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It should be no surprise to anyone reading this post that pickup trucks are popular in this country, to put it mildly. Such is the market for these machines that manufacturers are ladling more and more luxury items on them, searching for the upper limit of opulence and price. By all accounts, they haven’t found the ceiling yet. Silverados, Rams, F-150s … nearly 1 in 5 items to roll off a dealer’s lot with a new-car smell has an open box attached to it.
That open box (whether it’s five-and-a-half, six, or eight feet long) is the indisputable king of cargo. Need to haul a tree home from the arborist? No problem. How about that grandfather clock at the estate sale? Toss it in. The amount of detritus one can handle with a pickup is legendary. Thing is, though, that open bed is – well – open.
Fortunately, there’s a solution. Tonneau covers have been around for ages and are designed to cover up the box of your truck, essentially sealing it from weather and prying eyes. There are a ton of options out there, so it behooves the smart customer to ask themselves a few questions before plunking down the cash.
Decide what type of tonneau cover you want. They are constructed of either hard or soft material, each with their own advantages. The hard covers are generally made of metal or hard plastic while soft covers are fabric-based. Metal units are more robust and resistant to skeets trying to steal your gear but, logically, they are more expensive than their fabric brethren.
(Editor’s note: As noted above, this post is meant to both help you be an informed shopper for automotive products but also to pay for our ‘90s sedan shopping habits operating expenses. Some of you don’t find these posts fun, but they help pay for Junkyard Finds, Rare Rides, Piston Slaps, and whatever else. Thanks for reading.)
Editor’s Pick: Extang Solid Fold 2.0 Hard Folding Cover
This is your editor’s pick because it is the one I installed on my own pickup truck. After night upon sleepless night of research, this cover was selected based on its looks, construction, and positive feedback. Fully assembled right out of the box, this hard cover folds up into thirds, allowing your author to load a snowblower or other smaller piece of equipment aboard the truck bed without needing to remove the entire cover.
Installation is straightforward, with the cover’s leading edge clamped to the bedsides using robust metal fasteners which don’t require tools to adjust. Its edging provides a tight seal to keep out the weather, while easy-to-use spring-loaded fasteners keep the tailgate end of the cover secured tightly to the bed even with frequent opening and closing of the truck’s ‘gate.
Pros: Dead simple to install, robust construction, slick good looks
Cons: Expensive, weighs about 50 pounds
Highly Rated: Tyger Auto T3 Tri-Fold
This vinyl unit attempts to marry the convenience of a tri-fold hard cover with the budget-friendly nature of a soft cover. Made of marine-grade vinyl, its frame is composed of aluminium and comes with stainless steel clamps. Preassembled crossbars provide a rigidity not found in a roll-up soft cover, while its tri-fold action allows for partial access to the truck bed without having to leave the entire unit back home in the garage.
One of the most highly rated tonneau covers on Amazon, it has earned an astounding 4.8/5 rating based on over 1,000 customer reviews. That’s a remarkable vote of confidence from a very large sample size. No drilling is required for installation as the works of it simply lays on top of the truck’s bed rails and is secured in place with the aforementioned stainless steel clamping system.
Pros: Affordable price, tri-fold functionality, aluminium crossbar system
Cons: Vinyl construction is easily foiled by knife-wielding thieves
Budget Pick: North Mountain Soft Vinyl Roll-up Tonneau Cover
If all you seek is a cheap way to keep your gear out of the weather, this budget-priced soft tonneau cover may just do the trick. This one-piece unit rolls up like a window blind toward the truck’s cab when its owner desires unfettered access to the bed area. Made of tear-resistant double-sided vinyl, a system of aluminum frame rails keep the thing from sagging like a dead houseplant.
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Like the other tonneau covers mentioned in this post, this soft vinyl unit rests atop the bedsides which is great for the evacuation of water and other sloppy precipitation. Be aware that this cover seems to require the installation of a track system on top of the bedsides in order for the rolling action to work properly. These tracks are affixed with metal clamps but will definitely require some precise measurement to line up properly.
Pros: Cheap way of buying into the tonneau cover game, three-year warranty
Cons: Installation will require maths
BAK Industries 26505 BakFlip G2 Folding Tonneau Cover
The primary issue with most tri-fold covers, including the one in use on your author’s pickup truck, is that only two of the three panels can be flipped open. The third panel, up near the pickup’s rear window, generally serves as the cover’s main clamping point and cannot be moved. This BAK Industries unit solves that vexing problem with a pair of hydraulic struts.
This BAKFlip G2 cover folds all the way forward and up against the truck’s cab window, giving users access to the entirety of their bed without removing the cover. Its low profile design avoids the muffin-top look plaguing some tonneau units. Its solid core panels with aluminium skins permits up to 300 lbs of evenly distributed weight to bear down on the cover, so don’t feel the need to rush out in the middle of a blizzard to clear it free of snow.
