By Wendy Becktold, SIERRA Magazine
Have you ever booked a vacation-rental property that promises blissful solitude, only to show up at your mountain hamlet and realize that the online photos left out the traffic-jammed road or the nine other cabins clustered nearby?
What to do if, when you want to get away, you really want to get away?
FreeHouse is here to help. The website, which launched last June, lists off-the-grid vacation properties where travelers can really unplug. Founders Sarah and Jason Stillman got the idea for FreeHouse while (where else?) on vacation—actually, over the course of many vacations.
Jason was inspired by his experiences cross-country skiing in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where he would stay in 10th Mountain Division Huts, a system of rustic backcountry cabins. "They have woodstoves. They have solar panels. They usually don't have running water," he said. "The whole point is to get out there in the wilderness."
Another source of inspiration for the couple was Sarah's father's off-the-grid property on the east cape of Baja, where the couple eventually got married. Their trips to that isolated location got them thinking about how great it would be to have a resource for finding similar spots.
"Off the grid" doesn't mean that a property lacks electricity, just that "there is no way to extend the external infrastructure feed to those areas," Jason explained. "We are giving people the confidence that if they book through us, they are going to a place that's truly remote."
Most of the properties operate with solar power, though a few use wind or hydro power. Many of them also rely on wells or rainwater. "A guy in Santa Fe took us through his whole setup for rainwater collection," Sarah said. "It's a pretty cool educational experience, especially for people who are thinking about implementing one of those systems at home."
But aren't these properties already available on better-known booking sites?
The problem, Sarah and Jason say, is that other online services don't have the best filters for these types of searches.
"Needle in a haystack," Rosellen Sell, who has booked places through FreeHouse, says about trying to find off-the-grid properties on websites like Airbnb and VRBO. She and her elderly mother stayed at secluded locations outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Fort Lupton, Colorado, while on a road trip. "My mom isn't going to go backpacking, so to get her out there and sit on the porch and look at the stars—yet have a house and a warm bed—that was a really nice experience."
FreeHouse doesn't just connect travelers to the right vacation rental—it also connects property owners to the right kind of traveler. After all, a composting toilet may not factor into everyone's idea of a dream vacation, not to mention being asked to conserve water and other resources.
"Sometimes people end up at off-the-grid places who really shouldn't," Jason said. "A lot of our property owners mention that because of the unique nature of their property, they don't want to put it on Airbnb." With FreeHouse, everyone knows what they are in for.
Not that the properties are devoid of luxury. The website includes a range of options from which users can pick and choose. "The majority of our places are pretty nice in terms of having all the comforts of home," Jason said.
For now, FreeHouse only lists about 50 properties, around 35 of which are in Colorado, where the couple lives. A smattering of properties in New Mexico, Florida and Baja make up the rest. But vacation rentals in North Carolina, the Yucatán and Nicaragua are soon to follow. "We are focusing on North America for the time being, but if properties elsewhere reach out to us, we add them," Sarah said. Ultimately, the couple hopes to list off-the-grid properties all over the world.
Sell has no doubts about whether she'll use the service again for her next trip. "It's very comforting to have these destinations where I can be true to the values I adhere to in my everyday life while also vacationing."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.