VAN LIFE: A GUIDE TO DRIVE-AWAY AWNINGS
We all know campervans are great for exploring whilst at the same time enjoying a little luxe-living. The flexibility to go anywhere the road takes you and have everything you need to cook, chill and enjoy a solid night’s sleep is all part of the appeal of ‘van life’. But with the best will in the world, even the tidiest van-dwellers and the biggest set-ups can get cramped at times. But who says it has to? Not us. The extra space afforded by the simple addition of a drive-away awning means that van life can have even more luxury, without compromising your ability to get out there.
What is a drive-away awning?
Essentially, it’s a tent that attaches to the side of your van to create an extension. Think of it a bit like adding a detachable conservatory to your travelling home! Made from the same type of weatherproof and hardwearing materials as tents, they set up in the same way but unlike a freestanding tent, they attach snugly to the side of your van and have an opening that lets you pass directly between. They’re great because, once detached, they remain upright as a freestanding tent meaning you can use your van to get out there on adventures, and then just reattach it when you return. All without the hassle of having totally dismantle your awning and repack everything.
What are the pros of having one?
Perhaps you just need more space or want some extra shelter? Maybe squeezing your long legs under your van’s cramped breakfast table has become an inconvenience you’ve grown (literally!) to live without? The pros of adding a drive-away awning to a camping set up will mean different things to different people. But here are some of the ways they can level-up your campervan experience.
ADDITIONAL SLEEPING SPACE
If getting everyone a decent spot to get their head down inside the van is proving a squeeze, or if mates want to join you for part of your trip, having an awning means you’ll have extra space to fit everyone in. Alternatively, if the kids want to escape the ‘rents by sleeping outside the van under canvas, you’ll be able stick them in the awning and enjoy a quiet night’s sleep whilst maintaining the opportunity to keep at least one eye on them.
Having more room means you can store more gear. No one wants to be tripping over each other looking for stuff. Having a bit of extra space to store bulky items or fiddly camping gear frees up more room inside the van and just generally makes van-life more manageable. More space is good. Who wants to deal with clutter after all?
ADDITIONAL LIVING AREA
Campervans can get cramped at the best of times but a drive-away awning provides a great area to relax in, get changed in, dine in, cook in, or even just somewhere to hunker down in when the rain arrives. We’ve even heard of folks turning them into showers. The point is, they’re flexible. So, whatever you want to fashion this new-found space into, feel free to get creative. Beer tent anyone?
FLEXIBILITY AND MOBILITY
Because drive-away awnings are free-standing, you can enjoy all that extra space whilst still being able to quickly disconnect from it, leaving you more time to use your van for epic day excursions. They provide a solid shelter too for anyone in your clan who’s staying put whilst you’re gone. There’s also the additional bonus that they’ll save your pitch whilst you are away (if that’s an issue), and because they attach directly to your vehicle, they’ll rarely incur any cheeky extra charge from campsite owners – which can sometimes be the case if you’re pitching standalone tents in addition to your van.
By seamlessly attaching to your vehicle, you’re creating one big, interconnected liveable space, which is a cool upgrade in wet weather. On the flip side, when it’s hot you can leave the van door open at night to help air circulate and keep cool, whilst still getting that nice feeling of being enclosed.
What different types of drive-away awnings are there and what vans can use them?
Drive-away awnings come in a variety of shapes and sizes and what you choose will ultimately depend on the type of van you have, your lifestyle, and your budget. Whatever your personal preferences, here are a few things to consider:
If having extra space is your main reason to buy an awning, think carefully about what you need from it. Awnings come in a variety of sizes, at varying cost, so it’s worth thinking about what you need for both now and for the future trips. Size (as in height) is also important when it comes to fitting, but we’ll get to that that shortly.
WANT SOME PRIVACY?
Are you looking to go full-on open plan living? Or just a room for storage? Or do you need it to be able to fit an inner bedroom? Awnings come in different designs, so check what features your awning has and make sure they meet your demands.
