Adding an awning to a Sprinter with a roof rack

The typical awning you see on NCV3 Sprinters is the Fiamma F65. It curves around the top of the van wall to the roof. It mounts either onto the bare metal of the roof or on to the factory roof rails.

The thing is, we have a pretty large VanTech roof rack supporting our solar panels. It’s already bolted to the factory roof rail. That stops us from using the F65. Instead, we bought an F45. It mounts on vertical walls or, in our case, on to L-brackets suspended from the roof rack bars. Here’s how we did it.

Why the F65 won’t work, and creative ways around it

Here’s what an F65 Fiamma awning looks like. This one is on a Dodge ProMaster rather than on a Sprinter, but you get the general idea. It mounts on the roof and overhangs the edge of the vehicle slightly.

Fiamma F65 awning mounted on a Dodge van
Fiamma F65 awning mounted on a Dodge van
Fiamma F65 bracket for Sprinters with roof rails
Fiamma F65 bracket for Sprinters with roof rails

Here’s what that F65 bracket looks like. Three of these (the red piece in the picture) spaced at the front, back, and middle of the awning bolt it down securely to the Sprinter’s roof.

This leaves room between the brackets to put some creatively-mounted roof bars for holding smaller solar panels. The roof bar tower brackets have to bolt to the factory roof rail, then extend horizontally toward the center of the vehicle so that they clear the awning before rising up to the height they need to be to support the cross bar.

Hein's roof rack towers for mounting awnings and solar panels
Hein’s roof rack towers for mounting awnings and solar panels (eBay listing)

The Sprinter Store use flat aluminum plates bolted to the factory rail to move the roof rack towers inboard. There’s a photo of the plates in use on the Sprinter forum.

Just one point- if you have the electric version (the F65 Eagle), this has a single long bracket that runs from front to rear of the vehicle. There is no space for any of the roof rack bracket hacks.

Giving up and using the F45 instead

With our monster solar panels the offset bracket thing obviously wasn’t going to work. It’s theoretically possible to manufacture a dog-leg bracket strong enough for our needs, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Instead, we decided to hang our awning from the underside of our roof rack rails. That meant using an F45 vertical mount awning rather than one that mounts on the roof.

Now, Fiamma do make a bracket (#98655-770) to mount the F45 on to Thule rack rails. They don’t sell it in the USA. Several UK sites stock it. Unfortunately it won’t work for the size and shape of our rails, especially considering our solar panels butt up against the sides of the rails.

We had some 3/8″ thick 4″/6″ leg architectural aluminum angle in the barn. You can buy similar stuff from Amazon if you want 4′ of it. We decided it was probably plenty strong enough to hold up a 60lb Fiamma F45s 400 awning.

3/8" thick 4" x 6" architectural aluminum angle
3/8″ thick 4″ x 6″ architectural aluminum angle

What we chose – Fiamma F45s 400cm (13′)

We ordered our awning from Panther RV and drove down to Washougal, Washington to collect it. Panther sell a lot of awnings. They supply many of the upfitters in Washington and Oregon. They had several in stock when we visited, and they can special order any Fiamma awning with about a month’s lead time.

We got the titanium colored casing because it fits with the color of the van and roof rack better than white or black. The awning fabric is plain grey (“Pearl Grey”) rather than the striped version you’ll see on their site. They told us they sell a lot of that color to the Sprinter community who aren’t after the traditional RV look.

The awning comes with a set of three brackets designed for mounting against vertical walls, like on a Class C or Class A RV. We need to mount to the underside of a horizontal roof rack bar, so after some work with a saw and drill, we managed to fashion l-brackets that will attach the roof bars to the awning.

Awning brackets for Fiamma F45 on underside of roof rack
Awning brackets for Fiamma F45 on underside of roof rack

What was Mercedes thinking?

Time for a bit of a complaint. Not for the first time while working on this vehicle, we’ve asked ourselves what the f*** was Mercedes thinking when they put this thing together? Our latest entry in this category is the unnecessarily curved lines of the roof.

The Sprinter is designed for looks more than practicality in some places. The T1N (older style) van was pretty boxy. Straight(er) lines, near-vertical upper walls, and a sliding door that reached no higher than the front door, so that there was room to bolt an awning directly to the van.

The roofline of the side panels of the NCV3 (newer style) has an upward curve as you move from the front to the middle of the van, then a downward curve as you get closer to the back of the van. This forms a lip above the factory roof rails to hide them from view. If that lip wasn’t there, it would be really, really easy to bolt a bracket to the roof rail that just overhangs the side of the van. As it stands, that’s just not possible without some serious engineering.

