What could be better on warm, sunny day than parking your camper van overlooking the sea, rolling out the awning and settling in for a relaxing afternoon ? Well, not much really: roll-out awnings are quick, convenient and immediately place you in a put-your-feet-up kind of mood.

Like many camper vans and motorhomes the VW California comes with an optional roll-out awning fixed to the side of the van that takes just a couple of minutes to wind out with the handle. Two, lightweight aluminium legs ingeniously fold out and when fully extended, give an awning 2.5m (along the length of the van) by 2.2m (extending out from the van).  In my view, it’s an essential option on the California that makes a Cali instantly recognisable: its ‘signature’ if you like.

On a still, summer’s day or for a weekend away this awning is ideal. The trouble is that there are lots of times you might want a bit of shelter when the sun isn’t directly overhead, when it’s windy, raining or cold, or when you want a bit more space than the 5 square metre footprint.  I therefore soon realised that while we love the roll-out awning, it’s not appropriate for all circumstances.

In search of the perfect camper van awning

So what was I looking for ?

In my Buyers’ Guide to Camper Van Awning and Canopies I recently reviewed the pros and cons of each and reviewed what’s currently on the market in the UK and Europe.  For me, an awning needs to be fast, light and flexible.  In other words, I need to be able to put it up quickly, by myself and with little effort.  I also want it to pack up small so it doesn’t take up valuable space in the van, and ideally to be able to reconfigure it in different positions according to sun or wind direction.

Although we do have an older-version Khyam awning, driveaway awnings really don’t fit the bill, I’m afraid.  They’re too bulky, too heavy (some weigh up to 40kg !!) and some can be just a little too much hassle to be bothered with for only a short trip away (awning carpets ?!).  Even the latest, inflatable ‘airbeam’ models from Vango, marketed as quick and easy alternatives, are large and substantial tents.  We don’t have a dog or a fifth seat in the Cali – the key reasons why others like driveaway awnings – and so we’re really looking for something different.

Actually, make that a canopy

So the conclusion I’ve reached is that a canopy is really what we’re after – either a free-standing or flexible, fixed shelter that’s altogether quicker and lighter.  Also, a key advantage of a canopy over a driveaway awning is that they have an open, ‘outdoors’ feel to them.  Think of it as an extension to your van, the way in which a deck or patio provides an outdoors ‘room’ between your living room and the garden.

A number of companies provide front and side panels for roll-out awnings.  I’m personally not too keen on those produced by Comfortz Leisure since they’re made from thick PVC material (although small windows are optional) that drop down vertically; these are just too small and too enclosed for me.  Better are the side panels from California Camping (original German site) and Brandrup that slope downwards to provide a bigger footprint under the awning.  However, the drawback of these panels is that you’re still essentially limited to the size and configuration of the roll-out awning.  What if you want something larger and more flexible ?

Now that’s more like it …

We camped next to a German family on a site in Holland a couple of years ago who had a sun canopy held up with extendable poles and which they moved according to the direction of the sun.  I don’t think it attached to the side of their motorhome but it was large and well-made (I think cotton).  This was definitely much closer to what I was after.  At the time I was intrigued … but not interested enough to go and ask where they’d bought it from unfortunately.

With the thought niggling away at me that there must be better solutions out there I started to do some more digging.  I looked around UK websites for larger-size tarps and canopies but found nothing that fitted the bill.  I checked Dutch websites and found some tarps of varying sizes and shapes from Obelink, Hypercamp and Eurotrail,  These are all made from lightweight polyester (tent flysheet material) and while certainly the right material, they were all free-standing.  So what if you wanted a canopy to affix to your van ?

Having come to a dead-end, I phoned around tent and fabric repairers: would they be willing to make a canopy ?  (Without an industrial sewing machine, nor the skills or time I couldn’t make one myself).  However, they were only interested in doing tent reparis for major retailers.  I e-mailed a guy who has a start-up company making bespoke tents but he didn’t respond.  I drafted a design and sent it off to a UK manufacturer of camper van accessories.  A phone conversation revealed that they were too busy to be interested, and suggested that they would probably charge something in excess of £350 (!).  I did point out that 115gsm ripstop nylon sells for £4 per square metre on eBay but this didn’t seem to cut any ice unfortunately.

