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The 5 Best Van Awnings: A Wildlife Photographer’s Picks

a van awning (or vehicle awning more generally) is an essential piece of camping and van life gear

Whether you’re #vanlife or you have a campervan as your main mode of travel and leisure, a van awning is a necessary piece of gear for getting out there and enjoying the great outdoors. Whether you want a respite from the rain or sun, or a way to escape the confines of a van for a bit, regardless of the weather, it’s always good to have one handy, especially if you’re doing something more intense, such as overlanding. 

My first experience with a van awning was the one I used to use as a kid when we’d take the ferry to Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. If you entered the lineup and missed a sailing, you were stuck until the next one, often with the sun (or rain) beating down, so the awning was nice to have. 

Since then, I’ve used and sheltered under plenty of vehicle awnings, whether it was a picnic at the park or a more serious camping trip. 

One thing to note is that while they are definitely a nice piece of gear to have if you are about that van life, if your m.o. is stealth camping in urban areas, then a van awning might not be the right purchase at the moment. The same is true if you are on a tighter budget, as a decent awning will run several hundred bucks. 

Below is a list of X roof rack van awnings for your consideration: 


Best Van Awning for Casual Van Life: Tuff Stuff Overland Rooftop Awning, 170G, 6.5′ x 8′

Tuff Stuff is a reputable overlanding brand that manufactures things like winches, roof racks and, of course, van awnings. 

It’s your typical L-bracket roof rack awning that installs quickly and easily and is compatible with basically any roof rack you already have or are currently using. 

8 x 6.5 feet is a decent amount of cover for 1-3 people (and a dog), as well as a small card table, RV grill etc. Smaller awnings like this are also nice because you can set them up at the back (tailgate) or the side door. If you wanted to, you could use the Tuff Stuff awning on your tailgate and another (similar sized or larger) awning over the door for additional coverage. 

Because it’s not massive, it’s also a nice car awning, and the polyurethane-coated poly-cotton ripstop fabric does a good job of both wicking away water and keeping the wind at bay. 

Specs

Materials:
280G poly-cotton Ripstop fabric 
Dimensions:
8 x 6.5’
Weight:
26 lbs
Included:
1000D PVC driving cover for transport

Cons

The biggest con I could find with the Tuff Stuff van awning is that it’s a bit tricky to set up on your own, especially the first time around. 

You should also bear in mind that this likely isn’t going to be able to stand up to winds over 20mph

Other than that, most people who’ve invested in this affordable and durable mid-size van awning have nothing but great things to say about it


Best Economic Option: Smittybilt (2784 8.2′ x 6.2′ Tent Awning)

Smittybilt is another well-respected offroading (Jeep-oriented) gear manufacturer and their 8.2 x 6.2’ van awning is roughly the same size as the Tuff Stuff Overland awning covered above, at a bit lower price. 

It also uses the same 280g poly-cotton mix as the Tuff Stuff, combined with sturdy aluminium poles, and is compatible with the majority of roof racks. 

Great UV protection, simple installation and breakdown and suitable for campsites, tailgating, or the beach, Smittybilt makes a good product for van-dwellers and campers looking for something lightweight and affordable. 

I like that Smittybilt is quite upfront about what you can expect out of its product. It explicitly states that its product is self-standing in “calm conditions,” which is to say, don’t expect it to withstand galeforce winds and be prepared to remove some water if rainfall reaches torrential levels. 

Specs

Materials:
Polyester, cotton, steel
Dimensions:
8 x 6.2’
Weight:
28 lbs
Included:
Waterproof storage bag

Cons

Some reviewers have indicated that the mounting hardware that comes with the Smittybilt van awning left them wanting to jerry-rig their own, including some drilling in order for it to fit properly on the roof rack.

Some people were sceptical of the durability of the material, while also indicating that they still believed they would likely get at least a couple of years out of it. 


All in all, nearly two-thirds of the 68 reviewers were happy enough with the Smittybilt van awning to give the product 5 stars.


Best Aluminum Van Awning: Thule Hide Away Awning

If you’re going to go all in on a van awning, it’s hard to beat an aluminum one, and Thule’s adjustable (8.5 or 10’) Hide Away is a great option if you have the budget for it. 

