A cool, sun-free place to sit can feel like a well-earned luxury on a warm day. But on a truly, surface-of-the sun-level hot day, it’s closer to something mandatory for survival. Or, at the very least, necessary to actually enjoy being way out wherever you are, despite the punishing heat vaporizing anything in its path.
For a long time, I thought of car-mounted awnings as a luxury. Expensive, finicky, gimmicky. Have these people never heard of trees? I’d smugly think to myself.
But then I started thinking of all the times I use my car as a base for adventure. Car camping, obviously, but also alpine fishing, biking, and hiking. One of my favorite mountain bike spots near home has a trailhead with no shade trees for hundreds of yards. An awning would be nice right now, I’ve thought dozens of times, drenched in sweat after a ride, sitting next to my car trying to cram into a slice of its shadow, wanting badly to sit in a chair with my feet up out of the sun.
So I finally got one. I was right. An awning was nice right there after a ride. It’s been nice in many, many places since.
After searching for a bit, and considering lighter, cheaper options, I picked up the Thule Outland. It’s a robust awning in an aluminum hardshell that bolts to roof racks and is meant to stay up there most of the time. Mine is the smallest Outland, at 6.2 feet in length, though they also come in 7.5 and 8.2-foot sizes for larger vehicles. It projects a maximum of 8 feet out from the roof, so figure about 48 square feet of potentially shaded space. The legs can stand 6.3 feet above ground, so even my 6’2″ gangly ass can easily walk around beneath the awning if set up at full height.
The shade material is a tough polyester that completely blocks the sun and can stand up to pretty good rain, providing it’s not coming down in buckets (the owner’s manual warns against using it in serious rain, a bit subjective, but sorta common sense too, and definitely not snow for what I think would be obvious reasons). I recently sat beneath mine while an afternoon rain blew through high in the Sierra, rocking in a camping chair, eating dinner, listening to a baseball game on the car radio (thanks Sirius). Cozy as can be. Because of the awning. (Yes, you can also use a $10 tarp for this, if you were parked next to a tree and didn’t mind setting up and lashing off a tarp in the rain. But I value my time at a fairly high dollar rate and will gladly pay money to not have to deal with setting up a tarp every time I wanted shade or rain protection when I could just unfurl this awning in about two minutes).
Setup is not intuitive at first, but once you do it a couple times, it’s easy peasy. The awning fabric is tensioned with a ratcheting buckle system; extend the side arms, unroll the fabric, drop the legs, connect side arms to legs, raise em, then ratchet it tight. The awning comes with stakes to hold down the feather light legs in the wind, which you must use if there’s a breeze. If the awning drops a leg because it gets blown around, the tension is lost, and the whole system will collapse. Thule actually sells a strap kit that acts like guylines for use in wind. This is a great addition. I plan to throw my REI Kingdom Cot underneath the awning at some point and use it as a wall-less tent at some point too. I will want the straps to avoid disaster.
You might think there’d be significant road noise: I haven’t experienced that. With the window down, you can hear the metal legs rattling around in the case, but after about 7 seconds I got used to it and don’t notice it anymore.
There is a big downside here though and it’s that the Outland isn’t cheap: Mine runs about $650 (the larger ones cost more), and you can certainly find less expensive awning options out there. But the aluminum shell is very strong, the fabric is burly, and it feels like it will last me decades of use, decades that are likely to be increasingly warmer as the years go by, making the awning all the more important.