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What Is a Tonneau Cover?

A tonneau cover is basically a fancy way of saying pickup truck bed cover.  Tonneau covers keep the bed of your pickup truck protected. There are lots of types on the market, but they all really do the same thing: cover your truck bed. Pickup truck owners look for tonneau covers for many reasons. Mainly, to secure their cargo, protect their truck bed from rain and snow, and keep their truck looking sleek.

We’ll go over all the basics you need to know about what a tonneau cover is. But first, let’s back up a bit.

Ford Tonneau Cover

Why are they called “tonneau covers”?

What’s the deal with the word “tonneau?” Tonneau is a French word that means “barrel” or “cask.”

Some early cars had an open back compartment with passenger seats. The area was rounded like a barrel, hence “tonneau.” At the time, drivers could use soft leather tonneau covers to protect the passenger seats from the weather when they weren’t in use. Racers would cover their additional seats with tonneau covers to reduce drag and increase speed. 

The Wikipedia entry for Tonneau has more details about these early cars and a few pictures too. Offroad Xtreme also explains why it is called a flat tonneau cover.

Our cars have advanced a lot since then, but an open area like a truck bed is still called a tonneau. In fact, tonneau also applies to the open area in an uncovered sports car. For example, the passenger seat in a Porsche Boxster is referred to as a tonneau.

That’s how we end up with tonneau cover as something that protects the bed of your pickup truck. And that’s it! Now you know why the French word for barrel refers to pickup truck bed covers today. 

How do you pronounce tonneau?

If you’re wondering how to pronounce the word tonneau, you’re not alone. We get that question a lot. Pronounce tonneau like this: “TAW-NO.”

Do I need a tonneau cover?

If you use your pickup truck to carry cargo, then you might benefit from owning a tonneau cover. There are a number of reasons why, but simply put: tonneau covers protect your cargo. Sick of tangled bungee cords and old tarps? Had tools or outdoor gear swiped from your truck bed overnight? A tonneau might make your life easier.

Here are a few reasons why you may want to use a tonneau cover on your pickup truck:

  • Protect your cargo from the elements: You shouldn’t leave your stuff out in the rain and snow, dirt and dust, or damaging UV sunlight. A tonneau cover keeps your cargo protected.
  • Prevent theft: Tonneau covers protect your cargo from theft, which is important if you’re hauling anything valuable. Even tonneau covers that don’t lock can still hide your stuff from prying eyes, discouraging a thief.
  • Streamline your truck: A tonneau cover provides a sleek look. Hard tonneau covers can even match your truck’s paint exactly for a uniform appearance.

Some people even say that tonneau covers make your car more aerodynamic and save you money on gas! The science behind this one is up for debate, but there may be a small improvement to your gas mileage. Check out our full post investigating this topic: “Do tonneau covers save on gas?”

Our friends at AutoAnything have their own article on why you should buy a tonneau cover

How should I choose a tonneau cover?

There are lots of types of tonneau covers on the market, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed. However, tonneau covers can be divided into two main categories based on material: hard and soft.

  • Hard tonneau covers: These covers are made of materials like fiberglass, aluminum, or hard plastic. They are heavier and more expensive but provide good security.
  • Soft tonneau covers: Soft covers are more flexible, lighter and less expensive. However, they typically provide less security but are overall the most popular of all tonneaus. 

Within those material categories, there are different styles of tonneau to fit every use. These are the main four styles:

  • Foldable tonneau covers: These covers come in tri-fold or quad-fold and are able to cover the whole truck bed or just a section of it at a time. These can be hard and soft tonneaus.
  • Retractable tonneau covers: Retractable covers open and close with the click of a button, or they can be left at various open positions. These are hard tonneaus.
  • Hinged tonneau covers: These are hard-top covers and tend to offer the most security. Most can’t accommodate large cargo that sits above the bed rails of the truck.
  • Roll-up tonneau covers: These soft tonneau covers are the most popular and some can be locked over the truck bed or stored rolled-up.

Choosing the right tonneau for your truck can be tricky. Field & Stream says the three main things to consider when choosing a tonneau cover are access to the full truck bed, ease of use, and security. The biggest problem many individuals face is figuring out how to measure for a tonneau cover.

We have a full blog post dedicated to this choice: “How to choose the right tonneau cover for your pickup truck.” Check it out for more details on each material and style of tonneau cover.

What can I use a tonneau cover for?

Here are a few things that your tonneau cover will help with:

  • Transporting work supplies: Whether you’re at a work site or parked on the street overnight, you can rest easy if you have a tonneau. You’ll know that your supplies are secure and protected from the elements. A tonneau allows you the flexibility of storing things in the bed of your truck, while also giving you the security of keeping those things secured.
  • Moving large and tall cargo: Some tonneau covers can help even if you’re hauling something big, like a washer or kayak. A tonneau cover that is roll-up, folding, or retractable can be positioned partially open to fit tall cargo. However, if you want your gear to be protected by the tonneau, you need a flexible tonneau cover that stretches to cover it. (Shop Sawtooth Tonneau Covers – the only patented adjustable tonneau cover on the market.)
  • Storing your toolbox: Many styles of tonneau covers accommodate a toolbox installed in your truck bed. Just make sure you check for that when purchasing a tonneau. 
  • Hauling Camping Gear: A tonneau cover will keep your camping gear dry by protecting it from rain or snow. It also doubles as a way to keep your gear in place. Plus, it’s a lot easier to cover your truck bed with a tonneau cover than to juggle your old tarp and bungee cords. 

These are just a few of our favorite examples. No matter what you’re using your truck for, there’s a good chance a tonneau can help protect it.

What else should I consider when buying a tonneau cover?

Once you know you want a tonneau, you don’t have to stop accessorizing your truck there. There are lots of great add-ons that make your truck even more functional and can be used along with a tonneau cover.

  • Roof racks: Using a tonneau cover doesn’t mean you give up the option to have cargo rails on your truck. Folding plastic, roll up, or aluminum tonneau covers can often work well with certain types of roof racks to carry additional gear.
  • Organizational tools: There are plenty of storage solutions that work well with a tonneau cover so your stuff can stay protected while being organized, too.
  • Truck bed lighting: Don’t let a tonneau cover keep things in the dark. There are lots of options for easy-to-install lighting to keep the inside of your truck bed illuminated.

A tonneau cover is one of the first things many pickup owners buy to get the most out of their trucks. In fact, a tonneau cover can be part of a whole-truck upgrade by adding on other accessories. 

Ready to shop?

We’ve covered a lot today (pun intended). From the French word for “barrel,” to leather seat covers for early race cars, to the many options for tonneau styles and materials today. Hopefully this shed some light on the question “What is a tonneau cover?”

Thinking of purchasing a tonneau cover? Shop Sawtooth STRETCH: our first-of-its kind adjustable tonneau cover that stretches to protect even large cargo.