Pros: All three panels can be flipped open, doesn’t interfere with stake pockets, slick looks
Cons: More complicated install than some, eye-watering price
LEER Latitude Soft Tri-Fold Truck Bed Tonneau Cover
This brand bills itself as “America’s #1 Truck Cover” and, given the sheer number of truck accessories one sees bearing the Leer name, they may have a point. This particular option is a soft tri-fold unit, flipping forward in thirds to reveal the truck bed underneath. Drivers can safely travel with the cover open thanks to security straps and buckles located at the front of the bed.
Made of commercial-grade reinforced vinyl, this cover won’t provide the security of a hard cover but is a good option if one doesn’t want to break the bank. A specially designed self-tensioning frame helps keep the truck bed cover in place while a support framework with rounded corners and beveled edges keep water out of the truck bed. The latching system near the tailgate is of a one-handed pinch design, not a bulky handle on which to yank. Leer’s solution is certainly lower profile but may be hard to grab, especially in the dark.
Pros: Well-known brand name, light weight, no-drill installation
Cons: Fiddly opening latches, costly for a soft cover
This list would be incomplete without mention of a retractable tonneau cover. Merging the benefits of a hard cover and a roll up soft cover, this unit opens up to uncover the truck’s bed in the same manner as one opens a kitchen bread box or fancy-pants rolltop desk.
Constructed of Lexan polycarbonate, allegedly the same stuff that is used in fighter jet cockpits, this cover can bear about 300 lbs of evenly distributed weight. Sliding on maintenance free sealed ball bearings, this cover is lockable with a key and can actually be locked in any position. When retracted, the cover resides in an “11 x 11” canister which lives at the head of the truck’s bed up by the cab. This does eat up some box space but is certainly compact enough to largely stay out of harm’s way.
Pros: Adds secure storage to your truck, clamp on rails for easy installation
Cons: Mechanism can jam if cover is not kept reasonably free of debris
GatorTrax MX Electric Retractable
Attentive readers will note this unit is very similar to the one listed just above but with a key difference – it is power operated. Retracting into its canister with the touch of a keyfob button, this GatorTrax MX also has a LED cargo light integrated into the unit. Since it has a power assist, the cover includes a safety auto shutoff feature to avoid nipping wayward fingers or protruding cargo.
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An electromagnetic brake allows the cover to lock in any position along the rail, permitting a great flexibility with hauling gear in the bed. This retractable cover has sealed ball bearings and a spiral-style canister with no moving parts, reducing the fiddle factor to a near-zero level of maintenance. Its heavy duty construction apparently allows it to bear 500 lbs of weight. The included keyfob controls both the retracting action and the LED light mounted on the canister.
Pros: Power operation to wow your buddies, robust construction, low-profile looks
Cons: “Say What?” price, takes an hour to install
GM #19302798 Premium Cover by Fold-a-Cover
Yes, this tonneau cover is specifically for GM trucks but is getting a mention thanks to one unique feature: its ability to fold up from either the front or the back of the truck bed. No other tri-fold cover on this list allows users to flip open the segment that’s closest to the cab without first folding away the rest of the unit. This is an incredibly handy feature which permits truck owner to access gear stored up at the front of the bed with ease.
Technically a four-panel design, this cover is an OEM accessory available through Amazon retailers. This helps to explain its eye-watering price, as manufacturers aren’t exactly known for their restraint when pricing their accessory list. At least buyers will know it’ll fit their truck to a tee, since it was designed by the manufacturer.
Pros: Allows access to the front of the bed, quad-fold flexibility, compatible with other GM accessories
Cons: Laughably expensive
Installation Tips and Thoughts on Tonneau Covers
Installing either type of cover is a breeze, with tri-fold covers (both hard and soft types) being held in place with robust metal clamps tucked away out of sight inside the truck bed. Most tonneau covers can be installed on a truck in less than 10 minutes without any tools.
Experience has taught your author that if your truck has a bed liner, check to make sure it is of the type which tucks underneath the sides of bed. This means the areas onto which the cover will clamp are accessible and not concealed by the liner. Ninety-nine percent of plastic drop-in bed liners are of this variety. Modern spray-in liners generally don’t affect the installation of a tonneau cover at all.
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Be sure to measure your truck’s bed before buying a cover to ensure a proper fit and think about how you plan to use your pickup. All tonneau covers provide a mail-slot of access into the bed when you drop the tailgate but beyond that, some can pose limitations if you’re frequently hauling tall gear in the bed.
Roll-up tonneaus can be easily trundled up against the truck’s cab when you need the whole bed to haul an ATV. Some tri-fold tonneaus will also flip forward and provide access to the bed but often leave a portion of the bed covered up, scuppering your plans to haul a load of furniture or dirt bike. Either way, you’ll likely have to remove the cover in order to load tall items, so plan ahead.
Aftermarket truck accessories are a huge business, unsurprising since almost 20 percent of all new vehicles sold are pickup trucks. Trucks that are sold to deeply loyal owners who want to protect their purchase. A tonneau cover is a great way to clean up the lines of your truck and increase the amount of lockable storage space. Do your research, select the one that fits your needs, and you’ll have a practical accessory that adds value to your truck.
[Images courtesy of the manufacturers]