Conventional wisdom used to say: “Drive your truck with the tailgate down and you’ll reduce drag and save gas. Better yet, just take it off and you’ll be lighter, too!” However, a study published through the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) seemed to prove that old conventional wisdom wrong.

The study found that driving with the gate down did not improve fuel efficiency at all—in fact, it actually made mileage worse. It turns out that a raised gate helps trap a “bubble” of air in the bed, allowing wind to flow over the vehicle. Further, the study found that a tonneau cover—even a partial cover over the rear end of the bed—can increase aerodynamics, reduce drag, and improve gas mileage by over a mile per gallon.

The MythBusters crew investigated a tonneau cover’s effect on fuel economy. The results? Inconclusive. The debate lives on.

That study, along with the general effect of tonneau covers on automotive fuel efficiency, has been hotly debated in recent years—even drawing the attention of MythBusters. Yet the popularity of tonneau covers has never been higher, simply because there is no debating the many other advantages of using a tonneau cover.

Depending on which cover you choose, tonneau covers can accentuate a pickup’s style, shield cargo against the elements, protect valuable items against damage, and even provide security against theft. With that in mind, we’ve put together a quick reference to help you pick the right tonneau cover.

Soft Roll-Up Tonneau Covers
Soft roll-up tonneau covers consist of a soft vinyl cover material that lays over a set of aluminum bows and secures to an aluminum frame using snaps, Velcro, or a belt rail. When detached from the frame, the cover rolls up and usually secures close to the cab. This design allows for fast, easy, and complete access to the entire truck bed. When rolled back, soft tonneau covers also allow you to haul larger, taller cargo—even items that are taller than the bed rails.

Choose a soft roll up tonneau cover if you want:

  • Quick access to the entire truck bed
  • Added flexiblity to accommodate larger cargo
  • Lightweight design
  • Generally the most economical option

Check out these soft, roll-up tonneau covers:


Traditional Hard Tonneau Covers
Hard tonneau covers feature a rigid fiberglass or composite cover material, which clamps to the frame rail. The rigid construction helps hard tonneau covers closely match the lines of the truck, giving them a factory installed appearance. Hard covers can often be locked, and unlike soft tonneau covers, they’re puncture resistant. That makes hard tonneau covers the perfect choice when security is the primary concern.

Choose a hard tonneau cover if you want:

  • Sleek lines and a well-fitted appearance
  • Security for your cargo
  • Maximum protection against the elements
  • Climate-resistance—will not expand or contract in hot or cold weather

Check out these hard tonneau covers:

  • Bestop BestRail Hard Tonneau Covers

Hinged Tonneau Covers
Hinged tonneau covers use a set of hinges, which allow the entire cover to open like a car trunk. They also typically utilize a set of gas struts that assist in the opening of the cover, giving you quick, access to cargo. Hinged-style tonneaus are available in hard or soft versions. Like traditional hard covers, hard hinged covers often accentuate the lines of your truck and offer maximum security. Conversely, soft hinged tonneau covers offer many of the advantages of soft covers, including the ability to be completely rolled-up for total bed access.

Choose a hinged tonneau cover if you want:

  • Quick access to truck bed
  • Sleek styling to match the lines of your truck
  • Soft or hard cover material options

Check out these hinged tonneau covers:


Folding Tonneau Covers
If you’re looking for a combination of cargo protection, full cargo access, and sleek styling, a folding tonneau cover may be the best option for you. These covers fold in multiple locations, usually in three sections, so they offer easy access to as much of the truck bed as you need. When completely closed, they provide the low profile styling you appreciate.

Choose a folding tonneau cover if you want:

  • Access to entire truck bed
  • Ability to haul taller loads (higher than the bed rails)
  • Soft or hard cover material options

Check out these folding tonneau covers

Retractable Tonneau Covers
Retractable tonneau covers combine the best of both worlds: the easy access of soft tonneaus and the security of a traditional hard tonneau cover. Made with a hard cover material, they retract easily with the push of a button to allow quick access to the entire bed. Some covers, such as the BAK RollBAK Tonneau Cover, even retract in 12-inch increments for greater versatility. Retractable tonneau covers are typically the most expensive of the tonneau cover styles.


Choose a retractable tonneau cover if you want:

  • Access to the entire truck bed
  • Push-button removal
  • Maximum security when closed

Check out these retractable tonneau covers:

The Final Factors
Once you’ve chosen the style of bed cover that works best for your needs, you’ll need to consider a few other factors before further narrowing down your options. Look at price, warranty, and attachment style (snap, Velcro, belt attachment, etc.) to make your final decision.

Do they or don’t they improve fuel efficiency? Although that’s a matter of varying opinions, we think nearly everyone can agree that the right tonneau cover can improve the overall look and security of your pickup truck. Follow our guide to find yours!

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Author: David Fuller

David Fuller is OnAllCylinders' managing editor. During his 20-year career in the auto industry, he has covered a variety of races, shows, and industry events and has authored articles for multiple magazines. He has also partnered with mainstream and trade publications on a wide range of editorial projects. In 2012, he helped establish OnAllCylinders, where he enjoys covering all facets of hot rodding and racing.