I’ve written for this magazine on and off for 30 years, and here’s a confession that might end my run: I don’t like tents very much. In fact, I dislike almost everything about them. The cramped quarters, the zippers, the moistness. The swish-swish sound nylon makes when you brush against it, which sets my teeth on edge. The lone mosquito that always seems to sneak inside.
Lately, however, my tent-phobia has become a problem I need to work on. I live in Utah, surrounded by idyllic campsites, yet it’s been at least a year since my partner and I have slept outside. We have a multitude of reasons and excuses for this, but when the subject of tent camping comes up, there’s always a moment when we look at each other and decide: I’d really rather not spend the weekend crammed into a Hefty bag with you, love. And that’s that.
This attitude started to change when I came across the wondrous Springbar family of all-canvas tents. Last May, I wandered into a prepper show in Salt Lake City, which was kind of like Outdoor Retailer for the Apocalypse. (Appropriately, the state GOP convention was happening right next door.) There were the usual intense hucksters pushing water purifiers, solar panels, food dehydrators, combat-grade wound care products(!), and, of course, lots and lots of guns.
Then I came across something unexpected: two millennial hipster guys who were showing off nifty compact stainless-steel wood stoves, which were designed to be used inside real, large, honest-to-goodness Boy Scout–style canvas tents—which, it turned out, they also made, right there in Salt Lake City.
Their names were Pace Measom and Jordan Nielsen, and I arranged to interview them by phone two days later. “We’re not preppers,” Measom hastened to point out when we started talking. A couple years ago, he explained, he and three partners, including Nielsen, bought an old-school canvas tent company called Springbar, which had been quietly operating in Salt Lake City since 1961. Their tents are simple but classic, with elegant lines and solid canvas construction, and they’re all sewn by hand in a Salt Lake City factory. “It’s like the Airstream trailer of tents,” Measom said. I liked the sound of that immediately.
In the past few years, Springbar’s designs have gained a devoted following, not only among nostalgic Americans like me, but across the Pacific. A quick search for #springbar or #springbartents pulls up some stylin’ glamping setups, many from places like Korea and Taiwan and Thailand—and we’re not just talking about individual campsites, but entire hootenannies of Springbar fans and their beloved tents. If you want one for yourself, you have to sign up and wait months—possibly longer, if you’re picky about the color.
Springbar tents were the creation of a World War II naval draftsman named Jack Kirkham, who went home to Salt Lake City after his discharge and started making canvas awnings for buildings. When the rise of air conditioning weakened the awning biz, he began making tents that he designed himself, starting in 1961. He created a handful of standard looks, from a two-person Boy Scout–style tent all the way up to a modular design called the Leisure Port, which you can add rooms to as needed. (Useful in Utah, where people have lots of kids.)
Kirkham’s son, Jack Jr., told me that his dad wasn’t exactly what we think of as an outdoorsman today. “He liked the outdoors, he liked painting outside, but he was a little more from the generation where camping was not a real vacation,” he says. A man after my own heart.
In 1962, a Springbar Traveler tent cost $83.62, according to an old catalog. Now that same model runs $1,299. It’s nice and roomy, ten feet on a side, and more than tall enough to stand up in. It also weighs about 60 pounds and comes with very substantial steel poles, so you’re not backpacking this thing anywhere. (Another plus.) The design hasn’t changed in 50 years. “It works,” says Jack Jr., “so we kept it the same.”
Springbar was around but struggling when Measom and Rider approached Jack Jr. about buying it in 2018. The company was still making tents by hand in Salt Lake City, but production was slow and the brand was fading. “We were always out of stock,” Jack Jr. says. At the time, the tents were a side business connected to Kirkham’s Outdoor Products, a camping store that the two Jacks founded in the late 1970s. The shop did well at first, as interest in outdoor sports surged, but business slowly dwindled over time when big-box retailers like Cabela’s and REI moved into Utah.
Having grown up in Utah, Measom knew about Springbar, and their products reminded him of other iconic outdoor brands like Filson and Pendleton that sold well-made old-school gear at boutique prices. But nobody outside Utah seemed to have heard of Springbar. At the time, Measom was a marketing writer for Backcountry.com, and he sensed an opportunity to revive the brand. Measom’s father, Ty, knew the Kirkhams from the outdoor business—Ty had founded Camp Chef, makers of backcountry and backyard cooking and grilling devices, in 1990—and a deal was struck with Jack Jr. (Jack Sr. died in 2008.)
The tents themselves are sewn in an unmarked industrial building south of downtown Salt Lake City, which I visited on a hot June morning in the summer of 2022. At 9:15, shop boss Pam Russell announced the next run of tents: 46 Travelers, 32 of which would be labeled for export to Korea. There were about 20 employees on the floor, a mix of old-timers who’ve been with Springbar for decades, arts-and-craftsy young people, and immigrants of all ages from Chile, Uganda, and Afghanistan.
