Beginner’s guide to caravan awnings
Awnings are one of the simplest, quickest and most effective ways of adding extra space to your caravan when pitched up on site.
Some awnings can more than double your undercover space so they really are worth considering, especially if you tour as a family and/or have kit such as bikes, watersports gear or even just want somewhere undercover for your wet dog and walking gear to dry out.
Indeed, the extra space awnings provide can provide an extra sleeping area, a dining area, a food preparation area and a relaxation area, or all of these.
What the more modern versions have in common is they are easy to erect and dismantle, lightweight and pack down to a compact size for easy storage and transportation.
Awnings and porches are designed for use in different conditions. For example, some are extremely light in weight and speedy to build, so ideal for weekends away or for caravanners who move from campsite to campsite every few days.
Others are made to withstand severe weather and can take longer to erect but will remain a solid structure for weeks or even months; some can even be pitched for an entire season.
Planning and research
Before you start your search, ask yourself what you plan to use it for. Are you going to be dining in the awning? If so, you need enough space for a table plus chairs for everyone. Do you want to shelter cycles or a pram in the awning? Do you need somewhere to put the barbecue when it has cooled (make sure it is completely cold)? Or are you looking for extra sleeping space?
“Also ask yourself is it for touring or static use, on the continent or in the UK?” advises Sam Maidment from Outdoor Revolution. “Then visit your awning dealer with your caravan’s specification – dimensions – in your hand and, ideally, the measurements between windows and doors so you know where the awning will sit against the ’van.”
Once you have determined what it will be used for, you can decide how large and sophisticated the awning needs to be and this will determine how much are likely to have to spend.
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What is the right caravan awning?
Awnings are not an everyday purchase – they can be a significant investment. If your awning is going to be used almost every weekend, then it’s worth investing in a top-quality model. If you go for a luxury full awning, for example, you’d be looking at upwards of £2,500, depending on the length of your caravan.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum, you can find lightweight, simple porches for as little as £150 for a basic sun canopy. In between those prices is a vast choice and there will be an awning or porch to suit every budget and every requirement.
Caravan awning types
There is a variety of caravan awnings on the market, all of which have their unique USP and provide a specific solution. The main differences are the size and intended function, as well as how they are erected and supported.
The first choice is whether to go for a full-sized awning, which runs the whole length of your caravan, or a porch, which is generally much smaller than a full awning.
If you are opting for a full awning, then consider that there are seasonal and touring sub-categories.
“Seasonal would be for permanent pitches or extended periods of use,” says Sam. “They tend to be heavier-duty to endure extended periods of UV and weather exposure. Touring awnings tend to be lighter-weight to allow for quick and easy pitching and packing down. Of course, within these sub-categories are many variations in specification and design to accommodate individual budgets and requirements.”
Finally, there is a canopy, which attaches to your caravan but has no sides, just a roof.
Full caravan awnings
Full awnings give you maximum space, so they’re ideal for holidays where you are pitched up at the same site for more than just a few days, as well as for permanent pitches. They take longer to construct than porches, but that’s worthwhile when you’re staying for a week or more.
“Full awnings fit the full length of a caravan from bottom front to bottom rear and are available in many different lengths to accommodate all lengths of ’van,” explains Sam.
A full awning can more than double your living space, as they project from the side of the caravan by between 2m and 3.5m.
The measurement of full awnings is expressed in centimetres, and depends on the length of your caravan.
You need to know your rail length – this is the length of the awning rail that you will see running along the caravan on the side where the entrance door is.
Some awning manufacturers have size guides on their websites – just type in the make, model and year of your caravan and up comes the size you need.
Depending on the model, full-sized awnings can be heavy to handle and transport, which will affect your payload and therefore what else you can carry. If you want to tow with the awning in your caravan, its weight must be subtracted from your payload.
Some seasonal full awnings can weight 50kg but weights have dropped and now you can get full-sized touring awnings weighing less than half of this.
“Our heaviest awning is just 28.8kg, and our lightest is only 9.7kg,” explains Sam. “These are both inflatable porch awnings for touring, so seasonal, full-poled awnings will be much heavier. When pitching though, panels can be removed to make lifting the canvas a lot more manageable.”
Whatever the weight, first check your payload allowance before packing it into your caravan. “All awnings are designed knowing pack size is a key factor in consumer choice so none will be too big or too heavy,” says Sam. “But, of course, some are specifically designed to offer small and manageable pack size.”
Porch awnings are quicker to construct and lighter to transport. A generalisation would be that porches are always smaller than full awnings, although some porches can be nearly as large as full awnings.
“Porch awnings create a smaller porch area; they are available in less sizes but are more universally fitting as they do not cover the full length of the ’van.”
The downside is that you don’t have as much space as with a full awning, but they suit many caravanners well and the space deficit is outweighed by their lightweight structure, ease of installing and disassembling and their lower cost.
Canopies are easy and quick to erect, can stretch the full width of your caravan and can also be permanently fitted so it is just a question of unwinding it for instant cover from the sun or rain. The downsides are they have no sides so offer no wind protection or privacy and, talking of wind, they can be damaged by strong winds so need to be wound back in should the weather turn too bad. Some canopies can have sides attached to the, making them similar a full-sized awning.
Awning frames and supports – air or pole?
Awnings are supported on one side by the caravan itself and then by either poles or inflatable air supports. Awning frames come in four types: steel, aluminium, fibreglass and air.
