A guide to motorhome and campervan awnings
Awnings are very popular with motorhomers and campervanners and there are many types to suit pretty much everyone’s needs.
But, before you buy, you do need to consider certain things, like how you are going to use it, what size you need, what storage space you have and what accessories you might require.
Before you start to discuss types, you need to think about how you travel and what you actually need an awning for.
Will you be using it for an extra bedroom, or storage for outdoor gear, or just as a relaxing space? Do you move every few days and need something quick and easy to put up?
Once you have answered these basics then it is time to consider what type you need. There are three main types of awnings: cassette, drive-away and fixed.
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Cassette awnings are basically roll-out canopies fixed in a box on the side or roof of your motorhome (sometimes manufacturers incorporate these features into the design so they sit within the wall structure).
These roll and unroll into their housing thanks to a crank handle or a motor. Simply unroll it then fold out the support legs and peg these down. Electric self-supporting (no need for legs) models usually come with storm sensors to automatically retract when the wind level rises.
These don’t take up storage space, but they will eat into your available payload, some by as much as 50kg or more, so check first.
These awnings are great for people who move regularly as you can wind and unwind very quickly. If you need a more enclosed structure then you can get accessories for these like sidewalls, but you will have to remove all this before you retract the awning and you will need to store them somewhere.
These awnings fit both campervans and coachbuilt motorhomes, and there’s plenty of choice when it comes to selecting an awning. Leading brands like Isabella, Vango, Outwell, Outdoor Revolution, Fiamma and Omnistor (Thule) all offer a good range.
These awnings can be more susceptible to wind, so make sure you peg the legs down and fit storm straps.
These are free-standing awnings that you can leave on site while you take the motorhome out for a day. Liken them to a tent in terms of construction.
There is often an extra flap/tunnel of material that links the awning to the motorhome when parked. The connection can be via fixings on the metal rail of a campervan (not all campers have these), using a fixed cassette awning as an attachment point or using straps over the top of the motorhome.
You can also find magnetic fixing points for campervans that simply stick to the roof.
Some issues with these awnings is the storage space they take up when packed, their weight (15 to 20kg is typical), and packing them away after bad weather.
However, as they are more like a tent, then you can use these almost like an extra room and they come in all sizes and shapes with various accessories like annexes, bedrooms and light fixings.
You can choose between traditional pole versions and inflatable ones.
Look at both options closely as the weights are the same (inner tubes used on inflatables amount to the same weight as poles) and packed sizes don’t really differ, either.
Look out for single-point inflation with the ‘air’ models and decide whether you can cope with the foot pump or want a 12V compressor to do the job for you.
Sam Maidment from Outdoor Revolution says, “Single-point inflation means all air tubes are linked together so the awning is inflated as one piece. Ideal if you have an electric pump as you just plug it in, set the PSI, and leave it to inflate.”
There are also campervan awnings that can be used at the rear (tailgate only, not barn doors) or to the side.
Outwell’s new Woodcrest, for example, can be used in either position, while Vango’s Tailgate Hub and Tailgate AirHub have multiple attachment options including kador strip, over-vehicle webbing straps, a sleeve for pole and clamp and roof bar attachment tabs and can be attached to either the rear or side of a vehicle.
Fixed awnings are more like a caravan awning in that, once these are up, you are not moving your motorhome until it is taken down again.
These often offer better methods of connection between motorhome and awning. They also have the same sort of connection fittings as drive-away versions but without the extra joining flap material.
There is another much simpler form of awning if you don’t want the expense or weight of those above and that’s the sunblocker or canopy.
Sunblockers commonly attach to an awning rail or fixing points and run down to the ground at an angle, creating a porch as well as a sun/wind block for doors.
These can be supported by poles to create a more tent-like structure, too.
Once the preserve of specialist motorhome companies or overland-style accessory suppliers, now more mainstream tent/awning manufacturers are offering these.
Take a look at Outwell’s new Hillcrest Tarp or Fallcrest side panel set, for example. Reimo, Thule and Fiamma all offer these.
Another option is a gazebo-style free-standing unit. These can be much cheaper than a cassette awning and it stays on site, thus marking your pitch.
Inflatable versus poles
There is debate about the benefits of poles versus air awnings, in terms of weight, pack size and ease of erecting.
In relation to weight, they are roughly comparable. An inflatable version may be 5-10kg heavier than an equivalent with fibreglass poles and the pack size would be bigger.
If the awning has metal poles then the overall weight would be nearer the inflatable version, but they normally come in separate bags so the weight is split, whereas inflatable tubes are attached to the fabric so they can’t be separated, although some are removable in case they get punctured.
Faster installation claims are also debatable as those expert in putting up their own awning can build a traditional pole awning very quickly. The speed of build for inflatables depends on the speed the air can flow into the pumps. It has been noted that electric pumps can be slower than the manual foot pump.
Remember to only use a compressor with a pressure that is no higher than the awning manufacturer allows; preferably, use one that has been supplied with the awning.
Poles can also be adjusted to align the awning to the unit, whereas this adjustment is not always possible with air awnings.
Inflatable awnings are easier in that you can inflate them anywhere and then move them into place.
Poles can break but air tubes can leak; although, in many cases, the air awning will be easier to fix in situ if you can locate the leak and use a repair kit.
Awning fabrics are a critical factor when buying. It’s worth considering what time of year you will need an awning. Like tents, they come in different ‘seasons’. Summer ones tend to be lightweight with a focus on UV protection – winter ones are heavy-duty to withstand wind and snow.
Look for fabrics that dry quickly and that are protected against damaging UV light, as well as being tough enough to withstand strong winds and 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.
Light polyester has some advantages.
