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Running Boards, Nerf Bars, and More: The Various Styles of Truck Steps

American Trucks Staff

American Trucks Staff

 / Jun 26 2023
Running Boards, Nerf Bars, and More: The Various Styles of Truck Steps

While lift kits and oversized tires drastically improve your pickup’s aesthetics and off-road prowess, these modifications come at a cost. Climbing into even a factory-height truck can be an endeavor, let alone a pickup with a three, four, or six-inch lift kit! Rather than leaping in and out of your truck, save your knees and back; instead, invest in a set of premium side steps to make entry into the cab a breeze.

Side steps vary in form factor and aesthetics, though all provide the same essential function: easing entry into your vehicle’s cab by providing a wide, stable, and low-hanging foothold. As a bonus, they’re also aesthetically pleasing and even provide mild rocker protection against rock chips, scrapes, and minor dings! With such significant benefits, the question isn’t whether or not your truck needs side steps but which is the best set to order!

Side steps come in several variations, narrowing your search to a single selection a lengthy and research-heavy process. Luckily, the experts at AmericanTrucks are here to streamline the process. In the following article, we’re diving into all things truck steps, including the various styles, materials, finishes, and which product is right for you!

Running Boards

When you think of truck steps, you’re likely picturing a set of running boards. Running boards feature a cab or wheel-to-wheel-length step positioned just below and outboard from your vehicle’s rocker panels, providing a sturdy and easily accessible foothold for all passengers.

Rocker Armor Side Step Bars on a 19-23 RAM 1500 Crew Cab

Running boards focus on one task–accessibility–and do it well. Characterized by a low-hanging design, wide and flat form factor, and grippy tread, running boards ease entry into your vehicle.

Depending on your needs, running boards are offered in cab-length and wheel-to-wheel configurations, offering access exclusively to the cab or the cab and bed. While the additional bed step is practical for contractors, trades workers, or pickups with toolboxes, applications running a tonneau cover or bed topper won't benefit from the additional bed access.

Running Board Variations

Besides material construction, there are several variations of running boards, including fixed, retractable, and illuminated; let’s expand on each.

Fixed Running Boards

Fixed running boards are classic, single-position side steps offered as OE equipment on several makes and models. These steps utilize a series of steel brackets mounted to a vehicle’s rockers or cab mounts, securing the running board in a fixed position.

Retractable Running Boards

Retractable running boards are a significant upgrade over classic fixed-position steps, featuring hinged mounting brackets fixed to powerful electric motors. When not used, retractable running boards tuck out of sight, hidden behind your vehicle’s rocker panels. However, when you or a passenger open a door, the steps extend to aid entry into the cab.

Retractable Running Board

Illuminated Running Boards

Offered in fixed and retractable form factors, illuminated running boards feature integrated LED lighting, shining on the step surface and ground surrounding your vehicle. Illuminated running boards are ideal for nighttime conditions with poor visibility, preventing trips, slips, and falls that could result in injury.

Illuminated Running Board

Nerf Bars

Nerf bars are another popular style of side steps characterized by tubular designs. While the name has since changed meanings, the term "nerf bar" originated from racing, in which tubular devices are fitted to the sides of racecars to prevent damage from impacts, or “nerfing.” Nerf bars, like running boards, offer assistance to those that struggle to climb into their vehicles; however, this isn’t their only purpose. Nerf bars also protect your vehicle’s rocker panels, guarding against rock chips, dings, abrasions, and other minor impacts.

Sidewinder Nerf Bars 15-23 F-150 SuperCrew

Running Board Variations

Nerf bars, like running boards, are offered in several variations; let's dive into some of the most common!


Oval nerf bars feature a single, ovular tube spanning the length of the cab. Like fixed running boards, oval nerf bars utilize a series of fixed mounting brackets that are secured to the cab mounts or rockers, ensuring a rigid installation. Oval nerf bars characteristically feature textured composite plastic step pads at each door, ensuring ample grip while climbing in and out.


Round nerf bars are practically identical in construction and aesthetics to oval variants, featuring a single rounded bar stretching the length of the cab, composite step pads, and fixed position mounts.


Unlike most nerf bars, which are cab-length, wheel-to-wheel nerf bars stretch from the front of the cab to the rear wheel well. These nerf bars feature not only steps below the doors but also at the bedsides to make climbing into the bed or retrieving cargo a breeze!


Podium-style nerf bars provide a rugged, off-road-inspired aesthetic to any pickup. Instead of a single low-hanging tube with integrated step pads, podium-style nerf bars feature a central tube tucked tightly against the body with integrated hoop steps at each door. In addition to helping you into your vehicle, podium-style nerf bars also protect your pickup's rockers, guarding against mild abrasions and impacts.

