In a truly admirable display of mental fortitude in trying times, you’ve somehow made it this far through the COVID-19 winter. But now that it’s painfully clear cabin fever is indeed a thing, enough really is enough.
You need to get outside.
And if you can somehow do that in a way that enables you to escape the house for a few hours at a time, that’s a gift that will keep on giving until this whole pandemic mess is over. The good news is that you don’t have to be David Hicks, Martha Stewart, Christina Anstead, Mark Cuban, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos to create a backyard retreat that’s functional, funky, and budget-friendly. Of course, it does help to have a backyard. Not to mention some vague desire to peel yourself off the couch you’ve been glued to since October.
Here are some tips on how to move things outdoors. Play things right, and you might even be able to have friends over for socially distanced cocktails. Hang in there. Not only is spring just around the corner, but the rains are almost guaranteed to stop—probably right around July.
Building a Base
If you’re lucky, the first step of this has already been taken care of. Maybe a section of your backyard has been laid with imported Italian paving stones, high-end Spanish slate, or, um, good-old-fashioned blacktop or concrete. Having something other than grass to set up on is important for one reason and one reason only: it tends to rain a lot in Vancouver, especially during the fall and winter and spring (and sometimes summer) months. Even when the area is covered, setting a retreat up on grass will leave you looking like the Toronto Argonauts at the end of the 1950 Grey Cup. Or the Freeling family at the end of Poltergeist.
Don’t have a paved area? There’s an easy fix. Start by laying out four 10-foot 4 X 4s—cedar if you’re feeling fancy, treated lumber if you want things to last. Using large screws, nails, Gorilla Glue, duct tape, or your imagination, fasten them into something resembling a giant square. (Excavating is actually a smarter option, but that’s permanent, not to mention backbreaking when dealing with the frozen West Coast tundra, so lay that square on the grass. Then kiss that grass goodbye—you can replant from seed when this COVID mess is all over.)
Fill your new DIY box with play sand from the nearest hardware store—you’ll need about seven or eight bags. This is to ensure you’ve got drainage for your new raised patio which, no matter how much it’s sheltered, will get wet. The goal is to avoid water pooling where you’re sitting.
To make sure your pavers sit evenly, you’re going to have to level the sand. Do that by either eyeballing things with a shovel or, for the anal-retentive, taking a 12 foot 2 X 6, and notching out both ends. (Measure two inches from the bottom at each side, and then make a horizontal cut one foot towards the centre, and then another cut from the bottom so you have a notch that looks like half of a T. The notched piece of wood will rest on your 4 X 4s, enabling you to drag it back and forth until the sand is level, two inches from the top.)
Next you’re going to need paving stones. Go for something square rather than curved, a good option being 7” X 3” X 2” Roman pavers so everything fits nicely into the structure you’ve made with no cuts required. These are widely available at most hardware stores. When your box is filled, pour a bag of sand over top the pavers, and then use a broom to push the sand into the cracks between the stones. Congrats—this is the hardest part of the project, and you’re done!
Assuming you’re not a duck, Aquaman, or a little mermaid named Ariel, you’re going to have to protect yourself from the West Coast’s endless torrential winter (and spring, summer, and fall) rains. The easiest way to do this is to invest in a 12 x 12–foot collapsible canopy, which you can source yourself on the web. Go the bare-bones route and you’re looking at a couple hundred dollars; opt for the Mercedes or Porsche models and be prepared to spend $400 or $500. After a half hour or so of cursing the Ikea-like set-up instructions you’ll be done.
For those on a budget a 12 by 12–foot tarp will also work, with the caveat that there will be less crying if you’ve something sturdy to tie it to—trees, a garage, house, basketball hoop, or Old Glory–adorned flagpole. The key here is the slope—make sure one side is raised a foot or so higher than the other so the water doesn’t pool in the middle.
