GerTee - Portable Tent Home Made of Recycled Materials




About: I'm a full time researcher and writer who began seeking alternative housing in order to continue my work (which doesn't pay very well). Along the way I became a cold weather housing researcher and full time ...
Gertees are round houses made of sticks and poles tied together with zipties and covered with cloth or other materials. Each one is as unique as the owner who builds it.

All ger/yurts can be tailor made to fit any kind of budget. Many builders world-wide offer varieties of the yurt at prices ranging from 2 to 25K. My variations, based on the original Mongolian Ger design, expand the concept to include more people who don't have the 2K.

American made, high end yurts are so well constructed and modern they are getting HUD approval. In English towns residents are overturning municipal codes prohibiting odd looking tent homes. Yurts are a growing option for camping in National Parks and Wilderness areas. They also have an emerging fan base in the sustainable development-green community.

These may be perfect for creative people who want to try something new or they may be an optional shelter for homeless disaster victims in areas full of scrap lumber and salvageable materials. People from all backgrounds and income brackets can build these very comfortable little round home for themselves, and even the lowest end ones are very cute and sturdy.

The first recycled GerTee prototype I built in 2004 merged a ger (yurt) with the American Plains Indian Teepee smoke liner. I also thought the roofring could be replaced with a teepee top design. A few months ago I learned that the Mongolian phrase for being "at home" is gertee.

My GerTees are a very simplified way to erect a cozy, warm, sturdy home in a few hours or a few days. It requires no drilling or any special tools besides maybe a handsaw, screwdriver, scissors, staplegun and a hammer and nails. If you have power tools it goes a bit faster.. and a table saw is a huge help if you need to cut your wall slats out of bigger pieces of wood, but there are other ways around all these challenges.

The idea behind this ger model is that in an emergency it can be made almost entirely out of scraps and later modified with nicer additions, all depending on the needs and finances of the owner.

Step 1: Assets Inventory

These ideas are for people who are already familiar with the original ger design. It's directed at those who think they lack the skills or simply cannot afford to build their own. I'm born blond and I built these when I was broke; I'm here to show you why I think anyone can build these.

The first step is to categorize lists of what we want, what we need, and what is available to us.

Want is determined by what will we be using the Gertee for. Use determines many things. For example, if we want a ger to take camping we will want it lightweight, portable and easy to set up. If we plan to use it as a greenhouse, it will need clear plastic covers. If we plan to live in it all winter, it will need layers of extra insulation and a safe, inside heat/cooking source.

Need is what we arrive at when we think we can't afford the one we want. If we want an extra guest bedroom or a private office/studio in our fenced backyard then we're probably not as concerned about the building costs as someone who wants a place to call home. The most primal human need is for shelter from the storm. There was a time when all humans knew how to provide for their own needs. Adequate housing is not always provided to victims of natural disasters, and large government and NGO operations favor some pretty ugly ways to live. Displaced and homeless people have a lot more options than they may realize.

Availability is the reality of our current situation. Sometimes we may have the money but even then, ready made products are out-of-stock or not exactly what we want. Sometimes there isn't a lot of time to figure out ahead of time what materials we may need to build a temporary shelter. So the very first thing to do after you decide what you want and need is: look around to see what's available, right before your eyes.

Think you're too poor to own one of these?

Gers can be built of sticks, strings, rope and material. The sticks can be thin... the wall poles can be few.. the Mongolian's design is so genious that not one stick or pole carries the load itself... the load rests on a tension rope, evenly distributed into the circle. The walls don't need to be even in height all around, the roof poles don't need to be placed every foot or even two, and the roof cover can be layers of smaller tarps, they don't have to be sewed or glued. the walls can be anything from old tablecloths to blankets. It does not need to be built on a nice deck overlooking a lovely scenic view. It can be right on the ground, on a platform, or it can be built on top of a city skyscraper (wouldn't that be something?) Finding the available land is the biggest challenge to the broke yurt owner, but since yurts are easily made portable they can be moved every 2 weeks as per national park seasonal rules.

