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This article was updated September 9, 2022 with new products and fresh information.
Pickup owners love their trucks. This is known. What's also clear is that the majority of pickup owners don't need or use their truck beds very often. Covering your truck bed with a tonneau cover can protect it from the elements and debris. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest that covering your truck's bed can reduce aerodynamic drag and, therefore, increase fuel efficiency.
A tonneau cover protects your truck bed when you're not using it and potentially improves your gas mileage. But with so many types and styles of tonneau covers on the market, which one is right for you?
The answer lies in how you use your truck. If you're using your truck bed for work, hauling supplies daily and getting in and out of the bed often, you'll want a tonneau cover that's sturdy and easy to use. If your truck is mainly for stylin' and profilin', with the occasional grocery run or moving-day haul thrown in, you'll want a protective cover that looks great—and works when you need it.
Regardless of where you are on this pickup-truck spectrum (we're guessing most truck owners fall somewhere in between the two extremes), a tonneau cover is an investment worth considering. In addition to keeping your truck bed free of dirt and debris, it will protect the paint. Moreover, while any bump in fuel efficiency will be negligible—and could be negated by the additional weight—the savings can add up. Especially when the average fuel-tank size of a standard pickup is around 25 gallons.
Here are the most popular types of tonneau covers and their benefits—and drawbacks.
Types of Tonneau Covers
Retractable Tonneau Covers
For fully featured coverage that's easy to use and disappears out of sight for a sleek look, consider a retractable tonneau cover. Retractables are great because the unused portion of the cover rolls up into itself toward the cab of the truck, exposing as much or as little of the bed as you need. This is usually performed by hand, but many of today's retractable tonneau covers are electric powered, making them a snap to use. Just push a button (usually on a key fob) and the cover retracts automatically.
Retractable tonneau covers look fantastic, and they're sleek and easy to use. If there's a downside, it's that they're generally made of soft fabric, like a roll-up or snap-on tonneau cover. This makes them more susceptible to rips and tears, as well as water damage. But like roll-ups, many of today's retractable tonneau covers are manufactured using hard composite in dozens of segment slats that are hinged every inch or so, making them more durable. Best of all, most have locking mechanisms, providing trunk space and security. For our money, an electric retractable tonneau cover is one of the best-looking and easiest to use truck-bed coverings.
Folding Tonneau Covers
Folding covers are most often made of three panels that fold back toward the cab, exposing just as much of the truck bed as desired. Whether they're trifold, or have two or even four panels, folding covers are probably the most popular style of tonneau cover. Usually made of hard-composite plastic with metal hinges, they're more expensive than their soft counterparts, but not as pricy as retractable or paint-matched hard-shell covers. So they're still relatively affordable.
Folding covers are more durable than soft rolling or snap-on tonneau covers and are super useful for hauling small, awkwardly sized items that rise above the level of the bed. Get one with a lock, and you're effectively adding a trunk to your pickup, which is super-handy. However, they're also heavier, and they definitely cost more. We think it's worth it.
Hinged Tonneau Covers
Effectively a lid for your pickup truck's bed, a hinged tonneau cover props up on hinges near the cab and stays put via struts. Typically made of hard-shell composite material but sometimes made of soft fabric with an internal frame, they're great for protecting your bed finish and reducing aerodynamic drag.
While the benefits are obvious, hinged tonneau covers aren't perfect for everyone. When opened, they expose the entire truck bed—whether you need it or not. Further, hard-shell tonneau covers prevent you from hauling anything taller than the level of your bed. You can't leave it propped open while driving; the cover will catch air like a sail on a boat, likely ripping the struts right out of their moorings. Hard-shell hinged tonneau covers look sleek and can often be paint matched for an even purer aesthetic. We don't recommend a fabric hinged tonneau cover; if you're looking to save money or weight, a roll-up or snap-on cover will be far more functional and nearly as secure.
Roll-Up Tonneau Covers
A roll-up tonneau cover rolls up toward the truck cab, exposing as much or as little of the bed as you want. It's great for hauling odd-shaped items, as well as for quick and easy access to a portion of the bed for small loads, like bags of groceries. Look for roll-ups with removable crossbeam supports, too, as these can get in the way when you need the whole bed for picking up your annual Christmas tree or helping your buddy move.
While they perform basically the same function of a snap-on, exposing only as much of the bed as is needed, roll-ups can be more reliable than snap-on tonneau covers. There are no snaps to break and corners to tear while stretching. However, most roll-ups are also made of fabric material and will be less durable than hard-shell tonneau covers. They also need to be secured once rolled up. Some newer roll-up tonneau covers are being manufactured with hard composite and roll up section by section. They cost a bit more, but, in our opinion, their durability will pay off in the end.
Snap-On Tonneau Covers
Snap-on tonneau covers are the least expensive—and least durable. That said, they're also the lightest in weight and can be ordered in custom sizes. Again, any fuel efficiency gained by covering your truck bed can be negated by adding all that extra weight to the vehicle, so a snap-on tonneau cover is a lightweight, inexpensive solution. They also provide easy, quick access to all or part of the truck bed.
The downside is obvious: Snap-on tonneau covers are made of soft fabric material that can wear and (literally) tear more easily than hard tonneau covers. Most have an aluminum frame that bolts onto the top of the truck bed and utilize metal crossbars for support. However, these crossbars can be unwieldy or obtrusive when you want to haul large items. Look for snap-ons with removable crossbeams.
In our opinion, snap-on tonneau covers also don't add much in the way of aesthetic appeal. Frankly, we wouldn't recommend one unless you're in a bind and need a quick fix. Spend a little more, and you'll get a lot more.
FAQs About Tonneau Covers
Q: Do Tonneau Covers Improve Gas Mileage?
Frankly, the jury is still out on this. Some studies (usually those touted by tonneau-cover manufacturers and retailers) claim an emphatic "yes!" Others, like this outdated 2013 study from Consumer Reports, claim that any aerodynamic advantage is negligible, and overall mileage is actually compromised by the added weight a tonneau cover brings. We're looking forward to putting this theory to the test ourselves in the future.
For now, while a tonneau cover can theoretically reduce aerodynamic drag and improve fuel efficiency and, therefore, gas mileage, in our opinion the greatest value here lies in the security and protection it provides—and the overall improved looks of a truck. But if you're really looking at a tonneau cover to save you money, opt for a lightweight one.
Q: Should I Get a Hard-Shell or Soft-Fabric Tonneau Cover?
If you want waterproof security and a locking mechanism to protect any valuables you may want to keep in your tuck, you should opt for a hard-shell tonneau cover. But be advised, it will add weight to the vehicle and potentially negate any added fuel efficiency. A soft cover will be lighter weight, but won't be as secure or durable. Your call.
Q: Can I Install a Tonneau Cover Myself?
Sure, you can. Most modern tonneau covers can be installed by any reasonably handy do-it-yourselfer with the proper tools—and the willingness to experiment on his own vehicle. To that end, if you're unsure, we definitely recommend professional installation. Hey, it's your truck.
Still undecided about which tonneau cover is right for you? Check out some of these great selections.