Truck Bed Covers: Various Styles, Benefits, and Which is Right for You!
Truck Bed Covers: Various Styles, Benefits, and Which is Right for You!
/ Apr 5 2023
Undoubtedly, the most significant draw of owning a pickup is cargo space. Whether designated as a family hauler or a dedicated work rig, the ability to transport oversized cargo in your truck’s bed makes moving, trips to the lumber yard, and packing camping gear a breeze.
However, while there’s no shortage of cargo space in the bed, there isn’t much protection for your valuables. Whether caught in an unforeseen rainstorm or momentarily leaving your pickup unattended, your truck’s uncovered bed leaves cargo at the mercy of extreme weather conditions and would-be thieves.
Truck bed covers–also referred to as tonneau covers–combat this shortcoming, protecting valuables in the bed against everything from heavy rain to theft. Employing rugged aluminum, impact-resistant composite/polycarbonate, rigid fiberglass, marine-grade vinyl/canvas, or any combination of these materials, truck bed covers are a superior option for those looking to safeguard cargo in their truck’s bed.
Truck bed covers come in various styles, from rigid, locking, fiberglass, and one-piece tonneaus to soft-folding vinyl, but which is right for you? Let’s take a look at the various offerings in the tonneau cover market, including upsides, downsides (if any), mounting processes, and more (check out our RAM 1500 Tonneau Cover Overview Guide for an abridged version.)
Hard Tonneau Covers
Up first is the hard tonneau cover, traditionally offering the most security and durability out of the options on this list. Hard tonneau covers are manufactured from rugged materials, including aluminum, fiberglass, and composite plastics. This heavy-duty construction ensures your cargo is amply protected against all threats–significantly more than soft, cut-susceptible soft covers.
With sleek designs, durable constructions, superior weather resistance, and next-level security, it’s no wonder hard tonneau covers are one of the most popular entries in the bed cover market; however, the category is also one of the most expansive. To help narrow your scope, check out The Best Hard Tonneau Covers for 2023, as ranked by the experts at Forbes Wheels.
And to continue the discussion, read on for our analysis of the various hard tonneau covers styles we carry, suiting the lifestyles of all pickup owners.
Manufactured from a series of aluminum or composite panels, hard-folding tonneau covers are as durable as they are versatile. Need to access something from the bed? No problem; drop the tailgate, fold up the first panel, and grab your gear! Require full bed access for loading oversized cargo? Easy; fold the panels towards the bulkhead and secure them in place with the integrated straps!
Mounting is also quick and easy using the cover’s included clamp system.
hard-folding covers feature excellent security, durability, and sleek aesthetics; however, amenities come at a cost–literally! hard-folding bed covers are typically more expensive than their soft counterparts; however, who can put a price on security?
Hard-retractable tonneau covers are offered in manual and powered variants; they feature a rigid construction, consisting of numerous adjoined aluminum, composite, or polycarbonate slats. Unlike folding bed covers, retractable bed covers ride on sealed bearings within a channel system mounted to the bed rails. When bed access is required, release the cover’s latches and watch as it retracts into the integrated canister, providing nearly full cargo access!
Installation tends to be more intensive than a comparable soft or hard-folding cover, though nothing you can't complete in the comfort of your driveway with conventional hand tools.
Like hard-folding tonneau covers, hard-retractable covers feature exceptional weather resistance, durability, and security–all wrapped in a sleek, low-profile package. However, they’re also one of the pricier tonneau covers on this list, especially power-retractable variants.
Hard-roll-up tonneau covers combine the top qualities of both soft and hard bed covers, blending an intuitive roll-up design with the durability and security of cut-resistant alloy construction. Utilizing a series of aluminum slats–similar to a hard-retractable cover–hard-roll-up covers are incredibly durable and secure. Once unlatched from the side rails or tailgate, you can roll the cover towards your truck’s bulkhead and neatly secure it out of the way, allowing full access to your pickup’s cargo area.
In most cases, hard-roll-up tonneau covers employ a marine-grade vinyl or canvas shell atop the underlying aluminum slats, preventing scuffs and scratches, bolstering weather resistance, and promoting a sleek, stylish appearance.
Like most hard bed covers, hard-roll-up tonneau covers are durable, secure, and stylish; however, they’re typically pricier than similar soft tonneau covers. But when your buddy’s soft-roll-up cover gets broken into and your hard-roll-up doesn’t, you’ll understand where those extra pennies went!
