Air Awnings for Campervans, Explained
For those unfamiliar with air awnings, this piece of kit can be confusing to understand. Air awnings either operate in a single point or multi-point inflation system. All this means is that some can be inflated from a single point, or each pole must be inflated separately in multi-point inflation.
Air awnings started out as having a manual inflation system, whereby a hand-operated pump was provided, which is essentially a high-power version of a bike wheel pump. Now, you can get battery inflated pumps that automatically inflate the air pole to the correct pressure, which is normally under 10psi. A variety of aftermarket pumps can be bought, although the adapters for each valve vary.
Vango first brought the inflated pole concept to the market back in 2014 with the AirBeam range, and it still remains a best seller. Many other camping companies offer inflated pole options, from Kampa Dometic to Outwell.
Inflated vs Metal Poles: The Pros and Cons
When deciding between inflated or metal poles, you need to consider the overall pros and cons of both types.
Inflated poles have many benefits, including:
- Easy to pitch, as you'll just need to attach an electric pump to the valve(s) once you've pegged it out,
- Simplicity of use, since you won't have to assemble, match or thread any poles,
- Reliability in all weather, since the flexible frame of an air awning allows it to flex with the wind.
On the other hand, inflatable poles are:
- Heavier than other awnings, due to the extra material and all-in-one design,
- Potentially harder to fold up and pack away, as everything goes into one larger bag,
- Can take up more space when pitched, depending on the model.
Traditional metal poles to have their benefits:
- Lighter total weight, and pack away into several smaller bags,
- Considerably cheaper in like-for-like sizes and brands,
- Easier to source replacement parts for, and simpler to repair.
But they also have their cons, such as:
- Requires multiple people to erect, as you've got the thread and secure the poles
- A pole breakage can cause damage to the fabric, if there's a jagged end in the metal or carbon fibre,
- For first-time campers, it can be tricky to properly affix and locate all of the traditional poles.
How easy are they to get set up?
Erecting an awning can be one of the most time-consuming parts of the whole pitching process.
Traditional pole awnings: Ensuring you match the correct pole to the correct sleeve, and erect them in the right order is key. You also need to create consistent tension with the tent material as well as making sure the poles are clipped in the right way. This makes them less than ideal for families with young children or for people with limited mobility.
Inflatable air awnings: These can be heavier and require a different approach to pitching. Some inflatable awnings will have a single inlet for the air pump, which will blow up the whole structure, while others are inflated in sections using multiple air inlets. Either way, it requires a slightly different approach to what you might be used to with traditional pole awnings. Incorrectly pitch an air pole and you may end up with twisted the structure, which requires time to sort out.
Overview: Generally, an inflatable air awning is easier to erect. Simply roll out the tent, attach to an inflation point and inflate to the correct PSI (pounds per square inch) before pegging correctly. Traditional pole awnings certainly get easier to set up the more times you do it, but they're usually never quite as simple!
How small do they pack down, and what do they weigh?
When comparing pack size and weight, air and pole awnings are vastly different.
Inflatable air awnings: Due to the need for a bladder (the part of the air pole that holds the air), and the stiffer fabric around this, the inflatable awnings can actually weigh a lot more than metal pole awnings.
This extra weight can make a lot of difference when you're loading up your camper for a big trip.
Traditional pole awning: By contrast, awnings with metal or carbon fibre poles can weigh a lot less, and can be packed away into smaller bags (one for the canvas, one for the poles, etc.) so they're easier to store in your camper.
Overview: Space can be vital in VW campervans, so it is important to consider your available space and load weight when choosing an awning to take with you in your relatively small camper with it's relatively small engine.
Which is better for unpredictable weather?
For those of us camping in the UK, being able to adapt to all weather is key, and awnings are no exception! It’s essential to be able to go from high winds, rain to then sunshine, all on the same day.
Air awnings and pole awnings are both as rigid as one other, but in strong winds air awnings may actually have an advantage.
Traditional pole awnings: These may suffer from cracks or bends in higher winds, depending on the material the poles are made from. A broken metal or carbon fibre pole may have sharp, jagged edges which can go on to damage the canvas of the awning, causing futher problems.
Inflatable air awnings: In comparison, air awnings are more likely to sway or flex in the wind, affecting the shape of the internal space in your awning, but not damaging the structure itself. The air poles inside the awning can flex and bend (or even fold, depending on the internal pressure), to allow the wind to bash them around a bit before flexing back into shape.
Overview: Either way, it's vital to ensure that your awning is properly secured and pegged out if you're expecting a lot of wind (or even if you aren't!).
Neither pole nor air is any better or worse for weather adaptability, and both need care to achieve longevity, so there isn't a clear 'winner' here.
A note on rain: With regards to rain, the structure is less important than the Hydrostatic Head (HH) of the material. This is a measure of how much water can be stood on top of the awning's canvas before it begins to leak water. For example, a Hydrostatic Head of 3000 means that a column of water 3000 millimetres (or three meters) tall could be stacked on top of the fabric and it wouldn't let any through. For a good all-round awning, we aim for a a HH of 5000, as this will last in any potential storms and bad weather. Some awnings are rated up to 7000 HH, which could withstand having seven meters of water piled on top!
Is it easier to get spares and repairs for one or the other?
No matter how well you care for your awning, accidents can happen, but how do you fix it?
Inflatable air awnings: The inflatable poles for these awnings have two parts: the casing, which creates the shape of the pole and can usually be detached; and the bladder, which holds the air.
The bladder is the part of an air pole which requires replacing in case of puncture. It can be repaired like an inner tube by using a sealant and fabric as a temporary fix if you experience and issue while you're out camping, but should be replaced on return. Finding bladders in standard camping shops is rare, and you may have to go to the manufacturer in order to get an exact replacement.
Traditional pole awnings: In our experience, traditional pole tents are often repaired with duct tape and sometime cable ties - it’s a simple fix which has stood the test of time! Replacing damaged or lost poles for an awning is pretty simple, and the manufacturer should be able to help you out. The poles can require restringing, if you are only replacing one section of the pole, but replacement poles can be found in most camping shops and even some campsites. Poles are often standardised, and therefore finding one that will fit your awning is often easier to do than finding a bladder in an air tent.
Should I Buy an Air or a Pole Awning for my Campervan?
There it is, the big question! We stock both, and as avid campers ourselves different members of the JK Team have their own preferences.
Really, it's entirely down to what you need, how much you can invest in an awning, and how much time you're willing to spend setting up and packing your awning away.
Choose an air awning if:
- You want an awning that's quick and easy to erect,
- You have the money to invest in a more expensive awning for your camping expeditions,
- You've got limited time to set up camp, for example because you've got a young family with you,
- You want to just load up one bag and go, since air awnings are generally all in one piece, since they don't need separate poles,
- You've got the space for the extra weight in your vehicle,
Choose a pole awning if:
- You want something a bit easier to mend and get replacement parts for
- You haven’t got as much space or weight allowance left in your camper
- You've not got quite as much money to invest in an awning, but still want to add space when camping,
- You're looking for a larger awning, as many pole awnings can be much bigger than inflatable ones,
- The setup in your camper means it'll be easier to store the canvas and metals poles in seperate, smaller bags,
If you’re considering a campervan awning, take a look at our range of awnings that can suit all needs. We have Vango, Outwell and Kampa Dometic in both poled and air varieties!