How to Build a Wigwam Shelter

Updated February 21, 2017

Wigwams are the traditional home of many Native American tribes. They were used as seasonal homes by Native Americans, and can be disassembled, making them a portable shelter with reuseable pieces. There were two main designs to a wigwam--a domed house or a conical shape that resembles a tepee. The method is similar for both and can be used to create shelters in the wilderness.

Cut twenty or more poles at roughly twelve to fifteen feet long. Use sapling trees with all branches and twigs trimmed away. Cut extra in case any break. You should be able to bend the poles into an arch without breaking them.

Prepare your covering. Traditionally these were bark strips a few feet long or woven mats of reeds or grass. Use an awl to poke holes near the edges of the bark to sew them to the frame.

Clear the ground. Check the depth of the soil. You should have six to 12 inches of soil before you hit bedrock. Draw a circle on the ground to mark off the sides of your wigwam.

Build the support beams by tying the poles together into arches. Drive one pole into the ground at one edge of the circle. Add another on the opposite end and bend them both toward the centre. Tie them together. Repeat a foot or two next to this, then repeat twice perpendicular to them, crossing near the centre. Tie the beams together where they cross. The structure should look like a cross from above.

Add additional support beams at the larger empty spots, parallel to the first set of supports. Use the same bending and tying method but make the arches slightly shorter toward the outside, to give the structure a dome.

Tie additional horizontal supports onto the dome. These supports are parallel to the ground and provide places to tie the layers of covering to. The structure should appear like an upside-down basket with large gaps, except the poles do not weave in and out of each other.

Cover the frame. Tie the strips of bark onto the frame using a rope or heavy string through the holes you punched earlier. Begin at the doorway and work your way around the bottom. Remember to leave the doorway open. Add a layer above this and repeat until the frame is covered, except for a doorway and a hole at the top.

Add additional poles on top of the bark covering. This holds the covering down more securely and completes the wigwam.

Prepare the materials and site as in steps one through three above. Cut fewer flexible poles and cut additional stiff poles with extra length for a conical wigwam.

Build the base of your wigwam. Lean four or five stiff poles toward the centre point of your wigwam from around the edges. Tie them together to form a basic cone shape.

Use flexible branches to make hoops. Tie these parallel to the ground to give the supports strength and add a place to tie the covering.

Cover the frame as in step seven above. Add supports vertically like your base rather than bending them over like a dome-shaped shelter. Your conical wigwam is finished.


Contact a lumber yard and see if they have any bark from recently cut trees, since stripping bark is time-consuming and damages the tree. You can also use woven reeds or synthetic materials. Use woven mats, blankets, or hide to cover your doorway. The hole at the top is to vent smoke. Do not cover it if you have a fire inside your wigwam.

Things You'll Need

  • Long, flexible poles
  • Strips of bark or woven reed mats
  • Awl
  • Needle
  • Twine, string, or strips of tree root
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About the Author

Nicole Whitney began writing professionally in 2008. She has authored in-house training documentation for quality assurance in insurance applications. With many credits coming from a stint in classics, Whitney holds a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies from Assumption College.