Tension on whatever string, bungee cord, or braided organic yak hair you’re using is also your friend—you want that tarp taut for optimum drainage. Lacking for structures to use as anchors? Invest in telescoping tent poles (Google them for a myriad of options) which, along with stakes, strings, and tension, will enable you to set up a tarp anywhere, including the Sahara Desert, Arctic Circle, the Moon, or—about as exotic as you’re going to get these days—your backyard.
Because you’re not a polar bear, snowy owl, or Arctic hare, keeping warm while the weather’s still cold is crucial. Thanks to the tarp or canopy you’ve set up overhead, those restaurant patio heaters seen at every second place in Yaletown aren’t really an option. Electric blankets are an okay start, except for the problem of unsightly extension cords. Because your patio needs a centerpiece, firepits are a complete no-brainer.
They’re something to fix your gaze on so you don’t have to talk to your spouse, roommate, children, iguana, or happy-hour guests if you’re not in the mood. More importantly, they’re a heat source that’ll enable you to stay outside comfortably until the early hours of your morning—to the considerable consternation of your neighbours.
Expect to pay as little as $200 for a no-frills workhouse like the Outland Firebowl 823 or around $600 for fancier round or rectangular fire tables, of which there are countless Google-able options. Pro tip: these run on propane tanks, and because there’s nothing worse than running dry when outside, relaxed, and half-cut, pick up two tanks and you’ll never be caught short.
Take a seat
Comfort needs to be king when you’re outside at a time of the year most sensible folks are taking root on the couch watching Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Steer clear of anything metal when considering what to sit on—or stick your tongue to à la Flick in A Christmas Story. Luckily you have an endless array of materials to choose from for both benches and chairs—wicker, wood, Polywood, and budget-conscious plastic.
With social distancing important, consider springing for two benches, and two chairs. And don’t underestimate the importance of removable seating cushions for each. They’ll not only keep you a little warmer while sitting, but you can bring them inside so they don’t get damp. Again—notice a theme here?—you’re encouraged to do your own sourcing. But as you do, think about the importance of shopping at locally owned and operated stores like Parliament, Vancouver Special, and Urban Barn.
The worst people on the planet are those who love the sound of silence. The rest of us understand that an easy way to make a cool space even cooler is to add music. Nothing adds atmosphere when you’re hanging by the fire in a rainstorm like a thoughtfully curated playlist—the kind where there’s room for Pantera’s “Fucking Hostile”, the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want”, Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta”, and Dan Mangan’s “Road Regrets”.
Dragging the Sonos 5 out of the living room is an option when you want a little outdoor sonic ambience, but that seems like overkill. Instead, consider portable speakers that pack a lot of sound into small packages. Solid options that won’t ruin you financially include Soundfreaq’s Sound Kick 2, which is Bluetooth-friendly, carries an eight-hour charge, and is splashproof—which means no worrying about the rain during monsoon time. Add some eye candy to the mix with the Anker Soundcore Flare 2 Bluetooth speaker, which delivers deep-house bass, 360-degree sound, and a neon light in the base that changes colour with the beat of each song. Cue up D.R.I.’s “I’d Rather Be Sleeping” and watch the purple, lime-green, and cherry-red fireworks.
This is the one area where you hopefully need zero help. Got a tiki fixation? With an Internet connection you’ll have no trouble unearthing Easter Island Moai garden statues or Tiki God Kanaloa Teeth side tables. Bleed maple syrup and poutine gravy? Go rustic with tree stumps and a couple of potted Douglas Firs.
Or let’s say that the happiest that you’ve ever been was on a long-before-the-pandemic trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, where days were spent exploring ancient jungle ruins and nights kicking back at the Red Piano sipping Tomb Raiders among the potted plants and geckos. A return trip to Cambodia isn’t happening anytime soon, but re-creating that vibe isn’t that hard with a couple of palm plants and a collection of Buddha heads. It will not only take you back to happier times, giving you a reason to live again, but more importantly might actually get you out of the house for an hour or two.