Although you may not have heard the word Yurt before, you have probably seen these iconic round structures. They are increasingly popular as semi-permanent and permanent off grid structures, who’s low cost and DIY friendly construction mean that debt-free living is possible for anyone. Let me walk you through everything you need to know about yurts to get started.
How to live in an off grid yurt debt-free! Living in a yurt is really not the difficult. All you need to do is:
- Minimize your belongings (yurts are a tiny home after all)
- Buy or rent a plot to erect the yurt on
- Buy or build your yurt home
- Erect your yurt and install heat
Living in a yurt is really possible and not as restrictive as you might think. Read on as I walk you through everything you need to know about yurt life.
Living in a Yurt Debt Free
Yurts are a cheap and relatively comfortable way to live that don’t require a large investment in time or money compared to a more traditional tiny home or full size house. They come from the steps of Asia where mongols and related peoples have used them to survive the frigid Siberian winters.
Yurts come in all sizes from 8’ in diameter up to 20’ or more and can be had, fully made for as little for a few thousand dollars up to 10k+ for a fully decked out living arrangement.
Even better, the handy among us can do like I did and build a yurt of their own for even less than the cost of a commercial yurt.
Finding a place to set up your yurt can take a little out of the box thinking, but they can generally be placed on any flat piece of land clear enough for them to fit on. Craigslist, Facebook, and word of mouth are good ways to find vacant pieces of land or acreage attached to a home to rent for yurt living. Or, if you have the means you can buy a piece of land for yourself.
The best part about a yurt is that they can be easily packed up and moved in the back of a pickup, van, or in a trailer. So, if you get tired of your living arrangements you can always pick up and move on.
More permanent yurt set ups typically are built on a wooden deck made of pallets, reclaimed wood, or other lumber. Yurt decks do not need a foundation, and are frequently built with screws so they can be easily disassembled and moved should the occasion arise.
Yurts can safely be heated with wood stoves, inexpensive yet efficient rocket mass heaters, and a variety of gas or electric space heaters.
How to Find Land to Live in a Yurt?
In my research on the topic, I have not found a state or county that will issue a permit to live full time in a yurt. They are considered temporary structures, and thus living in them would be a form of camping. Most if not all counties limit the length of time you are legal able to camp, and thus live in a yurt, during the year.
However, because they are small and portable yurts can find themselves in many locations where no one would ask any questions. Two common tactics for full time yurt living are:
- Find a piece of land out of town where zoning laws are not taken so seriously.
- Erect your yurt behind a house where you “rent a room.” Thus you legally live in the home, but spend your day to day out back in the yurt.
How Big of a Yurt Do I Need?
Yurt size can be quite an individual question. My home before building my 12’ yurt was a 10’ x 10’ tree house, so the yurt was a step up in size I knew I could handle. But, I’m a single person with a small shed for storage.
The trick to living in a small space is organization, cutting out things that you don’t really use or need, and being willing to spend time out doors. Remember, living small spaces was very common until recently. If you have ever seen the tiny two room homes of the past, like the one Elvis was born in, then you will find a yurt isn’t really that small comparatively.
If you are considering moving a family in to a yurt, you may need a little more space. The Fouch family has lived in a 20’ yurt with 5 people for several years.
What Kind of Yurt Should I Buy to Live in Full Time?
There are quite a number of yurts on the market, in various sizes and construction methods. Here are a few things you will want to consider besides the size of the yurt:
- Skin Material:
- Felt: traditional but not very common unless you import
- Canvas: easy to find and natural, may not last as long as synthetic(?), often lets in some daylight through the walls
- Synthetic: very popular, usually completely opaque
- Kana only: a grid of wood that can accordion, traditional method, light and strong
- Kana and studs: same as above, but with extra roof support. Some sellars recommend for snow load. But, if you keep the yurt heated snow may melt and slide off anyway. May not be usefull.
- Framed: some cellars use stick house framing to build curved yurt walls. Probably better insulation but not portable. May meet code in some areas.
- Closed: better insulation for cold months, but much less light
- Dome Window: Plexiglas or plastic dome that acts as a skylight on the peak.
- Stove Pipe: the peak is a good place to route a stove pipe for a wood stove heater in the center of the structure.
- Operable: either domed light or closed, but you can open when desired.
- None: cheaper put may not let in much light. Can be OK with dome light
- Tent style: just flaps of canvas with bug screens. Also cheap, but lets in no light when closed
- Glass windows: like the windows in a regular home. Most costly option
- Door / Walls:
- Short 5’ to 6’: traditional, cheapest, you may have to bend over to walk in the yurt over to get in
- Tall 7’+: more like a regular home, costs more, reduces insulation value over short walls
Overall, choose a yurt that you enjoy and fits your budget.
How to Build Your Own Yurt
I built my own yurt using plans from Camping Yurts who also offer kits in various stages of completion as well as entirely complete yurts. I choose these plans because I wanted a canvas yurt that I could sew myself on easy to find equipment.
If you want to design one yourself, there is an amazing yurt calculator that helps you through the geometry needed to calculate the materials necessary.
The general process is as such:
Sew the skin. I did this on a antique sewing machine using 10.10 oz waterproof Big Duck Sunforger Tent Canvas. My sewing machine did very well, but if you have access to a heavy duty commercial machine you may get it done faster than I did. If you follow the plans that I did, you can also just buy the skin pre-sewn separately from the same seller.
The walls are simply a giant rectangle big enough to cover the whole thing, hemmed at the sides. I made my walls as tall as the canvas is wide, so that I can save on time and material. The roof is a giant cone with a hole at the point. I made mine by sewing together wedges like pie pieces, but on the yurt calculator site you will find other methods of doing this.
Kana, grid on wall. These are just numerous thin strips of wood nailed or tied together in as shown (see photo above). These telescope in and out, bend in to a curve, and support a lot of weight for their size. I made my kana in 3 sections for a 12’ diameter yurt, but larger yurts may require more sections.
I cut these out partially on a table saw and partially by hand from 2x6 framing lumber from a local box store. You could also attempt to use reclaimed wood or whatever you have available.
Roof poles. These thicker poles are tied on to the top of the kana and slide in to a hole in the ridge dome. My 12’ yurt has 36 roof poles, cut the same way as the kana strips, but much thicker at 3 1/2" by 1 1/2".
Roof dome / peak. All the roof poles come to meet a circle of wood at the peak of the roof. This can be a circle of steam bent wood, or the way I did it was piece together 8 pieces of wood in a rough circle and then round off the corners.
Door frame and tension lines. The key to the strength of the yurt are several tension bands (strong rope, cable, or mesh strips) that tighten in the walls and end at the door frame. At least one tension band should be placed high on the outside of the kana, but inside the skin to support the frame while erecting the yurt. Over the skin you will need two or three more lines, to hold down the skin and roof, that wrap around the entire walls.
If you make your walls less than 7’ tall, you will need to make your own door, or be willing to cut down a full size door to fit you opening.
Can I live in a yurt?
Yes, many generation of Mongolians have lived their entire lives in a yurt. Nowhere in the US permits full time residence in a yurt, which they consider camping, but in rural areas this may not be enforced. Plus, you can always move the yurt if needed.
Can a family live in a yurt?
Yes, although it may take some getting used to if you are moving from a full size home. Curtains and clever furniture placement allows for a sense of privacy, but alone time necessitates family members spend a fair amount of time outside the yurt.
How do you heat a yurt in the winter?
Traditional yurts were heated with open fires in the center. Modern yurts are often heated with wood stoves, but many commercial electric or gas space heaters are capable of safely heating a yurt as well.