Benders, Tipis, Yurts, Tents and Boats

There are all sorts of other temporary structures that travelling people have used over the years as well as all sorts of boats for travelling canals, rivers and seas.




A tipi is usually associated with Native Americans. A cone of poles is surrounded with a cover of hides or canvas. It must be built with precision, but it is strong and quite a spiritual structure. There are places, most obviously Talley in Wales, where groups of people live in tipis. They are rarely seen on most sites, however a circle of tipis is often seen at festivals. A well-made tipi canvas is quite expensive and the poles are also valuable.


The first nomadic peoples were drawn out onto the plains by the plentiful supply of big game animals. The constant movement and migration of the great herds of bison shaped their lifestyle. They needed a sturdy dwelling that could stand up against the severe prairie winds and yet could be dismantled at a moment's notice to follow the drifting herds. They invented the tipi. The Tipi was warm in winter, cool in summer and waterproof.

Before the horse, the tipi was smaller than the sizes we are familiar with from historical photos. The smaller sizes can be attributed to the only available draft animal, the domestic dog. The Plains People refer to this period in their history as the "dog days." The dog was used to carry all camp items including the tipi. The tipis used during this period were likely to be 12 -14 feet in diameter. The dogs not only carried the cover but dragged the poles along as well.


With the coming of the horse, everything changed for the tribes of the Great Plains. They were no longer limited to small dwellings. Their lodges grew in size, housing their families in more spacious quarters. Most commonly, tipis were made from the tanned hides of bison and sometimes elk. Young cow (female) buffalo were preferred. Their hides were not as thick as the larger bulls and older animals. The chore of building a tipi was no small task and was usually taken on by several women skilled at tanning and constructing the dwelling. The entire structure was derived from the animal from which the skin provided the cover. Tendons were stripped for the thread. Bones were formed into the scrapers to flesh the hides and needles to sew it all together. The tipi stands as a monument to the amazing and ingenious use of an animal resource by the Native American People.




A bender is a dome of supple poles, usually hazel, over which canvas is stretched. It can be of any height and circumference, depending on the size of the tarpaulin. Canvas is better, but plastic is adequate. Blankets are often hung internally from the woven poles. They are natural, traditional structures of Scottish Tinker origin called barricades, whose simplicity is in their strength. Easily warmed or cooled, their principle disadvantage today is that constant harassment necessitates the ability to move quickly. Valuable poles and canvases need to be transported and sometimes there is hardly time to finish building before eviction threats begin.


How to Build a Bender:

You'll need:

About 20 nice bendy hazel branches, at least 6' long (trim them down so you have poles, but leave some little bits of branch on cos you can use them as hooks to hang things up inside your bender).

Strong string or thin, pliable rope (& something to cut it with!)

Tarpaulin and groundsheet or something waterproof to put under your bed.

Metal or wooden stake and mallet or hammer (metal is easier to get into hard ground. You can make a wooden stake by sharpening the end of a thick piece of hazel).

Lots of nice things to put inside (include plenty of bedding if it's winter!)


What you do:

1. Find a flat area of ground about 10ft square where you want to build your bender. Make a hole, (about a foot deep and as wide as one of your bender poles) with the stake and hammer in one corner of the area. Push the thickest end of one of your bender poles firmly into the hole.

2. Repeat this about 6ft away (further if you have nice long poles and want a spacious bender), so you now have two bender poles waving in the air opposite each other.

3. Now bend the two lengths of hazel over and wind them around each other in the middle so that they form an arch. (I like to make my bender tall enough to stand up in, but this depends on personal preference and length of poles available). Wind string or thin rope around the interwoven poles so they are held together firmly. You should now have an archway (don't worry too much if it falls over, but it's best if it doesn't!)

4. Repeat steps 1-3 to make a circular shape by bending at least 2 more arches across the first (think of the bender poles as the metal bits in an open umbrella).