Hinged (One-Piece) Covers
You’re likely familiar with the hinged tonneau cover–a sleek, one-piece bed cover that’s commonly painted to match the vehicle's finish. These covers are constructed from durable ABS plastic or reinforced fiberglass for exceptional durability and strength.
Utilizing an alloy frame, beefy bulkhead-mounted hinges, and gas struts, hinged tonneau covers open like a clamshell, exposing your truck’s cargo area from the rear. While incredibly safe, secure, and stylish, hinged tonneau covers make loading oversized cargo virtually impossible due to the clamshell design. They’re also one of the pricier options on the list, and are significantly more labor-intensive to install, often requiring an additional set of hands.
Most every previously-mentioned bed cover is offered with a lock system. Whether equipped with a tailgate lock, channel lock, or keyed lock, integrated locks help to prevent unauthorized entry into your bed and access to your cargo, keeping your valuables guarded against theft.
Soft Tonneau Covers
If unenthused by high price tags, challenging installations, and potential cargo limitations, consider investing in a soft bed cover. Featuring an aluminum frame construction with a heavy-duty canvas or marine-grade vinyl outer shell, soft tonneau covers are lightweight, easy to install, and sleek.
Soft tonneau covers are offered in various styles and configurations; to help narrow the broad category, check out the Best Soft Tonneau Covers as ranked by the experts at Forbes Wheels. Now, let's continue with an in-depth analysis of the key differences between soft tonneau cover styles, read on!
Roll-Up Soft Covers
One of the most popular bed covers on the market is the venerable soft-roll-up tonneau, featuring a durable canvas or marine-grade vinyl shell stretched over an aluminum frame. Durable hook-and-loop strips keep the sides of the cover taught when closed, while aluminum cross bars prevent excess sagging, especially during the rain or snow.
When complete bed access is required, you can easily unlatch and roll the cover towards your truck’s bulkhead, using the integrated nylon straps to secure it against the rear window. Solo installation is also a breeze, using the included clamp system and conventional hand tools.
Soft-roll-up tonneau covers offer sleek styling, ample weather resistance, and incredible value, featuring one of the lowest price points on this list! However, these benefits come at a cost; While soft-roll-up tonneau covers keep your valuables out of sight and guarded against the rain, their vinyl/canvas outer shell can easily be compromised by a pocket knife or box-cutter. While still an excellent, budget-minded option, we’d advise against keeping valuables unattended in the truck bed!
While not as popular as other offerings in the soft tonneau cover market, soft-snap covers were among the first soft tonneau covers on the market. Soft-snap covers utilize a vinyl or canvas shell which mounts to your pickup using clamp-on rails with integrated snaps.
Snap covers are relatively sleek and easy to use, as you can open them from any accessible area around the bed; however, installation and removal is tedious and time-consuming. And as with most soft tonneaus, snap covers are far from secure.
Another popular option in the soft bed cover category is the soft-folding tonneau, manufactured from a durable and pliable vinyl or canvas shell stretched over an alloy frame.
Typically offered in bi-fold, tri-fold, and quad-fold configurations, soft-folding tonneau covers fold forwards from the rear of the bed towards the bulkhead. Depending on the design, soft-folding tonneau covers offer approximately ⅔ bed access when fully folded or full bed access if folded upright against the rear window.
Soft-folding tonneau covers typically offer an intuitive tool-free installation using integrated speed clamps and quick-release latches. The only significant shortcoming of a soft-folding tonneau cover stems from its soft vinyl or canvas top that's susceptible to cuts and tears.
While not a conventional bed cover, bed toppers provide loads of security and weather protection to your vehicle’s cargo space. Availble in hard and soft options and typically manufactured from heavy-duty fiberglass, aluminum, steel, or canvas, bed toppers are virtually waterproof and highly durable. Following the roofline of your pickup, bed toppers provide a sleek, factory-style appearance (especially fiberglass toppers) and ample vertical clearance for most types of cargo.
However, like hinged covers, bed toppers place limitations on the type of cargo that you can load in the bed. Without removing the topper (a lengthy, multi-person process), large furniture, appliances, building materials, and yards of loose dirt/gravel/bark are virtually impossible to transport.
Regarding price, be prepared to shell out a pretty penny for a new topper, with some ranging upwards of four thousand dollars depending on the options and amenities!
Folding Tonneau Covers
Though we’ve already touched on folding tonneau covers, it’s important to be able to differentiate between the numerous styles of folding tonneau covers on the market.