Running Board/Nerf Bar Comparison

Still curious as to the primary differences between running boards and nerf bars? Let’s focus on the key characteristics that set these two popular side-step styles apart.

15-23 F-150 with a Barricade Rattler Running Board

The main distinction between running boards and nerf bars boils down to aesthetics, considering running boards’ flat design and nerf bars' characteristic tubular form factor. Running boards are primarily engineered for accessibility, featuring a wide, flat step surface and variances that improve usability, like step illumination and retractability. On the other hand, nerf bars also feature slight design variances, though the same utilitarian design remains across all styles.

When choosing between nerf bars and running boards, there are a few considerations, the first being your desired style. Typically, running boards feature a factory-esque, street-centric design geared towards subtly-modified SUVs and pickups. By comparison, nerf bars feature rugged aesthetics appealing to off-road-centric 4WD vehicles like Jeeps and heavy-duty pickups. As a result, most nerf bars pair best with heavy-duty bumpers, aftermarket fender flares, and meaty tires.  

Regarding installation and price differences, most fixed running boards and nerf bars run around the same price and feature straightforward installations. However, illuminated and retractable running boards charge a higher premium for the upgraded tech. They’re also more challenging to install, requiring you to run an auxiliary wiring harness and potentially modify your vehicle’s electrical system. If you’re a novice mechanic shopping on a budget, it’s best to stick with non-powered options.

Lastly, let’s discuss finishes. From flashy chrome to stealthy matte black powder coat, side steps are offered in various finishes to complement any style of build. We’d recommend powder-coated or stainless steel for an application that regularly sees harsh winters and trail abuse. However, chrome plating and standard paint should be plenty durable for a daily driver, especially in areas that don’t heavily salt the roads in the winter.

Other Types of Side Steps

While not as common as running boards and nerf bars, AmericanTrucks offers several other styles of truck side steps.

14-18 Sierra 1500 with a Barricade T4 Side Step Bars

Hoop Steps

Hoop steps feature a slight form factor consisting of a single drop hoop. These steps are commonly found on work vehicles and industrial applications, featuring a heavy-duty alloy construction and durable rocker mounts. Hoop steps are offered in black, polished, and safety yellow for personalized aesthetics that complement any vehicle.

Bed Steps

Bed steps are practical for any pickup, providing a sturdy foothold at your truck's bedside or rear bumper. Whether you frequently transport cargo in the bed or need regular access to your toolbox, bed steps make accessing your truck’s bed easy and quick! Bed steps are offered in retractable and fixed versions, depending on your style and budget.

Drop Steps

Like podium-style nerf bars, drop steps feature central support tucked tightly against your pickup’s rockers and integrated hoops to ease entry into the cab. However, unlike nerf bars, drop steps are commonly manufactured from fabricated steel or box tubing for a rugged, angular design. Drop steps come in chrome, polished, and black paint/powder coat finishes.

Commonly Used Materials

Side Steps come in several materials and finishes, depending on variables like your aesthetic preferences and climate; these include aluminum, carbon steel, or stainless steel.


Aluminum is used across various automotive applications, including truck side steps. The alloy is lightweight and corrosion-resistant, though prone to dents and scratches from impacts and abrasions. As such, we’d recommend aluminum side steps for daily drivers rather than regularly-abused trail rigs.


  • Lightweight
  • Corrosion-resistant


  • Relatively soft
  • Expensive


Mild steel is known for its strength and durability in automotive applications, making up most pickup's frames and body panels. However, the material is heavy and highly prone to oxidation. Still, we’d recommend steel side steps for heavy-duty applications that see their share of abuse; but ensure they're finished in powder coating or another corrosion-resistant layer!


  • Durable
  • Affordable


  • Heavy
  • Prone to corrosion


Stainless steel is a premium choice for running boards, nerf bars, and other truck steps, combining aluminum's corrosion resistance and steel's strength. While sturdy and corrosion-resistant, stainless steel isn’t quite as durable as steel and is relatively expensive. However, the material is more than suitable for most automotive-grade applications.


  • Durable
  • Corrosion-Resistant


  • Heavy
  • Expensive

Installation and Maintenance

Depending on the style of side steps, installation can be a simple bolt-on or a time-consuming undertaking requiring additional wiring and modifications. In any case, it’s essential to understand the basic tools and steps necessary to safely and securely install your new side steps.

19-23 Sierra 1500 with a RB20 Side Step

Required Tools

While not every tool on this list extends to all styles of side steps, you shouldn’t need anything besides what’s listed.

Steps for Installation (DIY)

Though every side step features a unique installation, the following instructions cover most styles.

Review Package Contents and Instructions

There’s no such thing as over-preparing, especially when installing aftermarket parts. Before beginning the installation, it’s vital to review the instructions, catalog the contents of the package, and verify that you possess all tools and equipment necessary to complete the job.

