Bed & Tonneau Covers FAQ

Tonneau Cover
Written by Jim Malkovich

Conditionally, all truck bed covers can be divided into “decorative” and “utilitarian.” Both types are designed to protect the cargo from environmental impacts. Still, the purpose of “decorative” covers is also an additional design element, while the utility covers are an accessory that expands the capabilities of the truck.

  • Decorative covers are usually made of fiberglass or high-quality plastic and painted in a truck’s body color.
  • Utility covers are made of aluminum (so-called “corrugated” – due to a specific corrugated pattern) and have built-in stiffening “ribs” for considerable strength. Aluminum bed covers are often covered with a variety of polymeric materials designed to protect against corrosion and scratches that occur during regular use.

Most plastic covers have a similar design and differ mostly in the quality of fittings (handles, clamps, straps, latches, locks), sealing, and paintwork. The weakest point of such covers is their locks, and sometimes, loops. The locks are clearly not designed for harsh winters and road dirt. Silumin locks often break, jam, turn over, clamps get unbent, and so on. Cheap models have plastic lock latches.

Over time, when driving on muddy roads, the fasteners get loose, and the cover begins to knock when running on bumps. Plastic bed covers are quite fragile and do not allow you to haul any heavy cargo on top. Do not be misled by the rails installed on many models – they can withstand extremely low loads and have a mostly decorative purpose.

Utility aluminum covers are the exact opposite of fiberglass/plastic covers. They have a simple design, but their construction is durable enough. One of their purposes is to be an additional platform for transporting all kinds of cargo on top. That’s why they have increased structural strength.

Boats, dirt bikes, small ATVs, oversized cargoes, furniture, building materials, toolboxes, garden tools, generators, canisters with all kinds of liquids – all this is easily transported on top of the bed cover. Often, you can’t load an object in the bed because its dimensions are larger than your truck’s bed width (and there are also wheel arches, which further reduces the available area).

If you have an aluminum cover, then such cargo can be placed on top of it and delivered where you need it. And finally, bed covers are cheaper than toppers.

Various devices (rails, baskets, hooks, and rings for fastening cargo belts and slings) are often provided for securing cargo on utility covers.

Hard aluminum bed covers are an excellent solution for fishers, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, builders, engineering services, and others. They are not afraid of heavy loads, vibrations, shocks, and temperature drops. If heavily damaged, the metal can be frayed and welded, which can be said about plastic bed covers.

Utility bed covers are not only a handy and practical accessory for a vehicle but also a style element. A pickup truck with a deliberately angular aluminum bed cover gets a masculine look and proudly stands out on the road. Now let’s get into the details.

Soft Roll-Up Truck Bed Covers

Soft truck bed covers have two significant advantages.

  • The first one is that it actually covers the bed and can be easily removed when necessary.
  • Secondly, the price is not that high (unless you buy the cover from your official dealer) compared to hard folding or retractable covers, and can be ordered from any shop that produces vehicle or boat covers.

There are some cons, of course. Truck bed cover tarps made of woven materials get wet sooner or later. PVC or similar materials become stiff in the cold and, if made of cheap materials, may even break at folds, or collect dust and dirt in their joints or hinges. Unfolding a soft bed cover in the cold is a pleasure below average.

And if you live in a city where snow/ice is handled by “watering” the asphalt with various chemicals, you will always be dirty up to the ears while you handle the cover. Besides, when soaked or covered with snow, the cover starts to sag – it’s both looking ugly and is very inconvenient. Once you lift one edge slightly, water and snow will get into the bed. Let alone protection – no locks/keys, and such covers are often useless against knives.

However, if you have a high-quality vinyl cover from a reliable manufacturer or if you live in sparsely populated areas, where the sun is shining most of the time, and you are surrounded by friendly neighbors, a soft bed cover can totally meet your needs.

If you absolutely need to put a soft folding cover, you can choose the best from our list below. However, you can also order it from a sewing company that makes covers for yachts, boats, and other small vessels. The quality can be even higher, the service life longer, and the price will not “hit” your pocket that much. 

Retractable Hard Covers

We’ve all seen those flexible panels that are used to close shop windows or store entrances in shopping malls. They are retractable and can be retracted by and stored in special canisters, allowing access to the premises. Truck bed rolling shutters retract horizontally – a special canister is installed in the truck’s bed just behind the back window – this is where the panels will be retracted. Then you have side rails that are attached to the truck’s bed sides (clamp-on installation, typically) for back and forth cover sliding. In the unfolded mode, the panels cover the bed entirely and can be locked in place.

