What do you think it would be like to live in a tipi through the winter?
If you had asked me this question three months ago when I was living in a non-insulated, non 4WD van without snow tires or a steady place to park, I would’ve said, “Living in a tipi sounds great.”
I would’ve told you how nice it sounds to be able to walk around and cook dinner standing up. My van, Trish the Tank, is a summer girl. She’s the kind of van who wants her doors open out to greet the green, warm world. She isn’t built to live inside of, she’s more equipped to help you live luxuriously outside. The kitchen operated out the back door with a table set up in the grass. The only thing you can comfortably do inside of the van is sleep.
A tipi, far larger and most definitely taller than a van could only increase comfort.
Three months ago, I would have raved about how wonderfully cozy a tipi could be with a woodstove. I would have argued that you can get a tipi so warm with a hot fire, you’d be standing inside in a t-shirt.
If you had asked me this question one year ago, when I was guiding full time and sleeping underneath a construction tarp, I would’ve said, “Live in a tipi…why not buy two tipis?”
What is it actually like living in tipi through the winter?
After an eight day shift in the wilderness, I returned home to a white cone, the tipi obscured by two or three feet of snow. It snowed and rained for all eight of those days. I picked up shovel, put on my blue wig, and three hours later I uncovered the door, frozen and stuck to the canvas wall. I broke through the ice layer with a hammer.
I was afraid to look inside the tipi. How much snow got in? It was the first snow storm I’d seen hit the tipi-how’d she hold up? We closed the flaps as tight as possible, but we left it for eight days, there are still openings at the top where the poles fold over each toher. When I opened the door, I laughed.
Everything was wet. A puddle of ice and snow sat on my bed. My comforter weighed 30 pounds, thick with water. My -20 degree sleeping bag was soaked, the books were damp, the mattress soggy. The carpet on the floor was like wet grass on my socks.
This is a first. I have never in my whole life had a soaking wet bed.
Winter became Fuckin Winter in my head. Snow became Fuckin Snow in my head as I shoveled.
You know why a van is better than a tipi? A van has a roof. We could have lived in a shed and it would be better than this. A tipi is a terrible investment. I paid money for all my shit to get damp and wet? We are idiots. Why in the world did we choose a structure without a roof? A tipi isn’t logical to live in. They’re meant to be moved. I should have taken this house south before the snow hit. That’s it, south. I will dig my van out of this icy hell hole and drive south, every day for the rest of winter. I’m out of here.
There was so much to do that I didn’t even know where to start. Shovel out the spigot, or the truck, or the van, or a path to the composting toilet, or make a path to the fire pit? Should I uncover the wood pile and make a fire so I can start drying my bedding? Or prioritize removing the snow from the tipi walls? I worried about the canvas molding and wondered how to dry out the carpet. I couldn’t start a fire in the wood stove immediately because I needed to open the smoke flaps. But I couldn’t move the poles to open the smoke flaps because the poles were buried in the snow. Should I start shoveling out the poles?
Overwhelmed with the rawness of winter, I cried. Then I shoveled, and shoveling felt a whole lot better than crying. I decided to shovel out the tipi poles first. Still angry, I wrote a letter to my past self.
I write to you today from the future. It is the year 2023. You are quite right in thinking that living in your van through winter is a terrible idea. I write to tell you that living in a tipi is not as much of an upgrade as you are thinking. I am living in the midst of the hell you are dreaming up, and I am here to tell you to stop. Stop and really consider what might it be like to live inside of a tipi in the dead of winter?
I want you to imagine snow. Not the fluffy kind. The icy, wet, heavy, not good for building snow people kind. Picture multiple feet of this snow on top of you, your van, your tipi and everything you cherish. I want you to honestly wonder what it would be like to shovel three feet of snow off your tipi, by yourself. Without Ian’s help, who will be warm in Arizona, without you.
You may be wondering how come you don’t know many people who live in a tipi. This may be a comforting thought, thinking you’re so different and creative and brave…doing something rugged and wonderfully unique. I will tell you now that there is a good reason people don’t live in tipis anymore.
For my sake, for everyone’s sake, I want you to think long and hard about this decision to live inside of a tipi in winter by yourself. Yes, it will make you gritty but how gritty do you need to be? Remember, showers are nice. Sometimes.
