CAMPING - GEAR
We get asked about awnings quite often, so here’s the low-down on selecting and using the right one for your needs. We’ve lived with all types of awnings and we’ve yet to find one that’s wind-proof.
First up, here’s our awning and here’s why we went this way. It’s a ‘cheapie’ from Kings and we have no illusions about its strong-wind resistance. An inspection of the lightweight aluminium extrusion and small brackets shows that it hasn’t been designed with gale-tolerance in mind.
It doesn’t have any fancy extension system, simply rolling around its end plate and fitting into a two-zipper bag that’s integrated with vehicle or camper mounting plate. Two telescopic legs drop down from the end plate and we’ve modified ours by fitting metal eyes that allow a screw-in peg to be inserted at the base of each leg
We chose it because if it gets damaged by wind, or when folded along the slide-on-camper and being pushed through thick mulga scrub, it isn’t too expensive to replace.
That said, in light to medium wind strength it behaves quite well, with two additional anchor ropes at each corner. However, if there’s a strong wind forecast or heavy rain in the offing, we fold it up at bedtime every night, or if we’re leaving the camp for a couple of hours.
Because we’re sailors we have great respect for the power of the wind and we’ve seen how much damage a wayward spinnaker can cause! The classic awning damages are fabric tearing; frame bending and mountings torn out of bodywork.
Types of awnings
The original ‘awning’ was simply a tarpaulin stretched between the vehicle or caravan and a couple of trees, or, when no trees were available, the ground. Many people still use this simple type of awning, tied or clipped to a roof rack. It’s an ideal cover for those who like to ‘swag it’.
Many caravaners choose manual or powered extendable-arm-type awnings that have drop-down telescopic legs that can be pegged to the ground or mounted against the van sides. All these awnings are very wind-sensitive and can’t tolerate more than gentle breeze without the risk of damage to the awning and to the van sides and frame. They’re fine if you’re there all the time, but shouldn’t be left unattended.
A variation of that type is the extendable awning that has wind-sensitive electric motor control. When the wind gets above a gentle limit the awning automatically retracts.
The low price of small, vehicle-mounted awnings has increased their popularity, so they’re much more common these days. The typical installation is on a ute or wagon roof rack, with the leading end of the awning bag poking forward like a jousting stick. (If you don’t know what a jousting stick is, check out the movie, ‘The Castle’.)
This positioning raises some issues when you head into scrubby country, because it’s very easy to get the forward end of the awning on one side of a stout tree branch and the vehicle on the other side of it. The result can be a seriously bent awning back plate, a damaged roof rack or even a damaged vehicle roof.
Brackets that allow quick removal of an awning are available and OTA Team Members Simon and Sheree Martin have a removable short awning at the back of their HiLux, to cover the tailgate area. The awning is clipped into place only after they’ve stopped, stowing safely inside the ute when not being used.
The same brackets can be used to make removing a side-mounted awning easy. When running through scrubby country it can be tied into the middle of the roof rack, or slid along the roof, under the rack, for safety.
The sockets on the awning backing plate can double as pole inserts, allowing the awning to double as free-standing shade tent or tent roof, if the awning tent is added underneath.
Check out our DIY removable awning conversion story.
In some cases awnings are an essential part of the camper; typically on camper trailers that fold out to form two- or three-room tent ‘homes’. Our experience with these awnings is that they’re time-consuming and difficult to erect and the operation is best done for extended stays, rather than overnight, in-transit camps.
Nearly everyone who has these camper-trailer awnings doesn’t use them much and if you buy a used camper trailer it’s almost certain to have an as-new awning in a bag!
Wrap-around or ‘batwing’ awnings are popular and offer great shade or rain protection around a wagon or ute. Our testing of these awnings showed us that peg-and-rope-anchored poles are necessary to prevent wind damage from even light breezes.
Most awnings can be complemented with end and side walls that can be used as breeze shelters, and some have zip-in rooms that fit underneath the awning fabric.
The problem with a vehicle-mounted awning is that when it’s deployed the vehicle can’t be moved until the awning is folded up again. In these days of busy campsites, it’s optimistic to leave a campsite for a short 4WD excursion and expect the space will be there for you when you get back.
A stand-alone ‘awning’ can be a better way of securing your camping spot than merely putting a couple of camping chairs in your location.
An obvious alternative to an awning that is attached to a caravan, camper trailer or vehicle is a folding gazebo. The very cheap ones aren’t sturdy, but those with scissor-action, parallelogram frames are strong and quite wind-resistant.
It’s essential to get one that’s easy to erect and pack away, and also one that fits into a relatively compact bag. Don’t get one that has separate poles and frames; it needs to be a one-piece assembly that simply opens up and then the roof fabric slips over the top.
A trick with erecting gazebos is to remove the centre pole until you slip the fabric over the top, then raise the pole and lift the fabric from underneath – you don’t need to be tall to do this!
Most people want their awning to provide shade, but many are surprised by the amount of radiated sun heat that can emanate from the underside of an awning.
Tall caravans don’t have the problem so much, because there’s ample air circulation between the underside of the awning and the people underneath, but awnings that are relatively low can create a virtual hothouse.
Some fabrics are better heat reflectors and insulators than others, but the best result we’ve had is a second layer over an existing awning, preferably with an air space between the fabric layers. It becomes a reflective, virtual ‘tropical roof’.
For protracted camps in hot zones we simply peg a white sheet over our buff-coloured awning. Because the microfibre sheet is made of lighter fabric than the awning cloth it can be stretched almost flat, while the heavier awning cloth sags slightly, creating a small air gap between them.
We know of other campers who fit a sail track above the awning roller and they slide a reflective tarp into that track to keep the sun off the awning cloth.