Move over ‘vanlife’, there’s a new trend in town. ‘Hutlife’ delivers the off-grid experience of holidaying on the road - without the stress. It immerses you in nature without the lack of mod cons. And it lets you try out tiny house life, without the commitment.
Huts and cabins are nothing new, but the pandemic spurred demand for self-contained getaways in the great outdoors. Seasonal cabins sprang up in the Alps, shepherd’s huts appeared on English farmland, and Berlin-based startupRaus planted angular bunkers on city outskirts.
But it isn’t just innovative newcomers on the scene.
Inspired by Germany’s introduction of youth hostels, the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) brought hosteling to the English and Welsh countryside in the 1920s with a view to “connect people…to nature and the outdoors” and make “travel and adventure accessible to everyone”. Almost a century later, the YHA is no longer about shared dorms, bringing your own bedding and signing up for chores on a rota.
Cabin fever saw the YHA open more self-contained cabins, tents and even iconic American Airstreams during COVID, providing the best of communal living without sacrificing personal space. Now a dozen of its hostels dotted around England and Wales offer a taste of hutlife, with some even boasting en suite shower rooms and log burners.
Where’s great for a YHA cabin stay?
YHA Stratford-upon-Avon for a group getaway
Visiting Shakespeare’s historic birthplace? Spend the night in a deluxe camping pod at the YHA’s Stratford-upon-Avon hostel. Set in a sheltered gated garden, the pods have two double beds each and can easily sleep four. They also have their own kitchenettes and a shower rooms.
Like so many other cabin converts, I love to find new and unique sites to explore - but I find myself coming back to this one time and again.
Since my first, surprisingly toasty stay in January 2016, I’ve visited in all seasons with my family, booked multiple pods to catch up with family friends, and taken my uni best friend for a girls’ weekend away. We appreciated having a fridge and a veranda to enjoy a chilled glass of wine.
Four-person camping pods start at £99 (€114) per night.
YHA Brecon Beacons for total quiet
When the first lockdown was lifted in 2020, me and my family were lucky enough to stay in a landpod at YHA Brecon Beacons. The property sits at the foot of Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales. It was the quietest and darkest place my sons had ever been.
We danced around the fire pit and celebrated being alive in such a special spot after such a strange year. As the season changed from summer to autumn, the banks of the bubbling stream flowing down the slopes were bursting with blackberries, ripe for the picking.
Four-person camping pods start at £49 (€56) per night.
YHA Ninebanks for a couples’ retreat
Last year, my family and I took an early summer trip to Hadrian's Wall, staying in a former miners' dormitory at YHA Ninebanks. The lovely little chalets set into the hillside would make the perfect cosy couples’ retreat.
Self-contained two-person chalets start at £75 (€86) per night.
YHA Canterbury for spacious cabins
I've got my eye on the ensuite hexagonal, five-person cabins at YHA Canterbury for my next trip. Fully insulated with two double glazed windows, the walls of the cabin slope outwards for a more spacious feeling.
Five-person cabins start at £79 (€91) per night.
What are the pros and cons of hutlife, YHA-style?
For some, the fact that you have a separate sleeping space away from the main hostel building, but can still use all the communal facilities for cooking, washing and relaxing is a major plus.
But if the idea of sharing your space sends shivers down your spine, opt for a cabin that is entirely self-contained, with its own shower room and kitchen. Then you might not need to step foot inside the main building at all.
Lots of hostels offer a restaurant and a bar for those who don’t feel like cooking. The YHA breakfast is a great way to start the day, especially if you’re staying with children, as they often eat free. It means not carrying your provisions if you’re backpacking or hiking between hostels.
Prefer to eat alone? A camping barn could be the answer. They have running water, electricity, cooking facilities and bedding, but not much else. Be sure to bring a torch and warm clothes.
If you're looking for an off-season break and don't like the cold, check out whether there's heating and insulation before booking. Most of the YHA's camping options aren't available in the winter, but cabins with log burners or heaters can often still be booked.
Nowadays the YHA provides bedding for guests, so there are plenty of duvets and pillows to snuggle up with. Just remember to bring your own towels.
The history of the YHA
Having to adapt to pandemic restrictions is certainly not the first time the YHA has been shaped by troubled times.
Born out of concern for the welfare of Britain’s growing urban population in the early 20th century, the charity refers to itself as “a child of the Great Depression”. Its offer of affordable accommodation was conceived as an antidote to the poor air quality, cramped housing and harsh conditions of inner city life.
The YHA’s goal was to give young working people the opportunity to experience fresh air and countryside - no matter their income. Its mission remains “To inspire all, especially young people, to broaden their horizons, gaining knowledge and independence through new experiences of adventure and discovery.”
Opting for a hut hideaway at a hostel is a novel way to get a great British staycation without breaking the bank, while supporting a modern movement to grant everyone access to the great outdoors.