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Your Ultimate Guide to Choosing and Installing RV Awnings

An RV awning is an excellent addition to your camping setup that offers quality-of-life improvements in all kinds of weather. Awnings come in several different forms, with different opening mechanisms, materials, and styles of coverage. In this article, we'll go over these styles, helping you choose an RV awning that suits you and your camper. Further, we'll discuss how to install your RV awning and offer some tips for maintenance and cleaning.


 

Shane has been teaching people to convert campervans for years; he's the author of Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan, writer of The Van Conversion Newsletter, instructor of The Van Conversion Course over at Udemy, and a full-time vanlifer for 4 years!


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To Cut to the Chase

Camper RV awnings can be fixed, rolling out from a rack mounted to your van, or they can be removable. These removable awnings can either be a simple canopy that mounts to the side of your RV, or they can be standalone tents that you can drive away from. In all cases, an RV awning adds usable space to your camper, like the addition of a terrace to a house. They provide shade and shelter from the rain, and with the addition of walls, they can also protect you from the wind. Our top pick for an RV awning is the Fiamma F80S (or the F45S if you prefer a side or roof rack-mounted awning; more on the difference below).

Why You Need an RV Awning

Living in an RV is wonderful, but having the great outdoors as your lounge can be a double-edged sword. Even the biggest RVs are smaller than any indoor space and can feel claustrophobic after some time. Bad weather compounds this feeling, as you find yourself cooped up in what is essentially a single small room. This doesn't even have to mean rain: heat and strong sunshine can also make spending time outside without shade unbearable. It gets worse when you have to close your doors to shut out rain or direct sunlight.


In our 2023 Roaming Home study, we found that 55% of van conversions had an awning of some kind installed.


An awning adds extra living space to your RV which is an agreeable middle ground between indoors and outdoors. You get the freshness and openness of an outdoor space whilst staying sheltered from the rain and sun. This space can be used for seating, cooking, eating, drying clothes and gear, storing bikes and bulky equipment, and anything else you can think of. Additionally, the awning blocks sun and rain from getting in the door, meaning you can have the door open whatever the weather. Sun shining in through windows and open doors really heats up your RV in summer, and blocking this sun is a very effective and underrated way of keeping cool if you don't have air conditioning.


Types of RV Awnings

RV awnings come in a variety of formats. These differ in the degree of shelter they provide, how they affix to your camper, and how easy they are to set up.


Roll-out Awnings

Roll-out awnings are permanently mounted to the side or roof of your camper and are contained in a tube-shaped cover. They're simple and very convenient, generally requiring minimal setup time. A roll-out awning simply rolls out of the cover, often supported by extending arms, and projects from the side of your camper. They often also incorporate legs at the outer corners, which affix to the ground or the side of your RV. You can optionally use guy lines to further reinforce the structure. Note, however, that the minimal nature of these awnings makes them vulnerable to wind. A gust of wind can catch the awning like a sail, damaging the cover and structural components. Roll-out awnings come in three main types:


Simple, Frameless Roll-out Awnings

These have no supporting arms at the sides and are rolled and unrolled completely manually like you would unfurl a roll of wrapping paper. These are generally the cheapest kind of roll-out awning, but also the least convenient. Some models can be very finicky to get back into their cover, especially if they're mounted much above head height. These awnings also can't be adjusted, and must either be unrolled fully or not at all.


Crank-operated Awnings

These have telescoping or hinged arms at each side and are unrolled by turning a hand crank. Crank-operated awnings are very quick and easy to set up and can be adjusted to any position within their extension range. This kind is the best value for money for a roll-out awning, as they're exceptionally convenient, but don't cost as much as motorized models. It's important to note that any violent movement caused by wind can easily damage the crank mechanism and arms, which would require repairs.

Motorized Awnings

Motorized or power RV awnings are similar to crank-operated awnings, except that they are unrolled automatically by a motor. These awnings offer the greatest ease of use, and some come with handy features like automatic furling when the wind picks up. The higher cost of a motorized awning is likely overkill for most but can be perfect for those with reduced mobility or strength. Again, with more moving parts, there is a risk of malfunction or breakage that will need repairing. Further to this is the added complication of wiring the motor into the rest of your electrical system.


