Nick HardingSee other Advice articles filed in ‘Awnings and accessories’ written by Nick Harding
Which awning is best for you? The obvious answer to that is, only you know. And, don't let any pushy sales folk try to persuade you otherwise.
That said, specialist awning retailers will be your real friend as you make the journey from initial research to purchase.
You can use these experts to help you decide particular models that are best for you.
But first, you need to set yourselves some basic criteria, including what you want to use the awning for. Are you looking for helpful cover and weather protection on short trips, or perhaps extra living/sleeping space on full holiday breaks?
First, a warning
'A divorce in a bag' - that's the unfortunate handle that's been attached to the otherwise quite blameless caravan awning.
This is basically the result of years of heated arguments when it comes to putting up your awning. But frankly, these days, the name tag has become a bit outdated.
Today's awnings are not just designed to be easier to set up, they're packed with plenty of user-friendly features. And they are great value for money.
So divorce? Holiday romance, more like. In truth, awnings are a brilliant - arguably essential - addition to your caravanning lifestyle, offering you extra living and storage space, or even more bedrooms if you wish.
Awning type and size
It's obvious, really, but choosing the right size is critical, especially if you're buying a full awning.
You can read elsewhere about sizing up (it's not that difficult - manufacturers and specialist dealers can help if you don't want to do the job yourself).
However, one early decision that you'll definitely want to make is whether to go for a full or a porch awning.
The former is best for longer-term (seasonal) pitching and/or when you want a draught-free connection to your caravan. The latter are easier to put up and take down, generally lighter, too, and can, if required, offer just as much space as the full version.
For a porch awning, you just need measurements for height and a length that, ideally, won't impinge on van doors, windows, external lockers and so on. There's a choice of depths, too.
Awnings are made of a variety of materials, so it's important to choose wisely, depending on your needs and budget.
This starts with cost-effective ripstop fabric, which is very light and great for weekends but not as UV-stable, so won't have the same lifespan as some of the heavier-duty acrylics or coated polyesters.
Basically, the higher up the fabric quality scale you go, the heftier the overall weight. Again, that could be something to consider in terms of your caravan's payload - although you might find you're happier travelling with the packed awning stored in your car.
Pick your poles
This is simply a choice between traditional and inflatable. But it's fair to say that there's been a massive swing towards sales of inflatable porch awnings over the past few seasons.
You'll see for yourself when you go to view the ranges at an awning specialist, such is the proliferation of this type. We're also starting to see full awnings using inflatable technology.
If you prefer more traditional poles, there's a choice: steel (strong but heavy), aluminium (not as strong, but noticeably lighter) or glass fibre/carbon (the best are very strong and very lightweight).
Some manufacturers offer customers a choice of pole material for the same model of awning, as well as the option of having increased diameter poles, which offer greater strength and stability.
Traditional plus points
- Separate bags for poles and the awning itself can make packing easier.
- Easier to take down in terms of expelling unwanted air.
- Better suited to long-term use, such as seasonal pitching.
- Often cost less than their inflatable equivalents.
Inflatable plus points
- No chance of the poles accidentally causing damage, for example, to your caravan.
- Perceived as easier to put up.
- Contemporary designs and features.
- No worries about accidentally leaving the poles at home.
In practice, traditional poled awnings can be just as easy to put up as inflatables. You still have to thread them through your awning rail (often the trickiest part, but there are tips for making it easier) and peg them out.
Features to look for
- Doors and windows. It's easy to argue you can't have enough of these, for optimal flexibility, but do ensure you have good access as well as plenty of opportunities to see out.
- Pole-free pitching, which is becoming more prevalent with inflatable units. Many use adjustable upright poles to maintain a tight fit to the caravan's sides, but alternatives are increasingly on offer.
- Tinted windows are a real boon - keeping out glare and heat as well as offering extra privacy - especially if weather conditions are particularly hot.
- Optional extras. You might want - or need - to buy some add-ons, such as groundsheets, carpets, footprints, extra poles (including verandah bars), storm kits, and lighting. Think about an annex, too, in case you are going to need extra sleeping accommodation and storage. If you feel there's any chance of the latter at some point in future, make sure you buy an awning that is compatible with such fittings.
- You don't have to purchase everything all at once, but do look out for 'bundles' - awning plus extras at special prices, which can offer great savings compared to buying individual items separately.
- Unlike the all-in-one nature of an inflatable, the weight of a traditional awning is split between the poles and the canvas, with separate bags for each. It makes them easier to carry as well as store.
- Ventilation is a critical factor, especially in inflatable units. Look for permanent vents, as well as those that can be closed off; although it's best to have some permanent flow-through - it helps avert any build-up of condensation (often wrongly throught of as a sign of a leak).
- Consider adding a roof lining, especially if you're buying an inflatable. There's a far higher chance of condensation build-up in such an awning.
- Want to seal the deal? Ask the retailer to throw in a set of rock pegs. These are the heaviest-duty pegs you can buy and might come in handy when you're pitching on particularly hard ground.
Caravan dealers often have a stock of pre-owned awnings, which they acquire when vans are traded in. These are usually on offer at attractive prices.
It's also worth noting that if you're buying a van (perhaps for the first time) from a retailer, they might offer to include a pre-owned awning in the deal, to help you on your way.
Quality and condition can vary here, but you might get lucky with the perfect choice, and this is an excellent way of finding out what you are going to expect from your awning purchases in future.
As you'd expect, the general advice about buying pre-owned awnings is to be wary, unless they are a premium brand.
And apart from the usual warnings associated with buying anything secondhand, do check if the awning is the correct stated size and that all frame parts are present.
Look for any signs of mould and whether the fabric has had any recent waterproofing.
Note, also, if you're switching your caravan and think this entails changing your awning, that some full awnings can be altered in size, saving you the cost of buying a new model.
Do your homework
- Be prepared to do plenty of research before you buy. You can get good advice from your local caravan dealership, and ask other caravanners, too.
- Go and see the products on display at a specialist retailer or a show before you proceed with any purchase. Depending on the fabrics, especially, you'll find that there's a different ambience inside each awning.
- As well as information on their websites, most of the larger brands have a YouTube channel, where you can find helpful tips and guidance.
- Ideally, try putting up your new purchase before going away with it for the first time. This will not only give you greater confidence when you begin setting up your awning 'in the field', it should also ensure that nothing is missing (it does happen sometimes!).
The addition of an awning can significantly enhance the whole family's caravanning enjoyment.
However, it's very important to take the time to select the awning that is just right for you and then familiarise yourself with how it works, to avoid stress when you arrive on site.
Don't forget, also, the awning reviews that feature regularly here on the Practical Caravan website and in the magazine.
Again, though, just because we say that a particular awning is very good, that doesn't mean it's necessarily right for you. It's essential to do your research before you make your choice.
One final piece of advice: always check the bags will be big enough to accommodate the awning being repacked - it is going to be bigger and bulkier after being taken out. In fact, it's a good idea to use a phone to video when you first unpack, so you will have a reference for how to put it away again.