A recycled Gertee can cost next to nothing besides the time it takes to scavenge materials and build it. An upscale Gertee can be made the same way, and it can cost whatever you feel like spending. Want French doors and custom woodwork? Want all indoor plumbing and heated floors? Want stained glass windows in the roof and a loft? All this and more is possible, but at some point the cost is not really going into the Gertee itself, not once it has everything it can possibly accomodate.

As a struggling author of obscure political essays, my budget is often more on the low, low end of the scale. I've built three full size Gertees and one 12 inch model Gertee. The first two full sized ones were covered with recycled materials. The one I live in now is the same frame I used in the summer but I added wall slats and purchased new roof and wall materials, and I laid new plywood for the floor.

Step 2: Alaskan GerTees

Creating Livable Spaces

Wilderness Gertee, Wood River, AK -- 2004

My first attempt was small. The walls were only about 4 foot high and maybe 10 feet in diameter, with an open interior fireplace made of big rocks (don't get them from the river!). Used mainly as my guest hut and bath house, this was built out of all scrap materials laying around the Denali Wilderness Lodge on the Wood River, Alaska. For a more complete story about how gertee developed, go to

Here's what I used to build it:

FRAME -- 5 foot thin lattice fence boards, tied together with strings into one long wall piece. It easily rolled into a manageable tube. I found the idea of tying them with string online in an article called something like "How to build a weekend yurt." It was fairly mindblowing to realize the walls can be tied together, which totally eliminates the drilling holes and fitting them together with nuts and bolts portion. Every one of my Gertees are either tied together or held together with plastic ties. They do need to be adjusted after being folded.

ROOFRING -- an odd piece of metal bent into a circle, held together with cut wires. I used the traditional Mongolian design with two main beams holding up the roofring.

ROOF POLES -- were all about 6 feet long pieces of wood. I put cup screws in the ends to hook them on the metal roofring.

DOOR FRAME -- was 4 boards nailed together to form a rectangle.

ROOF COVER -- 'was pieces of scrapped tent bottoms and airplane covers cut into swatches and glued together with carpenters glue. I sealed the seams with that orange insulation spray.

EXTERIOR WALL COVERS -- were a bolt of cotton material I found that was leftover from a remodeling job in the cookshack.

INSIDE WALL LINERS -- were blankets and sheets from the discontinued employees laundry room. As long as the outside wall covers are high enough off the ground to allow air intake, inside wall materials, tucked under floor rugs/mats, acts as an airvalve and helps keep the smoke moving upwards above the firepit and out the roof hole. When there's a liner in place the smoke will hover at the level where the inside liner stops. At Denali we had to stay on the floor to keep the smoke out of our eyes, and keep the door shut!

How I put this together

1. I laid out half the 4 foot pieces of wooden slats about a foot apart, then crisscrossed it with the other half of the wood to make it into a lattice. I cut a bunch of twine and tied the sticks together at every cross. This took a few hours. Once completed I rolled it up and stood it on one end. Then I slowly opened it up and formed the circle. It was this point when I realized I might just be able to actually finish it.

2. So I went and searched through piles of construction remenants and fished out a piece of metal wire that was about 3 feet long with a 3 inch side with large holes. It bent easily into a circle so I clipped a wire and used it to tie the ends together.

3. I fished out all the long boards that looked close to the same size (approx 6 feet). I put screw hooks in the ends of most of them before I ran out. After that I pounded nails in the ends and bent them into hooks.

4. I got 2 very tall pieces of wood 2x4s and nailed a piece of wood to each bottom. I can't remember exactly but I either tied the main roof support beams to the roofring or nailed it.

5. I gathered up all the materials I found in the cache and storage areas. Selecting the most damaged tent bottoms, I cut out useable large pieces. Laying the swatches out on the ground I made a patchwork out of the tent scraps and airplane covers and glued them together with carpenters glue.

6. Then I found wood close to the size I needed to make the door and nailed and tied it together to form a 2 and 1/2 foot x 4 foot door.

