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What Is a Tonneau Cover? A Brief Guide to Choosing the Right One For Your Truck

What Is a Tonneau Cover
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updated: June 12, 2024

Tonneau covers add versatility to your pickup truck, allowing you to store items in the bed even in inclement weather, and help to keep your items secure. A tonneau cover can also enhance the look of your truck and may even contribute to better gas mileage. But to get the best results from a tonneau cover, it’s important to choose one that’s right for your needs and how you use your truck.

I spoke with vehicle experts to find out the pros and cons of tonneau covers, the different cover styles available, and what you need to know about choosing the cover that’s best for your truck.

What is a tonneau cover for?

“A tonneau cover is like a lid that goes over the open bed area of a pickup truck,” explains Todd Bialaszewski, a certified master mechanic and founder of Junk Car Medics. He explains that tonneau covers serve multiple purposes, from protecting the items in the bed of your truck to even helping with gas mileage.

“When it comes to protecting and enhancing the functionality of your truck, a tonneau cover is a valuable investment,” explains Frank Bisciotti, editor in chief of RealTruck.com.

Types of tonneau covers

Bisciotti notes that truck owners can choose from several different types of tonneau covers, each with slightly different designs and pros and cons:

Roll-up covers

Roll-up tonneau covers give you full access to the truck bed when you roll the cover up toward the truck cab. These soft covers tend to be easy to install and remove, but they don’t offer as much security as a hard cover. Roll-up covers may also wear out faster than hard covers as they’re exposed to the elements.

Snap covers

Snap covers are soft tonneau covers that are affordable and easy to install. By unsnapping the cover, you can easily access the truck bed. However, snap covers are less secure than other covers, and since the snaps can wear out over time, they aren’t a highly durable choice.

Tri-fold covers

Like roll-up and snap covers, tri-fold tonneau covers are also quick to install. They fold up into three panels, giving you quick and easy partial access to your truck bed. The tri-fold covers tend to provide good security and weather protection, but they can also be bulkier when folded. Fold-up covers tend to cost more than roll-up covers.

Hinged covers

Hinged covers are designed so that you can release the cover locks and lift the entire cover upward. These covers feature a lift system that raises the cover up, giving you partial access to the truck bed. Hinged covers are available in hard and soft designs, and they offer excellent security and weather protection. However, hinged covers, especially hard ones, are more expensive and can be cumbersome to fully remove from your truck.

Retractable covers

Retractable covers slide over your truck bed and can retract into a canister, giving you nearly full access to the bed. These covers are easy to use and offer excellent security and weather protection. You can also lock them into various positions, so you can choose to partially cover your bed. While retractable covers are convenient to use, they’re more expensive than other models. The installation is also more complex, and it’s possible that you might encounter mechanical issues over time.

What’s the difference between a truck bed cover and a tonneau cover?

The term “truck bed cover” is used interchangeably with the term “tonneau cover.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a tonneau is the rear seating compartment of a vehicle. Since tonneau covers conceal the rear compartment, or bed, of a truck, the term is frequently used today.

Benefits of a tonneau cover

The best tonneau covers offer several valuable benefits:

Weather protection

Tonneau covers protect the items in your truck bed from rain, snow, and the sun. They also protect the items from wind, ensuring the items stay in your truck bed.

I installed tonneau covers on two of my pickups and always appreciated that I didn’t have to worry about the weather when I needed to transport items in the bed of my truck. While I had to remove snow from the covers, it was much easier to do than climbing into the truck bed to shovel out snow.

Security

Tonneau covers also help to protect your items from theft. “I have seen too many people get costly tools or gear stolen because the bed was open,” says Bialaszewski.

Having a tonneau cover gave me peace of mind that my valuables were protected when I was driving to and from college. Plus, since my covers were solid black, they concealed the items completely, so others never even knew they were there.

Aesthetic appeal

“Tonneau covers look great, too, and give your truck a finished, neat look instead of an open bed,” says Bialaszewski. “Whatever style you get, a truck bed cover protects your gear and improves your truck overall.”

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What are the disadvantages of a tonneau cover?

Tonneau covers have many advantages, but there are some downsides, too. Installing them isn’t always easy, and I found that the soft covers only held up to a few years of use, especially given the winter weather we experience in Massachusetts. When I had a hinged cover, I couldn’t fully use the bed without removing the cover entirely, which was labor-intensive. Additionally, tonneau covers, especially hard shell options, can be expensive.

Do tonneau covers improve gas mileage?

A Specialty Equipment Market Association study on tonneau cover use in a wind tunnel found that the covers helped to reduce the coefficient of drag on the pickup truck by 5.73%. Improving aerodynamic performance is believed to equate to a 2 to 3% improvement in gas mileage, so a 5.73% reduction in the coefficient of drag would equate to about a 1.8% improvement in gas mileage.

“You might get one or two more miles per gallon on most highways with an aerodynamic cover,” says Bialaszewski. However, it’s important to remember that the weight of some hard covers can cancel out the gas savings.

Is installing a tonneau cover hard?

Bisciotti notes that the difficulty of installing a tonneau cover will depend on the type of cover as well as your mechanical skill. Soft covers tend to be easier to install and can be installed without professional help. “Hard covers, like hinged and retractable models, may require more time, tools, and expertise,” he says. “Most manufacturers provide detailed instructions, and many covers come with installation kits to simplify the process.” For a basic overview, check out my guide on how to install a tonneau cover.

What type of tonneau cover is best?

According to Bisciotti, it’s important to consider how you use your truck and your primary needs when choosing a tonneau cover. “For example, if you frequently haul large or irregularly shaped items, a roll-up or tri-fold cover might be more convenient,” he explains. If you’re looking for security or overall aesthetics, then a retractable or hard cover might be better. “By understanding the various options and their benefits, you can make an informed decision that best suits your needs and lifestyle,” he says.

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