What are tonneau covers and should you get one?

Tonneau Cover Buying Guide

If you own a pick-up truck, then you have probably at least considered getting a tonneau cover at some point, and with good reason too. They are, after all,  one of the most useful upgrades you could provide your vehicle. 

But what exactly makes tonneau covers in such high demand, and do you even need one? In this post, we take a deep dive into why tonneau covers are so popular and address some queries many people have surrounding this eye-catching accessory.

A tonneau cover is a weather-resistant material that is put over the bed of a truck to protect it. It can be made out of vinyl, leather, aluminum, or any other water-resistant material, and come in many different types and styles. These include:

  • Soft roll
  • Soft fold
  • Hard fold
  • Retractable cover types

What is the purpose of a tonneau cover?

Truck tonneau covers have been around since the early days of trucks and the concept of the tonneau cover has existed way before even that.

Some key reasons behind why tonneau covers were adopted include:

  • To keep cargo secure
  • Prevent cargo from sliding around or falling out during driving
  • To protect the cargo and the bed against weather damage

Truck tonneau covers are very useful especially for truck drivers who depend on their cargo to get them through a hard day’s work. By having a tonneau cover you will provide your cargo with protection from the elements and security from would-be thieves.

Also, if your truck bed is carpeted then it would save on a ton of cleaning effort to use a tonneau cover to protect it from getting wet and staying damp over time.

As well as serving a practical purpose, tonneau covers are also fitted for stylistic reasons. As eluded to earlier, they come in different shapes, designs, and colors, and can be made from a variety of different materials.

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The type of tonneau cover you end up choosing is ultimately down to your personal preference.

For example, the tonneau cover may come in an aerodynamic design that reduces air drag or it may be designed with a stylish finish that enhances the appearance of your truck.

With tonneau covers, you also have control over how the profile of your vehicle will look. Some covers can range from appearing thick from the side profile, and thus not quite complementing the lines of your truck in contrast to the lower profile alternatives.

When viewed from the side, low-profile bed covers are barely observable and can fit flush with the shape of your truck bed. In turn, this can help the aerodynamics of your vehicle and improve fuel efficiency.

Such design enhancements are attractive to those who want to upgrade the appearance of their truck, and as such will likely add a premium to the price in contrast to covers that don’t have these.

How much do tonneau covers cost?

Tonneau covers are made of many different types of materials, each having its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

Tonneau covers tend to range in price from approx. $100 to up to $3000 in the general retail market. Of course, there will be exceptions to this, so take this as a ballpark price range.

The price largely depends on several factors, but the main factor is the type of tonneau cover it is.

The type of tonneau will influence which secondary factors will affect the price and by how much. These secondary factors include:  

  • The level of engineering involved in manufacturing
  • The features that are included in the tonneau cover
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The type of tonneau cover

There are several types of tonneau cover that can be purchased. They are:

Soft roll-up

Soft Roll-up tonneau covers are mainly composed of a weatherproof tarp material that is wrapped around a frame that fits the perimeter of the bed.

The frame is sometimes reinforced with parallel bars to give it more structural substance. This tough tarp material is stretched sufficiently to cause enough tension to make it look fairly solid and aerodynamic.

Soft roll-up bed covers can be opened by manually unlocking and rolling the cover open and strapping it in place. Then unraveled and locked again to close. 

The only real issue with soft roll tonneau covers is that poor quality covers examples can be cut through or damaged easier than expected. 

Soft roll-up tonneau covers can cost anywhere from $100 to $1000.

Soft folding

Soft folding tonneau covers are also surrounded by a tough tarp material that is tension wrapped around the perimeter frame.

In addition to this, the frame is split into several sections which are defined by parallel bars that. These bars effectively split the cover into several sections (typically two, three, or four), that allow the cover to be folded instead of rolled open. 

This is the key difference between soft-roll and soft-fold tonneau covers. In both cases, the tarp material is usually made from leather or vinyl. But like the soft roll covers, lower quality tarps can be damaged relatively easily.

Soft-folding tonneaus can cost anywhere from $100 to $1000.

Last update on 2022-05-28 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Hard Folding

Hard folding tonneau covers are composed of multiple hard panels (typically two, three, or four panels) that are joined together.

There is a hinge where each panel joins the next that allows the user to easily fold open the tonneau cover. The panels are usually made of aluminum which can be covered with either a quality grade vinyl, leather, or rubber layer or left with a matte finish.

Generally speaking, hard-folding bed covers are more heavy-duty than soft variations. Also, because of the solid, straight structure, these covers are more aerodynamic.

That being said, the profile height of this tonneau cover type is rarely completely flush with the lines of the truck. 

Hard folding tonneau covers usually cost between $200 to $1400.

Hinged or Full-tilt

Hinged or Full-tilt tonneau covers are usually composed of one panel ( sometimes two) and are opened by lifting the end of the cover straight up.

They are propped up by auto-locking hydraulic shafts found on either side of the perimeter in a similar manner to engine hoods.

Because of the presence of a single hard panel, full-tilt tonneau covers are touted as being very aerodynamic. They also lend themselves to being designed in very eye-catching styles.

For example, they can be designed to match the exact paint type of the vehicle, and because there is no folding, the integrity of the pant will remain unaffected. This also provides excellent protection against UV damage. 

Hinged/full-tilted tonneau covers usually cost anywhere from $300 to $2400.