Both lightweight and corrosion resistant, the Hide Away is really easy to use thanks to the hand crank, and the spring-loaded tension arms ensure that you always have optimal water and wind resistance. 

While it is designed to mount to flat, vertical surfaces, an adapter (not included) is available so that you can mount it to roof racks. 

Specs

Materials:
aluminum
Dimensions:
8 x 6.2’
Weight
39 lbs
Included:
Flat mount brackets (roof rack adapter not included!)

Cons

For me, the biggest con is that the roof rack adapter is not included, and since this is a list of van awnings, it restricts the types of vans you can use this with (unless you want to purchase the adapter). 

Other than that, over half of the reviewers/purchasers of this product loved it enough to give it five stars. 


Best Hard Core Van Awning: Rhino Rack Batwing Awning

This is one of the biggest full-coverage van awnings out there, giving you 270 degrees of sun, wind and rain protection that extends around both the side and the rear of your vehicle. 

Rhino Rack products are made with good quality UV (50+) and water-resistant ripstop materials, so you can spend a lot of time under this large awning without worrying about burning or getting wet.

It’s durable and well-designed enough to withstand heavy rainstorms, which makes it a better option for those who plan on getting out into actual wild areas a bit more, especially if you’re doing all-weather camping/van life stuff. 

I also really like this van awning because of all the accessories Rhino Rack has for you. You can get side walls, extensions and flooring, letting you turn this thing into a full-on overlanding/camping shelter. 

Specs

Materials:
Polyvinyl Chloride,
Dimensions:
118.5 Square Feet of Coverage
Weight:
47 lbs
Included:
Poles, Ropes, Pegs, Plus a Fitting Kit for Roof Rack Mounting.
Use the Heavy-Duty PVC Bag when not In use

Cons

You need to buy Rhino Rack’s proprietary roof rack system. Not the end of the world because it’s a good rack, but kind of annoying if you already have a perfectly good rack (that will work well with the other options on this list). 

Plastic attachment points. Given that this is a bit of a heavier piece of gear, you would think that Rhino Rack would have manufactured metal ones. The attachment points are simple to replace, and you get some replacement hinges with the purchase, but you really shouldn’t need to do this. 

Still, nearly two-thirds of the 32 reviewers/owners loved the product enough to give it 5 stars.


Best Van Awning for Evenings: ARB 2500×2500 Retractable Awning

A self-standing retractable van awning that is compatible with most roof racks and bars that is deployed and up in 30 seconds.

It was made by ARB specifically to withstand demanding outback conditions, and its 300 gsm poly-cotton ripstop canvas and UPF 50+ rating are a testament to this. 

I think the highlight of this great little camping awning for me is the included 1200-lumen LED light strip with a digital dimmer switch that lets you switch between cool white or amber light. 1200 lumens is a lot of illumination.

Bear in mind that this sort of illumination is bound to attract insects. 

Specs

Materials:
poly-cotton ripstop canvas
Dimensions:
2500x2500mm (8.5×8.5’)
Weight:
39.9 lbs
Included:
LED light strip

Cons

The mounting brackets aren’t included. C’mon ARB! The company recommends 3 units of 813402 Awning Brackets, which are simple enough to find and install, but it’s kind of irritating that you have to buy them separately. 


Still, over three-quarters of the 47 reviewers/owners gave ARB 5-stars for this product.


What Went Into My Selection Process for the Best Van Awning

As a wildlife photographer and someone who spends a ton of time in nature, I spend a lot of time around parked vehicles–eating, waiting to head out, surveying the surroundings or taking shelter from the sun/rain. Too much time in a vehicle can be maddening, and an awning lets you turn anywhere into your living room.

I’ve set up my fair share of awnings over the years, and I’m pretty good at spotting defects and flaws as well as, importantly, good value for the money. In addition to my first-hand experience, I also spent a lot of time perusing forums and comment sections–of Reddit, YouTube, and the eRetailer sites looking to see what people have to say (both good and bad) about the van awnings I wanted to include on my list. 

All in all, I’m confident that there is something on the above list for any van camper/dweller.