Folding tonneau covers are available in hard and soft-folding varieties, with each offering unique benefits. Hard-folding tonneau covers are manufactured from rigid hinged panels, either aluminum, composite, or polycarbonate. Though highly durable and secure, the rigid panels of hard-folding tonneau covers are prone to dings and dents from impacts, like falling pinecones or branches.
On the other hand, soft-folding tonneau covers feature durable aluminum frames, though the primary shell is manufactured from marine-grade vinyl or canvas. While not as prone to dings and dents, soft-folding tonneau covers are far less secure. A sharp pocket knife or box cutter can easily puncture the cover's fabric outer shell, allowing thieves to gain access to your valuables.
Besides variances in construction, folding tonneau covers are offered in three different designs: bi-fold, tri-fold, and quad-fold.
Manufactured with two large panels, bi-fold tonneau covers are a less-common offering in the folding tonneau cover market. Typically, bi-fold tonneaus feature two sets of hinges: one positioned between the panels and another at the bulkhead. When folded onto itself, bi-fold tonneau covers allow unhindered access to the rear half of the bed; however, for full bed access, you can pivot the cover upwards on its secondary hinges, similar to a one-piece/hinged tonneau.
Undoubtedly, the most common folding tonneau cover is the tri-fold, featuring three panels and two sets of hinges at ⅓ and ⅔ the length of the cover. Depending on the model, tri-fold covers can be folded twice, exposing ⅔ of the bed or thrice, resting vertically behind the rear window.
Somewhere between the bi-fold's scarcity and the tri-fold's popularity resides the quad-fold tonneau cover, featuring four panels and three sets of hinges. When fully folded, quad-fold tonneau covers expose either ¾ or all of your pickup’s cargo space, depending on the model.
Locking Tonneau Covers
As referenced in the previous sections, most tonneau covers feature the added security of a lock system, but which lock styles are superior? Let’s take a look at the various lock options across hard and soft covers.
Locking Hard Covers
A hard tonneau cover can refer to various different styles, including one-piece hinged, hard-folding, hard-retractable, hard-roll-up, and more! While some models feature keyed lock cylinders and twist handles–like most one-piece hinged covers and toppers–many companies have done away with conventional keyed locks due to the increase of factory-equipped locking tailgates.
Rather than outfitting hard covers with separate locks, most modern hard-folding and hard-roll-up covers utilize self-locking rails which automatically latch the cover in place when in the closed position. Others, like retractable covers, feature integrated tailgate latches which automatically lock when the cover is closed. In some cases, retractable covers also feature key-lockable handles for added security. In both scenarios, when the cover is closed and the tailgate locked, cargo in the bed is safer than in the cab!
As with the previous covers on the list, beefier security results in a steeper price tag. Hard locking covers are typically more secure than soft locking and, therefore, pricier.
Locking Soft Covers
Soft tonneau covers typically take a similar approach to modern hard covers, featuring manual or self-locking rails. When closed, the cover either latches into place near the tailgate or is secured using integrated manual latches. Once latched, shut and lock the tailgate!
While not as secure as most hard covers, locking soft covers (when paired with locking tailgates) are an excellent theft deterrent. While any thief with a sharp blade can gain entry into the bed through soft cover, locking the tailgate alone may prove too much of an obstacle for an unprepared, would-be thief.
Coming as no surprise, soft-locking tonneau covers are typically less secure than their hard-locking counterparts, resulting in a smaller price tag.
Tailgate Locks Vs. Keyed Locks
Now, it’s vital to distinguish between styles of bed cover locks. Most hard and soft bed covers are engineered under the assumption that the vehicle they’re installed upon is equipped with a locking tailgate for security purposes; but what if this isn’t the case?
Hard one-piece covers and retractable covers reign supreme here; most one-piece tonneaus feature a keyed lock cylinder and an external lip extending over the tailgate. As a result, gaining access into the bed through a locked one-piece hinged cover is virtually impossible, whether or not your vehicle has a lockable tailgate.
Tailgate-latch-equipped retractable covers offer similar levels of security to one-piece hinged covers using an integrated, key-lockable latch. When closed, latched, and locked, key-lockable retractable covers engage a tailgate-mounted latch, preventing the tailgate from lowering, whether locked or not!
However, in the case of most folding and rolling covers (both hard and soft), self-locking rails don’t add any security without a locking tailgate.
Going Through a Carwash with a Tonneau Cover
For a moment, let’s discuss tonneau cover maintenance. In our busy schedules, it’s often difficult to find time to clean your pickup yourself; why not run it through an automated car wash?