In contrast to soft covers, retractable options are made of hard materials (HDPE plastic (high-density polyethylene), polycarbonate, or aluminum), and not that easily cut with a knife, which is a big win. Besides, such covers look more attractive and can be quickly rolled up for full bed access or unfolded to protect your cargo. The price is pretty high but still reasonable.

Some owners claim that the mechanism of retractable covers is susceptible to clogging and corrosion. Slightly clogged or acidified, everything starts to seize, and the panels do not fit together well, plus, water starts to get into the bed. No matter how much you clean your truck – it can all get dirty tomorrow. In winter, the mechanism freezes regularly, because moisture accumulates on the horizontal surface, invariably gets inside the canister when you open the cover.

Cheap Chinese retractable truck bed covers do not last longer than 1 season – they start to get “capricious,” seize, leak, etc. USA-based manufacturers produce high-quality retractable covers that “live” much longer and provide reliable service for years.

There is another issue with the canister, which has to be located somewhere. Expensive models have it placed in the front, behind the back window, underneath the panels, where it “eats” some space. Cheaper models have it set above the assembly, in front of the back window. As a result, you have an ugly “hump” behind the cab, which interferes with the view and the third brake light. And it surely does not add aesthetics.

The canister consists of a shaft and spring, which is tensioned when you extend the cover, helps you retract the panels faster. This mechanism may get noisy due to on-road unevenness, but there are various solutions to get rid of the noise. However, not all retractable cover manufacturers know about this. Opt for those cover designs that are manufactured specifically for pickup trucks, so that you don’t regret anything. Such covers tend to be more expensive, but also much more reliable and tighter.

Hard Folding Covers

Hard truck bed covers are an excellent option for a true man’s truck. Looking from the purely aesthetic side, the cover preserves the appearance of the truck, and it’s exactly what we, pickup owners, like so much – a smooth, compact vehicle turns into a tank in a business suit. You have visibility – a hard bed cover does not limit it in any way. Then you have aerodynamics, which leads to a 5-10% reduction of fuel consumption in comparison with the open bed (a trifle, but a pleasant one – you can save about 55 gallons per year). By the way, such results will not be achieved with a topper (a hardtop topper/camper/box shell or truck cap/canopy made of glass/plastic/metal and secured above the truck’s bed), as it worsens the aerodynamic performance.

The payload capacity of a pickup truck with a bed cover is much higher. At first glance, it may seem that you can’t fit a lot underneath a hard folding cover compared to a topper. But if you remove the former, the whole bed is at your disposal. Hard folding covers are much easier and faster to remove. And if the cover has high weight capacity, it becomes an ultimate cargo platform that can be used to secure a load of up to 400-500 lbs of evenly-distributed weight. Impressive, right? It’s even more than an open truck bed or a canopy can handle.

Sounds fantastic, right? Not at all. Any well-designed hard truck bed cover is equipped with a lock, blocking the tailgate. The cover has no transparent parts, so you can’t see what’s underneath it until you open the lock. The cover can not be cut with a knife, has no breakable glass parts, so the safety is much higher.

Hard folding bed covers are not afraid of rain and snow. They can also be fitted with a decorative arc which can be used for additional optics. And finally, hard folding covers are cheaper than toppers. Thus, we get a versatile solution that exceeds all the factors above.

Pros and Cons

Soft roll-up/tri-fold bed covers

Soft roll-up/tri-fold bed covers are more compact, easy to install/remove, and quick to use. Typically, such covers have a lightweight and durable aluminum frame designed for constant tension, so that the cover does not vibrate at fast speeds and/or in windy weather conditions. These covers also provide enough bed protection when it’s snowing and raining. Covers of this type often include bed rails with snaps, Velcro, spring-loaded clamps, and seals. Some soft roll-up bed covers feature a single layer of vinyl while others have additional support underneath the top layer. Soft bed covers can also be toolbox-compatible, so if you already have a toolbox in your truck’s bed, make sure you get yourself the cover that can accommodate it. Besides, keep in mind that not all soft roll-up truck bed covers are designed to be compatible with overhead carrying racks, so before you buy a truck bed cover, make sure it fits and works with a certain cargo management system.

In its turn, a soft tri-fold cover is something in between a regular tarp and a hard tri-fold truck bed cover. The primary material used in manufacturing is waterproof vinyl. These covers are also designed with aluminum frames and produced as one-piece structures. Convenient and easy to use, they are the most simple and affordable options on the market. If conventional soft roll-up covers do not allow you to quickly get full access to the truck bed, tri-fold soft covers have no such problem. They can be used fully or partially open or fully closed for sufficient cargo protection.

