Which Type of Tonneau Cover Should You Buy?Last Updated June 13, 2023 | Meghan Drummond
While a pickup truck’s bed is one of the most useful features, the open-aired aspect can be a hindrance. Not only is your cargo exposed to the weather but if it's not secured then it could easily be lost. Truck bed covers offer a practical solution to this problem. Even a tarp can cover your pickup truck’s bed, but tonneau covers offer added benefits.
What Is a Tonneau Cover?
Tonneau covers are hard or soft covers that are designed to perfectly fit a truck’s bed. They offer weather protection, security, and even improved aerodynamics. With a tonneau cover, your pickup truck gains all the advantages of traditional trunk space.
Tonneau covers can be made out of metal or fabric, can lock for security, or roll easily out of the way. What all tonneau covers have in common is that they’re simple to install and offer a variety of benefits.
Truck Cover Benefits
Each truck cover has its own unique features and benefits. However, these are the standard improvements you can expect to see from any tonneau cover.
The most obvious advantage is weather protection. If there’s a sudden rainstorm and you’ve left tools from your latest project in your truck’s bed, they’ll be protected. That peace of mind alone is valuable.
But tonneau covers also protect an empty truck bed. Rust cuts down many trucks in their prime. One of the places where rust is quick to grow is in a truck’s bed. The metal of the bed gets scuffed up from ferrying gravel or tools. Then sitting water accumulates during rain or snow. Before you know it, you’ve created a perfect recipe for rust.
It’s also nice to know that you’ll have a dry space for your things when you need it.
Items left in the open aren’t just exposed to the weather, but also to wandering eyes. By keeping your items hidden, you’ve already added a layer of security. For truck owners who carry valuables with them, locking tonneau covers offer extra security.
While few things will stop an intent thief, tonneau covers at the very least act as a deterrent. Fewer people are willing to accept risk when there’s no guarantee they’ll find anything they want in your pickup.
More Cargo Options
Pickup trucks have the most cargo space, but their beds are rarely used to transport groceries or small, light objects. The reasons for that are pretty obvious. Besides weather exposure and theft, there’s also highway speeds to consider. Everyone’s seen a truck driver who failed to secure their items, and no one wants to be that jerk.
A tonneau cover really does turn your pickup into a trunk. The inside will be completely clean and secure. With the help of organizers like cargo nets, you’ll be able to haul small items without them flying around your pickup bed.
Though a tonneau’s most important benefits are practical ones, it also improves a truck’s style. Much like making a bed, covering a truck’s bed gives it a tidy look.
Tonneau covers are low-profile, clinging to your truck’s bed like a second skin. This covered-bed look seems much more appealing than a gaping truck bed. This is especially true if you routinely use your truck to haul things like mulch. Instead of trying to completely clean the bed, an impossible task, a tonneau cover can hide some of the mess.
If you’ve ever driven a pickup at high speeds, then you know what an uncovered bed can feel like. Air fills the truck’s bed like a pocket and creates drag and resistance. The result is an uncomfortable driving experience, loud noise, and decreased fuel economy.
While tonneau covers do save gas, the amount is slight. A SEMA study established that tonneau covers reduced drag by as much as 7.8%. And that was at 85 mph.
If you do a significant amount of highway driving, the amount of gas money you save over a year could pay for a tonneau cover. It’s not the best reason to get one though, and drivers who stay under 30 mph likely won’t see any benefit.
Hard vs Soft Tonneau Covers
Tonneau covers come in two primary types: Soft and hard. Soft and hard covers offer pros and cons that may make one a better fit for you.
Hard Tonneau Covers
While most people think of a single sheet of metal on a hinge, there’s actually a wide range of hard tonneau covers. Retractable, foldable, and rolling hard tonneau covers are some of the most common.
Hard covers offer more protection than soft covers. They can keep your parcels safe even in extreme weather situations. Though a hard cover is still a quick install, it usually takes more effort than a soft cover.
Hard tonneau covers typically have a weight rating of around 300 pounds. It’s important to note that the weight rating refers to “evenly distributed” weight. Sitting or standing on a hard tonneau cover could seriously damage it. But it’s unlikely that even a heavy snow will cause any damage.
For those who want to sit or stand in their truck’s bed, it’d be best to get a tonneau cover that can be easily moved for bed access.
Soft Tonneau Covers
Soft tonneau covers are less protective but can still withstand everyday wear and tear. They’re also less expensive than hard covers and easier to adjust as needed.
It’s important to note these tonneau covers are only “soft” in comparison to the all-metal hard tonneau covers. Soft tonneau covers are usually made of heavy-duty vinyl stretched over foam pieces.
Once installed, removing and replacing a soft tonneau cover takes seconds. If you find yourself in a pickup-necessary situation, you can easily adjust your bed.
Types of Tonneau Covers
Hard and soft tonneau covers can be further broken down based on how they open and close. Though there are some outliers, these are the most common opening and closing styles you’ll come across and the pros and cons of each.
Retractable Tonneau Covers
Retractable tonneau covers are luxurious yet practical. They’re often made out of aluminum that rolls up into a canister device. To offer a drill-free install, most retractable covers use a rail system. As long as the rail system fits on your truck, they will operate.
