Most RV’s are equipped with a retractable awning.  It is a wonderful way to add a cool place to get out of the sun while on your camping trips.  It provides you a protected spot if you were to get caught in the rain as well.  As they are an expected addition to your trailers, it is a luxury add on when considering putting one on your vans and other overland rigs.  So the question might be why add a retractable awning to my overland vehicle instead of a standard, stand alone awning.

Standard Awning vs. Retractable Awning

Standard Awnings, known better as canopies, can be picked up from many different stores.  You can get some inexpensive ones at Walmart or spend a little more for one at a sporting goods store.  These awnings stand alone and are not connected to your vehicle or RV and must be stored between uses.  This can be a bulky item to add to your limited storage while traveling.  Most of them are not easy to set up and require more than one person to successfully erect them.  They tend to be made of a less dense metal and have fabric canopies that do not last long.  This will end up being a product that you do not own for long and will replace almost every season.  Hence, save the money now but essentially spend more over the long haul.  A benefit of these that people like is that it is portable and can be moved around the campsite to provide shade where needed.

Retractable Awnings are permanently mounted to the sides of your vehicle, taking up no extra storage space inside your vehicle or on top.  These awnings extend and retract both manually and mechanically with typically a 12V DC electric motor.  These awnings are more durable and weather resistant, making them the better option for your overland vehicle.  Being that the awning is attached to your vehicle it is providing shade for not just you, but for your vehicle.  This allows the inside temperature of your vehicle to be cooler and your electrical system and air conditioner will not have to work as hard.  With proper care of your awning, they will last many years.

Most awnings now have a safety feature which automatically retracts them in wind speeds to avoid damage.  You should never leave your awning unattended, but if you do it is a nice feature to have.

Preferably you would want an awning with a flexible aluminum final wrap which completely encloses the awning material while the awning is in storage.  This wrap will help reduce the damage done by the UV rays when sitting and not in use.

What size awning would fit my overland rig?

Awning size is a personal preference, but the length should not exceed the rear end of your vehicle or the rear side of the front door.  You want to make sure that when the awning is extended that you have enough room for it when fully extended out and that no swinging doors will hit its forward or rear arms.

When adding an awning, you would also want to consider if you are replacing an existing one or adding one for the first time.  Replacing an existing awning, whether it is the arms, fabric or motors can be costly and usually require an expert to do the work.  

What is involved in installing an awning to my vehicle?

  1. Decide where you will be putting your awning.  Find the measurements of that space, including how far out from the vehicle you can reach.  Being that most awnings are placed on the side where the door is located,  you want to make sure that nothing will keep it from easily opening and closing.  This would include doors, windows, slideouts, etc.   The larger the awning, the larger the shaded area which is super important when boondocking in an area with little to no shade.
  2. Do I have the power needed to install one?  You will need accessibility to either a 12V or 24V power source and most require a minimum of 18 gauge AWG wire running to it.  
  3. Material type is key to a long lasting awning.  Maintaining it after use is the next most important step in its longevity.  Most awnings are made of acrylic or vinyl fabrics.  Acrylic fabric is great for most applications and is the most common.  It is great for air circulation, handles most weather conditions, and dries very quickly.  But it is not fully waterproof and stretches or sags over time. Vinyl fabric is scratch resistant and fade resistant, waterproof and blocks out all the harsh rays from the sun.  The downside is that it attracts all the dirt and takes a long time to dry, making it susceptible to mold if it does not properly dry out.
  4. Placement of the awning needs a stable framing to attach to, so when adding an awning to your off grid vehicle, you want to make sure that where it attaches is free in all attachment locations to be free.

How should I maintain my awning?

Start your boondocking travel seasons by opening your awning and quickly inspecting for any damage.  You want to look at the entire awning from the ground and from a higher vantage point, like on a ladder.

During the inspection you are looking for tears, holes, or any spots of mold or mildew growth.  When travel in wet climates and closing your awning down with moisture trapped, mildew will grow.  It also will happen when being stored in damp climates.  To fully prevent this from happening it is smart to open your awning fully about once a month to let it dry out.  If you do get mold growth, it is good to use a mold/mildew cleaner like clorox (diluted according to directions on the bottle) and then use wax (like beeswax) to waterproof it.

At the end of the camping season, you will want to thoroughly clean both sides of the awning.  You will want to let it dry completely before rolling it back up. Follow these steps to ensure a clean awning:

  1. Open the awning completely.  Full extension of the awning allows all the folds of the fabric to lay flat and the arms and mechanisms to be fully visible.  
  2. Spray the top and bottom down with water to loosen up any large debris and prep your surface for a cleaning solution.
  3. Choosing a cleaner appropriate for your fabric type or clorox diluted to bottle instructions and a soft bristle brush (preferably one with a long or extension handle) to gently scrub the top and bottom sides of the awning.  Do not let the product sit and soak the fabric unless directed to do so on the bottle.  Darker stains from bird poop, sap, etc can be removed often with rubbing alcohol.
  4. Thoroughly rinse the awning from the top to remove the cleaner and any loosened debris. 
  5. Leave open until the entire awning is dry before rolling back up.

Maintenance Tips

  • When you are traveling and using your awning, if you are going to fully extend your awning and leave it unattended it is best if you use an awning stabilizer kit.  These kits include screw anchors and spring loaded tension straps.  It helps strengthen the arms by securing them to the ground and will likely save your awning from high wind speed damage.
  • While you are parked at your camp spot, if it were to rain and water collected on your awning drain the collected water off from time to time.  The pressure of the water (weighing sometimes 100 lbs or more) sitting on it for long periods of time can stretch out the fabric and create weak spots where it attaches to your vehicle or the mechanisms.  It can also put added pressure on your fully extended awning arms causing them to bend and then not retract properly.  Setting  your awning so that one corner is slightly dipped gives that excess water a place to run off.
  • Remember as you travel, you want to make sure that the awning is properly stowed away and that you have set the rewind mechanism so that the awning can not be rolled out.  Awning locks can be bought to ensure that high winds while you are traveling do not do unexpected damage or rip your awning off entirely.

With proper care and maintenance of your awning, there should be no reason that it will not last for many, many years.

Add one to your Off Grid rig and Go Further in Comfort!