Camper vans are brilliant things but they have, as we discovered in the Alps on an extended road-trip last summer, some limitations. Specifically if you happen to have a couple of bikes, a bunch of via ferrata, walking and climbing kit plus two people and a healthy disregard for having your kit stolen, your spacious VW T5 suddenly doesn't feel quite so roomy after all.
Half Van / Half Tent
You can, of course, simply throw up a separate tent, but then you lose some of the functionality of your van. Enter the awning, a sort of halfway house - think of it as a tent that attaches to the side of your van so the two become a sort of single unit - half van / half tent if you like.
And if you want to drive off somewhere for the day leaving the awning behind, you just unclip it, zip up the van-side entrance and potter off to wherever you fancy.
The trouble with awnings though, is that like family tents, they tend to be big, cumbersome and hard to pitch. Which is where Vango's Air Away Sapera plays its trump card - like Vango's established AirBeam tent range, the Sapera and its smaller sibling, the Kela use inflatable air-tubes instead of conventional poles.
Super Fast Pitching
We've been using an AirBeam Velocity 300 for almost three years now and it's been excellent. Super fast and simple to pitch and de-pitch, stone reliable in use and just an excellent all-round car-camping tool, so we were quietly confident that the basics would work.
What we weren't quite so ready for was the significant size and weight of the Sapera. In packed form, it's a big old unit with a claimed weight of just under 22 kilos and a pack size of 78x36x38 cm. That's not insane, but if you're used to smaller tents, it's still pretty big and takes up a chunk of van boot storage space.
Pitching it was a breeze. The AirBeam system works just the same as with the smaller tents - you simply lay the awning out, then use the supplied pump to inflate the three main AirBeams. A pair of webbing straps go over the roof of the van to hold everything together plus fat yellow plastic pegs slot neatly into triangular rings to secure the structure. Vango even supplies a handy mallet for peg-pounding duties.
Add in a comprehensive set of guy-lines, neatly secured by Velcro storage straps, and the Saprea feels reassuringly solid. There's extra insurance inside too where a pair of AirBeam rods Velcro in place to add support to the roof and a variation on Vango's Tension Band system helps to add more strength to the arches of the main beams.
Big On The Outside
From the outside it looks, well, huge, while inside there's heaps of room and an integrated, two-person sleeping compartment. A big zipped main door gives access to the van for cooking, slacking and washing up, while doors on all sides and loads of windows mean you can create an airy porch sort of ambience.
Basking in Borrowdale's Easter sunshine with added breezes, it felt reassuringly solid and well engineered with a thick integrated groundsheet and sturdy Protex, 150 Denier polyester, flysheet. And because it all goes up as one, there's as little faff as possible.
The detailing's brilliant too. Stuff just works, like the triangular pegging points which match the triangular pegs and the neat little Velcro guy-storage straps - no messy knotting of cord needed.
And the huge amount of space makes it easy to live with compared to 'just' a van. You can chuck a couple of bikes inside and still have plenty of space to move around it. Let the contents of your weekend duffle expand to their heart's content. Find a quiet corner to read a guidebook even. Stick in a table and chairs and eat under cover.
And the big plus if you're a family is that you can sleep two people in the awning and two inside the van, something that's not always comfortable even if you have a pop-top with additional bed. Oh, one last thing on the sleeping front, the fabric is deliberately dark to minimise early morning lie-in disturbance. It works brilliantly...
It's not all perfect: the multi-zipped doors take some getting used to for example, drying something this size if you put it away wet is going to be interesting and fitting the whole caboodle back into its bag was, erm, 'challenging', though practice will probably help there.
And the sheer size means potentially you may not even fit onto some campsite pitches, so in some scenarios, you may not actually be able to use the awning at all.
First impressions though are almost entirely positive. The last awning we tried was considerably smaller, but an absolute nightmare to pitch in comparison the Vango, so much so that we actually gave up on it. The AirBeam system is every bit as easy to use as with our Velocity 300 test tent and arguably makes even more sense when tents get bigger and bulkier.
We haven't tried driving off and leaving the awning in situ yet, but logically it should simply involve unclipping the webbing straps we threw over the van, zipping up the opening and guying it out appropriately. We'll see.
You can also, attach couple up through a set of roof-bars if you have them or by using an aftermarket Kador rail strip attachment system.
The Vango AirAway Sapera Std has an SRP of £570. There's also a Tall version for larger vans and mobile homes available at £600. The smaller Kela is £450 in standard height and £480 in Tall.
You can find full details at www.vango.co.uk.