The side of the van also curves outwards toward the center of the vehicle. No straight lines anywhere. That means that the awning is further away from the van at the ends than it is at its mid-point.

In addition, the sliding door extends almost to the top of the van. That’s great for stepping in and out, and probably for loading pallets too. But if you’re going to do that to the door, please don’t mess with the nice flat roofline above it.

Clearance is tight

Because the sliding door extends almost to the top of the van, and because our roof rack bar towers are only 3″ high, there’s very little space for the awning to slide into place under our solar panels and still clear the sliding door when it opens.

After measuring, we knew it would be tight. We decided to do a test fit and then add shims if necessary.

Fiamma bracket clearance issue
Fiamma bracket clearance issue

Normally you’d mount the brackets, then lift the awning body up, over, and down on to the support brackets. We couldn’t leave enough room above the brackets for the awning to do that.

We needed the awning as close to the underside of the solar panels as possible. That meant that the awning had to be hooked in place on the brackets first, and then the l-angle holding the brackets had to be slid horizontally into the T-slots in the ends of the roof rack bars and tightened down.

How the brackets attach to the VanTech roof rack t-slots
How the brackets attach to the VanTech roof rack t-slots (loosely mounted to check for clearance in this picture)

A test-fit just confirmed our suspicions that the shims were required. The door needed about an extra 1/32″ to clear the base of the awning.

Test-fitting the awning before we added shims
Test-fitting the awning before we added shims – notice the scrape on the bottom of the awning from the top edge of the door?

We might have been able to squeeze that extra space out somewhere by just tightening things up, but subsequent sag, misalignment, or just general bad luck would mean going back to the drawing board.

Cursing occurs. Resignation sets in.

The easiest alternative would be to run the brackets to the edge of the solar panels, mount the awning level with the top of the panels, and slide the roof rack bars across to the driver’s side to even things up slightly.

That would give us about an inch of clearance for the door, but it sounded like a lot of work to us and the additional overhang of the solar panels on the driver’s side was not an idea that filled us with joy.

Additionally, we found that the awning couldn’t mount level with the top of the solar panels because of the position of the bracket mounting bolts. So, it would look just as crappy and stick out further.

Instead, we decided we’d raise the towers on the passenger side of the van.

We considered getting taller custom tower uprights made by a local fabricator, but we really didn’t fancy disassembling the whole roof rack assembly.

So, shims it was. To make the VanTech roof rack tower uprights tall enough, we had to shim them with 1/4″ aluminum bar stock. We had some of this left over from making bike fork mounts that bolt on to the l-track in the back of the van. The special bolts that VanTech provide with the rack aren’t long enough to accept a shim, so we had to buy some extra-long ones from them.

1/4" aluminum bar stock for roof rack shims
1/4″ aluminum bar stock for roof rack shims
Shims with holes drilled to pass roof rack tower bolts through
Shims with holes drilled to pass roof rack tower bolts through

This did the trick. Adding the 1/4″ aluminum shims gave us enough door clearance. It was a pain to slide all the old short bolts out from the roof rail and slide the new ones in, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Even with the shims, getting the awning mounted to the brackets took some planning. We already mentioned that we couldn’t lift the awning on to the support hooks of the bracket, because there’s only 3/32″ of space between the top of the awning and the bottom of the rack.

The top of the awning is about 3/32" below the base of the rack and solar panels
The top of the awning is about 3/32″ below the base of the rack and solar panels. That’s an issue because you need around 1/2″ in order to properly lift the awning onto its brackets.

We loosely mounted the front and middle brackets level with the edge of the solar panels. We lined up the rear of the awning level with the middle bracket, and then dropped the awning down on to the brackets. Now we could push the brackets back under the rack rails. With the front and mid brackets in place, we could tighten them up. We needed the awning to be balanced so far forward so that we could reach the bolts for the mid bracket. There was no access from beneath.

With those two brackets tightened up, we slid the awning into its final position and then attached the rear bracket, first hooking it into the awning and then tightening it to the roof rail.

We realize those last two paragraphs may not make any sense to you. That’s OK. We really wrote them for ourselves so that we can remember how the hell we got the thing on there if we ever need to take it off in the future.

Clearance is still really tight

We have just under 1/4″ of clearance from the top of the open door to the bottom of the closed awning. Things are better when the awning is open.

Just under 1/4" clearance. It's close, but it's OK
Just under 1/4″ clearance. It’s close, but it’s OK

We have some 2″ wide 3M Leading Edge Tape that we use to protect areas of our carbon fiber bike frames. We ended up putting a strip of it along the leftmost 6″ of the top of the sliding door (you could also use the much cheaper 3M Scotchguard paint protector tape). It should act as extra protection in the case where the awning drops down as it opens or closes. Of course, in that situation the sliding door shouldn’t be open anyway.

