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How to Choose a Tonneau Cover

The #1 selling vehicle in the USA is the F-Series truck from Ford. That’s been the case for years. So, it’s no surprise that the truck accessory market is booming. And to top of that list is a tonneau cover – to enclose the bed.

With so many options to choose from, how do you know you’re getting the best one for your needs? Too much information can be a bad thing, but not enough useful information is worse. We’ve already written about choosing the right tonneau covers of 2020, so in this article, I’m going to tell you why having a tonneau cover is a good thing. I’ll also include some handy dandy information about tonneau covers in general.

What Does a Tonneau Cover Do?

Weatherproofing

Trucks are great for lugging stuff. Anything from tools to furniture. But, what they’re not so good at is protecting the cargo from the elements. Unless you live somewhere that quite literally never sees anything but sunshine, that cargo is going to get wet, snowed on, dusty, or grimy. Even if it’s just sunshine, it’ll get sun-bleached (material dependent) if it’s left out for any length of time.

A decent tonneau cover will enclose your bed and make it weather tight, or at least, more weather tight than without it.

Security

If you throw your stuff in the back of your truck and leave it there until you’re ready for it, it doesn’t make for great security. Anyone can see it, and that means anyone could help themselves to it, without even breaking their stride.

Placing it under a tonneau cover hides it away. Even a soft cover that’s easily removable or cuttable makes a huge difference to security. Most thefts are opportunistic, so what they can’t see won’t get stolen. But for that extra security, by a hard, lockable tonneau and it’s as secure as the cabin.

Fuel Economy

Yep, running a truck with an open bed has been proven to cost you at the pump. Essentially, an open bed causes more drag and more drag equals lower economy. We aren’t talking about the need for something that’s been designed in a wind tunnel. Any cover will lessen the drag, but a loose cover that’s flapping about won’t be as efficient as a taut cover.

Typically, a 5% improvement in mileage isn’t unheard of, but some covers could make that out further – perhaps as high as 10%. A cover will pay for itself in no time.

Styling

This is perhaps one of the main reasons why people buy tonneau covers. It just finishes off the look of any truck, even more so if you go for a retractable, color-coded cover. It’ll look just like the factory designed and installed it themselves.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

To an extent, choosing the style or design of a cover could be dependent on what your need is. A contractor, for example, may need a lockable, highly secure cover. Whereas the occasional user just wants something to aid with fuel economy.

There are plenty of styles, and construction materials, and installation processes. These are the main ones, though.

Soft Tonneau Covers

Soft Tonneau Covers

As the name implies, these are usually made from a soft material, this could be anything from neoprene to vinyl, and even canvas. They’re basically the same, but there are some differences. It could just be a cover with no support through the center section. It could also have fiberglass poles running across the bed every 24 inches or so. The one commonality is that it’s a softcover. It’s usually easily removed and held on to the bed rails with some form of elastic.

Hard Tonneau Covers

Hard Tonneau Covers

Constructed from aluminum or fiberglass (steel is too heavy, plastic normally flexes too much). The traditional hardcover is a one-piece design, usually hinged at the cab end, either propped up or uses gas struts for an easy lift and to keep it up.

These tend to be more expensive because there is more engineering involved, and of course, the material costs are greater. They also usually need a bit more fitting. It’s also worth noting that items taller than the depth of the bed can’t be transported without moving the rigid tonneau cover.

Folding Tonneau Covers

These offer a good combination of soft and hardcovers. Typically, they fold into three sections allowing you some access to the bed without having to remove the whole thing and take up minimal space when fully folded up. The folded section rests against the rear of the cab, meaning you lose only a couple of inches from the full length.

Retractable Tonneau Covers

Generally the most expensive, but these offer pretty much all things to all people. The ability to fully open the bed, partially open the bed or secure it. Some can be locked in any position, while others will give lockable sections – every 12 inches for example.

These can take quite a bit of fitting – the roller channels need a perfect alignment if they’re to slide easily and smoothly.

Caring For Your Tonneau

Caring for your tonneau cover is entirely dependent on the type of cover. You wouldn’t oil your rubber bungee cords or treat your aluminum to a vinyl dresser, for example, but there are a few generalities to consider.

  • A vinyl cover will need careful cleaning with water and detergent, then treating a dressing solution after to help keep the color, waterproofing, and flexibility.
  • An aluminum cover may need some polishing to keep the shiny look or some waxing if it’s color-matched to the truck. You shouldn’t forget the underside either – the bits that you can’t see.
  • A retractable cover will need lubing now and again, squirting a dash of lube in any locks (even if they have covers on them) won’t do them any harm.

Installation

Installing a tonneau cover could take five minutes or five hours. What’s important here is to not rush things. Ensure that you have everything on hand (any tools etc.) and that everything that should be in the kit, is in the kit. You don’t want to get 90% done and then realize that the specialized ‘doohickey’ that should be in the kit, isn’t, either leaving you to strip it all off again or MacGyver it.

Some of the more specialist covers (think retractable) may need holes drilling in the rails or bed. So if the thought of going anywhere near your pride and joy with a drill worries you, perhaps think about getting a professional installation. Yeah, it will add a few dollars to the price of the cover, but at least the install will be covered by some sort of warranty should it go wrong (or worse still, your truck gets damaged).

Manufacturers also recommend fitting a cover with two people (just because of the size), but many people feel this isn’t necessary.

Budget

The final section is like, how long is a piece of string?

You see, budgets vary enormously. Anywhere from $100 to $1000 depending on the exact specification. But to an extent, this is will be guided by your need.

  • Need a cover just to keep the rain out? That’s cheaper, get a softcover.
  • Are you a contractor carrying lots of expensive gear and want it secure and weatherproof? That’s a lockable hardtop.
  • Color-matched, brite-tread aluminum doesn’t come cheap either.

My one piece of advice is you generally get what you pay for. If you see a retractable metal hard tonneau cover for $100, it’s probably going to be less than great quality.

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