifestyle in yurt structures he built himself.
Coperthwaite, who died in 2013, was inspired by a 1962 National Geographic article about Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’ trip to Mongolia and the indigenous ger. In kind, Coperthwaite developed his own yurts through handmade construction methods and tools. More than anyone, Coperthwaite is credited with popularizing the building style in the United States and the rest of North America.
Modern Fabric Yurts
One of Coperthwaite’s students, Chuck Cox, was among the first to iterate on his teacher’s ger-inspired yurt designs. While at Cornell University, Cox built a canvas-covered version of Coperthwaite’s yurt and ran tensioned-steel aircraft cables along the top of the wall to keep the fabric’s shape and appearance. This ushered in the portable yurt phenomenon and inspired other manufacturers to investigate portable yurts for multiple uses and scenarios.
Today, modern yurts incorporate high-end polyvinyl chloride (PVC) fabrics and aluminum or galvanized steel frames for lightweight, portable capabilities. Unlike yurts of old, modern yurts can be built to local or international building code and engineered to battle extreme weather conditions. The aesthetic appeal of yurts is coming back into fashion, potentially replacing the North American log cabin as the first choice for new constructions for camping, resorts, ski lodges, and guest ranches.
Glamping and a Rekindled Interest in Yurts
No other hobby has pushed yurts back into the mainstream vocabulary than glamping. The socially-agreed upon term for glamorous camping is sweeping the luxury resort and vacation world, with sleepy dude ranches and ski resorts suddenly becoming high-end destinations for vacationers.
While the experience of glamping is a far cry from the rugged pup tent of old, it can offer a comfortable, modern retreat after long days in the wilderness or on horseback. Most glamping yurts are equipped with modern bedding, seating, and other amenities to provide at-home comfort while enjoying the great outdoors.
Learn more about the benefits and aspects of glamping compared to traditional camping here.