An awning is a must-have addition to any van conversion. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar it will add more space and functionality to your rig than any other addition.
But how do you attach a van life awning without roof racks?
This was a problem we had to solve. Attaching an awning to a fiberglass roof safely and cheaply without the use of an expensive custom roof rack system.
In this article, we will cover
- Choosing an awning to buy
- How you can (permanently) mount an awning without a roof rack
- How you can attach an awning to fibreglass roof without expensive or specialized hardware
Choosing an ARB Awning
For weeks, we toyed with the idea of whether to purchase a premanufactured awning or to create a DIY awning.
In the end, we decided that for the quality and the simplicity, purchasing a pre-manufactured awning for a few hundred dollars and attaching it to the car was a small price to pay for quality materials, construciton and piece of mind.
Should You Add an Awning to Your Van Build?
Our ARB awning was one of the best additions we made to our van build.
A quality awning is the cheapest way to add usable outdoor space to your van build.
The dry, shaded area that you can use for working, dinging, or hanging out can be made even more versatile with the addition of canvas walls or insect screens.
In addition to providing useable outdoor space to your build, an awning will also keep the inside of the vehicle cooler in the summer months.
What Size Awning Should I Get?
The 2500mm x 2500mm is a great size. It provides a lot of shade. It is quick and easy to set up and take down.
We have used a larger 270 degree awning and found we actually use it less because it is such a pain in the neck to set up and pack up.
What Brand Awning Should I Get?
We opted for the 2500mm x 2500mm ARB awning, one of the more expensive awnings on the market.
ARB awnings use top-of-the-line materials in their products. ARB uses strong, durable awning material made from 300 GSM Ripstop which is waterproof and protects against UV. The anodized poles also provide greater durability and protection against rust and corrosion.
We have used cheaper awnings made with 280 GSM canvas and they have not performed as well. They leak in heavy rain and quickly develop small rips and holes. They also seem to be more prone to developing mold.
Mounting an Awning to a Fibreglass Roof
Our challenge installing an awning was the curved fiberglass roof of our Chevy Express. Great for headspace but without a cheap or simple way to install roof racks or an awning.
We were able to design a cheap custom roof rack to mount our solar panels from galvanized steel pipe, but we weren’t confident this system would also bear the weight of the awning.
How We INstalled an Awning Without Roof Racks
All we used to permanently and securely mount our awning was two bolts and a handful of washers.
Although we love our awning, we did not think about how to attach an awning to a fiberglass, curved roof prior to buying (duh).
Without a roof rack to support the weight of the awning and serious curvature to contend with, we debated on throwing in the towel and sending the awning back.
Thank goodness we persevered. We managed to attach a permanent awning to a curved fiberglass roof without the use of expensive difficult-to-find hardware like a specialized roof racks or gutter racks.
In fact, all we used for this job was a couple of three-inch bolts and a handful of washers.
If you are looking to do the same, we created a step-by-step guide including what you’ll need to get the job done.
What you’ll need
- ARB awning
- 2 x 3″ x ¼” bolts with self-locking nuts
- 14 x ¼” x 1-¼” washers
Step-by-Step Guide To Permenantly mount an awning without a Roof Rack
We mounted our awning directly to the fiberglass roof of our hi-top Chevy Express.
This installation is essentially permanent. We are putting two holes into the fiberglass roof to bolt the awning directly to the roof. This means the old saying of measure twice cut (or in this case drill) once is applicable!
We used bolts to secure the awning directly to the car. We used a large spreader washer to stop the small nut from simply pulling through the weak fiberglass roof. We used stacks of washers on each bolt so that the awning would sit several inches clear of the vehicle to account for the roof bulging outward.
Step 1: Install the awning first
The first thing we realized about attaching the awning to the van itself is that it should have been done first before we built out the inside with insulation, electrical wiring, and wall cladding.
Any permanently attached awning should be attached first unless you are attaching the awning to a roof rack or gutter rack.
That is before the insulation, the walls, really before anything that would cover up the area in the roof where the awning is attached.
Step 2: Upgrade your bolts
If you purchased the ARB 2500 awning, ARB provides six bolts for mounting the awning to the vehicle. But, if you look closer, only two bolts hold the awning itself to the metal bar. So why the difference?
We don’t know. But what we do know is if you replace the bolts holding the awning to the mounting bracket with longer bolts, you can use these to mount the awning directly to your van. This will hold both the metal bar and the awning itself to the van.
Step 3: Drill the Holes
Park your car on a level surface. This will allow you to make sure your awning is level using a spirit level.
Remove the bolts holding the awning to the metal mounting bar.
Position the metal mounting bar where you want the awning to be mounted to the fiberglass roof.
Check that the location of the bolts at the front and rear of the mounting bar will be clear and accessible on the inside of the vehicle.
Check the mounting bar is level using a spirit level.
With the mounting bar in position and level mark the point where the front and rear holes on the mounting bar line up with the roof.
Using a 1/4″ bit, drill the marks in the vehicle roof.
Step 4: Attach the awning
Replace the awning on the metal mounting bar. Insert the three-inch bolts into the awning at the front and rear.
Add a stack of washers necessary to compensate for the curvature of the van roof on one of the 3-inch bolts. Eight washers were enough to give our awning clearance of the bulge in the middle section of our curved van roof. You can adjust these later if you need more or less.
Hold the awning in position, sliding the bolt through the newly drilled hole.
Check that your awning sits free of any curves in the roof. If you can reduce the number of washers and bring the awning closer without touching then do so (if you need more, add more).
Remove the awning and bolts. Add silicon to the bolt to ensure a watertight seal. The last thing you need is a leaky roof! Reposition the awning and silicone bolts.
Using a large washer* and lock-nut, tighten until secure with a socket wrench.
*The larger washer will spread the load preventing the nut and bolt from ripping through the fiberglass roof, the larger the spreader washer the better.
With these four easy steps, you too can attach an awning permanently to any van without any roof racks, curves, or no curves.
Tips for Using Your Van Life Awning
- Make sure you use guy ropes to secure the awning when in use. If you are going to be camping in windy places, say on the coast, consider upgrading to heavy duty guy ropes and heavy duty pegs as well as investing in sand pegs.
- Don’t pack it up in the wind. Or, if you do, take care. The large canvas awning acts a sail and if caught in the breeze can cause damage to the awning, your vehicle or yourself. Be careful.
- Dry your awning before packing it down. If you have to pack up in a hurry and the awning is still wet, remember to get it out and dry ASAP. This will help you avoid mould and rot.
- Hose down your awning with fresh water after you use it near the coast. Salt water and awning components do not go well together!
Hopefully you found these tips for purchasing, installing, and using your van life awning helpful.
If you have a question or a comment please let us know below!
Looking for more van build tips?
Interested in learning more van build tips and DIY van conversion advice. Check out one of our other great van life articles below!
- DIY Van Roof Rack: Simple and Cost Effective
- Chevy Express Van Build: The Complete DIY Van Conversion Guide
- How to Build Your Own Hardwood Floors Using Plywood
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