Create a Cozy Outdoor Space

For the past year we have been creating new and innovative ways to do all kinds of things safely—work, school, playdates, even grocery shopping. One of the big things we’ve been challenged with is how to safely see friends and family, keeping our all-important Village intact and healthy. This is even more critical for our kids who need connection with friends as much as they need food and water.

One of my most-beloved pre-Covid traditions was weekly movie nights with my friends. Normally, in the three months leading up to the Oscars we go out to the movies once a week in an effort to see all the possible nominees. Then in late February we gather for a big Oscar party full of drinks, games and prizes. When Covid hit, theaters were one of the first things to close, and gathering indoors to watch streaming movies together became too dangerous. I knew I had to find a solution or give up one of my favorite wintertime community-building, sanity-saving activities. On top of that, my two teenage kids can only pod with one friend each, so they also needed a safe place to see friends. And a place we could see the grandparents and other family.

I needed to create a big outdoor space with plenty of air circulation, but something that felt cozy in the rain and snow of winter. Because I’m frugal, I first tried the cheapest option possible: a giant tarp that we strung between our garage and the back fence, covering most of our small backyard. To keep rain from pooling up, we stuck two 2x4s into pots of dirt, wrapped the tops with towels and duct tape and propped them in the middle of the tarp, creating an upside-down V, like a tent, so water could sheet off. We put some outdoor chairs and sofa under it and voilà, we had a dry outdoor space in an hour for about $20. My daughter was able to have an awesome Halloween gathering where she and her friends dressed up, ate pizza and watched scary movies.

Our first tarp shelter, decorated for Halloween

But the tarp turned out to be noisy in the wind, too cold and really ugly. Definitely not cozy enough for winter. We decided to bite the bullet and invest in an outdoor canopy tent. We got a fairly big one (10×15 feet) that came with four walls we can roll up for different degrees of air circulation, plus guy lines and sandbags for each pole, which do a great job of holding the tent in place in the wind. During the four months it’s been up, our canopy has survived two wind storms and the biggest snow/ice storm our state has seen in decades and hasn’t blown away or collapsed yet. In fact, I hosted an outdoor movie night smack in the middle of the snowstorm. It was chilly, but we wrapped up in sleeping bags, hats and gloves, and had a blast.

Our canopy after first snowfall of the year (note sandbags & guy lines at each tent corner)

What’s the purpose of your space?

Your cozy outdoor space needs to work for what you enjoy doing with your friends and family. That could be playing music together. Or eating a family meal. Or roasting marshmallows and sharing stories around a fire. Or, like me, watching movies with friends. Whatever your group passion, create a space where you can do it outside with others.

Uncovered outdoor space

Some people have chosen to create an outdoor gathering space with no cover because they really want to have a fire. These folks built or bought outdoor fire pits or propane patio heaters, then set up lights, chairs, blankets, etc. These uncovered outdoor spaces are lovely and it’s much easier to stay warm when there’s a fire involved.

Kenan and Peter’s cozy uncovered outdoor space

Covered outdoor space

If you want something you can use in the rain or snow, you’ll need some kind of cover. We chose to create ours with a canopy because it is more permanent and nicer than a tarp, but less expensive and permanent than building a roof over for our back porch. Ours fills most of our backyard and can fit about 6 people spaced for social distancing.

(Left) A grandparent visit in the canopy. (Right) The canopy set up for movie watching.

Furniture

Think of your outdoor space as a new room to decorate. You’re going to want chairs, cushions, tables and light. You can use furniture you already have or get cheap stuff at Goodwill. We choose plastic outdoor furniture so we wouldn’t have to worry about mold. Here is what we used to furnish our space:

  • Chairs—plastic Adirondack chairs we had on our porch ($20 each), plus some padded kid chairs we had in the basement.
  • Couch—we bought a plastic outdoor couch & coffee table
  • Storage chest—we also got a plastic storage chest to hold all the cushions, sleeping bags and blankets. This has kept them dry and totally mold-free. Plus, whenever we want to have a gathering we don’t have to find stuff and lug it outside—everything is right where we need it. That makes set up quick and easy, especially for kids.

Floor

To help cozy up our space, we decided to make it feel more like a room by adding this indoor/outdoor carpet (basically the cheapest option at Home Depot). It’s grey, which hides dirt, and it doesn’t matter if it gets wet. We’ve had it in our basement (which sometimes floods) for 10+ years and it’s pretty indestructible. To keep water from coming up through the ground, we put rubber subflooring under it. Now when you unzip the canopy it looks and feels like a cozy indoor room. I added an entry mat and basket for shoes to keep the carpet clean longer.

Lights

A few strings of x-mas or outdoor lights work great. We wove ours around the inner frame of the tent and plugged it into a beefy all-weather extension cord. We also plugged in an electrical power strip/surge protector, so we can plug in the projector, electric blankets, etc.

Staying Warm

A fire pit would burn a hole through our canopy, so we tried portable space heaters. Unfortunately, you couldn’t feel the heat unless you sat right next to one, and they usually blew a fuse. We decided warm blankets and sleeping bags were easier. I bought a few electric blankets which don’t blow any fuses and keep us all quite warm and toasty.

Entertainment

The purpose of my outdoor space is to gather for movie watching. I bought a relatively inexpensive projector and screen (each cost about $100). They are easy to set up and I know I’ll get my money’s worth out of them over the next 10 years. What you do in your outdoor space is up to you, but you could set it up for small groups to:

  • watch movies or sporting events
  • play videogames (Minecraft on the big screen anyone?)
  • play or listen to music
  • play board games
  • craft together

Die-hards watching movies in a blizzard

Cats like the canopy too!

After spending time and money setting up our outdoor space, I worried we had wasted our money and wouldn’t use it enough. Boy was I wrong. My son came home from college for an extended 2-month Covid holiday and used the canopy several times a week to gather and catch up with his friends. My daughter has used it to host weekly TV viewings with friends. I’ve watched 10 movies and counting out there, with a smaller but devoted group of Oscar junkies. In four months, we have already gotten our money’s worth out of our space, and with vaccinations still months away for most of us, I’m sure we’ll be using the canopy well into the summer.

If you’re missing your Village during these dark, chilly winter days, why not create your own cozy outdoor space. Covered or open-air. With fire or electric blankets. Whatever you create, make it work for you and your family. Then get outside and use it!

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