T-Junction's GerTee -- 2007

T-Junction is in the Chitina Emporium in Chitina, Alaska. It's one of the original buildings built during the copper boom in the early 1900s. For more on that go to

Owner Catherine Fletcher-Gilbert is a local expert in Alaskan wild plants and herbs who learned all about local picking from a woman who used to be known as "the talker." Now Catherine makes her own handpicked teas and tinctures and has developed a natural bug repellent. Catherine loved to idea of GerTee immediately. She got a frame from us in June 2007 to be used as a tea house for her summer visitors. I charged her costs for the 18' frame package without roofpoles because she can get her own spruce beams off her property. Even 14' is fairly spacious if you don't intend to have an inside fire. Stop by and see her if you're in the neighborhood this summer.

Tim Redington built 3 roofrings for me. The first one was very beautiful but unuseable. The second one I have in my roof at home now. Catherine's was the third one. Tim made it up at Tangle Lakes where he was working building cabins for Nadine and Jack. One of the other guys on the job had drill bits and he made the holes. (Tim has since purchased the same drill.)

The photos are of the day we delivered it to Chitina, about 25 miles down the Edgerton from us. The boys were hanging around doing what boys do and we just kind of took them with us. They were a hoot because they had NO idea what we were putting together. But they pitched right in and for the first time I got to watch and take pictures of the actual assembly in process.

Making the wall sections

1. Lay down an 8 1/2 foot foot roofpole, or measure it out with anything that will stay straight.

2. Place one wall slat forming a perfect L shape with your guideline.

3. Put another slat down with the the tip flat over the top of the L slat, placing it at a 10 oclock, leftward angle downward so that the bottom tip of the slat rests against the roof pole (or whatever you use to make a straight line).

4. Place another slat about 10 inches to apart next to the first slat on the right. Do this along the entire legnth of your eight foor pole.

5. Lay another layer across the top of the first row, exactly the opposite way.

6. Use the short broken pieces (some slats will break beacuse of knots in the wood) to shore up the ends.

7. Open bags of ties. Note: zipties come in all sizes and levels of quality. The cheap ones break. It's better to tie your walls with twine than to use crappy zipties. 8" pices of thin cut wire also works but it pokes out and gets a little bit dangerous when you move the walls around.

Tie them together every place the wall slats cross or connect. Make it tight as possible. These move around a bit if you roll up the walls so they WILL need to be adjusted every time.

Now you have an eight foot section of wall. Make as many as you need (or want). An 18' ger is about 48 feet around + the door so about 52 feet total. So for that you need 6 of these 8 foot sections. The door frame takes up 3-4 feet of wall space so it ends up being about 50-52 feet around. These walls can really be stretched too, but if you stretch them out too wide your roof poles might not be long enough. My math sucks so if you want exact dimensions there's a wonderfull instructable posted by another person (add link) with very detailed building instuctions. Catherine's wall sections were 16 feet long. We made three of them.

The next two steps have pictures of how the walls go up, the roofbeams attach, the door fits in, the covers go up, and then a few of my recycled decorating ideas..

Step 3: 12 Inch Model GerTee -- 2005

My first scaled down model was made in Anchorage summer of 2005. I didn't have the space to build a full sized one and this was all I could manage on my budget at the time. It turned into a fun project for all of us, even my neighbor's kids.

Model Gertees can be made out of quite literally anything' that can be modified to fit somehow. It was a good exercise for understanding how it all goes together before I tackled a full scale home.

Little Gertee went through several materials changes. At first I tried using sticks tied together for the roof beams (as in the teepee design) and changed that to a piece of clay molded and dried with a bunch of store bought sticks. I used pipe cleaners as the tension wire on the walls and tied the popsicle sized wall slats together with short pieces of twine.

For covers I experimented with several different fabrics and then I let my young friends Lacey and Christian cover it the way they thought it should look. Their mother donated all the little Indian statues who were almost the perfect size for it. It makes a great play house.

Step 4: Summer GerTee -- 2007

My first "real" gertee was made possible after I met a carpenter who had the tools to cut my 6 foot wall slats and make me a "real" roofring out of the leftover lumber. It was also most fortunate that he knew where to go to cut down 26 spruce poles for the roof beams.