Retractable tonneau covers tend to be on the pricier end of the spectrum. Added features increase the cost significantly. Some desirable if pricey options include remote-control capability, low-profile design, or toolbox compatibility.
If you need a bed toolbox, retractable tonneau covers are the most likely to be compatible. You’ll still have to double-check to make sure your tonneau and toolbox can share a bed though.
Foldable Tonneau Covers
Foldable tonneau covers offer all the practicality of a retractable cover with less luxury. This opening style is available in both soft and hard styles.
The major advantage of a foldable tonneau cover is that you don’t have to remove it to use your bed. Made of three or more pieces, these covers fold into a neat stack that can then be secured. Most foldable tonneau covers come with some variant of “quick-connect straps” or tie-downs for this purpose.
Some of the major advantages of folding tonneau covers are that you gain all the advantages of a tonneau cover while keeping full bed access.
They’re also easy to install. Some foldable tonneau covers claim install times under six minutes. Almost all can be installed in under an hour and a half though.
Rolling Tonneau Covers
Rolling tonneau covers offer the same benefits as folding tonneau covers. Just like folding covers, they’re available in hard and soft styles. The hard versions use aluminum slats that roll into a tight bundle.
Unlike a folding tonneau cover, rolling covers don’t have size limitations when it comes to their opening. Folding tonneau covers usually have a tri-fold design. This creates small, medium, and large openings. Rolling covers can open to any size you need.
Depending on the type of rolling cover you get, it may also roll up to occupy less space than a folding cover.
Hinged Tonneau Covers
Hinged tonneau covers are only available as hard covers, and they need to be precisely measured to your truck bed. When you need access to your bed, hinged covers easily pop open.
The downsides of this tonneau cover style are clear. Out of all the opening styles, a hinged tonneau cover is the least flexible. There’s no way to accommodate oversized cargo, or access only part of your bed.
The reason these are still popular is that they’re the most secure. It’s easy to find lockable options for hinged covers. Because they’re sized for specific trucks, hinged tonneau covers are often painted in factory colors. This creates a seamless look that many find appealing.
Tonneau Cover Measurements
Be sure to select a tonneau cover designed specifically for your year and model for a perfect fit.
If you aren’t sure what length truck bed you have, you can easily measure it. From inside the pickup bed, measure from the bulkhead to the inside edge of the tailgate. You may find that you get a 5’4” measurement. This would mean you have a 5’5” bed.
There’s typically 1-2” of wiggle room with regard to pickup bed lengths. You’ll want to round up or down to the nearest manufacturer size.
Tonneau Cover Closing Options
Regardless of how your tonneau cover opens or closes, you’ll need a way to secure it in place. No one wants their tonneau cover to open at an inopportune time. Likewise, not being able to access your truck’s bed defeats the purpose of owning one.
Snap Closure Tonneaus
Snap-closure covers used to be the most widely available types of tonneau. Over the years, they’ve fallen out of popularity. Cold and heat can cause a tonneau cover to stretch and retract a microscopic amount. This caused snaps to become less effective over time. If you live in a climate where there are few temperature fluctuations, you can probably use a snap closure tonneau cover. But why? Almost every other closure method is better.
Tonneau Cover Clamps
Clamps are the most common method of securing a tonneau cover. You’ll frequently find this on fold-up covers. The clamps easily fold into the panel they’re attached to, creating easy storage and no lost parts.
Tonneau Cover Velcro
When in the folded position, most covers use some form of restraint strap, often buckled. These straps keep the cover from coming loose even at high speeds.
Velcro fasteners are typically referred to as “hook and loop” fasteners, since “Velcro” is a copyrighted name. Velcro fasteners are most frequently used on roll-up tonneau covers. Fortunately, the roll itself helps to provide some of the security for these truck covers.
Lockable Tonneau Covers
For those most interested in security, locking tonneau covers are especially appealing. You’ll most commonly find locking mechanisms with retractable bed covers. Because of these covers’ especially low profile, they’re able to lock with your tailgate.
Hinged covers also tend to have lockable mechanisms.
Tonneau Compatible Bed Accessories
Getting a tonneau cover somewhat restricts your access to bed accessories, but there are still plenty of options.
There are tonneau compatible toolboxes. Bed extenders, like the ones made by AMP Research, are compatible with most tonneau covers, though hinged ones won’t work. Some accessories, like bed lights and cargo bars, gain additional functionality with the help of a tonneau.
What Is the Best Tonneau Cover for You?
Unfortunately there’s no easy “best” tonneau cover. Each option has its own list of pros and cons.
|Rolling Tonneau||Available in hard or soft styles
Most flexible option
|Hard to find locking models
Roll occupies space, with hard covers taking up more space
|Folding Tonneau||Available in hard or soft styles
|Folded panels occupy bed space even when not in use
Hard to find locking options
|Hinged Tonneau||Most secure
|Retractable Tonneau||Tough and durable
Most locking options
|Most expensive option|
There are types of truck bed covers for every use. Tonneaus come in a wide range of types and styles, with features to accommodate every driver.
Brand-specific tonneau covers are available for every make and model of pickup truck. Now that you’ve figured out which types will be best for you, you can check and see what options there are for your truck.