A legendary camp chair, resurrected

The legendary South African camp chair, left. Its offspring, right.About 20 years ago the owners of a well-known gun shop called Jensen’s, in Tucson, tried to branch out with a line of South African camping equipment: heavy canvas tents, folding sinks, cots, the works—in fact most of the stuff you can easily find today from importers such as Bundu Gear or Equipt. Sadly, Jensen’s was probably 15 years ahead of the curve. Cotton canvas was then considered hopelessly old-fashioned in the U.S., rather than being rightly regarded as a fabric that had stood the test of time and in fact retained several decided advantages over its more modern synthetic substitutes. 

The store held a close-out sale, at which I noticed a folding wood-framed chair with a ripstop canvas cover. It reminded me of some old and very comfortable steel-framed butterfly chairs my mother had on her patio. I plopped down in one of the South African items, and . . . well, to claim that angels sang might be pushing it, but it was without doubt the most blissful experience I’d ever had in folding camp furniture. (Hmm—reading back over that makes me wonder if I should specify, “ . . . folding camp furniture designed for an upright posture.”). The chair was marked down to $9.95, and there were just four left. I bought all of them. 

That lucky find begat something of a legend. Wherever Roseann and I camped, our chairs gathered acolytes faster than a television ministry in Mississippi. Frequently those who sat down “just to try it” could only be removed by threats of violence, including actual displays of edged weaponry. Multiple quests to find similar chairs proved futile, as did multiple quests to find substitutes anywhere near as comfortable. (In the course of searching I learned such chairs were generically called tripolinas and had been designed by an Englishman named Joseph Fenby in 1877.) The closest I came was a spring, 2009 review for Overland Journal, in which I included an outrageous version of the tripolina from safari outfitters Lewis Drake. The Lewis Drake Martin Chair was an exquisite concoction of rosewood, solid brass, and cotton canvas with buffalo-leather trim, and it retailed for $600—a figure that begat its own legend among both connoisseurs and disparagers of safari bling. It was certainly clear that the Lewis Drake chair failed as a remotely affordable alternative to our (admittedly close-out) $9.95 originals—and to be perfectly frank it wasn’t quite as comfortable, being slightly shorter in the seat and lacking their deep, seductive pocket shape.

The infamous $600 camp chair. Undeniably a paragon of style.

In the meantime, Mike Spies, the U.S. distributor of AutoHome roof tents (AutoHome), had visited Roseann and me out in our Sonoran Desert camp-cum-home, and experienced first-hand the soaring notes of a heavenly choir while, from the comfort of a South African tripolina, he watched his English setter chase quail around our yard. On being told the tale, he asked, “Can I borrow one? I’d like to replicate it and put them back into production.” We entrusted one of our irreplaceable chairs to his keeping, and for a full two years received only occasional fractional cryptic updates along the lines of, “Sourcing Sitka spruce from piano industry,” “Searching for U.S. stainless steel fabricator,” and, “Looking into Forest Stewardship Council certification.” A couple of promising prototypes showed up at the 2011 Overland Expo, and this year, finally, I secured a “pre-production” but obviously fully developed example of Mike’s take on the South African tripolina. 

It was worth the wait. 

Mike clearly was not interested in producing a mere clone. That became obvious before I even saw the chair, when I pulled its 6 by 40-inch carrying case out of the UPS box. It’s sewn from fantastically heavy nylon ballistic cloth, has a handle made from 1.75-inch-wide webbing, and closes with a loop and eyelet system just like the bombproof arrangement of a military duffel bag—and the securing snap on Mike’s bag is solid brass, secured with a leash to the bag to prevent loss. The case is a huge step up from the cheap nylon drawstring sack our old chairs came in.

Hook the three grommets over the loop, secure with the brass snap. Bombproof. An internal pocket holds the rolled-up seat cover.

The chair itself lived up to the advance billing of its container. While the line of descent from our South African originals is unmistakable, upgrades are easily seen. The frame pieces—indeed made from Sitka spruce left over from piano manufacturing—are a bit thicker, .87 versus .82 inches, and are just as clear and straight. They appear to have a light oil finish. The folding hardware pieces are stainless steel, the same thickness as the originals (.064”) but much wider, secured similarly with fat rivets. The seat material is the same ballistic nylon as the case, sewn in two pieces to form a perfect pocket, in contrast to the single piece of ripstop cotton canvas used in the old chairs. The edges of both covers are fully bound.

Hardware is stainless steel, broader than the original. Ballistic nylon seat cover. Edges are fully bound for durability.

The more heavy-duty construction showed when I compared weights of just the frames (6.6 versus 5.6 pounds), the chairs with covers (7.4 versus 6.6), and the complete chairs in their cases (8.0 versus 6.8). 

But what about actual comfort, the main point of the thing? 

Roseann—who has remained faithful to those South African tripolinas for 20 years, no matter what potential rivals I brought home during gear tests—tried one of our veteran examples, then sat in the new one. She went back to the old one, then back to the new one. Finally she took a deep breath and said, “The new one’s better.” I did the same, and said, “Yep. Better.” 

Note we said “better,” not “more comfortable.” The reason has to do with the frames. The structure of our South African chairs allows the front of the frame to spread out flat when you erect it. With the cover in place, you first sit down and then draw in the legs to form that deep pocket. Once that’s done, good luck convincing yourself there are camp chores that really need attention. For years I’ve intended to swage and attach a thin steel limiting cable that would tie the front legs together to eliminate the spread (which, to be fair, has undoubtedly worsened as the canvas fabric has stretched slightly over the years). 

In Mike’s version, the frame and connecting pieces are constructed in such a way that the legs don’t spread flat, but lock to maintain the proper distance so that the cover automatically assumes the correct, blissful shape. So the two chairs are equally comfortable; the new one simply makes it easier to get there. The back of the new chair is slightly shorter, but neither offers head support for anyone but children, so that’s a wash. In other areas—seat height, back angle, etc.—the two seem interchangeable. Both are better for reclining than sitting upright, but both work just fine for eating or writing at a table as long as the top isn’t too high.

Front hinge plate holds legs in proper position for comfort.In fact I have only one significant gripe: The nylon seat material of the new chair is noticeably less breathable on a warm day than the canvas of the old. The nylon may well prove more durable (although given 20 years and counting on the canvas covers even that might be questionable), but I’d like to see Mike at least offer a cotton option for hot-weather use. He informed me of a couple of other tweaks that will be incorporated in the production chairs: a snap loop or two to prevent the cover being blown off an empty chair, and D-rings for a shoulder strap on the carrying case. Bravo to both. 

Ah, yes—you’ve noted the future tense regarding production chairs. Mine is, as noted, a pre-production model. Mike already has suppliers contracted for the wood, carrying case, seat cover, and metal parts. He’s currently finalizing arrangements to have the wood pieces cut, shaped, drilled, and finished. Once that’s wrapped up he’ll be able to announce prices and availability. 

I hope he hurries. There are a lot of people out there still annoyed at me for pulling knives on them.