Two years ago, Portland photographer Benji Wagner faced a conundrum. He loved being outside, and professionally he often shot advertising material for major outdoors companies. But he felt like his employers didn’t understand him, or his friends.
“The industry was full of good products,” says Wagner, now 34, “but the brands weren’t relating to young people in an authentic way.” Images of soulful, handsome adventurers contemplating mountain vistas didn’t match Wagner and his tribe’s more rough-and-tumble approach to camping, hiking, and travel. You don’t need waterproof ultra-wicking poly/spandex boxer briefs to drink Rainier tallboys by a campfire.
So Wagner and two collaborators created Poler Stuff, a camping and travel gear brand aimed at urban-based adventurers who might have more moxie than money. They funded the start-up themselves and worked out of their homes to produce the 2011 debut line of tents, T-shirts, and bags. The Man Tent promised ample room for yoga and an eye-shaped window to let in starry nights. The Wunder Bundler, a foldable thermal pad, can keep a six-pack cold or a burrito warm. The Napsack, Poler’s wearable, hooded sleeping bag (yes: a sleeping bag you can walk around in), sparked a cult following. Most products cost less than $200.
“We want to inspire people to embrace everyday outdoor activities,” Wagner says. “You don’t have to be climbing Mount Everest to have a good time.”
After a modest debut at local shops like Worn Path and Communion, Poler has steadily increased sales, added employees, and, in March, opened its first retail space. The latest line adds some gravitas with a hefty, leather-lashed backpack made for more serious excursions. Early this year, Poler decisively shattered the Northwest culture-niche ceiling when Hannah, creator-star Lena Dunham’s character on HBO’s Girls, lounged in a puffy, neon orange Napsack. (Decidedly less hip Al Roker later nestled in one on Today.) Despite another character’s claim that the Napsack made Hannah look like a “sad little glow worm,” the glorified Snuggies remain the company’s most popular product—and maybe the best summary of this scruffy rising star of Portland’s outdoors industry.
“We embrace the things people actually use,” Wagner says. “Everyone grows up car camping. Instead of acting like people are outside of civilization, as much as anything it’s about travel and couch surfing.”