Awnings shouldn’t create a roller-coaster of emotions

This whole post sounds a little like the five stages of grief.

  • Denial: We can make an awning work with our stock rack system. Don’t you tell us we can’t!
  • Anger: What do you mean the door scrapes on the bottom of the awning? That’s nothing we couldn’t fix with an angle grinder.
  • Bargaining: Maybe we can put the awning on the edge of the rack rather than the underside of it? It will extend the solar panels out another four inches on the driver’s side, but that’s OK, right? Right?
  • Depression: OK, so we have to undo all those freakin’ bolts and add shims. <sigh>
  • Acceptance: Wow. Now that we added those shims and it fits properly, it’s looking pretty good!

What we learned is that if you want a ton of solar power, you have to compromise on what else you can fit on your roof. Better planning up front would have meant we bought rails and rail towers that accommodated the height of the awning, or we might have even had some towers custom-bent for us by our local fabricator.

In the end we made it work, and it works well. But hopefully our learning process will mean you don’t have to go through the same steps that we did to make your awning play nicely with a roof rack system.

Testing the awning extension
Testing the awning extension. This gives us 8’x13′ of protection from sun and rain.

6 Replies to “Adding an awning to a Sprinter with a roof rack”

  1. Thanks for this post. A reminder for me to take it slow as I’m not in an area that has many sprinter vans so I’ve never actually seen the set up I want. I want an awning for serious rain protection so no drip between vehicle and the awning attachment. I also want a safari roof rack for occasional roof top hangs out and sleep outs but mostly to get wet surfboards out of the van interior. And lastly I will want some amount of solar say 100 watts. It’s a big order to fill. I’m hoping to see someone who has already figured this one out. I am in a 4×4 144 WB 2016. At the beginning of my build. (Outline Specification Sprinter forum). I have the sneaking suspicion I won’t be able to achieve my goals unfortunately. Have you by any chance seen anyone who has achieved all of this?

    1. TheDangerz on the Sprinter forum have a rack, awning and solar similar to your desires. They said they are going to bring it to market, but there seems to have been a delay. One thing to bear in mind: Mercedes says the maximum load on the high roof vans is 330 lbs – that’s not much. Definitely not enough for a dance party up there.

      Not sure you’ll find a commercial awning that gives serious rain protection.

      1. Thanks, possibly off topic now, …330 lbs roof rack rating – I wonder if that is a number generated on stability of the van while cornering or whether it is truly a simple dead load for a stationary vehicle generated from the structural strength of the vehicle shell? Any ideas on that? I tend to suspect the first, making the upstairs (stationary) patio a little more feasible…

        1. I agree, it’s more likely to be a stability issue than a load issue. In the manual Mercedes state “When you load the roof, the center of gravity of the vehicle rises and the driving characteristics change. If you exceed the maximum roof load, the driving characteristics, as well as steering and braking, will be greatly impaired. There is a risk of an accident.

          We’ve got ~250 lbs on the roof (including the roof rack weight), spread over four cross bars. The van does handle differently with that much weight up top.

          However, the manual is also very insistent on no more than 110 lbs per pair of carrier supports (i.e. per cross bar). I’m not sure just how much weight I’d put up there anyway. The metal in the interior beams and uprights looks pretty strong, but it’s only thin pressed steel. Maybe I’m being overly cautious.

  2. Awesome description & documentation. Wish I would have seen this first about the different awnings atbPanther RV in Washougal,.

    I would caution all, to be aware of sliding the door open when the awning (Fiamma 65s Eagle) is fully extended & the legs are lower than 6′. On our 2012 2500 Sprinter 170WB, with the center rafter in, there is no clearance!
    For us, this resulted in the door catching the bracket & breaking it! While on a 4 month winter trip!!!
    The replacement part is 17$, but the bloody shipping quoted was 21$! Ordered 2 & got the shipping down to 15$!
    Another thing I would add is that I have seen & met many folks who have had their fiamma unravel while traveling & others who broke the crank arm slot.
    So I always check to see that the awning looks secure fore & aft B4 driving & when Cranking open the awning, to make sure that the handle is in a straight line with the crank arm slot.
    Thanks again for your most excellent post.

    1. Thanks for those tips, Pat.

      The F45 has little red tabs at each end that disappear inside the awning when it’s properly closed. I can see how it might unravel if it wasn’t completely shut.

      We can’t roll ours out without closing the sliding door because of the way we mounted it and the lack of clearance. I didn’t realize the F65 suffered from a similar problem.

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