Comparing Awnings from Smittybilt and ARB

A reader wrote in today to ask about our experiences with our Smittybilt awning.

“I found your website through expedition portal researching the Smittybilt tent and awning. The tent seems to be well received by most who purchase it, but what about the awning? Hows the structure and material? Have you compared it to other brands?”

Well, he’s right about the rooftop tent. Our Smittybilt 2783 has certainly served us well and we’re always looking forward to spending another night in it.

Our side awning is a Smittybilt 2784, which has been an invaluable piece of kit. We have enjoyed many days and nights under it, sheltering us from the the sun and rain, covering our cooking from falling leaves or snow, or just giving us a shady place to read or relax in a hammock.

The Smittybilt is the larger of our two awnings, at roughly 8’6″ wide and 6’6″ long.  Originally placed on the driver side, we found that the awning provided significantly more shade on the passenger side when were backed up to the shore, as is the norm in the Outer Banks.  The following photos were taken about a year apart, but at roughly the same time of year and same time of day.  The longer shadow clearly speaks for itself.

As we’ve mentioned before, prior to the FJ, we had a Jeep Cherokee. One of the only things we’ve missed from the XJ was the rear hatch. In seconds it provided both protection from the elements and access to the rear cargo area from any angle.

The FJ, instead, has a rear door. That certainly has its own benefits, but immediate shelter isn’t one of them. We decided to add a smaller awning to rear to take the place of the absent hatch. Smittybilt didn’t offer an awning in this size, so we went with an ARB 814301. It is approximately 4’6″ x 6’6″, so it certainly provides more cover than a rear hatch would, although it takes slightly longer to deploy.

Last fall, when cleaning the covers and treating the fabric, we took the time to snap a few photos and record some differences between the two awnings.  So what did we find?

The first thing we noted was the material the joints are made of.  The ARB uses plastic, while the Smittybilt is metal.  So far there has been no difference in durability, but I’d certainly trust the metal to be stronger, especially in cold temperatures.

Also of note is the seams on the covers.  After washing and rinsing both awnings, the ARB was quite wet where water had penetrated the stitching.  We noticed daylight was visible through some of the needle holes.  The Smittybilt cover is taped on the inside over the seams.  This appears to substantially prevent water intrusion.  The amount of water pressure present from a spray nozzle is much higher than nature itself is likely to provide, and the ARB has never been damp when we’ve opened it.  If one was concerned, it could be better sealed easily with some Seam Grip or other sealer.

The next point is of minor consequence, but the engineering is a bit confusing.  On the Smittybilt, the pins at the end of the poles, both horizontal and vertical, are about 3 times as long as those on the ARB.  The outer channel on the Smittybilt is drilled all the way through to provide two holes for the pins to rest in, plus a third for a length of cord that allows you to stake the awning down.  The ARB is only drilled through two of the 3 channel fins, but the pole pins are only long enough to make it through the first hole.  The application of rotational pressure to the horizontal pins would be undesirable for any awning, but one would suspect that the single fin on the ARB would be more susceptible to damage at that point.

Another peculiarity of the ARB awning is what appears to be anti-abrasion pads at the front corners.  These pads and the rest of the fabric seem to be dissimilar materials and it appears that some of the coating from the primary fabric has stuck to these pads.  Does it matter?  Probably not.  Does it seem odd though?  Certainly.

Lastly is a final point of value.  However simplistic, the Smittybilt awning did come with some basic mounting hardware, including L-brackets, u-bolts, and examples of how to mount it to roof racks, baskets, etc.  We purchased the Smittybilt awning prior to the rooftop tent and originally had it secured via clamp-style awning mounts.  After adding the tent, we needed to locate the awning a bit lower to clear the tent base.  The brackets included with the awning worked perfectly.

The ARB awning came with the nuts and bolts that are compatible with most mounts, but that was it.  It was nice to again have a use for the excellent Fourtreks modular awning mounts we’d originally used on the larger awning.

Maintenance on both awnings has been minor.  Twice a year we’ve scrubbed the covers clean with soap and water, then treated them with 303 Aerospace Protectant to minimize UV damage.  The awning fabrics have always kept us perfectly dry, but we’ve still given them a quick once-over with Scotchguard Heavy Duty to help with water repellency.