With many awnings you get the option to choose your preferred frame material to suit the use to which you’ll be putting your awning or porch.
- Steel – steel is a good option if you are planning to leave your awning up for a lengthy period of time, in varying weather conditions. For example, if your caravan is sited for a whole season on the same pitch. Weight isn’t usually a consideration when you’re only transporting your awning to and from a campsite at the start and end of a season. Sometimes you may need additional steel poles for year-round pitching so it remains stable in poor weather when you are not there.
- Aluminium and fibreglass – both of these are lighter-weight options, suitable for touring, when the weight of your awning is a more important consideration in relation to your payload. When it comes to erecting the awning, both aluminium and fibreglass frames are easier to handle, because each pole is lighter than steel. Aluminium and fibreglass also weather better.
- Air – the invention of air technology in awning construction has revolutionised the market and has provided buyers with a new breed of porches that are speedy and easy to construct. The principal behind air awnings is a system of pipework, which you inflate using an upright pump. It’s easy and very quick. If you’d rather let battery power do the inflation for you, just buy a 12V pump.
“Across all categories, inflatable air awnings are becoming more and more popular as they provide a quick and simple solution to pitching what can traditionally be a fairly tricky structure to erect,” says Sam. The latest innovation with air awnings is single-point inflation where all the air tubes are linked together so that the awning is inflated as one piece. “These are ideal if you have an electric pump as you just plug it in, set the PSI, and leave it to inflate.”
Awning fabrics are a critical factor when buying. You want something that dries quickly after rain, that is protected against damaging UV light, that is tough enough to withstand strong winds and that is both breathable and provides a degree of insulation.
The fabrics will vary from lightweight, thin polyester to top-quality, solution-dyed acrylic. They can vary enormously in weight, look and feel. Fabric choice depends on how you’ll use the awning.
Frequent users should invest in a better, more expensive awning which, typically, will be built to last. Occasional users may struggle to justify such a major expense.
Lightweight polyester has some advantages. It’s quick to dry after rain and light in weight to handle when you're constructing and packing it away. They’re less expensive than acrylic options. Within this sector, there’s a considerable variation regarding thickness and density of weave, tautness and weight.
Expensive, high-quality acrylic awnings are made to last many years. They look more taut and rigid than lighter-weight fabrics.
In the acrylic sector, there’s an interesting fabric: fibre-dyed material also called solution-dyed. In the manufacturing process, the fibres that make up the woven fabric are dyed before they are made of the material. This fabric is more resistant to the effects of UV light than fabric that has been dyed after it has been made into yarn.
In all cases, look for models that have weather protection that provides additional protection again rain and damage from sunlight.
Pitching your awning
Before buying, be aware of just how heavy and easy or difficult an awning is to erect, especially on a gusty day or if you have no helpers. “Lightweight inflatable porch awnings are very simple to pitch and one person can definitely do it,” explains Sam. “Depending on the user’s competence, all awnings can be pitched by one person, but campsites are very friendly places and, if someone is seen to be struggling, there will soon be fellow caravanners queuing up to offer assistance.”
Erecting and dismantling an awning is perhaps one of the most dauting aspects of caravanning for a first-timer. This is where air awnings come into their own, especially the latest single-point inflation models. Remember you’re on holiday so want any stress kept to a minimum!
Caravan awnings are part of a well-developed business and, as such, there are multiple manufacturers in this sector offering a wide range of choice for buyers.
The key manufacturers are
• Outdoor Revolution
Once you have decided what awning is right for your caravan, there are the extras to consider. Don’t worry about the basics needed to erect the awning – they should come with the awning itself, well almost everything you need to erect the awning should be supplied, as Sam explains: “Most awnings come supplied with everything required such as pegs, guy ropes, storm straps, curtains, draught skirt, pump (if required), but rarely a mallet!”
But what is supplied may not suit your needs, for example, pegs suited to the ground you intend to pitch on. “Some people like to buy hard ground pegs for hardstanding pitches, as these tend to not be included,” explains Sam. “Additionally things like breathable flooring, rear pad poles, electric air pumps are also optional extras. But, once the awning is setup, it’s just up to the user what they fill it with.”
And the list of those optional extras can be lengthy:
- Lighting – go for LED lights
- Carpets, flooring and groundsheets – these all add more comfort, warmth and practicality to the inside of the awning
- Heating – if you’re a year-round caravanner or even like to pitch up out of season, an awning heater can be a great investment
- Inner tents, privacy rooms and annexes are all available to make the space inside your awning work better for you and your needs
- Pump for inflatable air awnings – an essential and there are both foot pumps and electric pumps available
- Roof liners – can add extra insulating properties as well as addition protection
- Additional tent pegs – an essential for many, especially if you are not sure of the type of pitch you’re getting
- Storm straps – are essential for seasonal awnings and preferable for those who pitch up when the weather is not the calm, glorious sunny days we all hope for
- Cleaners – another essential to keep your awning in tip-top condition
Top caravan awning tips
- Ensure your awning is packed away dry. If it’s wet when you take it down, you should unpack it to dry and air as soon as you get home.
- A roll of duct tape can be used to make temporary repairs to awning fabric. But it is only a temporary fix – get it repaired before it gets any worse
- Check whether you will be charged extra for an awning by a campsite. Most do not but check when booking. “it is the norm for a caravan to have an awning attached,” explains Sam “Some sites will charge extra for separate detached units, such as gazebos or shelters, but, in general, you have a set pitch size and you can fill it how you wish.”