A solution ?

I finally found an advert by Lightning Leisure, who convert standard Gelert canopies for camper vans by adding a 6mm Kador strip.  This allows you to slide the awning into the outer casing of your existing roll-out awning or to use the awning rail on the other side of the van (although since the rail is slightly larger in diameter, adding several lengths of figure-of-eight strips would make this a much tighter fit).

I’ve only had a chance to briefly test out my new canopy but am looking forward to trying it out over a weekend sometime soon.

It more than doubles the footprint of the roll-out awning.  Be warned though, erecting it in gusty weather is not advised (as I found out the first time I tried to test it out !).

There are two main configurations of the canopy.

By angling it right down to the ground you can prevent wind at 90 degrees to the van.  [Note:  I plan to buy a Windblocker side panel from Lilypad Leisure.  Attaching this to either side of the roll-out awning (they’re reversible) should significantly reduce wind from the side in addition.]

Plenty of room for relaxing in the shade.

It offers the flexibility of having shade at both sides of the van.  (However, note where the shade is actually falling.  It would be a more effective sun shade in lower latitudes – this was an August morning in Central Scotland).  I used the two standard 2 metre (?) poles with the canopy here; a set of four extendable poles would be much better, reducing the overall consistent height.

First impressions are pretty good:

  • the material is quick-drying and lightweight, and also lets in just the right amount of light;
  • I really like the option of being able to use it on either side of the van, a real boon for family holidays when people sometimes want their own space;
  • it’s quick to erect – no more than 10 minutes – which means that it won’t be too much of a chore to put up / take down;
  • it will really come into its own on trips to continental Europe where you want a larger outdoor living space, particularly on sites where you ‘stay put’ for a few days (such as traffic-free Dutch sites);
  • it packs up pretty small – approx. 60cm long x 10cm diameter.

I don’t know if the Gelert canopy is the perfect solution for all circumstances but it’s pretty good for now.  My design was actually for a ripstop nylon canopy that would run lengthwise along the van (with sloping sides extending beyond the van back and front) and extending outwards for three metres.  I think this would probably provide the best shelter, especially from wind, if it was attached to the roll-out awning wound out just 20 cm or so from the van (rather than being fully extended).

Your suggestions ?

Have you got any better design suggestions ?  Do you know of any individual or company who would be willing to make a one-off canopy at an affordable price ?  Or better still, do you know of any more suitable canopies on the market ?  If so, I’d be keen to hear ….

8 Comments on “Wanted: The perfect camper van awning

  1. I know what you mean. We have the comfortz awning sides and front (with window) for a number of reasons, the primary one being that when the weather is bad you have a completely dry, windless extra room which with a baby is much needed. when the weather is better we simply drop the front and a side off, we also carry a couple of small poles to hold the sides up and extend the footprint which works really well. The speed to take it down and put it up is brilliant. We can be parked and awning up in < 5 minutes no problem. Works especially well in windy conditions.

    • This is interesting since I’d be keen to know how you get on with the Comfortz awning sides. I looked at these and discounted them since they seemed to enclose the awning space too much for my liking, plus they seemed designed to hang vertically down to the ground. Now I think the awning is great but if anything a little too small. So rather than hang vertically down I wanted an awning that would actually extend the useable space. So when you say you have some poles to hold the sides up do you mean that you put the sides up horizontally ie level with the awning ? At first glance they just didn’t seem to offer the flexibility I was looking for … but maybe you think differently ?

  2. Just what I have been looking for, we tow a caravan behind the camper and are waiting to order an Air Awning for that, but this little bit of extra space would be perfect for me and the mrs while the kids do their thing elsewhere, especially with the ability to set it up on the left side of the van out of the way

    • Great. Yes, I’m looking forward to getting a chance to really use my awning this year. It offers loads of flexibility.

  3. Pingback: How To Build A Van Awning | Africabank

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