Main Evaluation Criteria For Choosing/Buying a Van Awning

I try to avoid including insultingly self-explanatory buying criteria in my gear reviews, and a van awning is a pretty straightforward piece of gear, but there is a handful of purchasing criteria that I personally would apply to anything I was interested in:

  • Fit
  • Ease of set-up
  • Waterproofing/windproofing/UV protection
  • Roof Rack Compatibility

Fit

First things first, is a given van awning actually going to fit your vehicle? To find this out, you need to know the height of your van. Get a tape measure and measure from the ground to the awning rail (if you have a camper van with one of these on it) or to the top of your vehicle where the roof rack would be. 

Van awnings tend to fall into two categories: 

  1. Low designs: around 240cm
  2. High designs: around 290cm 

Campervans and other large-size vans usually require a low design, while motorhomes and larger vehicles will need a high-design awning. 

Ease of Set-up

Some van awnings are much easier to set up than others (just look at the reviews). Even if a product contends that you can get it up in under a minute, or thirty seconds, or whatever it is, survey the comments to see if that actually holds true. 

Manufacturers exaggerate things in their marketing copy all the time, so I always take some time to see how many people complain about the installation/set-up. 

Waterproofing/Windproofing/UV Protection

All of the van awnings I’ve covered in the above list feature some degree of waterproofing and windproofing. The waterproofing is usually indicated as either a mm rating (e.g., 3000mm, meaning 3000mm of water would need to fall before the waterproofing falters), or an indication that the awning material has been coated in something like polyurethane. 

Windproofing is hard to estimate, but look at the comments. Owners will often indicate the kinds of winds that their awning has been able to stand up to. Keep in mind that if something is free-standing and not anchored deep in the ground, there is only so much wind it can withstand. 

A lot of people assume that UV protection is a given with most fabrics simply because the sun isn’t directly on your skin, but different fabrics offer different UV protection. I’d try and look for a van awning that has at least UPF 50+.

Roofrack Compatibility

All of the van awnings on my list are more or less universally compatible (they’ll attach to whatever roof rack you have, perhaps with some minor manual adjustments required), save one: the Rhino Rack. Rhino Rack makes you buy its roof rack. It’s a good rack, but it’s a bit coercive: take it how you will. 

If you are looking to economize, then roof rack compatibility is important; otherwise, you’re stuck paying whatever the manufacturer feels like charging you for a rack. 


Tips for Setting up a Van Awning 

Following the manufacturer’s instructions is a good start, but in my experience, there are a few little tips that I always employ to make sure I set it up the right way the first time around and don’t have to readjust in the middle of a downpour etc.: 

  1. Make use of natural shelter when possible 
  2. Park in a circle with multiple people
  3. Dig holes for the legs 

Natural Shelter

The golden rule of living and especially sleeping outdoors: use what’s around you to your advantage, especially the landscape. If you are parking somewhere in order to pop your van awning, whether you’re in an urban jungle or out in nature, use the structures around you to protect you from the wind, rain, sun, etc. 

Yes, the awning is supposed to act as a shelter, but it’s always a good idea to augment your man-made shelter with whatever environmental features you have at your disposal, whether it’s a rock face, a grove of trees, or a building.

Park in a circle with multiple people

If you are vehicle camping or living with multiple people and vehicles, a good way to insulate yourself from the wind is to create a protective circle with your vans/cars/SUVs. Ideally, in the above image, the vehicles would be a bit farther apart and all facing the centre, but this is generally a good way to park, especially when overlanding. 

Dig Holes for the Legs

All of the van awnings I’ve covered in the above list are designed to have the legs just rest on the ground and, for the most part, that’s fine. I like to dig a small hole for the awning legs, however, for a couple of reasons. 

The first is that I think it improves the wind resistance if the legs are anchored a little in the ground. Second, it lets you position the roof at a bit of an angle so that water doesn’t pool as much if it starts to rain. You lose a little of the view (but not much) and it avoids you having to climb onto the roof of your vehicle to remove water or trying to dump it off while standing underneath.


Why Investing in Van Awning Makes Sense 

A van awning is, in my mind, a crucial piece of gear for van livers, vehicle campers and overlanders. Life in a van, even the nicest, most kitted-out van, is always a lot nicer when you are able to extend the living space outside. 

A van awning allows you to turn anywhere into your living room, and if you do your research and buy something high-quality, you should have an accessory that will last you quite a while. 

I hope the above list, at the very least, encouraged you to do some more research into a van awning so that you can better enjoy life on the road. 

Cheers. 

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