The first attempt to build the frame was in April in the Mercantile parking lot in Kenny Lake, Alaska. I spent less than $200. USD to buy 2x4x8s, rope, plastic ties and 50 feet of screen. In May I took the frame down and moved to the back RV campground and started building it into a 22 footer with two doors. I ended up selling some of the wall slats and a roofring to the owner of T-Junction down in Chitina. I think what I ended up with was about 16 feet across.

Then I proceeded to cover it with an assortment of used materials.

Step 5: Winter GerTee -- 2007-2008

Staying in a gertee though the winter was made possible after I got a job flagging and could afford to cover the Summer Gertee with stronger, new materials.

I had reassembled the frame on one Sunday afternoon in early August. It was a terrible assembly job, but my family had arrived and I too quickly jumped to give them my cabin. It's kind of embarassing the way this one was built, but doing everything backwards really helped me see how well constructed even a haphazardly set-up ger ends up being. No one would do this bad of a set-up on purpose.

My stupidly made first roof caved in and leaked several times while I was at work, and Nordica spent days filling up drip buckets and worrying about my things. I finally had time off from the job to fix the roof at least. I bought new 10x20' thin tarps and tied them over the roof in layers.

Then, heh, the floods came and about washed me away. (Pick a spot uphill from the floodzone.) By then we were fairly sure it was going to be one disaster after the next. But once I put down a plywood floor it changed everything.

An 18 foot ger is a great size because the floor works perfectly with 6 - 4x8 sheets of plywood. Only the corners have to be sliced off on 4 of the sheets. I flipped the cuts over and placed them in every corner. This uses all the wood and only leaves a partial opening on 4 sides of the floor, about a foot wide in the center and then tapering down to a few inches at each end. I filled in the doorway space with rocks and gravel and covered it with pieces of the heavy silver tarp I cut to cover one side of the roof. I never finished the other three sections yet.

I didn't use enough 2x4s to brace the plywood and it bends and isn't very even. But we got used to that. Covering it with rugs (I got three at Sallys for $30!) made it seem like a new place.

Here's another mistake I made: a 20x30' tarp will not fold around the roof at this angle. When ordering tarps or salvaging tent bottoms (or any waterproof materials) to cover the entire roof, make sure it's a square or round one. If you're piecing it together in layers then rectangles work best. Whatever you use needs to wrap around the roof snugly, and be secured somehow. I always have extra ropes around to keep tying down anyplace that flops too much.

My roofring is covered with a metal sign leftover from one of Tim's former dogteam sponsors. He cut it and bent it into a cone and put a couple bolts in to hold it together. It was slipped up over the stovepipe with a long pole after the roof was finished. One day the winds blew so hard it ripped the metal off and sent it flying into the yard. I made a tie down for it out of copper wire and rope and threw it over it. Been staying put ever since.

As the months wore on and it turned colder, I added more and more layers. I built a door out of a window and some 2x4s and leftover wall slats. All my concerns about the wall slats not being attached properly and the uneven slant of the whole building proved unfounded as far as the ger was concerned. I also used roof poles cut for a 16 foot ger to make an 18 footer. This flattened my roof out quite a bit, so I added one ceiling brace pole on the saggy side.

As can be seen in the pictures I used all kinds of different tarps for the outside and the inside.

For the roof tarps I cut 6 foot long pices of this super strong rope stuff that came off the City Electric cable job and tied a puller rope through every grommet hole. I used these ropes to pull the tarp pieces up over the roof and then to secure the tarp down to the sides. A staplegun is a must have for this kind of roof. I stapled the roof tarps all along the edges too. I used the shortest possible staples because it's a lot easier to pull them out later.