Soft tri-fold bed covers are installed on the bed from the cabin side. They are secured to the bed sides using two special locks on each side. During installation, if necessary, you can effortlessly align the cover on the bed. And most importantly, soft tri-fold covers need no drilling, cutting, or any other manipulations that can damage your truck bed. The cover fits tightly to the bed and looks whole with the truck, harmoniously complementing its appearance.

Lightweight, weighing up to 30-40 lbs, soft tri-fold covers can be installed by one person. The material itself is moisture-resistant vinyl which is quite strong and reliable. A good option for the countryside or off-road use. High-quality soft tri-fold covers are not subject to scratches; dirt does not accumulate or get under the panels. The cheapness of a soft tri-fold cover and its utility are not the only advantages – the cover pays off its value within 1-2 years due to fuel economy.

Pros

  • Low prices, fast installation, compact size (when folded), ultra-low-profile roll-up designs, fuel economy, scratch resistance, ease of use.
  • Harmonizes with most truck bed colors.
  • Pays for itself in 2-3 years by changing aerodynamics. It can be installed by one person (no drilling or additional tools are needed).
  • Convenient to store when folded up.
  • Structurally designed to protect against water and dirt.
  • Folded for convenient transportation of large loads: furniture pieces, laundry machines, etc.

Cons

  • Some soft truck bed covers can be cut with a knife pretty easily and sag over time.
  • Most of them also have a relatively short service life (around 5 years).

Retractable bed covers

Retractable bed covers, as well as soft truck bed cover options, are quite lightweight and compact, the semi-permanent installation process can be a snap without using any additional tools. In contrast to the soft covers, they do not have an additional frame, which, however, does not reduce their rigidity and durability. Multiple-position-foldable, these bed covers are typically made of high-quality polycarbonate, composite/plastic, or aluminum, sometimes coated in soft vinyl or padded polymer, and are very easy to use (sliding motion), providing 100% access to your cargo when you need it. 

Pros

  • High water/dirt/theft protection level, fast mounting/dismounting, easy to use, key lockable, less expansive than hard aluminum truck covers, compact dimensions (when folded), flush canister, stylish truck appearance, a wide assortment of materials, can be secured when partially open (optionally), low profile.
  • Such a cover is more reliable than a soft option – it does not sag (e.g., from falling snow), and is easier to open.
  • Some models come with remote controls, others have aluminum i-beams embedded in polycarbonate sheets for improved strength.

Hard tri-fold covers

Hard tri-fold covers are the most convenient and durable options. Well, considering the price, they should be. These covers are most often made of profiled aluminum alloy, however, they are lightweight enough and quick to handle. High-quality hard folding truck bed covers are equipped with eyelets for securing bed cargo, which allows hauling goods right on top of the cover, without the necessity of removal. Premium hard folding truck bed covers are also equipped with a wide range of features like central locking, padded bumpers, gas-filled shock absorbers, latches, straps, stainless steel security clamps, crossbars, stop lights, etc. 

You can also opt for very popular and lightweight (about 60 lbs) high-impact plastic lids, hard roll-up covers, or heavy (about 110 lbs on average) painted fiberglass lids which often have the same color as the truck. The assembly often includes seals for tight fixation and prevention of cover friction against the bed, thus eliminating damage risks and subsequent corrosion. With such a cover, any truck will look one level higher, the appearance will be “complete”, and reliability/performance improved.

Pros

  • Outstanding cargo protection from dirt, water, snow, theft, or harmful intentions. Increased fuel economy (up to 10%) due to improved aerodynamics.
  • Rigid and durable construction that blocks the tailgate.
  • Full truck bed access within a minute.
  • Drain tubes and seal for protection against moisture and dirt.
  • No drilling or additional tools are needed.
  • UV, fading, and scratch resistance.
  • Some cover options are key lockable.
  • Extra cargo space due to inside rails.
  • It can sit above the truck bed or relatively flush, providing a smooth appearance.
    Hard truck bed covers can be installed in no more than 30 minutes by two people.
  • They are tamper-resistant, have reliable attachment system and locking mechanisms.
  • Aesthetically pleasing appearance also takes place when it comes to these high-quality covers.
  • They are easy to use, quick to install, and, what’s really important, can hold up to 500 lbs of evenly distributed weight, resulting in enhanced hauling capabilities – you can load dirt bikes, quads, or even snowmobiles on top of such covers. In fact, having a hard tri-fold cover on your truck bed transforms the latter in a huge trunk. It’s the perfect equipment for frequent tall cargo transportation.

