Tonneau Covers vs Caps
What’s the difference between a camper shell vs tonneau cover? Which type of truck cover should you buy? If you haven’t owned either before you might be wondering how to decide which truck accessory will do a better job protecting your cargo. This blog post will address the basics of tonneaus and caps, go over what they have in common, then get into the main differences between them.
What is a Tonneau Cover?
A tonneau is a cover that usually lies flat along the top of your pickup truck bed. Truck bed covers can vary from a hard fiberglass style to a soft model that attaches to your bed rails with snaps. The purpose of a tonneau cover is to provide security and protection for your cargo, both from weather and theft. Other tonneau cover benefits include streamlining the look of your truck and adding functionality and value without fundamentally changing the appearance of your vehicle.
Types of Tonneau Covers
Read our full guide to the different types of truck bed covers, or get the quick summary of each different style here.
Roll up tonneau covers: Roll up covers can come either in a soft material like vinyl, or be made up of hard aluminum or plastic slats with a vinyl cover. They can be rolled up and buckled down with straps at the cab. These are lightweight, but may get in the way of your rear view. Check out some of the best roll up tonneau covers on The Drive’s website.
Folding tonneau covers: Folding covers usually come with either 3 or 4 panels. They are a type of hard cover that can be unfolded flat to protect the whole truck bed or portions can be folded back to leave some of the bed exposed. These models may be heavy depending on the material and can require more than one person to install and remove.
Hard top tonneau covers: Single piece truck bed covers are made of hard materials, often fiberglass, and can be painted to match your truck. The downside to their extra security is how heavy and difficult to install they are, as well as the fact that you can’t carry any cargo that is taller than your truck’s bed rails since it will prevent the cover from shutting.
Snap-on tonneau covers: These are the most affordable type of cover, and the least heavy duty. They are made of a soft textile that can be snapped down along the sides to secure it to your truck. They don’t offer as much security, but can be a good starter tonneau due to their low price.
Expandable tonneau covers: Expandable covers solve the problem of how to carry tall or large cargo, but still keep it covered. Other tonneau covers won’t stretch, but Sawtooth tonneau covers are made of flexible, thick textile that can stretch over any cargo. They latch into place with secure J-hooks that don’t wear out like other tonneaus with velcro or snaps. Shop the best tonneau cover for Nissan Frontier and more.
What is a Truck Cap / Camper Shell?
A truck cap also covers your truck bed, but has hard sides and a roof that create a tall storage space within your truck bed. Most truck caps are made of aluminum, fiberglass, or composite/plastic and some models have windows along the sides and back. Camper shells come in different heights. Many are cab height so they sit flush with the roof of your truck, while other high rise toppers are even taller, creating more space for your cargo. They typically have hinged, hatchback type, back doors so you can load and unload, and some even have hinged side doors as well.
A camper shell gives you a large protected cargo space. We’ve heard truck owners compare their truck cap to a large trunk. As the name suggests, camper shells can be an appealing option for someone who wants to camp in their truck bed in all kinds of weather without having to worry about a tent.
Truck Bed Cover vs. Camper Shell
Both tonneaus and caps give you protected storage space that you wouldn’t have otherwise with an open truck bed. They are both great at keeping water out of your truck bed. But you’re here because you need help deciding to go with a truck cap vs tonneau cover, so let’s get into the biggest differences between the two styles.
Main Differences Between Camper Shells and Tonneau Covers
We’ve split this up into categories so you can see the most important areas where truck bed covers and shells differ.
Cargo space: One of the biggest benefits of a camper shell is that it lets you carry large and tall items. Your cargo space increases right away when you install a truck cap. In contrast, most covers limit how much you can carry in your truck bed. However, expandable Sawtooth tonneaus can stretch to cover big items so you can get the other benefits of a truck bed cover without sacrificing the ability to protect tall cargo.
Appearance: Unlike a tonneau cover, a camper shell fundamentally changes the shape of your truck. With a camper shell you are making your pickup truck look more like a minivan or SUV. If you’re a fan of the standard pickup truck silhouette, then a tonneau cover can help you maintain that look.
Aerodynamics & Handling: Also unlike a tonneau cover, a camper shell will change how your truck drives and handles. You should be aware that with an increased side surface area of the camper shell, your truck will end up being pushed more to the side when cross winds hit it while driving. Also, the increased weight towards the top will affect turning and maneuverability at higher speeds when using a camper shell.
Camping: A camper shell offers rain protection, head space, and windows if you want to sleep in your truck bed. If you’re planning to buy a shell and camp in your truck, be sure to buy a lined model for extra warmth and comfort. However, if you sleep there, you won’t be able to use the full storage area. Unless you want to sleep in your truck often and don’t care about losing the cargo space, you might be better off just upgrading your tent instead. There are even tents that fit in your pickup bed, like this Napier Backroadz Truck Tent, so you can get the best of both worlds.
Easy installation: When you’re comparing installation for a tonneau cover vs camper shell, most tonneaus are going to be easier to install and take less time. Some styles, like the Sawtooth STRETCH, can be installed in under 6 minutes by one person. Truck caps are more of a challenge to install and require multiple people and drilling. When you remove the topper, you’ll need plenty of space to securely store it, like a garage or shed, until it’s time to re-install.
Security: Like hard tonneau covers, the hinged doors on truck caps can be locked to secure your belongings. Overall, caps and locking tonneaus will do a good job keeping thieves out of your truck. However, if a camper shell has windows you will lose the benefit of keeping your items out of sight, which could catch a potential thief's eye leading them to break the window.
Gas mileage: Tonneau covers are known for lowering your gas mileage by making your truck more aerodynamic and removing any drag created by your tailgate. As we’ve written before, there isn’t a ton of science to back up those claims. However, you’ll definitely see a difference at the gas pump depending on whether you choose a lightweight tonneau cover or truck cap. A fiberglass camper shell can weigh up to 200 pounds, which would hurt your gas mileage. Soft covers like the Sawtooth STRETCH don’t add much weight to your truck so they won’t impact your wallet.
Price: Speaking of saving money, many tonneaus are a more budget-friendly option. Truck bed tonneau cover prices can range from $150 - $600 for soft covers and $600 to over $1,000 for hard tonneaus. Camper shell prices for aluminum styles usually run under $1,000 while fiberglass models can range up to $2,000 installed. Plastic/composite models will fall somewhere in the middle.
Our Final Thoughts
Both tonneau covers and caps provide a lot of security and help you get more out of your truck. To choose between camper shell vs tonneau cover, you’ll need to consider your priorities and how you plan to use your truck.
If the main thing you’re looking for is extra cargo space, we’d encourage you to take a look at Sawtooth’s expandable tonneau covers which give you the best of both worlds by lying flat when possible, or stretching to cover large cargo.