Sincerely, Your Weenie Head Future Self Who Is Sick And Tired Of Shoveling Snow
This is the letter I crafted in my head, cursing my past self and wondering why I did this. I imagined this letter reading like a Howler from the Harry Potter world. I imagined the letter finding me while I was sunning myself and swimming in a desert pool next to the van. I imagined my past self startled by the levitating screaming letter, and then I imagined how my past self might have responded to this letter.
Dear Future Beth,
Thank you for your letter from the future. Van life is rapidly coming to an end, you’re right, I hate it. It is still warm in the desert but snow has already fallen in the high country and the aspens are turning yellow down here. I’ve been really scared for winter to come. We don’t have any ideas yet of where we’re going to live.
But, it sounds like we found land to live on and somewhere to put up the tipi!? That’s incredible. Where? I’m so relieved to know that we figured it out, even though it sounds tough cookies out there. Sorry to hear you’re sick of shoveling snow. Sounds like you should drive south, go see the Saguaros.
Reading your letter is so inspiring. The fact that you are out there in winter, in deep snow is unimaginable. You are living my dream, you are becoming a winter goddess. Winter can’t stop you anymore! You are so strong, resilient and badass. I look up to you. I can’t wait to be you.
P.S. Of course not many people choose to live in a tipi- there’s no roof! Not many people live in a van either. Fuck paying rent, fuck the system.
So why do it? Why live in a tipi at all? Why was this something that I dreamed of?
There are things that I want that I can’t create for myself.
I want to be stronger physically and emotionally resilient. I want to be independent and know how to use a chainsaw. I want to learn about living closer with the land.
These are qualities that I don’t know how to make myself have.
The wilderness does the work for me.
I never would have dumped a bucket of snow and ice on my bed to see what happens. I wouldn’t create that challenge for myself. The sky did it for me and I adjusted.
Living outside simplifies things. I feel overwhelmed when I think about how wet my bed is. I don’t actually feel stressed drying out my comforter. Making a fire is second nature. Watching steam pour off my blanket and feeling it get lighter as it dries is relieving.
I’m practicing responding to situations with trust. I trust that things will be okay if I keep working at something, it will improve.
Staring at three feet of snow is scary, but shoveling a path is simple. It’s a repetitive motion that makes change. Over time, a path is carved and my body temperature is warmer. My toes aren’t cold and I can walk in and out of the tipi now. If I keep shoveling, things get better, life gets easier.
The wilderness is teaching me that I’m capable. The weather and elements of cold and wet challenge me more than I could ever challenge myself in a gym. I am learning how strong and resilient I can be.
When I thought about living in a tipi, I wanted to increase my confidence with independence. I’ll sit in a room full of people listening to banter that doesn’t interest me because for a long time I thought that was better than being alone. I want to be the kind of person that likes to be alone, so I isolated myself to make myself like it. I don’t live in town, I don’t have roommates, and my Ian won’t return to living in the tipi until March.
My hope was to rewrite this story, but the funny thing is, the tipi hasn’t given me an independent confidence at all.
In fact, the opposite is true. The tipi humbles me and teaches me about interdependence.
Tipi has given me more opportunities to ask for help than I would like. I’m learning that being alone isn’t something I want to strive for, it’s not a superpower. Obsession with independence is actually me suffering for no reason.
Do you really think I shoveled the tipi out all by myself? No, I called my friend Ashley and she brought snacks and a hand saw. We did badass wildurwomen shit together.
We took care of a tree that fell down from the heavy snow. We sawed off the branches and kicked them until they broke, then dragged them through the snow. We built a bonfire with the fallen tree, shoveled a path around the tipi, and ate popcorn. With help, I was laughing and cheering instead of crying and cursing at the snow.
Ashley and I removed about half the tree one night. The next morning, Dan the man who owns the property came over. He attached a rope to the tree, tied it to his car, and dragged it out of the way. I never would have thought of that.
Nothing about living outside is about independence.
If I need wifi, I go to the public library. When my trash can is full, I take it to a dumpster. I don’t grow my own food, I shop at a grocery store. I rely on society’s infrastructure to live, and I didn’t feel as aware of that when I lived in a house. If anything, choosing to live outside has shattered my idea of independence even being a real thing.
For example, I didn’t grow the trees on the property, and I certainly didn’t knock them down either. They grew on their own will, and met their own fate, falling and dying, laying there rotting. Then we came along. Ian bought a chainsaw and spent days hacking away at dead and down pinyon and juniper trees. We got all the firewood we need for winter from the land, not from a store.
