August 07, 2023
For centuries, the tipi was utilized by Native American tribes across the West. These conical-shaped homes dotted the Great Plains and were used by numerous tribes including the Lakota, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Sioux, and more. This asymmetrical shelter not only represented an important spiritual shape to Native Americans (the circular base representing Mother Earth, the ceiling Father Sky) but was also extremely durable against the harsh wind, rain, and snow of the Plains.
Today, the tipi has taken on a new, more lightweight life. Backcountry hunters are utilizing tipi-style tents for many reasons. What are those reasons and why should you consider a tipi for your next hunt?
HISTORY OF THE TIPI
The word tipi comes from the Lakota language and translates to “used to live in.” Archaeologists believe that the tipi has been used by Native Americans for centuries, with evidence dating back to at least 2,500 years ago, if not more. According to historical evidence, the first tipis were more lean-to type structures, eventually evolving to the conical shape of today to meet the needs of the backcountry lifestyle of Native Americans.
The tipi was utilized by most tribes in the Great Plains, including those stretching from Texas to southern Canada who used them as year-round dwellings. The tipi was also used by Eastern Plains tribes who traditionally lived in earth-lodge villages for seasonal hunting.
Tipis were not light like the backcountry tipis of today. Long, thin poles were placed vertically and wrapped with game hide—buffalo, deer, or elk—and later canvas. The conical-shaped dwelling used upwards of 15 to 25 poles to form the structure—that, coupled with the weight of the game hides, made tipis weigh close to 500 to 600 pounds. However, they could be dismantled and set up in just a few hours, and moving the structures to new locations was done by utilizing the poles as a travois.
Due to the asymmetrical form, they held up against foul weather. The cone shape of a tipi allows it to be aerodynamic. When wind is blowing, it moves over the structure which pushes it into the ground, this in turn helps stabilize it. They were also warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Liners could be added for insulation, and with a smoke hole at the top of the tipi, internal fires kept occupants warm.
TIPIS OF TODAY
Native Americans were master outdoorsmen and women, and their outdoor living techniques and skills are still being practiced by hunters today. As tipis adapted over the centuries, so has the tipi of today. So, why tipis for backcountry use? Simple: weight, durability, and functionality. Unlike traditional tipis that weighed hundreds of pounds, tipis of today are made of lightweight polyester or nylon and can be pitched with one center pole rather than 25.
“Weight is a key factor in the backcountry, and there is no denying the light weight of a tipi as compared to a double-wall tent,” explains Brad Brooks, owner of Argali, an outdoor gear company based in Boise, Idaho. “You only need one dedicated pole—that saves space in your pack, and in a pinch, you can use a stick or trekking pole.”
Most tipis also ditch the traditional bathtub floor of double-wall tents, and instead are floorless. This allows for a larger footprint to accommodate more people and gear without adding weight. It also makes for an overall cleaner sleeping area. A bathtub floor collects dirt and debris. A floorless tipi keeps the muck at bay thanks to the natural ground, meaning you don’t need to remove your boots before entering after a muddy day afield.
Additionally, a floorless tipi allows the use of a stove in colder months. Most backpacking tipis feature a stove jack for use with lightweight, titanium stoves. This makes tipis appealing to backcountry hunters who camp in extreme weather during hunting months. Heavy canvas wall tents are no longer the only way to have a stove in camp—hunters now have a lightweight, portable tent that can house a stove for warmth and comfort.
Tipis are also versatile. They can be used with a single external wall to be ultra-lightweight, or inner liners can be added to keep out pesky bugs such as mosquitos and to control condensation.
Tipis of today are generally made of two different fabrics: nylon or polyester. Each fabric has its own strengths and weaknesses, but both are utilized because of their strength to weight ratio.
The nylon’s strength comes from its ability to stretch under stress. This helps with durability as wind and rain stress the fabric. Stress is distributed across a larger area, leading to less likelihood of a tear happening. However, nylon absorbs water, which can lead to a sagging wall. This can reduce the overall space in your tipi on wet or snowy days afield.