Fixed Awnings

Fixed awnings or tent awnings are independent, freestanding structures. They might affix to the side of your RV to create a united interior space, but they don't rely on the RV for structure. Fixed awnings usually look more like tents or gazebos, and often have integrated walls and doors. A key feature is that you can leave these awnings standing in a campsite whilst you drive away. A fixed awning is more like adding another room to your RV. Of course, this means that they take longer to set up, and you'll need to have space to store them when they're packed up.


Fixed awnings may use poles for their structure like a tent, or else they may use inflatable beams. These beams become rigid when inflated with air from an included air pump, providing structure to the awning. Inflatable awnings are lighter, less bulky, and quicker to set up than versions that use poles. However, the fact that they're lighter also means they're more susceptible to wind, and anything inflatable comes with an associated puncture risk.


Portable Awnings

Portable awnings are similar to roll-out awnings in that they extend out from the side or back of your RV. They differ in that they're not permanently mounted, but instead packing away into a portable case when not in use. This removes the need for mounting hardware and drilling into your van. Portable awnings are generally designed to be lightweight and compact when packed away. Some might be designed to attach to a roof rack, where they stay even when packed away, but are easily removed at the end of your trip. Portable awnings don't have roll-out mechanisms and must be set up each time.

Choosing the Right Awning for Your RV

Fixed vs. Van-mounted

The first decision to make when choosing a camper RV awning is whether you want a fixed, tent-like awning or a van-mounted one. A fixed awning creates a bigger, more enclosed outdoor space with full shelter from the weather. These awnings also provide privacy and more dedicated gear storage, and generally have more options for extras like mosquito netting and integrated lighting. However, they take much more time to set up and take down, and take up space in your camper. Moreover, this kind of awning takes up much more space when set up than a van-mounted awning. Setting up shop with one of these at a wild park-up is unfeasible and inconsiderate, and thus they're only really appropriate for campsite users.


What Kind of Fixed Awning?

Choosing a fixed awning is a choice of size and shelter versus bulk and ease of setup. Be realistic about how much storage space you have in your camper, and make sure you buy an awning that fits when it's packed away. A tent-style awning is fairly quick to set up, relatively compact, and adds a few square meters to your RV. If you want more than this, or even multiple rooms, annex-style awnings can more than double your interior space. In our view, if you're already committing to a fixed awning, you may as well choose one that has options for fully closing the walls with bug netting or waterproof material. An important consideration is whether you'll be able to reach the roof of your camper if your fixed awning needs to be attached above the door.

What Kind of Van-mounted Awning?

The first choice here is between portable and permanently mounted. Portable awnings are cheaper and don't require hardware, DIY work, or professional mounting. Their downside is, of course, that they need to be set up each time. Some models reduce setup time by being attachable to a roof rack even when packed away.


A permanently mounted awning is very convenient after the initial installation. The cheapest kinds have no crank or motor and are unfurled manually. Be careful with these, as the quality of the included mounting hardware can vary. Make sure you read reviews and choose a model with a setup and takedown procedure that you're happy with. These are almost uncertainly not realistic if your van is much taller than your head height.


A roll-out awning with a crank is very easy to use for most people and massively cuts down on setup time. This kind of awning can be self-supporting, only needing to be poled out if it's breezy, further reducing setup time. Crank-operated or motorized awnings are fully adjustable, making them convenient for constrained spaces. However, be aware that they have more moving parts which can break. Wind can damage these quickly; be sure to pole and guy them out if it's breezy, and partially furl your awning to reduce the surface area that can be caught by the wind. If in doubt, roll your awning up. Crank-operated awnings strike a good balance between cost and convenience and are an excellent choice for most people.

A motorized roll-out awning has all the benefits and considerations of a cranked one, except it opens and closes with the touch of a button. The price premium is the major factor here, as well as the need to wire the motor and control panel into your RV's electrical system. However, for those with reduced mobility or strength, or simply wanting ultimate convenience, a motorized awning is a very nice thing to have. We have a series of handy articles on RV electrics, starting with this general overview, for information on wiring your motorized awning into your RV electrical system.


What is the Best Fabric for an RV Awning?