Engage the Parking Brake/Chock Wheels

If you’re working on the ground, engage the parking brake before crawling underneath your vehicle. This critical safety step can prevent serious injury.


In this step, remove any interior trim, body mounting bolts, or other obstacles that prevent installation.


In this step, perform any necessary modifications to your vehicle required for reassembly. Some side steps require drilling additional mounting holes in the rocker panels for a sturdy, secure installation.


Time to throw everything back together! Install your new side steps according to the manufacturer’s instructions, making sure to torque all hardware to spec.

DIY Installation Vs. Professional Installation

Unsure whether you’re up for an at-home installation? Let’s look at the alternative: a professional installation. Typically, a professional installation consists of taking your vehicle to a dedicated truck shop or mechanic to have the job tackled by skilled workers. While less of a hassle, you’ll have to add labor costs to your bill, which can easily double the expense of your side steps. If the price you’ll pay a shop is worth the time you'll save, then a professional installation is a solid option; however, if you’re semi-competent in the garage and have the required space and tools, installing side steps yourself is highly cost-effective.

Care, Cleaning, and Maintenance

Now that you've installed your new side steps, what are the proper steps for maintenance and cleaning? In most cases, cleaning and maintaining side steps is no different than any other exterior component. Standard auto-grade soaps efficiently remove salt, road grime, and dirt, keeping your steps looking new for years to come! However, there are some exceptions. Regarding which products to use, we’d stay away from harsh cleaners and degreasers, as the chemicals contained within may stain, tarnish, or degrade your side steps' finish, especially polished stainless steel, polished aluminum, paint, and ABS plastic step pads. Besides aesthetics, power-retractable running boards are the only products that require mechanical maintenance. From the factory, power-retractable running boards are treated with lithium grease to lubricate the hinges; however, years of repeated use and exposure to the elements can wear away the product. For this reason, periodically pop beneath your pickup to inspect the hinges, keeping a bottle of grease on hand to re-lube them as necessary.

Safety Considerations

Quality side steps are engineered with critical safety considerations in mind, ensuring safe, injury-free entry into your vehicle’s cab.

Non-Slip Surfaces

One of the most crucial characteristics of a quality side step is a slip-resistant tread, preventing slipping and tripping in wet, icy, muddy, or dusty conditions. The slip-resistant tread arrives in several forms, including sandpaper-esque textured tape, textured plastic step pads, and non-slip dimples.

Suitable Weight Limits

Another safety consideration is the step's weight limit, ensuring a sturdy product that won’t bend, break, or deform under everyday use. For more information on a step’s specific weight limits, consult the manufacturer, read the instructions, or contact AmericanTrucks’ knowledgeable sales and support team.

Proper Usage Guidelines

Truck side steps function as designed only under specific guidelines; however, it’s essential to understand these limits so as not to cause unnecessary damage or injury. For example, truck side steps can only support a set weight, with most maxing out around 400 lbs. While they can easily support 1-2 individuals, overloading the step can result in product failure. Additionally, side steps are NOT rock sliders. While podium-style nerf bars and drop steps may have a similar appearance, they aren’t engineered from the same heavy-duty DOM steel to withstand the same heavy impacts and abrasions.


So what have we learned? Though there are several styles of truck steps–running boards, nerf bars, hoop steps, and more–they all accomplish the same general task: easing entry into the cab of your vehicle. With various styles, materials, and finishes, there’s undoubtedly a product that meets both your aesthetic preferences and needs. AmericanTrucks carries all of the top side steps for your truck, whether thant be a set of rugged nerf bars for your 4WD, factory-style running boards for your SUV, or sleek power-retractable steps for an unobtrusive appearance.

RB20 Running Boards on a 19-23 Sierra 1500 Crew Cab


What are running boards?

Running boards are long, flat steps extending either the length of your vehicle’s cab or from wheel to wheel. Running boards utilize vehicle-specific mounting brackets to secure below and outwards from your vehicle’s rocker panels, providing a sturdy foothold that dramatically eases entry into the cab.

What is the difference between running boards and nerf bars?

The key difference between these two common side steps is aesthetic, with running boards featuring a flat and wide step and nerf bars featuring a round or oval tubular step.

How much do running boards cost?

Running boards can range in price drastically, with the low end of the spectrum comprising $200 to $300 fixed running boards and the high end featuring $1500+ power retractable models.

How much does it cost to install running boards?

If you perform the job yourself, it’s free! However, paying a shop to install a set of running boards will rack up an hour or two of labor costs, or approximately $100 to $200. Shops will typically charge more to install power-retractable running boards, potentially double or even triple the cost of installing fixed models.