5. Now you need to strengthen the structure by weaving and tying more bender poles horizontally / diagonally around the circle of arches. But remember to leave a gap big enough to use as a door!

6. Once you are satisfied that your bender is as sturdy as you can make it, cover it with a big tarp (or a few smaller ones if that's all you have) and weigh it down with stones / branches around the edges.

7. Put down a groundsheet or something waterproof to put your bedding on (bubble-wrap is good for extra comfort and warmth). If the groundsheet reaches the edges of your bender, bend the sides up inside the tarp 'roof' so that water doesn't run down on top of your waterproof floor!

8. Now you can add all your homely comforts, snuggle up inside, and wait to be evicted!!


Make your own mallet:

You will need:

An unseasoned log, about 12 inches long and five inches in diameter.

Some tools, a saw, billhook or hand axe and perhaps a sharp knife.

A hard surface to work on is essential.

What you do:

About half way along the log, cut around the circumference to a depth of just under 2 inches.

Now working at the narrowest end of the log, use an axe or billhook to remove the wood down to the cut. Leave the centre of the log, this is your handle.

Tidy it up a bit making the handle as round and smooth as you can. You can use a billhook or a sharp knife for this.

Some people split off one side of the head to provide a flat surface to hit things with.




The yurt is the traditional dwelling of nomadic Mongols and Turkic peoples in Siberia, Mongolia, China, and Central Asia. Although the yurt is no longer as common as in the past, there are still regions in Kazakhstan, western China, and Mongolia where the yurt is the primary form of dwelling, especially in summer months. In Buryiat Mongolian the word for yurt is ger (also gher), meaning "home" or "dwelling." Yurt, the more common term, is from the Russian yurta.


Like dwellings used by nomadic peoples around the world, the yurt is circular in shape and easy to assemble and transport. The major components are a collapsible, wooden latticework framework for the walls, wooden roof poles, a wooden tension smoke ring, large pieces of felt (usually from sheep fleece) for the siding, tension ropes, a wooden door, and a white cloth covering. A more permanent wooden ger is used by more sedentary peoples in Mongolia and Siberia. These are eight-sided rather than circular. The entire yurt can be carried on one or two pack animals, a cart, or a truck.

Yurts have become very popular in the West, and numerous companies provide modified yurt kits for home or vacation use. Why they are popular is not clear, although their association with a nomadic lifestyle and shamanism and the association of the circular shape with "symbolic circles" may be factors.




Tents are commonly used by weekenders, ravers, traders, punters etc. Known as nylon nightmares to travellers, they are too small, inflammable and unstable for constant use. A few travellers have tents and marquees for business, or for the children to play in, but generally tents are confined to the big gatherings and festivals. Nowadays there are brilliant ‘Bell tents’ that are not so much of a nylon nightmare although they are much more expensive!




It is also worth noting that an increasing number of travellers live in a variety of water-based homes. Water is a potentially lethal force and travellers living on boats lead quite a hard life with floods, vandals and officials all making life 'interesting!' The boats themselves range from fibreglass cabin cruisers, rudely called 'Tupperware' boats, up to sailing yachts and traditional 72ft narrow-boats.


Some are fitted out with every comfort, others are a steel shell inside which people 'camp' and rough it. Cooking and heating is often from a traditional wood-burner and lighting used to be provided by paraffin lamps or electric power from a generator or the boat's batteries. Nowadays most boats have solar panels fitted. Finding moorings is a major hassle, since increasingly British Waterways and the trusts which operate many of the rivers and canals dislike permanent boat dwellers.


There are other portable or moveable homes, geo-domes, igloos and some more permanent but that can be moved, prefabs, wooden cabins, tree houses and some that cannot be moved to another location but that are easily destroyed and the land where they are built returned to a natural state easily like a cob or straw bale house. None of these are particularly associated with travellers but many travellers who have ended up buying land have used some of these examples on their land.