What you need now might not be what you need in the future. Some drive-away awnings have an option to add a further annexe at a later date, making them versatile and adaptable. They’re usually a bit more pricey, but they could give you the flexibility you need in the long run and prevent you having to buy again from scratch if you think your travelling circumstances may vary.
AIR VS POLES
Inflatable awnings are quick and easy to assemble as they come as one inflatable part and can be put up by one person, whereas poles have multiple parts which are more prone to loss and damage and often need a couple of people to help comfortably erect. Inflatable awnings handle windy conditions well too, due to their flexible structure. However, they require you to carry a pump (and a puncture repair kit too, just in case), are generally more expensive and usually slightly bulkier when packed down, so take up more room than poled versions. A real chin scratcher this one.
How do I attach a drive-away awning?
There are a variety of methods you can use to attach a drive-away awning to your van and what existing attachments (such as roof bars or awning rails) you have on it will determine which method is easiest. The good news is, even if you don’t have anything on your van for the specific purpose, you should still be able to connect an awning. Here’s a list of the most common ways:
PRE-ATTACHED AWNING RAIL
The most popular method of attachment is using a ‘C’ channel mounting rail which are a common fitting on most campervans. The edge of your awning will have a bead (or Kador) which can slip directly into the rail and slide along for a secure, tight and tidy connection. To make driving away for the day easier, you can also use a drive-away fixing kit for speedier results which involves using a double-edged Kador strip which is fitted on one side to the vehicle’s mounting rail and on the other to a figure of eight adapter rail, which in turn connects to the beaded edge of the awning tunnel (see diagram). To disconnect quickly you can simply pull out the connecting strip and drive away. Figure of 8 adapter strips are around 76 cm in length for ease of storage, so depending on the width of your awning you may have 3-4 of these.
Most awnings will come with long straps that you can simply throw over the top of your van and peg out on the opposite side. Or just find a place on your van to tie them onto (door handles or wing mirrors will do). Granted, it’s not the method of choice for the purist, but when all else fails, straps are a simple, quick fix that works on pretty much any van with a bit of imagination.
Most awnings also come with strong velcro straps, so if your van has roof bars, simply wrap these straps tightly around the bars and secure it using the Velcro. Job done.
POLE AND CLAMP KIT
A lot of awnings have a channel that you can then drop a pole into that clamps into the guttering on your van – ideal for many older styles of campervan. It’s just a case of simply threading poles through the sleeve of the awning, drop it into the channel or gutter on your vehicle and then use the clamps to secure it in place.
Another clever alternative for vans without awning attachments is to buy a magnetic awning strip that you can attach to vans that have a steel body. Strong magnets keep the strip in place allowing you to attach your awning directly to it. Smart thinking that.
Any tips for detaching it and driving away?
Once you have disconnected the awning, before heading on your merry way, it’s a good idea to mark out exactly where your front wheels are located using a peg or some other kind of marker. That way, you know exactly where to reposition your van when you return, meaning reattachment will be a stress-free, scene-avoiding affair. Before leaving, it’s also good to roll up the back area of the awning and peg out any supporting guylines for extra stability. Follow these tips and you’ll get approving nods from fellow van-life dwellers who’ll recognise you as bonafide drive-away awning pro.
What do I need to measure to know if an awning will fit my van?
The height of your van is important when choosing an awning as they are built to fit onto vehicles that sit within a specific height range. To determine what size awning you need, you’ll need to measure from the ground to the awning rail on your vehicle (or the top of your vehicle if it doesn’t have a rail). Typically, drive-away awnings fall into two categories:
Low 170 - 240cm height range
High 240 - 290cm height range
Usually, you can expect campervans to fall into the low category and bigger vehicles like motorhomes to fall into the higher range (although some odd-shaped campers may vary). Once you’ve got the height, you can crack on with the infinitely more exciting task of picking a top-notch awning with the coolest features to suit your adventures and budget.
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