BRISTOL — Two years ago Dana Herrick wanted to build a cabin as a pilot project for a timber-frame housing company he planned to launch after years of working for others.
Creating a rustic, woodland vacation rental near Maine’s iconic coastline was not part of the original plan – until a friend mentioned to Herrick and his wife, Cacy, that they should rent their off-the-grid cabin on Hipcamp. The online vacation rental company is similar to Airbnb, but aimed at the camping and outdoorsy crowd.
Now, for the second-straight year, the family’s “Pond Cabin,” with its 15-to-20-foot cathedral ceiling, was booked every week in July and August.
“We are thinking of building another on our land now,” said Dana Herrick, while standing in his woodlot hours before guests arrived one day in August.
The Herricks are but one example of Mainers who have profited from renting a cabin, field, or simply their side yard to Hipcamp tenters or outdoor explorers looking for a bare-bones cabin or simply a field in rural, often remote locations.
Hipcamp pitches a more primitive and far more back-to-nature vacation – and it’s been in strong demand the past two years as people clamored to be outdoors during the pandemic.
Nationally, Hipcamp saw a 246% increase in bookings in 2020, said Lydia Davey Crosby, a senior Hipcamp communications manager.
Maine saw a 301% increase in Hipcamp bookings in 2020, Crosby said. And while demand this year “was a bit softer” as more entertainment options opened up after a year of COVID, Maine has seen a 120% increase this year compared to the first eight months of 2020, Crosby said.
“The main difference between Maine and the rest of the country are that cabins are very popular in Maine,” Crosby said.
Tent sites – some with epic mountain or lake-front views – run around $20 to $50 a night, while off-the-grid cabins that are sparsely furnished generally cost about $90 a night.
Maine hosts, even those new to Hipcamp, say the smartphone app makes it a simple and no-fuss operation. Guests book online and the host gets a text alert informing them when guests will arrive.
The Herricks’ cabin is one room with a bed and sleeper sofa and a loft that one day will allow for an upstairs bedroom. A foot-pump water station and small kitchen counter provide a small cooking area. A camp stove sits outside the door under an awning, not far from the compost toilet outhouse – which also has a foot-pump hand-wash station.
The family considered adding electricity but Cacy Herrick said guests voted for the minimalist approach, so instead the Herricks provide solar lanterns and encourage head lamps. Huge picture windows that cover most of the walls bring in an abundance of natural daylight and views of trees.
The location helps make the $95-a-night cabin a hit. It is a 10-minute drive from Pemaquid Beach and the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site and a short walk through the woods from property owned by Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust.
“Dana would have done the cabin anyway. The pandemic gave him the extra time to enclose the building. Then, everyone just wanted to be outside,” Cacy Herrick said.
“People were really looking for places away from the city and people were needing a break. Every available day we’ve been booked so far. As long as it’s warm enough, we’ll keep it open.”
Chris and Patti Hamilton started their Whitefield farm in 2000 and share a similar story. They decided to turn a cabin once used for farm apprentices into a Hipcamp rental several years ago. They also rent it on Airbnb. But it’s clear the Hipcamp guests are looking for a rustic, back-to-nature experience.
The two-room sparsely furnished cabin has no running water or electricity and also has single-pane windows. A short walk from the cabin an outhouse backs up to woods. But the cabin is surrounded by views of farm fields. Sometimes sheep even graze in front.
Almost immediately it was a hit.
The Hamiltons closed the cabin last year because of the pandemic and the state’s mandated quarantine for many out-of-staters, which complicated an otherwise simple guest-house business.
This summer, the cabin filled up again on summer weekends and most days through July and August. It also filled up for half of June and September. The rental costs $95 a night.
“It’s definitely an important supplemental income to our farm,” Chris Hamilton said. “But it’s also fun to have people to show the farm to. It’s fun to have them come and experience what it’s like. They help feed the pigs, collect the eggs, rotate the sheep through the fields.
“A lot of those people staying with us, stay with us because we have animals. The Hipcamp people for us tend to be families, often parents with young children.”
Not all Hipcamp hosts are looking for supplemental income, but many have still seen an uptick in business during the pandemic, and love the back-to-nature vibe hosting brings to their land.
Bruce Fowler discovered Hipcamp shortly after it was founded in 2013, when he and his wife traveled to Land Rover rendezvous in the South and looked for cheap places to camp.
The kind and hospitable hosts impressed Bruce Fowler so much, he decided to open his 207 acres located near Unity to Hipcamp campers three years ago. He charges $20 to pitch a tent there.
Few came that first year, but about a dozen showed last year – mostly cyclists traveling across Maine’s rural interior looking to camp. This year reservations are up, and for the first time the tent sites are booking in September.
Fowler is excited at the buzz – and has plans for more outhouses. But he has no intention of lowering the $20 price for a clean tent site, a picnic table and fire pit. While he doesn’t advertise it, he also provides wood.
“We don’t do it for the money. It’s a public service,” Fowler said. “There is absolutely no supplemental income at all. It wouldn’t even cover the taxes on the property. I’m just doing it so that people traveling through Waldo County can crash for the night inexpensively.
“And in the three-plus years I’ve been doing this, I have never had to clean up after anyone. I have never found so much as a candy wrapper.”