Make sure you put the wall covers on first and secure the roof cover over and down the tops of the walls for a good seal against the weather. A rope all the way around the top edge of the wall over the roof piece helps. (This is what makes the pool cover idea so possible... it comes with a cable stitched into the outside edge. Plus a 24 foot one is as low as $39. on ebay)

The plastic windows only worked until about October when it became necessary to cover the entire outside with another layer of wool. This was covered by a long piece of yellow PVC I found on ebay.My biggest mistake was when I put the shiny (waterproof) side facing the inside because I didn't like the way it looked. Duh. I had sheets of cut wool that came off the giant press machines the military uses to iron sheets and tablecloths -- it's fireproof too.

I made the door out of a window I picked up at a garage sale so we could have some outside light (my roofring is covered with a piece of metal so no light comes in from the roof). The door needed to be covered with with both RadiantGuard and curtains when it was 50 below.

I built the arctic entryway out of slab wood I bought for firewood and one sheet of 4x8' plywood. I made a sunporch cover with a clear heavy garbage bag and covered the back with the leftover yellow PVC wall canvass.

As of March 1, 2008 this gertee is still standing and it's very livable. The door frame cracked because I attached the hinge to the thinest piece of wood, but overall it's kept us warm and happy.



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    53 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Was condensation a problem inside due to the tarps not being breathable?

    This is brilliant!! I wish that our country provided this type of thing for our homeless folks. Personally, I was looking for an inexpensive way to get my things out of storage (keeps going up!!! and on fixed income) and also have a place that I can sit in outside...a santuary/storage space if you will. I have not been able to figure a solution until I saw this. Thank you thank you thank you. I only have 5 feet worth of width space, but have lots of height and length. So it won't be round, but somehow I'll figure it out. What an awesome gift ya gave me. Thanks again.

    animal lover

    5 years ago on Introduction

    Can i use chicken wire for the walls and a tarp for the roof? Because i want to make a tent-thing , but im short on money and supplies, and i want to make my tent-thing portable and easy to assemble/disassemble. Also, i want it to be cheap, sturdy-ish, and
    6 ft in diameter, 3 ft. tall (this is going to be my tent, remember), and about 19 ft. in circumference. Please get back to me! :)


    6 years ago on Step 4

    I wonder how it will take a heavy snow load? Have you weathered any snowstorms in it yet? You certainly filled it up with "stuff" ! Just like home, yes?


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I'm seriously thinking of building one of these for the backyard when it gets too hot to sleep in the house! =D


    This totally puts a smile on my face :-) I have been collecting recycled "stuff" to make a yurt for a million years. Your adventure makes me think I can totally do this! I also live in Eagle River, Alaska, and am pretty darn impressed that you have been wintering in your yurt. What do you use to insulate your walls good enough?

    Thanks for the smile!


    7 years ago on Step 2

    You might consider a simple solution to the ties slipping around while the wall sections are being moved. Just put one staple into the slat around the ziptie or string and it will keep the fastener right where it is supposed to be despite movement in the wall.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    I have a few random questions! First, I love the fact that you shared so much info on building a gertee with scavenged materials. Being poor is hard but often so rewarding. I have a degree in outdoor recreation and spend lots of time working as a sea kayaking guide living out of my kayak and camping on beaches. I love being engrossed with the natural world and its rhythms and really would love a tipi, but they are expensive and difficult to build and transport. My first thought when I saw your awesome home is where you use the bathroom. When I take groups out we are only in a place for a night or two and don't worry much about waste disposal, we just dig cat holes or go in the ocean. I have never had to figure out how to dispose of waste when staying long term in one location. Do you have an outhouse? Or did I miss your mention of that somewhere? What about bathing? Sponge baths would get rather old after a while I would assume.
    Oh, and what do you do about critters? Do you have problems with mice or raccoons stealing yummy and shiny things? Don't grizzly bears come visit when you're cooking up some nice steak? The raccoons out at the outer banks of NC are brazen little things and steal all sorts of stuff from shiny things to food to life jackets!

    4 replies

    hi Wayfinder, sorry it took so long to respond. My internet access is often disrupted, part of the hardships of being poor.:)

    We have an outhouse with a 6' wide 10' deep hole beneath it. I also have a new compost toilet. Before that we used honey buckets with lids, lined with trash bags, easily carried and lifted out and into the outhouse hole.

