Shelter Masthead

Mongolian Cloud Houses

Table of Contents

Sample Chapter
Putting it All Together

About the Author


The Sweatlodge

The Native American lifestyle and specifically the tipi were major sources for my research on the nomadic Way. I lived in a tipi while constructing this yurt and it was inspirational. I learned about open fires in a tipi and my door design is a direct carryover from the canvas tipi.

Another aspect of the Indian Way and one which I doubt is practiced in the Gobi Desert or anywhere else in Mongolia for that matter, is the Sweatlodge.

A very efficient way to keep clean, and a spiritual purification, the sweatlodge is a steambath conducted in a small blanket-covered framework of willows. When you can stand no more, you step outside and rinse with cold water, that can be anything from a garden hose to a waterfall.

The Site

Choose a spot for the sweatlodge close to some kind of water if possible and with a large enough clearing to build a roaring fire. Make a boulder border around the fireplace about four feet in diameter.

Prepare the leveled lodge site by digging a pit about a foot across and a foot deep, using the dirt to make a path to the fireplace. The pit should be clean of any roots or dead grass, which would smoke.

Mark twelve points on a six-foot circle centered around the pit, evenly spaced from each other. These twelve markers (use small stones) indicate where the butt ends of the arched poles will be pushed into the ground.

The Framework

The framework of the sweatlodge is made from fifteen straight green willows (see p. 14, C), about the thickness of your thumb at the base and about ten feet long. Trim them of branches and put a point at the bottom ends of twelve of them.

Push these poles (the pointed ends) into the ground at the marked places around the pit. Especially if the earth is rocky or hard, a metal bar can be driven in first, to make a hole for the pole.

Once all the poles are in the ground, make arches with pairs by twisting them around each other. The diagram in (A, p. 88) shows how to pair the poles so that a six-pointed star is formed. The poles should be long enough to reach almost to each others’ bases to make a well-rounded lodge.

Each place where the poles cross should be tied, either with bark from the willows or with string. Choose a large door opening in the framework facing the fireplace. Leaving this space open, tie the remaining poles to make a ring horizontally about halfway up on the outside of the lodge. These will add strength and provide more room inside by keeping the cover from sagging.


The rocks must be chosen carefully as the wrong kind may explode in the fire or, worse, in the lodge. Although this has never happened to me, it’s not unheard of.

They should be gathered from a hillside and not from a river-bed. Granite and other kinds that flake or sparkle in the sun - forget it. The ideal rocks are volcanic and it’s easy to spot their dull dark porous surfaces.

Choose rocks about the size of your two clenched fists and pile about fifteen of them near the fireplace.

Forked Sticks

Cut two forked sticks of dead wood about four feet long with six-inch forks. These are for transporting the hot rocks from the fire to the sweatlodge.

If possible, until you need them, keep the forked ends under water.

The Fire

The wood for the fire is cut to about three-foot lengths with diameters of six inches and less. The fire is built so that the rocks are heated from underneath first, then fall onto a bed of coals. The fire is illustrated in (B).

First lay your two largest logs down inside the rock-bordered fireplace, parallel to and about a foot and a half from each other (B-1). Between them place the kindling. Put two more logs on top of and crossing the first two, and small sticks between (B-2, p. 88), then a layer of small logs (B-3). On top of this, make a square of four logs and carefully pile the rocks in the resulting nest (B-4).

Finally cover it all with the rest of the wood.

About one hour before you want to sweat, light the fire on the side that the wind is coming from.

Covering the Lodge

While the fire is burning, you can cover the lodge. Ten to twelve blankets will make the sweatlodge fairly airtight, some or all of which can be replaced with a tarpaulin.

Final Preparations

Now, while the fire is still burning, collect cedar, sage, eucalyptus, mullein, or whatever other aromatic plant may be available where you live and put a few bunches inside the door of the lodge (or, you can cover the whole floor with green sprigs to sit on).

Fill two containers with water, one for drinking and one for rinsing and pouring on the rocks. If you want something to sit on, small logs or large woodblocks work fine.

The Sweat

When the fire has burned down to coals, retrieve your two forked sticks and use them to carry the hot rocks from the fireplace to the sweatlodge pit (as demonstrated here). The rocks should be red hot, so be careful.

All right! Take off your clothes. Before you get into the lodge, you might want to get wet. This will make the heat more tolerable, be gentler on your hair, and sort of prime the pump, allowing perspiration to flow more freely.

A lodge this size can hold as many as eight friends, six casual acquaintances or four total strangers.

Close the door tightly. You might want to sit in the dry heat for awhile before watering the rocks as your eyes adjust to the dark. If you heated the rocks properly, some of them will still be glowing like the eyes of a dragon waiting in the dark.

Sprinkle water on the rocks a little at a time and if the heat seems too intense, breathe through some sage or get nearer the floor where the air is cooler. Once you get used to it, you’ll be surprised at how much you can take.

If you collected aromatic herbs as mentioned, you can place some on the rocks (after they’ve cooled a bit) and wet them to produce lung-cleansing vapor.

Some like to go out and rinse a few times during a sweat, while others like to sit out the whole thing, leaving only when the rocks have quit sizzling and no more steam can be had.

The sensation of awareness, clean-ness, and alive-ness when standing in the sunshine after a sweat can only be experienced, and I won’t even attempt to describe it.