The Smittybilt has gotten far more use because of its size, mounting location, and now starting its fourth year of being on our rig.  We may look into a Foxwing in the future, but right now we’re quite content with what we’ve got. Despite the handful of negative points concerning the ARB, both awnings have been completely reliable, and you can expect an awning from either manufacturer will give you many years of trouble-free use.

Adam’s Jeep Cherokee Build

From time to time, here at ОѴƦԼχƝƊ we will also feature the work of others we think you’ll enjoy seeing.  The first instance of this will be from our friend Adam, founder of Overland History.

Kevin and Adam @ Overland Expo 2016

Adam recently put together a walk-around of his Jeep Cherokee. He’s done a great job with his build and we think you’ll enjoy seeing the careful thought and excellent craftsmanship that has gone into his rig.

Find more from Adam on Facebook @overlandhistory and Instagram @overland_history

What is all this ОѴƦԼχƝƊ nonsense, anyway?

ОѴƦԼχƝƊ comes from the plate on our FJ.  It is meant to describe the type of build we’ve done on our FJ, and to describe what we do with it – overlanding.  With any vanity plate, you’re left at the mercy of your own creativity and whatever is available.  In my mind’s eye, the X kinda looked like VA.

But what do I know about aesthetics?  I can’t even be trusted to take a photo that isn’t blurry.  Either way, it gave us a short, unique domain name for the web site, and that is always nice.

Sorry I asked.  Now, what is overlanding?

The definition I’ve decided on is:  vehicle-based self-reliant adventure travel.

Wow, you really like hyphenated words.  But what does what you said even mean?

You drive around and live out of your vehicle.  From food to tools, you carry whatever you might need and resupply along the way.  You stop to smell the roses.  The journey is as important as the destination.  It’s about getting behind the wheel and crafting your own adventure in the outdoors.

The outdoors…  Well what are you doing with a website, Nature Boy?

We just wanted somewhere to host our pictures, tell our stories about the places we’ve been or plan to go, and to offer reviews on the gear we’ve been using.

Uh, okay.  But do you have any clue how you want to end this article?

 

After publishing at 3 am and getting a good morning’s rest, I have figured out how to end this article!  I’m going to share a few links where you can learn more about overlanding.  These are sites I visit frequently and have garnered tons of useful info from.

Expedition Overland – These are the guys to beat.  Hands down, there is no better production quality for overland vehicles than the content this crew is putting out.  They have explored various parts of the American southwest, gone as far north in Alaska as possible, and have recently returned from Chile, about halfway through South America.

 

Expedition Portal – ExPo is an online community of overlanders, tending toward the more experienced crowd.  Lots of Q&A, excellent info, route sharing, and more.  My favorite thread there is from Kenny J, who sets out with an AstroVan and a dirt bike on a solo exploration of the American west.

 

 

Overland Bound – Michael and Corey started out just telling stories like us and ended up building one of the largest and friendliest online overland communities.  Their site is more our speed, with most people just getting started with overlanding.  What the members there lack in experience is more than made up for in enthusiasm.

Finding Serenity

In 2009, I bought a Jeep Cherokee. On paper, it was exactly what we needed. 4 doors, four wheel drive, 4.0, double-digit gas mileage, able to tow a trailer with our ATVs, and a fantastic platform on which to build a new rig. When it worked, it was great. In between problems, we did get a few trips to the mountains and the Outer Banks out of it. The two most notable trips were when I asked Shannon to marry me on Oregon Inlet, and taking Dad back to where he’s from to visit family.

Exploring some trails with Dad

Fast forward to 2015. We’d been building fixing the Jeep for 6 years. It was full of new parts, upgrades, customizations, and electrical fixes. Suddenly in March, it decided to begin shedding its floorboards. Well, really it was just a couple holes in the driver-side footwell, but Neil Young and anyone who does bodywork will tell you: rust never sleeps. I can do a great impression of a mechanic, but welding isn’t something I’ve done before. On top of that, I had zero interest in performing the prep work necessary to permanently solidify the floor in what had been, in all honesty, an absolute lemon for us. I cut out the worst of the rust, treated what remained, and patched the holes to keep the carpet dry.  Other issues arose as well.  If you have an unreliable vehicle and are on the fence about a AAA membership, I can confirm it’s worth every penny.  It got to the point where every wrecker driver seemed to know where my dad’s garage was.