Russell asked if anyone had anything they’d like to say, and a middle-aged guy in a headband piped up. “I wanted to sing a song about our unsung heroes, the inspector dudes,” he said. “They’re awesome. And I think we can help them by getting things right the first time.”
Everyone applauded. The “inspector dudes” set up each and every tent as it was finished, to check the stitching and other details, like metal stake loops and the rope sewn around the tent bases. If the tent passed muster, they signed the label, right next to the name of the employee who led its production, and it was bagged and readied for shipping.
This was the last stage in a long but carefully thought-out process inspired by the way Toyota makes automobiles, a system called “lean production.” The way it works, Measom told me, is that each sewer or group of sewers works on a single part of the tent. One person will be putting together a wall while someone else works on the roof, or a window, and yet another person does the floor, and so on.
When all the pieces are ready, they’re joined to form a whole. Then the “inspector dudes” step in to check out the finished product. Measom says it’s all about efficiency. “You’re looking for these time savings of one minute here and five minutes there,” he explains. “It adds up over a week, or a year. But there’s a reason nobody does this anymore. It’s too hard—it’s much easier to just have it come in a box.”
As Russell finished up the morning meeting, Sheryl Crow came blasting through the speakers: “All I wanna do is have some fun.” Everyone stood and stretched, paying special attention to backs, wrists, and fingers. Sewing tents is repetitive manual labor, and no one wants to get sidelined by carpal tunnel. The song ended, replaced by the percussive sound of industrial sewing machines. Time to get back to work.
U.S.-made Springbars cost anywhere from about $650 (for the two-person Compact) to $1,500 for the 10×14-foot Family Camper, which has a big door and windows and even a porch-like awning. The company also makes some of its models in China, at a slightly lower price point. “We make tents in America for people in Asia, and we make tents in Asia for people in America,” Measom says.
In Asia, as well as eastern North America, rain is more of an issue than in the American West. The canvas that the company uses is advertised as “highly water resistant,” because the fibers in the canvas expand in the presence of water, tightening the weave and making it waterproof in all but the most brutal downpours, says Measom. The cloth is treated with something called Sunforger to resist both moisture and mildew, while remaining breathable. Still, it’s essential to let the tent dry before rolling it up and stowing it in its bag. “The only thing you can do to ruin a Springbar tent is to store it wet, which will mold it,” Measom says.
Jack Jr. is working on designs for stove-friendly “hot tents” that will enable campers to visit national parks in off-seasons, when the weather is cold but crowds are absent. They also work in desert heat: he’s just back from a week outside Canyonlands. “But I spend many nights, and days, in a tent just in my backyard,” Jack Jr. admits. Sometimes he uses his backyard sprinklers to test the waterproofing. “And sometimes I’ll just go sit in there and have a margarita.”
Sounds like a great idea to me. After my visit to the factory, I take a loaner tent home—the 8×10 Vagabond—and roll it out in the yard. The first step is simple: pounding in 15 stakes around the edges. Next, I’m supposed to thread in bent metal bars that give the tent its structure. This part is something I just can’t seem to figure out. It’s about to turn into a cussin’ job when I take a break, consult YouTube, and figure out the simple move required to tension the bars. (The trick is in how the two pieces of the main crossbar are joined together; hence the name “Springbar.”)
All that’s left to do is install the two side poles and raise the roof. Boom: I’ve got a home outside my home—a good thing, since our kid just tested positive for COVID, and we need quarantine space. The roof bars tension the whole tent nicely, pulling against the stakes, so there’s no slack in the walls and no sag in the roof. The almond-colored canvas is soft to the touch. There’s no swishing whatsoever. The thing is solid.
I set up a couple wicker chairs and a table, open a beer, and settle in to read a magazine and listen to the backyard birds. I have half a mind to throw in an air mattress and Airbnb the thing for $200 a night.
A couple weeks later, we escape the Utah heat for a remote-working stint at a condo in Sun Valley, Idaho. One afternoon, we shut the laptops and drive to a lake, where we set up the Springbar by the shore, in the shade of tall spruces. We spend the remainder of the day and evening paddleboarding and swimming in the crystal waters, returning to land to lounge in the tent with an icy canned Paloma before heading back out again, followed by a deluxe picnic. It’s the best day of the summer.
As the sun begins to sink, we watch a mama duck shuttling her babies around the glassy lake. The tent looks classic, like it belongs there. We take a few pics for the ’gram, and they draw likes from around the world. It’s nice to get back to nature with a little bit of style.
There is the minor detail of a “No Camping” sign nearby, but my defense is airtight: We’re not camping. We’re tenting.
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