Cons

  • Most expensive truck bed covers (all the best things cost a lot).

How to Choose a Bed Cover

When choosing your perfect bed cover for your pickup truck, make sure you have all the answers to the following questions:

Protection. How snug does the cover fit and does it protect the bed from dirt and moisture?

Due to specific bed design features, absolute tightness is almost impossible – minor leaks, especially when washing under pressure, are quite acceptable. But the cover should protect your cargo from dirt and water at the highest possible level.

Can the cover be installed in the bed along with a plastic insert, and what type of it should you choose for compatibility?

Keep in mind that not every design allows that. 

Does a closed truck bed cover block your tailgate?

Many trucks do not have locks in their tailgates. Thus, if the cover is closed and does not obstruct your tailgate opening, your cargo is not protected from trespassing.

Can you ride with a fully-closed truck bed cover and open tailgate?

When hauling long loads, a tailgate is open. Thus, if the cover has to be attached to the tailgate to be fully-closed, then it can’t be secured with the open tailgate.

How complicated is the locking mechanism of the cover?

The simpler and the fewer parts, the less probability that something will fail.

Are spare parts for the cover (locks, shock absorbers, seals, etc.) available on the market? Any alternatives?

No matter how hard the manufacturers try, sh**… defects happen. If you have to make a particular order and spend a large amount of money to get your bed cover replacement parts after six months or so, you may find yourself in an unpleasant situation. Imagine when due to the failure of a simple part costing $15, all the construction (that costs more than $1000) becomes unsuitable for use for a long time.

How secure is the cover on a truck’s bed?

In most cases, the cover is attached to the bed with clamps, which have to be checked every 1000-2000 miles. This is exhausting and not practical. Besides, over time the clamps fail – the threads deteriorate or the clamp cracks. Find out how secure is your cover when closed and how often you need to check the clamps.

How durable is the cover, and is it resistant to aggressive impacts like shocks, vibrations, etc.?

Fiberglass covers crack over time when used on bad roads. Covers made of HDPE plastic are more resilient, but they do not like frost and substantial impacts. Repairs are a messy and unpromising business. An aluminum bed cover is hard to “kill.” And it can be repaired by yourself in the field.

Weight capacity. How much cargo can you put on the cover?

Relevant for hunters, fishers, adventurers, and those who use their trucks for professional tasks. Aluminum covers can haul hundreds of pounds – nothing more massive than road dust can be carried on plastic bed covers.

Is it possible to modify a bed cover to suit your particular needs?

You can do that with aluminum because metal can be drilled, welded, and processed by any means available. The plastic lid often can only be painted.

How easy is it to remove a bed cover if necessary?

You need to be able to do it alone, in a short time, without any special tools. Fiberglass products weigh dozens of lbs. The weight of the aluminum lid depends on the construction. Developing their quality lids, manufacturers are fighting for each pound. As a result, even those who only saw a barbell on TV can cope with the cover within a minute. 

When buying such a universal cover for a pickup truck you need to carefully study the parameters that will be most useful for your car. Here are the main nuances you should pay attention to.

  • Quality. High-quality products always withstand more tests and will last faithfully for a long time. A quality truck bed cover finish should protect the content inside the bed. Keep in mind that each cover material has its own disadvantages, so when choosing the cover, better pay attention to the fasteners and fittings so that they are properly connected.
  • Inside capacity. This parameter is often measured in liters. Different cover manufacturers produce various inside capacities of production. Inspect the cover visually – it may look large, but the inside capacity of the cover will be minimum.
  • Exterior. Many truck owners know that the vehicle looks much better and gets its unique style if its details have the general concept of performance. For a pickup truck, a similar bed-cover design is a perfect combination. The same fittings or decorative elements will make your truck elegant and unique, standing out among others on the road.
  • Ease of use. Truck bed covers can have indoor lighting, so if they do – check the brightness of lamps and their location. Consider weather tightness of the cover, bed access level, ventilation, and so on. Make sure you check all the parameters responsible for the convenience of the cover.

If all the parameters are perfect for your vehicle, the cover can be safely purchased without fear of weather conditions, bad roads, or other negative factors that can damage your bed’s content.

About the author

Jim Malkovich

If you have any ideas or seek cooperation in any way, contact me today and let’s see where this leads us to. You can reach me at info@mechanicfaq.com

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