Buyers’ Guide: Camper van Awnings and Canopies

I’ve recently been asked to write a review of camper van awnings and given that this is a common topic of conversation I’m happy to oblige.  This isn’t a straightforward issue, however.  What people want from an awning or canopy can be very different (different needs, sizes, climates, seasons and so on) and consequently, it’s a very subjective matter.

A Buyer’s Guide

This buyers’ guide is designed to de-mystify the world of awnings and canopies.  Information currently available seems to be dominated by manufacturers and retailers themselves; there’s very little independent advice. I’ll explain the various types available, highlight how they can be used and include links to popular manufacturers and models.

However, what I can’t do is make any recommendations on what you should buy – only you can make these kinds of decisions !  I’ll write a future post, though, detailing my personal experiences and preferences which may be useful information if you’re considering buying an awning or canopy.

What benefits will I get from an awning or canopy ?

There’s no need to tell any camper van owner of the many, many accessories they can buy for their van – see my earlier posts on VW California options and accessories and What to take in your camper van.  But before you get carried away into parting with yet more hard-earned cash for a snazzy new piece of kit, let’s first of all think about they’ll be used.  In summary, awnings and canopies can:

  • provide an additional sleeping area or play area for kids
  • provide space for storing gear (eg a Cali 5th seat, bikes, table, chairs)
  • be a space for your dog(s)
  • be used as a cooking area, especially where you’d rather keep cooking smells out of your van
  • reserve your camping pitch when you leave the campsite in your van
  • provide shelter and shade from wind, rain and sun
  • give you some privacy from nosy campsite neighbours !

There are a wide variety of products available but they seem to essentially fall into two types:

A.  Awnings

  • free-standing tents that provide an additional ‘room’ beside your camper van
  • ‘driveaway’ awnings have an extra flap of tent material allowing you to attach them to the awning rail on the side of your van, giving additional weather protection and privacy
  • you can also buy awnings that fit on the rear of the van (ie with the rear door open).

B.  Canopies

  • less substantial than awnings, canopies are either permanently fixed to the van (and are held upright by extendable legs when rolled out),  or can be free-standing (using poles and guys).
  • rollout awnings are a common extra on camper vans (I actually think they’re mis-named – they’re really canopies).  However, front and side panels are also available to attach to rollout awnings on-site to provide additional weather protection and privacy, creating more of a ‘room’ feel similar to an awning.

So, you can see that the most important question to consider in all of this is:  how will I use an awning or canopy ? 

But before you start to answer this, first let’s look at the features of some the many products currently available.

What kinds of awnings and canopies are available ?

Driveaway awnings

I’m going to focus here on driveaway awnings (essentially, free-standing tents that can attach to your van) since these are very popular with many campervanners.  However, if all you want is a separate tent for sleeping, dogs or storage, and you don’t need it ‘connected’ to your vehicle, then there are plenty easy-to-erect tents available worth considering as well.

Most driveaway awnings are constructed like tents, using a polyester flysheet and fibreglass or steel poles.  They’re available with our without inner tents, groundsheets or internal rugs/carpets, depending on how you want to use them and tend to cost between around £180 to £650, with options extra.  You can zip them up when you’re away in your van during the day, keeping your things safe and secure.

There’s a great variety available.  Depending on the model, expect to find a variety of windows, solid and mesh doors and porches.  Some allow you to attach the awning to either side of the camper van.  External heights extend up to 225cm (210cm inner) for the tallest but note that given the slightly curved nature of the roof the sides may be slightly lower.  They pack down to, typically, 80 x 30 x 30cm (approximately) and weigh anything between 12kg to 40kg.

Once you’ve learned how to pitch them for the first time you can expect them to take around 15 to 30 minutes to erect (don’t be fooled by the short manufacturers’ videos – they’re edited down !).

Popular products include:

Khyam Motordome Classic

Khyam Motordome Sleeper

Outdoor Revolution Movelite XL Classic

Outwell California Highway

Easycamp Daytona

The question you’re probably asking by now is: “so how exactly do driveaway awnings attach to the camper van ?”  Don’t worry, absolutely everyone asks this question … and then absolutely everyone scratches their heads once they’ve heard the explanation.  It’s one of those things that’s much easier demonstrated or actually done by yourself than explained.  But in short, you thread a strip of webbing (a kador strip) into your van awning rail or rollout awning, then you connect a figure-of-eight strip to this then finally, thread the beading on the driveaway awning into the other side of the figure-of-eight.

To disconnect the awning from the van, just do this in reverse.  It’s a good idea to mark the position of your van wheels facing the awning (use flourescent, rounded pegs or similar) so that you can park back in exactly the same position and not need to re-pitch your driveaway awning.  Have a look at this video by Khyam which shows how the Motordome Classic is erected (the fixing of the driveaway awning starts at 4 mins 40 secs).  Feel free to turn your speakers off ..

