Growing up in a squat ranch house in Ohio, I dreamed of moving to the Big City (any big city) and serenading dewy-eyed writer boys on a ukulele from my very own urban veranda. Now that I work at Wirecutter and live in New York — which is cramped under the best circumstances, let alone during a pandemic — I’ve found that wandering into my small outdoor space has many more benefits, helping to alleviate the boxed-in feeling I get from waking, working, relaxing and sleeping under one roof. It’s a restlessness people are experiencing no matter where they live during this summer of quarantine.
A few accessories can help the outdoors feel as comfortable as possible. Whether you have a terrace, a balcony or a sunny patch of cement, here are five things you can buy to make that small outdoor space more pleasure than pain.
To reduce the risk that you’ll drop your phone through the cracks in your balcony or suffer a sore tush from sitting on cement, you’ll want some sort of floor cover.
Obviously the nicest fix is to install legitimate deck tiles, but if you’re a renter — or, like me, you’re useless with home-improvement projects — you’ll want a no-installation option. One easy solution is a wood bath mat. The ToiletTree Products Bamboo Bath Mat (about $50) is waterproof, vented to allow drainage without pooling (which attracts mosquitoes), and durable enough to withstand years of use. Plus, it has a nonskid surface and rubber feet to stop it from sliding across your floor. The ToiletTree mat is also extremely cute, and two or three of them should cover a small space with no effort.
If you’d rather not create a hard surface, you can use a yoga mat or a picnic blanket as a comfortable seat in a pinch. In our tests, Lululemon The Reversible Mat 5mm (about $70) and the Nemo Victory Blanket (about $50) emerged as the favorites for comfort. Neither will be good for putting furniture on, and you won’t be able to leave them outside, but if you just want to sit in the sun and gaze slackly into the middle distance, both offer better padding than the hard floor.
Even if you’re not trying to read on your balcony after sunset, a set of string lights or a lantern can achieve more than pure function: It sets a mood, transforming your anodyne patio into something dreamy. Wirecutter has several suggestions for good outdoor lighting that can stand up to wind and water. The Newhouse Lighting 48 ft. 11-Watt Outdoor Weatherproof String Light (about $40) will look equally festive tacked to a wall or braided through a railing. (Neither installation option will eat up any precious square footage.)
This set of lights comes with a five-year warranty, it’s UL-listed for outdoor use, and its Edison-style bulbs (75 lumens each) emit a cozy, warm cast to show passers-by that you are the main character on the stage that is your block. If you want a more concentrated source of light or would like to read on your balcony, the rugged and powerful UST 60-Day Duro Lantern (about $50) is one of our favorites.
A Bluetooth Speaker
If you live in a big city, your outdoor space is likely accompanied by honking horns, sirens and, lately, fireworks. The problem with a lot of Bluetooth speakers is that they’re simply not loud enough to drown out the din. Also, they don’t hold a charge especially well. Our favorite Bluetooth speaker solves both these problems in a vibrantly colored unit that’s about the size of a grapefruit. The UE Wonderboom 2 (about $100), connects easily to any smartphone, offers great sound quality and can play for up to eight hours on a single charge.
If you’re seeking the outdoors to escape sound altogether, noise-cancelling headphones may provide the silence you crave. For less than $100, our budget pick, the Anker Soundcore Life Q20, provides great noise cancellation, feels comfortable over the ears and can last 30 hours without a charge.
A Portable Chair
It’s absolutely not OK to leave furniture on your fire escape (not just according to me — it’s the law), and you don’t want to have your furniture stolen from a ground-floor terrace. The solution? A foldable chair that stores easily inside your apartment and can be carried through your open window with minimal effort. For those of you thinking back with a shudder to the creak, badly designed folding chairs used in many an outdated office, fret not. The HDX Black Plastic Seat Foldable Folding Chair (about $25) is handsome, lightweight and surprisingly comfortable, even after hours of sitting.
Another great option is a camping chair. The Coleman Oversized Quad Chair With Cooler (about $30) — which provides two cup holders, a pouch for magazines and a built-in cooler bag with room for four beers or sodas — is our longtime pick, thanks to those features as well as its unparalleled comfort.
A Folding Table
Any flat surface that you’ll want for your tiny outdoor space — whether to catch up on emails or balance a plate of palak paneer — should be compact and lightweight. But it’s even better if it folds, allowing you to take it to and from your terrace or porch rather than leaving it out in the rain. One option we like is the Lifetime 80160 Commercial Height Adjustable Folding Utility Table (about $55). At only 4 feet long, with adjustable legs, it’s small enough to store in a closet or under a bed.
If, on the other hand, you just need a flat surface on which to balance your laptop or papers while working outside, a lap desk is a cheap, portable option. The LapGear Designer (about $30) is our favorite for its comfort and stability. But if you prefer something that hovers over your lap rather than directly on it, try the Avantree Multifunctional (about $70), which keeps your lap cool during warmer months and has adjustable legs, too.