esCovering your tail

Throughout most of the history of the American pickup truck, people have been trying to find a cool, yet functional way to cover the bed to protect it (and hence its contents) from snow, rain, dust, and other elements. Security problems are also confronted with a truck. Let's face it, there is plenty of subhuman filth out there that want your stuff, so you can't trust leaving anything of value in an open bed. And, you can't store much inside the locked doors of the pickup's cab, and certainly not anything very messy at that.

So what do you do? Trade the SS for a diesel work van, a ride that screams "ultra cool"? I think not. Trade the SS for a new Lightning with the factory tonneau cover or cap option? Blasphemy. Buy a cap for your SS? Uncool. The answer, my friend, is to get yourself a tonneau cover.

What is a tonneau cover?

It's name is French and hence is pronounced TON-O. A tonneau cover is a low-lying cap that covers the bed and usually is not very much higher than the bed sides themselves. There are two basic kinds, soft covers (usually made of vinyl, faux leather, cloth, or other synthetic material) and hard covers (usually made of fiberglass). Which material you choose will ultimately depend on what kind of money you want to spend vs. security, durability, and style.

What's your preference, soft tail or hard tail?

No, I'm not referring to s…anyhow, you'll want to consider what you want to achieve with the cover. Let's explore some of the benefits and drawbacks to each type of cover.

Hard covers: The hard cover is the ultimate in element-proofing and theft deterrence, due to it's lockable nature and the fact that since most of these covers ride over the bed rails, rubber weatherstripping can (and usually is) added to the cover's undersides to seal the cover to the bed. Most of the popular covers also come with locking mechanisms (cheap, but effective, ones at best) that serve not only to keep your 10,000 megawatt boom system from disappearing to the nearest street corner but also to secure the cover down and in one position to keep it from rubbing off the paint on your bed sides while driving.

Due to the relatively durable nature of fiberglass, these covers typically will provide many years of use. Fiberglass, when painted and sealed, is more maintenance-free than any of the soft cover materials, so despite it's higher cost of both the cover and painting it to match your truck, it will last much longer. The prime maintenance point is to brush snow off of the cover-the heavy snow can and will warp the cover out of shape, bowing it in the center.

Hard covers seem to be more "cool" than soft covers, providing an element of style that soft covers cannot match. Hard covers tend to follow the lines of the truck and give more of a factory appearance than soft covers, which typically have "humps" in the cover due to the support rods that help them hold their shape. Also contributing to the factory look is that the owner can paint the covers so it matches the color and pinstripe of the truck, further enhancing overall "coolness" of the truck and your custom paint theme.

The downfalls of the hard covers are the price and weight. The hard versions will weigh close to 150 pounds, many times more the weight of soft covers, which may weigh as little as 20 pounds. This makes initial installation a two-person ordeal. But, as we all are well aware of, most pickups suffer from scant little traction due to the heavily front-biased weight ratio. So, putting a little weight over the rear axle via a hard bed cover is one of the better places to add weight, if you're going to add any.

Lastly, there are two basic types of hard covers: flush-fit and over-the-rails (there are other types available, such as those that have lift-off or/and multiple hinged panels, that appear to be more intended for work duty than sportiness or coolness, so those few will not be covered here). The over-the-rails covers are the most popular with the average truck crowd as they offer more advantages to the average truck-using owner than the flush-fit covers. Due to the fact that they sit on top of the bed rails, they lend themselves to being much more waterproof than the flush covers. Water is swept off the cover and down the sides of the bed, whereas on a flush cover, water can enter the crack formed between the cover and bed sides, eventually leaking into the bed. Additionally, the hard covers use no extra support hardware as they get support on all 4 sides of the bed, since they sit on top of the rails. Security is also enhanced-over-the-rails covers have a lip that covers the top part of the tailgate (as well as the bed rails), preventing it from being opened if your tailgate handle is in the stock location on the outside of the gate. The flush covers have the edge in show points and coolness, however. They are the lowest and least intrusive covers that you can buy, plus they still can be painted to match. Flush covers don't hinder or clutter the look of the bed, which looks like it is open and without a cover until one inspects it from a closer (or higher) standpoint. Hence, flush covers look very clean and sano to judges at the local truck show. However, the bed's stake pockets (those little square holes in the bed rails) are exposed, and for the ultimate look, should be shaved or capped off (capped off is slightly tacky, but it works). For a truck that sits outside, is used in the rain and elements, and goes more miles on it's own wheels for daily driving rather than to shows in a trailer, an over-the-rails cover is more appropriate. For those extra show points however, a flush cover just looks bitchin'.

Soft covers: Lightweight and relatively durable, the soft tonneau covers are quite popular with many truck enthusiasts. There are numerous soft covers out there and the methods to attach them to the bed vary with the cover. Some soft covers, such as those from Extang, feature a hinged metal frame with the soft cover stretched over it, much like a vintage airplane wing, that swings upward like the traditional hard cover. Most others are a roll-up style that requires the user to unfasten the cover and roll it up to access things in the bed. As for fastening, covers have one of 3 main types of fastening systems: hook and loop fastening material, button snaps, or a rail-and-guide system. The hook-and-loop system is fairly quick and easy to remove, but the material will wear out quickly if used often and the truck is left in the sun too long. Also, the material has an adhesive backing that sticks onto the bed. It gets brittle fast, and breaks down. Replacing it is not the most fun task in the world-this requires the owner to sand down the bed sides to get rid of the old adhesive before applying the new material. Snaps are somewhat easier to deal with. Snaps require the owner to drill many little holes in the bed sides to mount the snaps. While covers with snaps are somewhat slower to remove, the difference is negligible, and the snaps far outlast the hook-and-loop material. Conceivably, the two can allow water spray in, although I have not personally witnessed this. Lastly, the rail system, unique to some covers, utilizes a rubber rail that squeezes into place on a metal guide that is mounted to the bed. One simply pulls the cover up and out to release it, and pushes the rail back in place to secure it. Touted as more waterproof and lasting much longer than the other two fastening methods, the rail-and-guide system is probably the best buy in covers.

While they are not as indestructible as hard covers, they remain popular for their versatility. If you use your truck as a truck to transport not only small items in the bed, but large items like engines, transmissions, dirtbikes, quads, and other things that ride much higher than the bed rails, the soft cover is the way to go. Most soft covers can be rolled up when necessary and tied up to the headgate of the bed, allowing you to drive over to a friend's house with the cover on, pick up a motorcycle, bring it home, and roll the cover over top of the bed again without the assistance of another person to remove and replace the cover. In many instances, the hard covers are relatively permanently installed, and are not quickly removable.

But, soft covers are just not as long lasting or theft proof as hard covers. Soft covers, while they are still good for covering the bed, can be cut. A thief would have little trouble cutting up your cover to get to valuables inside. A razor and 5 minutes is all that one would need to get into the bed. Additionally, dry rotting and sun damage claim a soft cover far earlier than a fiberglass hard cover if maintenance is not kept up.

Whatever cover you choose, coolness points and versatility go way up with a good tonneau cover. Hard or soft, black or white, low-cost or expensive, any kind of tail is better than none at all