Retractable

Retractable tonneau covers are made up of multiple flat slats that are joined up to make a long metal cover that can be opened by simply dragging the end of the cover toward the cab.

The cover rolls into a canister that eventually contains the cover. The operation on these can be done either manually or via a remote-controlled automated motor. These options are all available at different price points.

Indeed retractable bed covers are the priciest type of tonneau cover on the list, but arguably the most versatile and feature-rich.

They also have an extremely low-profile appearance which appears flush with the line of the truck bed in most cases.

The only issue with some retractable covers is that they can take up quite a bit of trunk space, so it is worth checking this when shopping around for these tonneau covers.

Retractable tonneau covers can cost anywhere from $600 to $3400.

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Do tonneau covers save gas?

Yes, tonneau covers save gas due to improving the overall aerodynamics of the truck.

According to this study, fuel consumption can be improved by approximately 2-3%, assuming the overall aerodynamics of the vehicle has improved by 10% while traveling at 48mph.

So based on this, the more aerodynamic you can make your vehicle, the more fuel-efficient it will be. Additionally, one of the widely accepted benefits of tonneau covers is help to aerodynamically reduce drag.

So how much gas do tonneau covers save?

Some manufacturers claim that their tonneau covers result in a reduction in aerodynamic drag that amounts to approx. 8% improvement in fuel consumption on certain models of trucks.

This can be difficult to verify in the real world, but even half of this figure would represent a significant impact on fuel consumption.

Are tonneau covers waterproof?

A tonneau cover can help to protect items that are stored in the truck’s bed from getting wet. However, people have also reported tonneau covers being prone to leaking.

How prevalent this weakness is will essentially depend on the type of tonneau cover you purchase and how it was built.

Do tonneau covers leak?

No tonneau cover can guarantee a leak-free experience. But if the cover is correctly installed and of good quality, then this likelihood will be minimized.

There are, however, some structural reasons why tonneau covers can be at risk of leaking. 

As a general rule of thumb, the more hinges and panels there is the more chance of a failure point developing.

This is likely because continued bending and maneuvering of the bed cover, during opening and closing, can lead to gradual wear and tear of the seals and joints over time.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all tonneau covers with multiple panels are no good.

Indeed, some of the very best tonneau covers on the market have multiple panels and slats like tri-fold and retractable examples.

So what gives?

A key factor to a tonneau cover being watertight is the quality of the seals around these potential failure points.

Some tonneau covers with multiple panels are manufactured with high-quality hard-wearing waterproof materials that fill and seal these potential gaps.

Likewise, the seals around the tailgate and corners of the bed perimeter can be, and usually are, potential points of failure.

Clearly, all tonneau covers have a perimeter so this point of failure could affect any type of bed cover in theory. 

Again, if these areas are sealed with high-quality waterproof materials then the chance of leaking is significantly reduced.

So in order to minimize the potential of leakage occurring, it’s worth looking out for product information on design details like the sealing quality between panels and around tailgate and bed perimeters.

Do this and you should be less likely to encounter any surprises in this area.

So can tonneau covers go through a carwash without leaking?

In general yes, tonneau covers should be able to go through a carwash. There should be no significant problem with the tonneau cover leaking in the carwash. 

As already mentioned, no tonneau cover can guarantee a leak-free experience, although most high-quality tonneau covers do not leak. However, if leaking does occur, it should be extremely small.

Any large leaks should be reported to the manufacturer and they should honor their manufacturer guarantee.

Are tonneau covers universal?

Generally speaking, tonneau covers are not universal. Tonneau covers are highly engineered pieces of kit that are required to fit your truck model perfectly.

Manufacturers will usually state on their product page which vehicle models their bed cover will fit, so this should be checked before anything else.

The fit is important as it will ensure that the tonneau cover is capable of delivering requirements, such as: 

Security

Different trucks have different features such as specific locking mechanisms that clearly need to work properly to serve their purpose effectively. Such features can even differ between variations of the same truck model.

To add to this, a misfitting tonneau cover can potentially leave some areas of the trunk more exposed to attacks than usual, like parts of the trunk perimeter. 

Weatherproofing

Equally, a misfitting tonneau cover can potentially leave some areas more prone to leaks.

As it is hard enough making a perfectly fitting bed cover leak-free, a cover that is not designed for your specific truck will inevitably be at more risk of leaks than normal.

Aesthetic Design

Some tonneau covers are custom designed to the extent that even a subtle difference in the contours of the specific truck model could affect how well it fits with the lines of the vehicle. This can even affect the aerodynamics of the vehicle.

Smooth Operation

You don’t want to risk not being able to smoothly operate your tonneau cover either.

For instance, retractable bed covers are precision engineered so that they can be opened and closed seamlessly with the lines of the vehicle.

Any obstruction caused by installing the wrong tonneau cover will likely lead to premature damage to either the cover, your truck, or both.

In all actuality, the above should be obvious before you even hand your cash over.

The manufacturer should state absolutely clearly if their covers will fit your specific truck, and we advise you to look for this information before scrolling further down their product page. 

Furthermore, if you still have doubts then always contact them. They should respond in a reasonable time, which could also give insight into the potential quality of their customer service.

Are tonneau covers interchangeable?

Tonneau covers can be interchangeable, but only between the same intended vehicle models.

Take this with the caveat that any customizations that may have been made to the new vehicle could affect how successfully the cover will swap. You must check this before swapping the tonneau cover to another vehicle to avoid issues.

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