Finding shade on a hot summer day

We've been traveling for the past three weeks, from scorching hot southern Arizona up to the high plains of Wyoming, back down to the muggy southeast near Nashville, then northeast to Virginia. One theme that has dogged us through this trip so far has been finding a way to beat the heat when we can't run the air conditioning.

A lot of great spots don't offer electrical hookups, so finding shade is your next best option. You might think you'll only camp where you can get a full hookup with 30- or 50-amp power, but there will be times when that's not available or not the best option.

For example, last week we visited Devil's Tower National Monument. There are two nearby options for camping: a KOA just outside the entrance, and a no-hookup campground inside the park.

The KOA is popular, but because of the crowds at nearly all national parks this summer there will be an enormous line of cars waiting to get into the monument every day of the week. The wait can run 45 minutes just to get past the entrance station—whether you have a parks pass or not.

So we chose to stay in the no-hookup campground that's inside the park. By doing so, we only had to wait in line once. This gave us ready access to the tower trails early in the morning before the general public was allowed in. We hiked the trail that goes around the monument at 6:30 a.m. when the weather was cool and had the trail virtually to ourselves, which made it easy to spot birds and deer with our binoculars.

The price of this excellent experience was battling the heat in the afternoon, without air conditioning. I've written previously about strategies for dealing with heat, so in this blog I want to focus on shade—specifically, your awnings.

Finding shade under a tree is always our first and best strategy, and fortunately most of the spots in the Devil's Tower Belle Fourche Campground are shaded by huge cottonwood trees. But with or without a tree nearby your Airstream's awning(s) will make a huge difference. There's just a few things you need to know:

Open windows on the non-awning sides if possible

This might seem counter-intuitive, but the air right beneath the awning tends to be hot. When you've got the fans running and the windows or entry door open on the awning side, you may notice that hot air is being sucked into the Airstream. Try feeling the air at the top of the door or window with your hand.

If you're feeling hot air coming in, just close the windows on the awning side and open the ones on other sides. Even if they're in direct sun the air coming in will probably be cooler.

Take the awning in when you're away, and at night

The big patio awning (which may be the only awning on your Airstream, depending on the model you own) is capable of holding up to a strong breeze, but not much more. It can be seriously (expensively) damaged by a sudden strong wind gust, such as that preceding a thunderstorm.

Those events are unpredictable, so the safe choice is to always take in the awning when you're leaving the campground, and at night.

Interstate and Atlas motorhomes are usually equipped with wind sensors so they'll pull themselves in when it gets too gusty, so you've got a bit of insurance there, but I wouldn't rely on that too much. Better to take matters into your own hands. Travel trailers don't come with wind sensors, even the powered ones.

You can use the awning in a moderate breeze

A bit of flapping in the breeze won't break your awning. Zip Dee used to say tat if you were comfortable in the wind then the awning would be too, but that's so subjective I hesitate to offer the same advice. I would say that awnings are tougher than they look and you need not panic at every gust of wind.

If the wind is moderate and you're worried about the awning but really need it, try deploying it halfway. It will be a lot more stable and less susceptible to wind damage. This is easy to do with power awnings. For manual Zip Dee awnings, there's a way to set it out about halfway (they used to call this the "rally position"), and you can ask any experienced Zip Dee owner to show you the trick.

Your awning can be very useful on a rainy day, too!

I wouldn't deploy my patio awning in a storm, but in a relatively steady rain it's great. The awning keeps the rain off your entrance area, which helps prevent muddiness and allows you to sit outside and listen to the calming sound. It's actually one of my favorite things to do on a gray day.

The rain won't hurt the awning at all. Just be sure to tilt one end of the awning down slightly more than the other end, to encourage the rain not to pool on the awning fabric. 

If you have to, you can roll up the awning while it's wet. It will stay wet while rolled up, so plan to deploy it again when the sun comes out to let it dry. It's a good idea to do this within a day or two, just so organic debris (leaves, bugs, pollen) doesn't start to decompose on the fabric and leave stains.

For extra shade and privacy, add an AIR GEAR Sun Shade

When your patio awning is facing west or south you'll probably get some direct sunlight on the side of the Airstream, and this can really heat things up. The solution is a Sun Shade. This easy-to-install product makes a huge difference.

I like the Sun Shade because you can deploy it in just a minute (all you have to do is connect a few snaps) and it instantly turns your patio area into a nice semi-private space. The screen still lets some air through so it doesn't get stifling. Add a patio mat and and two chairs, and you've got an outdoor living room going. 

Summer travelTravel planning




Interesting Rich. I’ve not heard of the “rally position” before. Maybe you could share a brief how-to for us manual awning folks.

Bob Coffel

Bob Coffel

Can you stake-out the Solar Shade to add rigidity to the whole system, is it advisable to do so?

Kerry Frank

Kerry Frank

Rich – curious why you chose not to take/use a generator to run your A/C?

Dave Cochrane

Dave Cochrane

On really hot dry camping sites we have successfully made use of a Coleman battery ( four d cells ) powered tent fan. The two speed fan is silent, folds flat and moves a lot of air both inside for sleeping and outside when relaxing with a cold pop. Mine is ten years old and going strong. My wife sets the fan up when she is cutting up onions at home and on the road to blow away the gases and has never shed another tear. Fan price reasonable, batteries last all season.

Rich Luhr

Rich Luhr


Robert: It’s hard to explain in text. Basically you don’t lock the upper awning arms and let the awning roll back until the arms stop telescoping. This leaves the awning in a “halfway” position.

Bob: Stakes come with the Solar Shade. I prefer bungees to the cords that are provided. Rigidity is not desirable, as the shade needs to move a little in the breeze to avoid over stressing the awning. Staking the bottom is mostly to keep the shade from blowing around a lot.

Kerry: I don’t like generators. Hauling around gasoline, refueling, fumes, and noise are just a few of the reasons.

Dave: Great tip!

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