UV exposure is not a friend of nylon as the fabric is susceptible to degradation over time, compared to polyester which is UV-resistant. The more sunshine a nylon tipi is exposed to, the faster it will cut down a tent’s lifespan. However, nylon is an abrasion-resistant fabric—meaning it can better withstand snags from rough use. Polyester has less stretch than nylon, allowing it to thrive in wet conditions as it doesn’t sag. Fabric such as silicon polyester is naturally hydrophobic and will not absorb water.
“Silicon polyester, like what we use in our tents at Argali, doesn’t stretch when it gets wet,” says Brooks. “This is important because when you’re using a single-pole tent, the sag can take up space, and water absorption makes your tear strength go down and can cause your tent to fail. You need your tent to maintain its structure in bad weather.”
A tipi’s footprint makes it ideal for adaptability in a pinch. As a backcountry hunter, you recognize that not all ground off the grid is created equal—sometimes it’s hard to find a flat spot.
Tipis of today feature the traditional conical shape, or a square footprint. This allows hunters to pitch tents in a variety of terrain. Conical-shaped tipis are the most prevalent and give you nice headspace. Straying from tradition, square-footprint tipis lend themselves better to floor space and are simpler to set up than circular tents—which tend to require re-staking the base after you raise the center pole. Tipis require less pack space thanks to the modern single-pole design. And let’s face it: tent poles break, usually in the most inconvenient time. A one-pole design cuts back the risk of a pole breaking on a traditional double-wall tent and causing tent failure.
In all, the tipi was utilized by Native Americans for centuries, and for good reason. The strength to weight ratio is hard to deny when it comes to backcountry use. The ability to pitch a tipi virtually anywhere is ideal, and the ability to add a lightweight stove to keep you warm and dry in the mountains is unbeatable. Whether you go with a traditional conical shape, or new square footprint, you can’t go wrong. Here are a few backcountry tipis you should consider for your next hunting adventure.
ARGALI ABSAROKA 4P TENT
This Idaho-based company understands the needs of backcountry hunters. The Absaroka 4P weighs in at just 1.875 pounds and can be pitched with a single center pole (sold separately) or with trekking poles. Made for four-season use and with silicon-coated polyester, the Absaroka has a tall pitch height to shed snow and wind sheer. Dual doors make for easy enter/exit, and the removeable stove jack—unique to Argali tents—helps you cut ounces. This square-shaped tipi allows for consistent, easy pitching, and line-lock adjusters allow you to make minor adjustments without having to re-stake out your guy lines. A bathtub floor/mesh insert for double wall coverage is available but sold separately.
KIFARU 8 MAN TIPI
Looking to accommodate a lot of people in the backcountry? This offering from Kifaru is made to house up to eight hunters plus gear, and still weighs just 6.25 pounds. Made of UV-coated nylon, the 8 Man Tipi is pitched with a single aluminum pole. A Cordura cone sits at the peak with a stovepipe port and rain flap. The Kifaru tent pairs with optional accessories to fit your needs, including mosquito netting for the doors and a liner to prevent dripping condensation. Two opposing doors are convenient, as well as interior clotheslines to get wet gear off the ground to dry.
SEEK OUTSIDE 6 PERSON TIPI
Seek Outside specializes in lightweight tipis and stoves, and their 6 Person Tipi can accommodate six hunters without a stove, or three hunters with. Made of 30 Denier Nylon 6.6 Ripstop, this tipi weighs in at 3 pounds, 11 ounces solo, or just over 6 pounds with the stakes and aluminum pole that are included. The conical shape deflects harsh wind on the mountain, and snow during late-season hunting adventures. Although floorless, the tipi features a fabric skirt to help keep dirt and wind drafts out. A stove jack sits at the top of the tent along with a peak ventilation hole to mitigate condensation. Hang loops inside the tent allow you to hang damp gear to dry after a wet day afield.
PEAX SOLITUDE 4 TIPI
The Solitude from Peax is unique with its Crosstrek Stabilization and Singlepoint Guyout system which both add stability and extra headspace. Made of 20D Silnylon fabric with Stormshield Coating for extra protection against the elements, the Solitude weighs just over 3 pounds with the shelter, center pole, and stakes. A footprint is available, but ads an additional pound to your kit. A smaller option, it can accommodate four without gear, three with gear, or two with gear and a stove. The Solitude is made for strength and all high stress areas are reinforced and bar-tack stitching is placed strategically so your tipi won’t fail when it matters most.