The material of your awning is something to be aware of, as this affects weight, maintenance, and durability. Polyester is a good all-around fabric, being light and fairly durable as well as UV and mildew-resistant. Polyethylene is lighter, but neither very durable nor UV resistant. Canvas is heavy but very durable in all environments, and is thus well-suited to serious off-roading and boondocking. Vinyl is very waterproof and UV resistant, as well as being easy to clean. It's unfortunately not breathable, meaning it's susceptible to mold and mildew growth if not properly aired. Ripstop nylon is perhaps the best fabric of all, being durable, lightweight, very waterproof, and UV resistant. However, it's also the most expensive of all the commonly used fabrics.


Your choice of fabric should be a material that's easy to clean, whilst balancing weight with durability based on your use case. We recommend polyester for general use, canvas for rugged environments, and ripstop nylon if weight is a big concern.


The Best RV Awnings on the Market

Here we will recommend a selection of awnings from the categories discussed above.


Best Roll-out Awning

We can easily recommend the Fiamma F45S and F80S to most people. These are both crank-operated awnings that can be bought as fully motorized options.




The F45S is a side or rack-mounted awning whilst the F80S is roof-mounted. Both awnings come in a large variety of sizes, with mounting kit options for specific van models. These awnings come with sturdy legs that you can fix to the ground or the side of your RV. They roll neatly into a tough aluminum case, which also incorporates shock absorbers for protection when the wind picks up. Both models can be bought with optional LED strip lights and rain guard kits for preventing rain from dripping between the awning and the side of your RV. Additionally, optional side and front panel kits allow you to turn the awning into a fully enclosed annex. This means we can also recommend these awnings to those looking for the privacy and enclosure of drive-away awnings. The F45S and F80S are excellent awnings from a well-regarded manufacturer, which can be customized to fit a huge range of requirements.


Best Manual/Portable Awning

The Moonshade is a very good option for those who don't want to commit to permanently mounting an awning on their RV. It's compact, lightweight, easy to set up, and incorporates some thoughtful quality-of-life features.


The inner corners of the Moonshade clip to anchors which are either bolted or suction cupped to the roof of your RV. A cross frame of tent poles provides structure and strength to the awning, and telescoping legs clip into the outer corners. Setup is quick and easy, and the awning packs up into a small carrying case. The ripstop nylon material means the awning is rugged and lightweight. Finally, the Moonshade is reflective on the inside, meaning it reflects light down into your seating area. This gives you diffuse, ambient lighting when you set up a lamp or fairy lights under your awning at night.


Step-by-Step RV Awning Installation Guide

If you've chosen to go with a van-mounted awning, you can either pay a professional to mount it to your RV, or you can install it yourself. We'll give a basic overview of how to install an RV awning here.


First, get all your materials together:


  • Ladder (if mounting your awning above head height)

  • Pencil and long ruler/tape measure (for side-mounted awnings)

  • Painter's tape (for side-mounted awnings)

  • File (for side-mounted awnings)

  • Anti-rust paint

  • Sealant/Adhesive

  • Electric drill & metal drill bits (for side-mounted awnings)

  • Awning mounting kit

  • Heat gun (for roof-mounted awnings)

  • Mastic/butyl tape (for roof-mounted awnings)


Reputable awnings come with mounting kits that can be customized depending on the model of your RV or the cross-section of your roof rack bars. Once you've got your materials together, you can start on the installation.


Installing Side-mounted Awnings

  • Step 1: Choose your mounting location: measure your awning and have a clear understanding of exactly what will be covered when the awning is extended. Make sure the location is flat and level and that the awning won't interfere with any doors.

  • Step 2: Position the mounting brackets as you will install them and mark the locations where you'll drill the holes. Remember: measure twice, drill once.

  • Step 3: Cover the drill locations with painter's tape to prevent the paint from flaking.

  • Step 4: Drill the holes using a metal drill bit. Drill straight in and don't penetrate deeper than necessary.

  • Step 5: File down any burrs or rough edges.

  • Step 6: Paint the edges of the hole with anti-rust paint.

  • Step 7: Apply sealant to the back of the mounting brackets.

  • Step 8: Install the mounting brackets.

  • Step 9: Mount the awning on the mounting brackets.

  • Step 10: Make sure the awning is level and open it fully, confirming that it doesn't get in the way of doors opening.


Awning on a volkswagon

If you're installing a rain guard to prevent water from dripping between your awning and the side of your van, now is the time to do so. Fiamma makes a rain guard kit which works with their awnings and is very easy to install.