    I make showers using Sunshower bags. I've tried several ways and all of them worked. The best place for the shower/bath in the winter is next to the woodstove, can fill them easily with hot water from the stove and stay warm when wet. Alaska also has public showers at many places because so many places are "dry", which means the people haul their water in jugs or tanks. Some of my Swedish and Russian neighbors have built saunas and banas.

    This last fall I was gone for 3 weeks and shrews moved in. They had to be trapped and killed. So far we haven't had any bears trying to get in... but several of our neighbors who live in wooden houses have. We're putting one of the new PVC models on Tim's trapline next month and I'd like to set up a motion sensor camera to record a bear trying to get inside. An average size bear around here could probably lean on the roof and cave it in. Like all rural Alaskans, we keep big guns handy for such an event. The reality is grizzlies break into log cabins all the time so there may not be anything strong enough to keep them out besides rebar walls and roof poles. We'll see.

    I would like to express my great admiration for your ingenuity and survival skill living. I can't imagine what Alaska is like, but I'm in Southern California and turning into professional junk raider, thrift store addict, survivalist because of the economy and unemployed 14 months. If the current state of the economy keeps going south this lifestyle will become more common as more are forced to become homeless. For me the tent is so simple and just viewing your instructable it is fused in my memory such that I could do this when/if the situation arises weather desired or not. It's a lot better than a lean-to. Best wishes and good luck.


    Wayfinder; For cleaning up carry wipes. For a privy, line a can (as large as you are willing to carry and line with a plastic bag. Put kitty litter in the can and after doing your business, tie it shut and carry it out. OR, dig a latrine and cover your waste with ashes from your campfire. Dig the hole deep and bury when you leave. Another option is to carry lime and cover waste with lime, but again in a privy hole and bury when you leave. If you are staying in an area for some, ove your privy from time to time. ALWAYS keep your waste covered (kitty litter, ashes, lime or dirt if nothing else to avoid disease carrying insects. P.S. keep the privy down wind! Also keep all food residues AWAY from your camp. Broiling steak is not near the attraction of raw meat or even potato chips. Animls don't cook their food, don't find the cooking meat smell attractive and don't like fire. Trouble is more apt to come before cooking when the meat is raw and after eating when you get careless with bones and other foods. If I knew predators were in the area, I would put my left overs in the same plastic bags as my human waste and cover them with the same medium, seal and haul out with me. If camping long term. Bury it. Deep!


    9 years ago on Step 5

    I have access to a large stand of bamboo. Do you think that would work? I love this Instructable!

    6 replies

    I know it will. Read down, tallfuzzyone just built one of bamboo! I cut hundreds of bamboo trees out of my yard in Seattle years ago and threw them all in the dump. What a waste, huh? It may be harder getting the walls tied at first cause they might roll around a bit, but I'll bet you can use the bigger ones for roof poles and the skinny ones for the walls. I'm off on a whole new thing now putting lovely fabrics up on the interior roof. Changes the whole feel of it. So many varriations and possibilities. Have fun!


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 5

    That's so strange! I grew up in Seattle (Redmond, really) and one of things I always hated was every few years trying to get rid of the bamboo my father had planted in the yard in the early 70's. Man! you just couldn't control that stuff. Wish I knew then about all the wonderful things you can do w/this wonderful plant!

    No kidding! in 1999 I cleared a ton of bamboo out of my N.E. 65th Street yard over in Roosevelt, and we took it ALL to the dump. :( It takes over wherever it's planted and there are a lot of varieties too. I'm guessing it's one of the strongest poles we can use... and someday maybe someone will build an entire house using bigger bamboo for water pipes and foundations.

    I'm currently in the process of building a small yurt out of bamboo. It'll probably be 10-12 ft diameter. I'm making the tarp out of fused grocery bags. Thank you for posting this and sharing your knowledge. If people want to see photos of my work in progress:

    what an inspiring story! we're finding the 12 foot Traveler to be a very nice, workable space, much better than we imagined. Your idea with the bags is so, SO good, and sharing things like recycled paint is really helpful too. Great job! TY!!!!