The idea of interdependence to me, is that things are connected and working together in ways that we don’t understand or don’t take the time to recognize. While we needed firewood to stay warm, the forest benefited from us removing dead and down trees. That practice of clearing out dead undergrowth on the forest floor is fire mitigation. Preventing a forest fire helps our entire neighborhood. It affects the future generation’s supply of clean air and available forest, but that’s not why we cut the trees. We needed firewood.
The tipi poles are over thirty feet tall. I could never have built the tipi by myself. It took five people to lift the poles and arrange them. Someone made coffee while someone else read the instructions while someone else untied a knot in the cord while someone else measured the distance between the poles while someone else chose the music. It was a community effort. We cooked soup over an open fire and ate dinner together on a day where I wouldn’t normally have asked those friends to gather.
We didn’t buy the land that our tipi is on. Dan made space for us on a property that he chose to invest in, years before we met. There is a house on the land that someone else built without Dan or any of us in mind. The lineage of how human choices affect future generations lingers on my mind more often now.
The house on the land is mostly occupied by Airbnb guests, but when it’s empty we can use it to shower and cook and enjoy the wonders of being inside for a day or two. It is where I am sitting now while writing this post. I don’t want to paint any illusion that I am out here “alone” or doing everything “by myself.”
Ian and I joke that we were born in the wrong generation. We don’t seem to think the same way as the majority. I find it incredibly strange that our generation doesn’t make fire on a daily basis. It blows my mind that houses and apartments aren’t even built with a fireplace anymore. Fire has become decorative.
Yet, humanity owes everything to fire. Our brains developed a prefrontal cortex when we started cooking food over fire, because fire released nutrients in the food that we weren’t getting when it was raw.
I often let my mind wander back in time and I think about the humans who lived in a tipi, or a longhouse or a pit house or any moveable structure. I feel oddly grateful for these humans I never met. I wish I knew what they knew. I can’t help but feel that our society has grown dumber. I can’t provide for myself like they did. I don’t hunt, I don’t grow my own food, my water still comes out of a spigot which relies on some government piping and reservoir system. I don’t make my own clothes, I don’t make medicine. I wonder how they did it all. And I admire them.
And it breaks my heart that I don’t feel close to them. By “them,” I mean any human, any race or region of human that lived before electricity and running water. It breaks my heart to be born into a society so disconnected from everything our ancestors endured. I want to endure a taste of living on earth, not living completely sheltered from the earth’s cycles of storm and sun.
In this society, in our families, Ian and I are considered to be “the strange ones.” Because we live outside? Because we have the ability and money to live in a house but we chose not to?
Sure, we are the kind of people who make our own lives harder than it needs to be. We live in a wet cone. We live in a damp fort. We live without a damn roof. Why?
Because we want to know what it’s like to live closer to nature. We like how it feels to know and understand seasons. We want to better ourselves by being challenged to meet our basic needs.
We don’t have running water. There is a spigot where we fill our water jugs, a five minute walk away. Sometimes I’ll fill the jugs up and drive them back, other times I’ll pull them in a wagon. During the winter months, I won’t fill up the jug completely because it freezes. I keep the jugs next to the wood stove, but sometimes I wake up and my water is an ice cube. To unfreeze it, at first I try knocking and kicking the jug around to see if I can break through the ice layer. If that doesn’t work, it needs time and fire.
In order to do dishes, I put a big pot of water on top of the wood stove and let it warm up. I pour soap in and clean my dishes and dump the gray water outside. I poop in a composting toilet that doesn’t have a roof over it. I had to shovel two feet of snow off the toilet seat. I want to build a roof in the spring, but for now this is what I got. If I have plans to go to town you best believe I will try to hold it until I get there. But sometimes my ass is frozen on that toilet seat while it dumps snow or rain on me, and I poop with an umbrella. It’s not glamorous but I’m alive.
I don’t have running water for cooking or cleaning, but I still have water.
That’s the point, that’s why living outside is interesting to me. Because it is all possible, even though it’s not how I was raised and it’s not the norm. It’s not what is sold to us as do-able. It’s not easy or comfortable or deemed necessary anymore.
Someone asked me, “What is the best and worst part of living in a tipi?” The answer is the same. The wilderness. It’s brutal and it’s beautiful.
First time reader? Sign up to receive an email every time Beth Henshaw posts!