@FarOutRide installed a rain guard
@FarOutRide installed a rain guard

If you're installing a motorized awning, you'll now need to wire in the motor and control panel. Our article on installing switch panels contains a lot of useful information that will be applicable here.



Installing Roof-mounted Awnings

A roof-mounted awning is more simple to mount as it uses pre-existing mounting holes on the roof of your van, meant for roof racks.


  • Step 1: Remove the rubber plugs running down the length of the roof. Heat up the plugs with a heat gun, then pry them out.

  • Step 2: Add a small piece of mastic/butyl tape over each hole to create a watertight seal.

  • Step 3: Drill bolt-holes in the plug holes using a metal drill bit, drilling vertically and not penetrating further than necessary.

  • Step 4: Paint the edges of the hole with anti-rust paint.

  • Step 5: Apply sealant to the back of the mounting brackets.

  • Step 6: Install the mounting brackets. To give the mounting bracket extra strength you. could run some beads of Sabatack 750XL glue which has excellent shear strength resistance.

  • Step 7: Mount the awning on the mounting brackets. It simply slides into place.

Dometic perfectroof awning
  • Step 8: Make sure the awning is level and open it fully, confirming that it doesn't get in the way of doors opening.


If you're installing a motorized awning, you'll now need to wire in the motor and control panel. Our article on installing switch panels contains a lot of useful information that will be applicable here.


Note: You may need to purchase an adapter kit depending on the model of your van.


Maintenance and Care of Your RV Awning

No matter what kind of awning you decide to install, basic maintenance and care will be important to ensure a long life. Unless something goes wrong, this will mostly amount to cleaning and making sure the awning doesn't spend too much time stowed when wet.


Mold and Mildew

Some awning materials cope better than others with being stowed whilst wet. In general, though, if your awning does get wet, it's important to make sure it dries out before stowing it for a long time. If you're forced to roll up your awning whilst it's still wet, during a storm for example, make sure you unroll it again once the weather calms down to ensure it dries out. Keeping a wet awning rolled up is likely to lead to mold and mildew growth over time.


Vinyl awnings, like the Fiamma ones recommended above, are susceptible to mold and mildew as they aren't very breathable. A good solution for this is marine-grade mold and mildew blocker. This is a chemical spray that cleans existing mold and mildew and prevents it from growing in the future.



Shade on demand. A badass off road van build by @roguevans
Shade on demand. A badass off road van build by @roguevans

Cleaning Your RV Awning

Mildew may eventually come for all awnings, and even if it doesn't, bird droppings, tree resin, and general dirt necessitate periodic cleaning. To clean an RV awning, roll it out fully and gently brush away any dry debris. Next, use a cleaning solution of dish soap and warm water (or a very dilute bleach solution) with a soft brush or sponge. Clean the whole awning on the top and bottom. Apply mold and mildew cleaner/blocker to particularly tough spots. Rinse the fabric with a hose (not a pressure washer), and let it dry completely.


Repairing Tears and Holes

If your awning gets torn or punctured, a temporary solution is to tape the damage. Fiamma sells a repair kit that can be used for any awning fabric. These are a quick repair and will last for a while, and it may be a good idea to carry a pack in your RV during your travels. Make sure you thoroughly clean the area around the tear or puncture before applying the tape.

Patching is a safer bet for bigger holes and permanent repairs. Ideally, the patch fabric should match that of your awning. Awning patch kits are available online and include patch material and an adhesive.


Other Maintenance

Once a year or so, it's a good idea to lubricate the moving parts on your awning and check for rust, cracks, and general degrading. Reputable awning manufacturers sell spare parts for their products.


Final Thoughts

In our view, an awning is an excellent addition to almost any RV. They increase your usable space and contribute significantly to staying cool in summer. For most people, a crank-operated roll-out awning offers the best balance between convenience and price. You can easily install them yourself, but professional mounting is always an option to ensure it gets done perfectly. Watch out for wind and make sure you take good care of your awning, and it'll serve you well for many years.

 

Don't forget to subscribe to The Van Conversion Newsletter for everything you need to get started with your own van conversion (we'll send you a free wiring diagram when you join).


If you're looking for some guidance with your van conversion, you might be interested in Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan. In the 380-page book (or ebook), you'll learn directly from Shane how to convert a van into your dream home - no prior experience needed!


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Until next time.

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