It’s quick to dry after rain and lightweight 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 UV light than fabric that has been dyed after it has been made into yarn.
In all cases, look for models with weather protection that provides additional protection against rain and damage from sunlight.
However, as with everything, developments are moving ever- forwards in this area.
Quest (which makes the Westfield range of motorhome awnings) says, “The fabric on all of our new awnings has never been used before anywhere and is called HydroTech CottonTouch which is an all-weather (UV50+), premium fabric that will perform as well as it looks and feels.
“The fabric really does feel like cotton but has a polyester feel on the inside, which means that, when the awning gets wet, it dries quicker, meaning even in the winter months you can use this fantastic fabric. The fabric really does perform as good as it looks/feels.”
Vango has a technical cotton option called Sentinel Signature, which it claims “is a breathable technical cotton, which is perfect for use in warmer climates and use from spring through to autumn.”
This is available on two of Vango’s air awnings for 2021, the Galli and the Kela – look for the ‘TC’ at the end of the model name.
Cassette/roll-out canopy awnings are permanently fixed to the side or roof of a motorhome.
You can do this yourself, but we recommend that a professional fit these for you as you may invalidate a coachbuilt’s warranty if you start drilling holes in the sidewalls. Most dealers and awning specialists provide a fitting service.
These awnings, if you already have one fitted but want something different, can act as the attachment point for a whole host of other types of awnings. And you can get a kit that converts a 4mm channel to the necessary 6mm channel required for most drive-away awnings.
If your awning isn’t compatible with your rail, you just get a kador adaptor, which are quite cheap.
There are also sorts of other attachment kits available.
If you have a steel-bodied campervan then there are magnetic strips with conversion points that fix to the roof.
If you have a rail or channel on your motorhome then you can get kits to attach the awning directly into it. This makes driving away difficult, so kador strips or figure-of-eight attachments come into play.
Manufacturers and dealers should be able to offer advice on the easiest set-up to fix to your motorhome.
Some may need clamps to hold the figure-of-eight strip in place and tent brands also sell these.
You could also attach guylines to the loops and peg down on the other side of the motorhome but this involves trying to get the guy ropes over the vehicle and, on bigger models, this could prove very difficult.
Sunncamp recommends, “With regards to fitment, look for dual-beading (6mm and 4mm), meaning a couple of different fitment options are available to the end user. They can either be connected to the vehicles via the rail on the vehicle (6mm) or via a wind-out blind such as a Fiamma F45.”
What size of awning for my motorhome or campervan?
There are endless size options for awnings available now.
Fixed cassette awnings are defined by the space available on the side of the motorhome. Try to ensure that it fully covers doorways – you don’t want a cascade of water coming off the top of the canopy onto people entering and exiting the motorhome, for example.
There are a couple of campervan manufacturers that offer a smaller fixed cassette awning on the rear of the models, too, like the Auto-Sleeper Fairford Plus.
With other awnings, the most important dimension is actually height and that’s the height of the attachment point from the ground, whether that’s a cassette awning or a rail or roof.
Most drive-away awnings will quote a range and you need to make sure this is what you look for.
Most rising roof campervans will suit most awnings around 2m tall. The ubiquitous high-top is 2.65m tall, while some coachbuilts are over 3m and this is where it gets tricky.
Fixed lower awning rails may help in this area, but the very tallest motorhomes may have to resort to a cassette awning as drive-aways will not fit.
Placing markers on the ground to help align your vehicle’s end position when backing up to a driveway awning is advisable.
As with most tent pitching tips, it’s best to make sure doors and panels are zipped shut to avoid distortion when erecting; although, if it’s windy, just having the bare shell may be easier and less weighty, too.
“Lightweight inflatable porch awnings are very simple to pitch and one person can definitely do it,” explains Sam from Outdoor Revolution.
“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 motorhomers queuing up to offer assistance.”
If you attach the free-standing awning to a wound-out cassette then you don’t have to traipse through the first to get into the motorhome – important if using it as a bedroom. Also, this will give loads of extra space with a VW-size camper.
Erecting and dismantling an awning is perhaps one of the most daunting aspects 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.
Awnings and safety
It is suggested that air awnings are better in windier conditions as the poles are more flexible.
But, whatever awning you have and even if the conditions are good, storm straps are recommended.
You could go out for the day and the weather could change, causing your awning (fixed, drive-away or cassette) to take flight and damage your motorhome, other vehicles on site or even people walking around the site itself.
As with tents, you must never cook with a BBQ inside an awning. Even when just letting the barbecue cool down, leave it outside until all the coals are completely cold. Carbon monoxide is dangerous and extreme care should be taken.
Accessories for awnings
Once you have decided which awning is right for you, 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.
But what is supplied may not suit your needs; for example, pegs not suited to the ground you intend to pitch on, but you can get easily pegs suitable for hardstandings.
Breathable membranes for floors are also easily available.
Many tent and awning manufacturers make lighting that has its own neat attachment points and most will use low-energy LEDs.
Awning heaters are available to take the chill out of the air in the cooler months, but make sure you always switch these off if you are not using the awning, they can be power hungry and then there’s the environmental implications of heating the outdoors.
Roof liners can add extra insulation, too; plus, you can get floor liners and carpets for underfoot.
Inner tents, privacy rooms and annexes are all also available to make the extra space work better for you and your needs.
Cleaning products are another essential to keep your awning in tip-top condition, as well as air tube repair kits for inflatables.
Draught skirts are a popular choice. These fix along the side of motorhome skirts and hang down to reduce the draughts coming under the motorhome and into the awning.
Vango also says buyers should not forget awning furniture, and it offers a whole range, including the Radiate collection of heated chairs, meaning you can stay out in the awning in comfort even when the days and evenings get nippier.