Most hard tonneau covers are rated for automated car washes, manufactured from heavy-duty materials like fiberglass, aluminum, polycarbonate, and composite plastic, and finished in automotive-grade paint and powder coating. Detergents, liquid waxes/sealants, and agitators found in automated car washes have little to no effect on hard cover's finish or structural integrity.
Soft covers, on the other hand, may have particular cleaning and maintenance instructions. The canvas or vinyl outer shells are typically more susceptible to the chemicals in detergents and conditioners; most manufacturers recommend using mild soap and water for cleaning. Vinyl conditioners with silicone, petroleum, and citrus additives are also a no-go, containing chemicals that may lead to stiffening, cracking, and shrinkage.
When in doubt, it’s always best to consult the manufacturer or instructions; it’s always better to do your research than damage your tonneau cover!
So which style of tonneau cover is right for you? While that’s not a decision we can make, let's take a look at some key factors that’ll help with your selection.
Security is a key factor in owning a tonneau cover, especially if you regularly transport valuable cargo. If security is the utmost concern, then consider limiting your options to hard tonneau covers, such as a hinged one-piece, hard-roll-up, hard-folding, or hard-retractable. Furthermore, if your pickup isn’t equipped with a locking tailgate, we’d recommend a retractable cover with a tailgate lock, or a hinged one-piece cover with a keyed lock.
What types of cargo do you typically transport in your pickup’s bed? If your truck isn’t used for anything besides groceries, golf clubs, potting supplies, and other small cargo, then any bed cover on the list will likely meet your needs. However, if you regularly transport oversized cargo that protrudes above the bed rails or takes up the entire length of the truck bed, then you’ll need to limit your options.
Hard and soft-roll-up covers, retractable covers, and hard-folding covers (those that can be folded flat against the rear window) are your best option if you regularly haul oversized cargo, allowing nearly complete bed access without removal from your pickup. Styles we’d recommend steering clear of include one-piece hinged covers and most soft-folding covers, as they rarely allow for complete cargo access.
While we’re unbiased here, it’s crucial to know the bed cover styles you prefer aesthetically. For instance, one-piece hinged tonneaus are typically polarizing, with some enjoying the sleek, color-matched finish while others have less positive opinions.
If you’re in the market for a subtle tonneau cover, hard-folding, and retractable tonneau covers tend to be the lowest profile, featuring unobtrusive alloy tracks that mount inside the bed rails for a flush appearance. Soft and hard-roll-up and soft-folding bed covers are a close second, sitting atop the bed rails for a 1.5 to 2-inch tall profile.
While every truck owner may long for an unlimited auto budget, that’s rarely the case. As a result, the cost of a bed cover will typically come into play when shopping for different styles, brands, and models.
Hard tonneau covers tend to be significantly more expensive than soft covers, due in part to the added security, durability, and low-profile aesthetics. However, do these factors warrant a price tag that’s double, triple, or even quadruple that of a comparable soft bed cover? You decide!
Ultimately, your ideal bed cover is the product that meets your needs and falls within your budget, whether that be a hard cover, a soft cover, a retractable cover, a folding cover, or a rolling cover. And when the time comes to make a purchase, don’t forget to browse our extensive bed covers inventory, as well as how-to articles and guides on how to measure your truck bed, whether truck bed covers save gas, and more!
Are Truck Tonneau Covers Worth it?
For most pickup owners, yes! Truck tonneau covers offer exceptional cargo protection, both from poor weather conditions and theft.
What is the Difference Between a Hard and Soft Tonneau Cover?
Hard tonneau covers are constructed using tough, rigid materials like aluminum, polycarbonate, fiberglass, and composite plastic. On the other hand, soft tonneau covers feature rigid aluminum frames; however, the main shell of the cover is a rugged, automotive-grade fabric–like marine-grade vinyl or canvas. While hard tonneau covers are typically more secure than soft covers, they’re also significantly more expensive.
Are Hard Truck Bed Covers Waterproof?
Yes! Hard tonneau covers are waterproof, featuring heavy-duty rubber seals at all major sealing surfaces and drain tubes to funnel water out of tracks (when applicable).
Are Soft Truck Bed Covers Waterproof?
Also, yes! Soft tonneau covers are constructed with a waterproof fabric shell, preventing moisture intrusion. Like hard bed covers, soft covers also feature durable foam or rubber seals to prevent seepage between the cover and bed rails/bulkhead/tailgate.