By now, you’ve surely heard of the holy grail of budget overlanding, the Napa Maxi Trac awning. Right? Right??
At a starting price of $129 and a regularly on-sale price under $100, the only problem you’ll have with this bad boy is finding one. They’ve garnered such a cult following that they’re rarely in stock for more than 24 hours at a stretch.
The naysayers will 💩 all over it because, after all, it’s a $99 version of something that could run you as much as $1000+ (for a fancy, freestanding, 270° model). And sure, the quality is a little bit questionable. BUT, if you’re like us, it might be just what Dr. Overlander ordered.
I’d always considered an awning a luxury item that I really didn’t need to bother with. I grew up backpacking and camping as lightly as possible and never had an awning with me. I survived just fine. What do I need one of those things for?
Well, last summer, we ventured out to Big Bear for a short overland adventure. As you can see ☝️ we scored an amazing campsite with a stellar view. The only problem was, it was pretty warm which forced us to huddle up under the only tree around for some shade. And then chase said shade around the tree all day. And that was all she wrote.
One of the first things I did when I got home was sit down to order an awning. That said, I still wasn’t entirely certain what I wanted from an awning. And I was certain that I didn’t want to drop hundreds of dollars on something until I had an opportunity to try it out. So I did what every budget-minded overlander does and headed straight to the Napa website. For $99, I can commit to trying it out without feeling like I’m risking much.
So…how is it?
Overall, we’re pretty happy with our Napa Maxi Trac special. The fabric feels solid and has hefty ripstop fabric with a nice waterproof coating on it. The mounts are minimal, but they get the job done (as long as you have crossbars to connect them to). And we didn’t want ours on the truck full time, so I devised a pretty simple solution for taking it off and on our GX470 in a matter of a few minutes. The aluminum poles, on the other hand, are not so sturdy. There are four in total, two legs, and two side beams. All of them offer twist-to-lock extension. And all of them feel pretty flimsy. (More on that in a moment.)
Setting it up is either a breeze or a nightmare. Two people: total breeze. We find it easiest to unroll it and have one person hold the loose end of the awning while the other configures and stakes out all of the poles. One person: total nightmare. I just did this over the weekend, and it was not fun at all. But I did eventually manage to get the awning stood up and staked out.
Once it’s up, the awning is surprisingly solid as long as you have the legs firmly staked down. This is the key, IMO to a stable awning vs. a collapsible sail. Ours has survived a couple of solidly windy night in the mountains with no problem. It also helps to ensure that the side beams are at full extension so the awning is as taut as possible.
Lastly, breakdown is not quite as frustrating as setup, but still considerably easier with two people.
Where are the weak points?
There are two that seem to be widely discussed. The first, which we’ve already experienced, is the lack of quality in the side beam pegs where they insert into the frame on the loose end of the awning. For whatever reason, folks have found the plastic to be quite brittle — we broke our the first time we took the awning down on a calm day. The solution here is to drill a hole through the pole and the end-peg, and then insert a machine screw into the pole to hold it all together.
The other weak point, that I have not personally felt a need to address yet, is the point at which the awning attaches to the frame. Many folks recommend putting a couple of bolts through the awning rails to ensure they don’t fall apart. But so far, I haven’t seen any indication of that happening on ours.
If you’ve never owned an awning before, if you’re an occasional weekend warrior, if you’re handy, or if you’re just plain on a budget — the Maxi Trac is a lot of bang for your buck. Be aware of the flaws and perhaps fix them before you ever get it out on the road, and it should serve you well for a while.
On the other hand, if you’re out a couple of weekends a month (or more), if you can’t stand fixing your gear when something goes wrong, or if you’re just feeling flush at the moment, springing for something nicer might be up your alley. The caveat to that, however, is that many folks claim the Napa awning is very, very similar to offerings from ARB and Ironman, which makes me wonder just how much better the quality is…