Tonneau covers are great. They look good. They prevent theft. They keep your stuff dry. For these, and any other reasons you can think of, you’ve decided to get a pickup tonneau cover (also known as a bed cover, or bed cap), but you don’t know what will work best. No worries, I didn’t either until I did a lot of digging.

Benefits of a Tonneau Cover

Theft prevention isn’t the only reason for installing a good tonneau cover, but it the most often searched. First off, you have the “out of sight, out of mind” convention. If people can’t see what you have, chances are they’re going to move on. You’ll be less likely to become a target of opportunity.

Some covers are more secure than others, such as a hard, one-piece, locking, fiberglass cover vs. a fabric, roll-up one.

Weather is another benefit. Not all covers are completely water-proof, but even a soft, roll-up cover will keep the majority of the rain & mud out of your bed.

Dirt. Have you ever had to transport something over a dirt road? Have you even kept your window down and then found you were spitting dirt after a few minutes? A good cover can keep out most, if not all, of the dust and dirt that’s kicked up around you. Very handy if you have a load of camping gear and you forget to seal up your bags.

Fuel economy is (arguably) another perk. Although, you most likely won’t see much of an improvement, unless you spend a lot of time on the highway. Depending on what information you choose to believe, a good cover can improve your mileage by as much as 10%, or even hinder you by something like 4%. Other factors that will influence those figures are bed length and how smooth/tight the cover is.

Different Kinds for Different needs

So what do you use your truck for? If you’re like me, you have a lot of different things to haul and places to go see. Will you consistently need access to the entire bed? Or just the last third where the tailgate is, so you can get to the groceries? How about visibility out the back window? Folding covers stack up against the cab and limit what you can see. If you want a single-piece hard cover, try to anticipate removing it if you need to haul something that sits above the bed rails. A soft cover will roll up out of the way, but they flex and flutter in the wind.

Soft Cover

There are two major kinds of soft covers. These are roll-up and tri-fold.

Roll-up covers are just that. They are made from a flexible fabric, stretched across the open bed and attached to the bed rails. There are ribs built-in to hold the shape, and tension adjusters keep it tight. Hook-and-Loop (Velcro) strips run the length of each bed rail, and are hard-backed and clamped on.

The advantage to these are that they roll up tight against the cab, in a small package that can be strapped down. It’s low profile so it won’t interfere with visibility, and they are easily removed if you want that last few inches of bed space.

These will sit on top of the bed rails, so you won’t get that low-profile look. Also, they can partially cover the stake pockets. Keep in mind that soft covers can’t support any load, so open it up if it’s going to snow.

Tri-fold covers use a frame with material stretched over. Three panels are attached together with hinges so they can be folded up into a stack at the cab, or removed and stowed if you need the extra space. They are lighter than hard covers, and are quick to install. Some have a seal for the seam at the tailgate, but they will only serve to keep the majority of water out of the bed.

As with the roll up covers, these soft covers won’t hold much of a load, so if you see a lot of snow in your area, be sure to keep it cleared off or you might find that the cover has collapsed into the bed.

Soft-Tonneau-Cover-CroppedWikimedia Commons

Like the roll-up, these covers also sit on top of the bed rails, not flush with them.

With both of these, theft prevention is pretty much limited to out of sight, out of mind. They are easy to tear or cut into.

Hard Cover

A buddy of mine has a roll-up hard cover. His is built with aluminum slats, covered and hinged with a tough fabric so the entire thing can still be rolled up against the cab and strapped down. The slats lock together and use latches to prevent theft if the tailgate is locked. It has quick latches that are easy to flip and the cover comes away so he has full access to the bed.

rolling tonneau cover with slats
Rolling Cover with Aluminum Slats

One thing to mention is that he said is that on the highway the wind blowing over the cover when it is closed will make it ripple and rattle.

Tri-fold hard covers are even more secure. They consist of three panels- typically made from an aluminum/foam combination and covered with a tough fabric or vinyl. Most of them come with a locking mechanism, with some of them remaining locked even when you open the tailgate.

The beauty of either type of hard cover is that it can be installed to sit flush with the bed rails, not on top of them. This frees up the stake pockets if you have a use for them. It also adds security to the system- it’s harder to get underneath the edges and pry it up. Not to mention, they look a lot nicer.

Tonneau-Cover-Tri-foldWikiemedia Commons

One-piece hard covers are the hardiest of the bunch. They are made of fiberglass, and will lock to your tailgate. They hinge at the bed so you can open them from the back. Because of the hard shell, they are hard to break into and darn near weatherproof.

These covers are molded to an appealing shape, complimenting the lines of your truck. Also, they are typically color-matched to your rig.

Hard Tonneau Cover
Hard Tonneau Cover

The downfall is that if you have to remove one, it can be more difficult to handle. Also, if you choose to leave it on, but have an over-sized load, it sticks up and causes issues such as visibility and stability at highway speeds.

Decide What’s Important- How Will You Use It

Now you have a pretty good idea of what’s available. Go back to what you use your truck for. Do you run empty all the time, or at least most of the time? Do you seem to always have a bed full of stuff? Somewhere in between?

What do you haul? Can you keep it in the bed, below the rails, hidden from view? Is it to tall?

Are you a weekend warrior, like me? Occasionally I need to put a refrigerator back there, or perhaps a couple of yards of landscaping mulch, or a garage full of junk for the landfill. I’m leaning toward a tri-fold, lockable cover that can be folded up against the cab, or even quickly removed for that last couple of inches of bed space or for a clear view out the back window.

There are other options you may be considering, such as a pickup canopy. I won’t go into detail here, but I thought I should give it an honorable mention. They allow more space without removing them, and are lockable and secure. They significantly change the lines of the truck, giving it a much different look.

Have You Decided?

No matter what you end up buying for your truck, you can relax a bit more now that you know what’s available. Let me know in the comments below if you have any more questions, or if you want to share some profound wisdom I’m missing out on.

-Alan