An all too common occurance

We were really about 3 years out from being ready to buy something else, but the time had come to replace the Heep. This situation gave me pause. With the variety of choices out there, what would best meet our needs and improve on the aspects where the Jeep fell short? The answer came surprisingly quickly. I had been in love with FJ Cruisers since seeing the concept model in 2003. We began shopping in earnest, but we were having a hard time finding what we wanted. One was rusty.  One was 2WD.  Others were way overpriced or ugly colors.  Feeling disappointment over the limited inventory, I told Shannon I’d settle for a 4Runner, Taco, or Xterra. She said, “I don’t want you to settle. You’ve wanted an FJ since you first saw one. That’s what you’re getting!”

The 2003 FJ Cruiser concept

In May, we ended up finding an 07 in Richmond. It was great shape, with only 80,000 miles on it. It had A-TRAC, the rear locker, the dash-top accessories, and a roof rack. Those were all the must-haves on our list. The seller had installed rock rails, a rear receiver, a Rough Country lift, and new tires. The only issue I could find was that the OEM door speakers were blown. I was in love! The test drive went great, and Shannon and I went home to work out our finances. I texted back and forth with the seller to finalize the price and keep him updated on our plans to return. The banks and the DMV made the process a pain in the ass, but the seller was great. I still send him texts every so often when we go somewhere cool.

The photo from our FJ’s Craigslist ad

The FJ has been nothing short of amazing. The only items unexpectedly needing service where the jamb switches that cut on the interior lights when you open the door. We’ve added a snorkel, a large transmission cooler, a rooftop tent, side and rear awnings, auxiliary lighting front and rear, LED dome lights, underhood LEDs, an upgraded battery, a Cobra CB with a Firestik antenna, a passenger seat armrest, some additional creature comforts, and 30,000 miles of making memories.

Is a morning you wake up with your wife in a rooftop tent ever not a good morning?
The obligatory pic of your feet and the view from your tent
A 5 year revisiting of the spot where we got engaged <3
Stopping to admire the view of WV on our way up to Reddish Knob

After the years of problems with the Jeep, in the FJ we’ve found reliability. We’ve found equal parts of comfort and capability. We’ve found adventure. And we’ve found our Serenity.

We’re fans of Firefly…and of feeling calmly untroubled

New trail coms!

We were given a Baofeng UV-5R for Christmas by my sister and brother-in-law.  I’ve read about them in passing, but had yet to do any research on them.  Between a cell phone, CB, and inReach, I felt we had a solid grouping of options when it came to our communications options.  At a minimum, this little device adds FRS, GMRS, and HAM capabilities, and it would appear even more useful than that.  Look for a more in-depth future article as we learn more!

The Car is a Character

Growing up in the 80s, there was no shortage of TV shows in which the heroes teamed up with a driving machine so remarkable that it became a character in its own right. The most obvious example of such a pairing is Michael Knight and KITT, as the car could speak, but we proffer that even non-verbal vehicles easily met this criteria. The Duke boys drifted the General Lee around every dirt road in Hazard County. The Fall Guy flogged his pickup on every hill in Hollywood. The A-Team toured in their black van. Hardcastle & McCormick hurried about in their Coyote X. Magnum mozied around in Higgins’ Ferrari. And we haven’t even cracked the book on the unforgettable big screen rides.

A customized vehicle given a voice would easily able to tell its own stories. Like Dr. Frankenstein animating his monster, the modifications you make, the miles you travel, and the TLC you put in all combine to transform a rig it into an entity all its own. Rather than just taking you somewhere, it goes along with you.

A comfortable seat, a beautiful view, trouble-free transportation to somewhere new, speakers filled with your favorite songs, a dry place to sleep, a hot meal, or some light in the dark – all of these things have been provided by our FJ with the same feeling of a friend handing you a cold beer at the end of a long day.

It makes us glad that those we travel and explore with all have something different than us. For us, it really is “the more, the merrier” when it comes to vehicle builds. In the process of making a vehicle your own and completing various adventures with it, it becomes a companion that travels the trails with you. The rig you’ve built yourself is an integral character that heavily influences the the stories your experiences together will lead you to tell.

99 Bottles

We’ve always had a bottle opener mounted somewhere on our rigs. So much of the exterior on the FJ is plastic that the usual options weren’t available. On a whim, we searched for a low-profile bottle opener and came across the Yeti Molle Bottle Opener. As you’ll see below, it happens to fit perfectly in the door jamb of an FJ.  Installation took only seconds with four self-drilling wafer-head screws.  Finally our FJ received the one basic mod it has been missing!