A recent innovation involves inflatable poles (“airbeams”) in which you inflate the ‘poles’ using a pump.  These are supposedly quicker to erect and dismantle and seem reasonably sturdy (see the Vango video below).  The Vango models cost between £420 to £500 with the Kampa quite a bit more.  They’re relatively new but I’m yet to hear of one deflating during the night …!

Currently available products include:

Vango Kela (note that the Vango products come in ‘standard’ and ‘tall’ sizings)

Vango Sapera

Kampa Travel Pod Air

You can also buy awnings that fit on to the tailgate of your van, such as those made by Khyam and Outdoor Revolution.  These look particularly useful for hotter climates where you want the option of shade under a rollout awning on the side of the van as well as an additional covered living area.  A slightly smaller version (quicker to erect) made by Packa Shack is handy as a private ‘changing room’ if you’re into sports or perhaps a place to sit and have a cup of tea sheltered from the elements.

The key pros and cons of driveaway awnings include:

Pros:

  • provide additional shelter and ‘room’ space for sleeping, relaxation and storage
  • many models available to suit most requirements and budgets
  • reserve your campsite pitch if you leave for the day.

Cons:

  • most models are too much hassle to erect for a one (or possibly two) night stay considering pitching time
  • can be bulky and heavy (40kg for the Outwell California Highway ?!)
  • while in some circumstances protection from wind, rain and sun is very welcome, some driveaway awnings can also have an ‘enclosed’ feeling.  Some people may prefer more ‘outdoor living’ rather than sitting in a tent
  • cost.

Canopies

Canopies are much simpler structures and provide basic shelter from the wind, rain and sun.  They can either be fixed to the van or free-standing.

A popular option among VW California owners in particular is the rollout awning manufactured by Ormistor (owned by Thule).  The awning casing is permanently attached to the van and winds out with the use of a handle, and two extendable legs are used to keep it upright.  If all you want is to give some shade while you sit and have a cuppa the awning is perfect; it just takes a minute to rollout.

Top tips:

  • if rain is anticipated, pitch one leg lower than the other so the awning is at a slight angle to allow water run-off; otherwise puddles may quickly appear on top of your awning;
  • make sure you peg out or tie down your awning securely (tie-down kits are available); in strong gusts, awnings have been known to have been blown against or over camper vans, damaging them.

The drawback with the the rollout awning is that it doesn’t give protection from the wind, which limits its use on windier and colder days.  To overcome this, a couple of companies now produce side and front panels so you have the flexibility to erect and move panels depending on wind direction.  They’re also useful to provide shade from the sun.

In the UK Lilypad Leisure produce Windblockers, panels made from light netting-type material.  They’ve also recently brought out Sun Shade panels which incorporate both solid and mesh material to give you more flexibility.  Panels are available in a range of sizes (and can also be custom made) to suit a range of different awnings  Feedback suggests that the mesh panels are very effective in cutting out wind (watch the short video below).

Comfortz Leisure have recently started producing front and side panels for awnings in the UK.  Made from high quality PVC these peg down vertically in parallel with the extendable awning legs.

In Germany California Camping (original German site) and Brandrup also produce solid side panels from high quality materials.  In contrast to the Comfortz and Windblockers models, these are designed to slope downwards to provide a bigger footprint under the awning.  For camper vans without the optional rollout awning, Brandrup’s Top Sail may be worth looking at, providing an integrated and flexible solution.

Besides fixed canopies, free-standing canopies have added flexibility allowing you to angle and position them to provide shade and shelter.  Sun canopies or tarps are increasingly common as optional extras for many tents and have been used for years among backpacking, motorcycling and bushcraft communities.

You need to search pretty hard to find them but I’ve found free-standing canopy tarps made by Obelink, Hypercamp and Eurotrail, all using lightweight polyester tent material.  These appear to be much more popular in continental Europe than the UK; I think there’s an untapped market in the UK if more people were aware of them.

However, I was keen to find a canopy that would also attach the awning rail of my van to give the flexibility to use it on either side of the van, either instead of or in combination with my rollout awning.  I’ve therefore recently bought a Gelert sun canopy which has been modified by Lightning Leisure to include the beading needed to attach directly to the van.  I’ll review my experiences with this in a future post.

Overall, the key pros and cons of canopies include:

Pros:

  • quick to erect
  • flexibility – particularly when using front/side panels
  • provide a more ‘open’, outdoors feel while still providing shelter
  • lightweight and take up little space
  • freestanding canopies are cheaper to buy.

Cons:

  • do not provide a secure, covered area for sleeping or storage
  • need to be dismantled each time you move your van (except for freestanding canopies)
  • less effective in providing protection from the elements than enclosed driveaway awnings.

Whatever you choose to do, and whatever your particular needs, I hope you’ve found this buyers’ guide helpful.  I will endeavour to add to it in response to feedback and when I learn of additional products for camper vans.  In the meantime, happy camping !

Note:  I have absolutely no affiliation or relationship with any manufacturer or retailer of awnings and canopies.  The views expressed are entirely my own.