What Tonneau Cover is Right for You?

Mark Lane

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Until the late 1970’s, no one had even heard of tonneau covers, also known as truck bed covers. A plastic tarp, the kind you buy at Wal-mart, was what most of us used to keep the stuff in our truck beds away from the rain and wind. Then, in 1977 while working at a canvas company in Syracuse, Gerald Downey had an idea and constructed the world's first aluminum framed tonneau cover. If you are considering a bed cover for your truck, this article will help you understand the benefits of a tonneau and the various types of covers available.

Benefits of a Truck Bed Cover
A tonneau has a multitude of benefits including protection of your cargo from the elements and theft. Those of you who have run into a down poor while hauling boxes, luggage and the like understand what a pain it can be. You load up your truck thinking, “I’ll unload this before I get into rain”. The next think you know, you’re pulling to the side of the road fighting off the wind and rain trying to get your cargo inside your cab…if it will fit that is. How about those times you put a new purchase in your truck bed and ran into the grocery store for “just a minute” only to return and find your new item was stolen. A tonneau can significantly help with both of these problems and is the primary reason they are purchased.

Another major benefit often overlooked is the savings a truck bed cover will deliver at the pump. That’s right. A tonneau will save you gas…between 5% and 10% according to several studies. Just do a little math and you’ll soon find your purchase will be paid for in just a few months. Take a truck that gets 15 miles to the gallon. If the driver travels, say 12,000 miles per year and gas costs $2.50 per gallon, he’ll save between $150 and $300 per year. Now considering that most trucks don’t even get 15 mpg and most drivers travel more than 12,000 miles per year, the savings can be even more substantial.

A tonneau cover can add substantially to the appearance of your truck and is a great way to hide your scratched up bed or the junk you haul around in it. I even use mine when I camp. I just roll out the sleeping bags under my roll-up tonneau. I can keep it unrolled to gaze at the night sky and quickly roll it up if the weather turns bad.

Finally, a truck bed cover adds to the resale value of your truck. In fact services like Kelly Blue Book, www.kbb.com, indicate a tonneau can add anywhere from $100 to $200 to your resale value.

Types of Tonneau Covers
The benefits are obvious. The hardest decision is which cover is right for you. Your choice will depend primarily on two things: 1) Do you want a hard or soft cover; and 2) How much are you willing to spend.

Hard truck bed covers have traditionally been made of fiberglass. The benefits of fiberglass are appearance. Some of these covers, like those from A. R. E. , are molded to include lines that complement your trucks appearance. In addition, fiberglass can be painted to match your vehicle. The downside of the fiberglass cover includes cost, proneness to damage, and weight. These covers typically cost between $800 to $2,000. In addition, they weigh between 80lbs and 150lbs requiring two men to remove them. They are easily scratched and can easily be damaged if dropped or if a heavy weight is placed on them…e. g. , your 5 year old son and his friends decide to play king of the hill.

A new breed of hard tonneau covers were introduced a few years ago and are made of a composite polymer (plastic). These covers have several major benefits over their fiberglass counterparts. Cost typically runs $650 to $800. These covers are also light weight. At around 58lbs, one of the most popular, the Undercover, can easily be removed by one man and hung on the garage wall. Finally, this new type of hard cover is very resistant to damage. I recently saw a demonstration where a sledge hammer was driven down on this cover and the only resulting damage were the sensitive ears of those around. They are super tough. Presently the biggest drawback to these covers is paintability. The first versions of these caps are black and come with a textured finish. They can be painted, but don’t have the smooth look of fiberglass. However, I am told that Undercover has recently introduced a smooth version of it’s top that can be painted and has the finish of fiberglass.

Soft covers, like those made by Extang and Downey, are the most popular of all due to their price and flexibility. If you’re not stuck on the smooth painted look of a hard cover, a soft cover is probably right for you. These covers come in a variety of styles starting with the traditional “snap” or “zip” covers. These products use detachable cross-bows to create a frame over your trucks bed and then the tonno is stretched and snapped into place. The snap cover is the entry level in soft tonneaus and comes with an attractive price tag starting at around $200.

The roll-up truck bed cover, like those made by Access Cover and TruXedo, offer much more functionality than a snap. The cross-bows of these covers “rollup” with the cover and secure to the front of the trucks bed in less than 20 seconds. In addition, they can be locked into place and cannot be opened without opening the tailgate. If you have a locking tailgate, the roll up provides much of the security a hard cover does. The roll-up has a clean taut look and uses “tensioners” to keep the cover tight in all types of temperatures. If you’re willing to spend a little more, starting at around $350, I highly recommend this type of cover. In fact, it is the one I chose for my truck.

Other, less popular, varieties of soft truck bed covers including folding, aluminum and lift top to name a few.

In conclusion, the protection and fuel savings a tonneau cover offers are an easy purchase justification for any truck owner. The type of tonneau you should purchase will depend greatly on your budget and your need for looks and function.

Mark Lane is a recognized writer and leader in the automotive aftermarket industry. He is a member of SEMA, and writes regularly on subjects related to truck accessories and performance. You can read more of his articles at Truck Accessories Review


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