I’ll bet that over 90% of all Motorhomes have an awning fitted. I’ll go one further and bet that the majority of them don’t get used more than a few days per year. There now that’s a controversial statement. Well maybe I don’t have any real evidence on the last bit but it’s a good lead in to the love affair we have with awnings.
But first let’s look at the differences between an awning as fitted to a camper van verses an awning as fitted to a caravan. I have to go over the basics even if most of you already know them. In their basic form camper van awnings have a wind out roof supported by two legs and consist of two folding arms attached to a metal rail at the front and a metal rail bolted on to the camper van body.. The manufacturers state that they are only suitable for protecting against the sun or light rain. There is little or no protection against wind. In fact wind is the main issue with the camper van awning. Sides for these awnings are extras and even with the better versions they are not entirely waterproof or wind proof.
Caravan awnings on the other hand come not only with sides, they are fully waterproof and mostly wind proof. They are kept inside the caravan or towing vehicle when not in use. The awning is attached to the caravan by inserting the awning into a rail around the edge of the caravan that makes a water tight seal and the awning becomes part of the caravan. The sides and front are sealed and zipped into the fabric and they have a full set of awning poles that fit together to make the whole structure solid. Caravan awnings offer much better security for property as your items are enclosed within the awning base. Camper van awnings are open.
Camper van awning manufacturers offer front and side panels to give the awnings more protection but they lack a proper set of poles nor do the panels zip in properly. At best they offer only limited protection but they do extend the times you can safely use them. The biggest problem with a camper van basic awning is that they are prone to damage by wind. Even when they are tied down with storm guys the wind can play havoc with the roof and it is a brave owner that leaves his awning extended over night.
As a general comment awnings fitted to camping cars are higher up than caravans and use winch handles to extend or retract them making them much quicker to assemble or retract than taking down a caravan awning. Many camper van awning manufacturers offer centre poles to help reduce the flapping during light wind. Later models such as the Omnistor 8000 have tensioners that keep the roof fabric taut also reducing flapping.
Mechanical or Electrical operation.
There are two types of awning – wind out or those that have an electric motor to extend or retract the canvass. While our awning is electric I must say I prefer manual as you have more control and don’t have to worry about flat batteries or electrical failure. That said all electric awnings have a manual override (but it takes a while to set it up). The advantages of electric are that it makes it easier when single handed as while the motor extends the awning you can be setting out the legs. Beware that some electric awnings for reasons beyond me use 240 volt motors meaning you will need to add the cost of an inverter if you don’t already own one. Tip: Remember where to awning motor fuse is located.
Camper van awnings come in a variety of sizes just as caravan awnings do. Obviously smaller awnings are easier to manage in bad weather but also don’t protect you as much from the sun. Smaller awnings can deal with the wind better due to their smaller area. One point that does annoy me is that dealers seem to fit awnings central to the side of the camper van and don’t take into account windows or rear garage doors (even habitation doors for that matter) It is more practical to fit the awning so that each end is in between windows, doors and clears rear garage doors because if you do buy a Safari or Residence kit then you include or exclude any openings making a much better fit to the side of the camper and so have better weather protection. If you look at the photo above and try to picture that awning fitted originally some 18 inches further forward so if you fitted sides they would have been halfway across the drivers side window and halfway across the rear garage. It was a simple job to move it back 18 inches and become more usable.
Residence or Safari
These are sides and fronts that enclose the camper van awning turning it into a similar item as the caravan awning making it more secure. The major differences are that with the Safari room the sides are clipped on to the roof fabric so do NOT make a weatherproof seal. The sides use a pole to trap the fabric to the side of the camper using ties to hold it in position. Fronts are fine as they slide into a groove similar to the awning rail on a caravan. Other than that there are no extra poles so the whole structure is still flimsy in windy weather.
The Residence is a much more solid affair that uses poles at either end of the roof awning and seals the sides in making a waterproof seal. The sides also butt up to the camper van side but use a thicker padding to give a better seal. There is still the problem with joining the sides to the front and it is done by using ties. Residences are much better in bad weather but not really weather proof and they do cost quite a lot more to buy than a Safari room.
Sun blockers or screens
I should mention that there are sun screen and wind breakers that are available to slide into the front rail to offer protection against the sun. These are available in a variety of sizes or panels and panels can be added or removed to suit. Panels offer little or no protection against wind and can be purchased for as little as £20 per 2 foot panel width.
I mention rain even though you would think it glaringly obvious that rain collecting on the roof or your awning can damage the fabric through sheer weight alone yet every year we see fellow campers that don’t bother to lower one side pole to allow the rain to fall away and so finish up with a large puddle in the middle of the roof and take fun in poking the centre to remove the water only to find the fabric has stretched and will not retract away properly.
Stand Alone Awnings
There are a number of awnings available for smaller camper vans (not that larger vans couldn’t use them) that are similar in construction to tents and have flaps that pull over the top of these camper vans to provide weather protection. The main advantages are that they offer similar support as a normal tent and so are weather proof and can stand windy conditions but they can be left in position when the camper van is driven away to go sight seeing or shopping saving having to take it down every time you move.
One of the drawbacks of having a large awning is that it is more suseptable to wind than smaller ones and even small flurries of wind can be very worrying. Our awning can only be extended on really calm days – in UK or Europe those days are few and far between. We cannot leave it extended over night. We also use Aires most of the time and that means when the surface is tarmac then you cannot peg down the awning so again more worrying with wind. Also some Aires don’t allow awnings to be used as the parking spaces are too close together to allow more than 6 mtrs between camper vans. You can hardly argue given these Aires are free. Life style is also a feature as many camper van families don’t tend to stay more than a few days at any one place so taking out and in the awning is just another chore. Camper van owners use their vehicles all year round and there is little point in extending an awning in freezing weather with rain, snow, wind, frost etc. – you get the picture…..
As always with these ramblings these are our opinions and experiences so are not a industry rules or guidelines. So in conclusion based on our experiences – would we buy another camper van and fit an awning – probably not as it doesn’t get used enough to justify the cost. Does that apply to many of our fellow travellers – who knows but travelling around for 120 days a year we don’t see many awnings extended when not on official camp sites hence my original statement above. I would rather put my money towards an Efoy system or Solar Panel or even an extra battery.