Monday, April 14, 2014

Adding Space to a Tiny Fiberglass Camper

Our screen room next to the fiberglass uhaul camper at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Georgia
Our screen room at Hard Labor Creek SP
One of the biggest complaints I hear about the small fiberglass campers is that they're too small. And they are pretty tiny. However, having come from tent camping I prefer the small, dry space to a tent. (Well at least when I have the whole family with me; I still love to tent camp if it's just me and a friend or when I go solo.) The question I get asked is, "How do you guys survive in that tiny camper?" Along with various remarks about claustrophobia, pulling out your hair, etc. I usually have to explain that I have two purposes for the camper:

  1. To provide a dry, warm place on cold or rainy days/nights.
  2. To provide a sleeping space.
My goals for our family is that we'll spend a lot of the time outside our camper. We do carry portable DVD players for the car for trips and can put one in the camper for a rainy day or something to help entertain the little ones. But I don't want them staying in the camper watching movies or playing video games the whole time. That kind of defeats the purpose of camping. Not to mention that if you don't get them outside running around to burn off that energy, that small space will become even smaller as the day goes on. There's no room for bouncing off the walls.

With that said we carry a screen room/awning. It provides an extra sheltered place that can keep some bugs out but mostly to provide shade and some dry outdoor space if it rains. You can put them up over the picnic table or put your camp chairs and gear under it. It provides some flexibility depending on the layout of where you're camping. 

There are two types of awnings: free standing and attached. Attached awnings are nice since they're attached to the side of the camper usually in a bag that you unzip and pull out the poles and stretch out the awning. The pros are that it's compact, you don't have to pack it inside the camper, can usually be setup by one person, and it provides shelter over the camper door/entrance for side door campers. The downsides are that you are forced to set it up right at the camper and you can't move it (maybe your camping spot is right next to a tree and you can't open the awning because the tree's too close?). Free standing awnings (aka tailgating tents) are more like screen rooms in that you can position them anywhere. Up against the camper, over the picnic table, etc. They may be cheaper but they typically take two people to setup. They have a variety of options as far as adding "sun shade walls" or screened sides to them where/when needed. They can be heavier and you do have to pack them inside the camper.

There are many different types of screen rooms/free standing awnings on the market. I suggest reading reviews on Amazon before you buy. There are a few of things you'll want to consider when planning your purchase:
  1. Do you want to put the awning over the camper? If so, you may need a tall one or to come up with a mechanism for making it taller (i.e. furniture risers, pvc extensions, etc). Many people want to do this to provide shelter over the door for rain or shelter over their roof vent so they can keep it running for air circulation even if it's raining. We originally thought we'd want to do this but gave up on it and I figure if I really need coverage I carry tarps that I can string up between trees.
  2. How much space do you need? Awnings cover a specified square footage (i.e 10'x10', 12'x12', etc). So figure out what you want to place/store under it and you'll have an idea of how much you need. The larger the square footage, the heavier it will likely be though. Also, if it's bigger it'll likely take at least two people to setup. So keep that in mind.
  3. Do you need protection from the sun/blowing rain? If so then you may want to look for one that has a "sun wall(s)" or carry an extra tarp(s) to rig up as needed.
  4. Do you want a screen to keep out big insects? (I say big because a screen does have holes and bugs can crawl under them so their not going to be as bug proof as your camper.) Also, keeping the screen doors zipped has an impact on that. I'll put a note here that many screen rooms taper out like tents rather than straight down like awning legs tend to do. So the actual square footage protected from rain is smaller than the screened footage. Also, it's not going to stop blowing rain (but neither is an awning without a sun wall).
  5. Do you need something that can be put up by one person or will you have two available? By rule the heavier and bigger it is the more people you'll need to assist.
Coleman Screened Shelter 10'x10'
So what do we use? We tried a round screen room but I just didn't like it. We've gone to a Coleman 10'x10'  Instant Up Screened Shelter (ours is an older model of this one but looks the same except I don't have a wheeled storage bag). Price was a big factor and I've been impressed. Sometimes we put it up against the side of the camper and other times we put it on a flat spot behind or to the side or over the picnic table (so is the flexibility of a freestanding model). As I said before, the poles taper out so the roof doesn't cover the entire screened area due to the design. I like being able to zip it up when we leave the campsite. Not really secure as someone could cut into it. I do lock the zipper and at least it should deter tiny thieves and passers by. When we went to South Dakota, I used it to store some gear and it held up to some heavy wind gusts up to 30mph. I did check my tie outs twice a day. I had to re-stake a couple after one really windy night but it never blew away. I'm probably going to come up with a way to add a tarp to at least one side for better rain coverage. I can put this up and tear it down by myself without help. I typically store it in it's bag on the front bench in our camper. It fits well there and I can pull it out quick and pop it up. Usually, we do that first and setup the kids under it to play while we're unpacking and setting up the beds in the camper and getting dinner going. It also has a loop in the center inside so that you can hang a light or one of those battery fans (I use it to hang a light). Overall, I'm happy with it.