A friends of ours (Steve) has been dropping hints about building a tipi in his small patch of woodland, or at least a modern approximation of one. A date was set for a few folk to meet in his woodland for a night sat around the fire and then a day building the structure – otherwise known as an evening sat in the woods with friends, followed by a full day of green woodworking and practicing some traditional wilderness skills.

The appointed day arrived – along with significant snowfall in the hills of North Wales. Living on a hill farm in poor weather means that everything takes at least twice as long, from feeding animals and defrosting pipes to carrying firewood inside and even driving down into the village. I had spent a few hours in the shed fixing one of the farm vehicles, so didn’t set out for Steve’s place until very late in the evening – taunts of “Lovely fire here” and “Quick! We’re running out of burgers!” were coming through via text message with increasing regularity.

The driveway to the farm and the local roads were thick with snow and the loose powder was forming drifts in the strong wind. The normal 30-minute journey was starting to turn into an arctic expedition. What was that on the radio about ‘only travelling if absolutely necessary’….?

I arrived at Steve’s property, halfway up one of the hills just off the North Wales coast. The snow was much thinner here, but a fierce wind was keeping the temperature well below freezing. We unloaded my personal kit, and then a small sledge and chainsaw, fuel and the other gear that goes along with mechanical forestry. The sledge is perfect for transporting bulky, heavy or difficult-to-pack items in one trip, so we loaded the heavy stuff onto it and  set off up the hill.

The slower pace of work is offset by being more attuned to the material you are working with...

Steve has set up a semi-permanent shelter and cooking area at the top of the hill – a ‘bender’ of sorts, from coppiced hazel and tarpaulins with a long fire in front. Rich and Steve were happily parked next to the fire, along with Rich’s dog, and when I arrived we did what was only natural – started making a pot of tea.
Steve and Rich had set up hammocks further down the hill – and that had been my original intention. However, hurried packing had put my hammock and tarp underneath everything else in my bag, and that bender was looking quite comfortable and homely. The inevitable happened – I unrolled my bivvy bag and sleeping mat in the shelter and declared that it was my home for the evening…

The night was cold but uneventful (apart from a small spaniel who insisted on barking at shadows all night, eh Rich?) and we all had a leisurely lie-in. The fire had extinguished itself overnight, but it was easy to relight the remaining charcoal and dry wood for the all-important morning brew. A simple breakfast cooked over the fire was enjoyed followed by washing up using cold ash from the fire as a free form of soap.

Steve had planted a few dozen hazels, blackthorns and ash tress a decade earlier, and there were a large number suitable for coppicing again. We needed a variety of lengths and shapes of hazel to construct this type of tipi, but everything we cut down would be used somehow. A living organism – a tree in this case – that we would be making use of deserves NOT to be wasted.

I prefer to use an axe, bowsaw or hatchet where possible. The slower pace of work is offset by being more attuned to the material you are working with, and it turns a chore into a therapeutic exercise. That said, a chainsaw has it’s place where speed and conservation of effort are of priority so we chose to use mine to coppice the hazel. Once that was complete it was put to one side and hand axes stripped the limbs down to smooth, straight lengths. These were loaded onto a sledge, and transported down the hill to the proposed construction site.

Part of the joy for me in working outdoors for extended periods of time is the bond you form with the surrounding landscape. The pace of the day is dictated not by the watch on your wrist, but the number of hours of daylight or the temperature. A passing rain (or snow) shower is the perfect opportunity to put down the hatchet and brew a pot of tea. If the task you are performing is taking longer than expected then you can stop, look ahead to what you have to do and see if you should be doing something more pressing, such as collecting firewood for the evening or finding drinking water.

After a short lunch we started laying out the initial structure. This design of shelter calls for six (or eight, if you want a larger shelter or your crosspieces are not strong enough) forked uprights, sunk about 30cm into the soil and with about 2m above. These are laid out in a 60degree segments, with a radius of about 2m. We used a compass (the navigation type, not the geometry type) and a length of paracord to mark where the uprights would go, then dug holes. A bit of trial and error was needed before the uprights were as we wanted them but we got there in the end.
Next, crosspieces were placed between the poles, with two longer ones running through the middle. These would be to hang cooking pots from over a central fire once the structure was finished, and add stability to the structure during construction. Twine was used to hold the frame together during these early stages but will be removed later. The beauty of these shelters is that they are held together by their own weight, and resist some quite severe weather without any additional support.

The day was beginning to wane and it started to snow again, so we decided to finish the major construction and come back another day to finish off. Poles of 3-5m were used to turn the hexagonal structure into a cone, leaving a small gap for a doorway. Later we will weave smaller branches in between these poles before covering the whole tipi in tarpaulins and making it waterproof.


Checking the map...
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