Back from the Burn: Experiences camping in a Hexayurt

Hexayurt near the Green Pavillion at Burning Man
Hexayurt near the Green Pavillion [Photo by Cat Laine]

6 foot stretch hexayurt
Bjoern and Tania’s Yurt at Cosmic Giggle Camp [Photo by B. Hartmann]

I’m back from Burning Man. It was phenomenal, but more on that later. Before I left, I mentioned that I would seek out the Hexayurt, but I hadn’t realized that two of our campmates would be bringing one.

Before we get to Bjoern Hartmann’s account of his stay in the yurt, here is a little background on the event. Burning Man is a weeklong art festival/adult summer camp/rave that takes place on an ancient lake bed in the Nevada desert. Attendees are responsible for bringing everything that they anticipate needing for their time there, that includes every drop of water you will use to drink or wash. The recommendation is 1.5 gallons per day. All waste/trash must be brought back home with you, including all your wastewater. Temperatures can range from 110 degrees F to 40. All that is provided by the BM management is porta-potties, a safe space, and some emergency medical care for heat stroke and the like. All that is sold on site is ice, coffee and other such drinks. For everything else, you pack it in or like Blanche Dubois, depend on the kindness of strangers. But don’t press your luck; things did not end well for that sister in “Streetcar Named Desire”.

One of the biggest features of Black Rock City is the sand/dust. Think Steinbeck’s Grape of Wrath; an insidious, alkaline and penetrating substance that sneaks its way into everything including unwary electronic devices. My camera was out of commission for a spell because of this. Poor thing.

Our theme camp (Cosmic Giggle) of 40 people had 2 primary options for sleeping: tents or geodesic domes [pic]. [Issue 6 of Good magazine has a nice discussion of geodesic domes as they are giving an homage to Buckminster Fuller.]

The view of our camp from the Lost Boys Tower across the street.
Cosmic Giggle camp on the 1st Monday on BM [Photo by Chad Berkeley]

Taking down the dorm dome
Taking down the dorm dome on Sunday [Photo by Cat Laine]

Okay, over to Bjoern.

I built the 6′ stretch model Hexayurt for two people using instructions from Appropedia.

Overall, the experience of camping in a Hexayurt was much more pleasant than sleeping in a tent. The three main benefits were sturdiness/ability to withstand the sometimes severe weather, darkness, and better climate control.

Given the dust storms and thunderstorm on Thursday and Friday, the major advantage of the design was its sturdiness. While two dome covers ripped in our camp and tent poles snapped in a neighboring camp, the Hexayurt didn’t move an inch during the dust storms. It was rock solid. That doesn’t mean that dust didn’t get in though. The 3″ tape I used to seal walls to the floor tarp was blasted with playa silt long enough that it started lifting off the tarp.

I didn’t need rebar stakes; tying down the yurt with 1/4″ poly rope to six 12″ heavy duty tent stakes worked just fine.

Having a dark place to sleep was important [I can attest to this as someone who wakes up to the bright sunlight regardless of how late I go to bed]. I got a solid 6 hours of sleep each night. Because of the straight walls, the yurt also felt roomier than our four person tent.

Climate control was so-so, partially because my ventilation system still needed some improvement. Temperatures were more bearable than in a tent, which tend to act as a heat trap in the daytime, but not as comfortable as in a bigger geodesic dome.

The 1″ thick Tuff-R material I bought from Home Depot had reflective foil on both sides, with one side (facing in) being somewhat duller than the other. Having reflective foil inside the yurt had an unexpected benefit: a single 3xAA handheld lamp lit up the entire room quite brightly.

The Hexayurt instructions on Appropedia really emphasize a minimalist approach of only using tape and Tuff-R/Hexacomb for the entire project. While this reductionism is conceptually appealing, I think that spending some more thought on appropriate materials for functional details can improve the yurt experience quite a bit. I decided to insert clear acrylic windows to get light without dust. The acrylic pieces came from the scrap pile of a local plastics store (Tap Plastics in Mtn View) and cost 50 cents each. A rotating rooftop vent paired with a low air intake vent could also help extract hot air from inside the yurt.

I’m somewhat concerned about the longevity of the Hexayurt across multiple assemblies and disassemblies. Cutting an assembled yurt back into pieces is not trivial – at tight seams, my knife often wandered into the soft board, which left nasty gashes and created moop as well. [MOOP = Matter Out Of Place. A scourge for Leave No Trace types] At other times, tape ripped of the panels, taking some of the foil backing with it. Disassembly troubles together with some transportation-related injuries (bike forks cut some deep grooves into panels stacked in the trunk of the car) beat up the yurt enough that I’m tempted to trash it and rebuild for next year. That’s not very sustainable.