Catching #CampVibes with Poler’s Benji Wagner

Fresh air. A campfire. Beers cooled in a creek. We can write these things down all day, but it’s impossible to understand the sheer satisfaction that such simple, outdoor pleasures can engender without experiencing them first-hand—and, preferably, with frequency.

Portland brand Poler operates on a simple mission (which desk jockeys like us can appreciate): to get average people outdoors—and out of their everyday routine—more often. They sum it up with a deceptively simple catch phrase/hashtag: #CampVibes, two syllables that manage to instantly evoke dirt underfoot, cedar in your nostrils and a canopy of stars overhead. And they make it effortless, with innovative gear like a sleeping bag you can walk around in, a camera bag that doubles as a cooler, and a Stumptown coffee kit designed for the campsite.

Keep reading for our exclusive Q&A with Poler Co-Founder and Creative Director Benji Wagner, in which he discusses couscous, favorite road trip spots, and thinking like a kid.

MEN’S SHOP DAILY: What differentiates Poler from other outdoor brands?
POLER CO-FOUNDER BENJI WAGNER: “We’re trying to be an outdoor brand that connects to people and inspires them—and isn’t so focused on technical aspects. It’s more like saying, ‘Get outside and have fun, and do the things that you want to do.’ Something that you can connect with on your own terms. Most of us are weekend warriors, in reality, and I feel like [a lot of] outdoors-y stuff is so focused on guys climbing Mt. Everest and huge mountaineering feats; it’s sort of lost track of the fact that most of us just wanna go camping with our family, or go surfing at the beach, or stuff like that on the weekends.”

What is a “Camp Vibe”?
“Camp Vibes is our slogan—it’s our ‘Just Do It,’ if you will. It’s also the hashtag that I created on social media, and it’s really just a way of expressing having fun outside—that vibe that you feel when you’re out having a good time doing whatever it is that you’re doing. Everyone knows the feeling of having fun camping out at a lake or being in the water, and that’s just the way we came up with to summarize it. People have really responded to that phrase as a hashtag on social media; it’s really taken off, which is pretty cool because I didn’t really expect it, and you can’t count on that happening. So it’s fun to see people using it in all sorts of ways, with different adventures that they’re doing.”

How did Poler get started?
“Kharma [Vella, Poler’s other co-founder] really came up with the idea for the Nap Sack, which is our kind of half jacket, half sleeping bag that you can wear. We didn’t invent that, but nobody had really done a sleeping bag like that in a way that was designed for young people and was at the right price that was affordable, so we felt like that was a cool, unique product that we could start with. I’m more of the marketing guy and had a lot of ideas about creating a brand, so we just started going for it. We weren’t really seasoned businessmen; we’re definitely first-time entrepreneurs. It’s been a pretty wild ride, and I’m really grateful that we’ve had so much positive response for what we’re doing.”

On social media, you guys go by “Poler Stuff“…What’s the significance of the Stuff part?
“I love the word stuff. It’s how people really talk, and every time someone goes camping, it’s like, ‘Honey, get the camping stuff out of the garage!’ That just felt like something that people actually say, so I thought it was kind of fun and part of what Poler is to me. We’re trying to bring together the fashion world with the outdoors-y world, and bring all these different kinds of markets together, and I think part of that is not taking ourselves too seriously. A lot of the brands in those worlds are so serious. To me, that can be kind of alienating to people. We’re really trying to be inclusive and have good vibes for everybody.”

You have three kids. Do you think they help inspire your work with Poler?
“Kids are just constantly inspirational. I think that when you get older, everyone gets cynical to some varying degree, and kids are just looking at everything for the first time. When you have a child, you get to introduce them to every single thing for the first time, which really dies off when you’re older—you kind of feel like, ‘Oh, I know all about that.’ It’s hard to have those experiences again—with food, for instance, when was the last time you had a food or a fruit that you’ve never heard of, or never even considered? It’s an everyday thing for kids, so they’re always coming up with amazing reactions.”

What tips would you offer for creating #CampVibes—and looking at the world more like a kid again?
“Poler’s not only about [big camping trips], it’s about connecting with the outdoors, having fun, and just being outside—I think people get in their daily routine and forget how much amazing stuff surrounds them in a very local way. People tend to go and look online, like, ‘Well, I wanna go to Tahiti, I want a vacation, I want to go far away’—and the reality is that you guys [at Nordstrom, for example] are in Seattle, and you’ve got incredible places to visit just within an hour or two, where you can go for one day and feel like you’re on a completely different planet. In their daily lives, people just don’t do that [enough]. You get stuck in your routine and don’t remember there’s an opportunity for that kind of childlike experience of learning something new. It’s accessible, even without a lot of money or time.”

Our current Pop-In Shop—LET’S GO!, which Poler is a part of—is inspired by an epic American road trip. What are five of your favorite places in the U.S.?
“One thing I can say is, there’s a reason national parks are national parks. It’s not by mistake that those places have been celebrated and preserved, because they’re some of the greatest places in the world. For my own favorite places, Yosemite would be up there, and everybody should see that once in their life if they can. The whole region of southern Utah, where there’s several national parks and even more state parks down there, is incredible; it’s really unlike anything else you’re going to see anywhere in the world, and it’s one of those places that photos, no matter how good they are, don’t really do it justice…

“…The southern Oregon Coast is also one of my favorite places; just going on a road trip down the coast from Oregon to California is really gorgeous. The Grand Canyon I would say for sure. You can’t really beat the Grand Canyon. And Yellowstone—really incredible, and there’s so much wildlife. Most people have never seen a real moose or a bison and just how huge they are—they almost seem like dinosaurs in real life, because they’re so much bigger than what you think.”

Any tactical do’s and don’ts for the road?
“Well, the Boy Scout motto is to always be prepared. Always plan for a little colder weather than what you think it will be, because it sucks being cold. Don’t underestimate food and water needs, because you’re used to having those things on hand at home, and if you run out, it can be dangerous. Even if it’s just annoying, it can put a damper on things. You also always want to have a good mixtape—it’s key having some good tunes for the road, to set the tone and have a good vibe going out there.”

What are your camp rations of choice?
“If you’re backpacking into the wilderness, you’ve gotta save weight, but most people don’t do that. For car camping, I tend to bring some kind of meat for protein—a good steak or some sausages. A lot of times, we’ll make a salad—some kind of a nice grain salad like a couscous, or something that’s without lettuce that’s gonna wilt; you can make a big jar and have it ready to go. And then, always, classic s’mores for dessert. If you want to go big, you can do a cobbler in a Dutch oven, or something like that. A few things are much better when they’re done outside—like eating and showering. Any time you can eat good food in a beautiful place, it’s even better than it would be in a restaurant. Same thing goes for bathing outside, for some reason. It’s kind of magic.”

And for more road trip essentials, check out our current Pop-In Shop: LET’S GO!

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