DIY

How to Install a Tonneau Cover

Reading Time: 10 minutes

A tonneau cover is a soft or hard covering placed over the bed of a truck to improve aerodynamics and protect cargo. It comes in different styles: some can be retracted or lifted open, while some can be folded up. There are also different materials used to make tonneau covers, such as vinyl, leather, canvas, and polyester for soft covers, and fiberglass and aluminum for hard tonneau covers. 

This guide will help you choose the right tonneau cover and introduce you to the general installation procedures of the most popular tonneau cover types.  

How to Choose a Tonneau Cover

If you’re looking to buy a tonneau cover for the first time, or if you want to replace your existing cover, there are a couple of things you should consider before making your purchase. 

Listed below are some of the most important factors to note when choosing tonneau covers:

Type

There are many types of tonneau covers⁠—the most common of which are:

It’s crucial that you consider what type of tonneau cover you need for your specific application. 

Soft covers are particularly popular as they are lightweight, easy to remove, and usually require no tools (or very few tools) to install. They’re also more affordable—a JC Whitney soft tri-fold tonneau cover, for example, goes for just a little over $200.

couple loading truck
It’s crucial that you consider what type of tonneau cover you need for your specific application. 

If you’re looking for this type of cover for your truck bed, JC Whitney tonneau covers are some of the best on the market, thanks to their high-quality construction (JC Whitney soft tri-fold tonneau covers feature lightweight aluminum frames and UV-protected fabric) and seamless fit. 

Meanwhile, hard tonneau covers are typically more durable and offer better protection for your cargo—but this also means that they can be pretty heavy. They come in a few variants, including roll-up (e.g., Truxedo 1571801 Sentry Series Roll-up Tonneau Cover) and folding (e.g., BAK Industries 1126100 BAKFlip FiberMax Series Folding Tonneau Cover). 

If you prefer this type of cover, Truxedo and BAK make durable hard tonneau covers that are popular with truck owners and enthusiasts.

Installing a hard cover can also be more complicated⁠—but this of course will depend on the exact cover you have. Hard tonneau covers may require you to install a frame on top of the truck bed first before you can lay down the covering material. 

Durability

Ideally, a tonneau cover should be strong enough to withstand your specific application. As mentioned, hard covers tend to be more durable and are designed to provide heavy-duty protection. 

However, if weight is an issue for you, there are plenty of durable soft tonneau covers on the market. JC Whitney soft tri-fold tonneau covers also feature a vinyl coating and ultra-precise, tri-layer stitching to ensure long-lasting protection for your truck bed. 

Ease of Use

A tonneau cover should be easy to open and close, especially if you’re constantly loading/unloading multiple items from your truck.

Budget

Tonneau covers may cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. It’s important that you select a quality tonneau cover that matches your needs, preferences, and budget.

How to Measure for a Tonneau Cover

When purchasing a new tonneau cover, you only need to go by the approximate length of your truck bed. This is due to the fact that truck manufacturers measure the truck bed in different places, and brands often offer truck bed sizes that are around one to two feet apart from each other. 

To measure your truck bed for a new tonneau cover, position your measuring tape at the center of the truck bed. Measure from the bulkhead to where the truck bed ends or where the tailgate begins. 

Tonneau cover sizes are typically advertised in feet, so make sure to convert your measurements accordingly.

A factor that can affect your truck bed measurements is the variation in truck bed designs. Listed below are the most common truck bed variations that can affect tonneau cover sizing:

How to Install a Tonneau Cover

open truck bed
Tonneau cover installation typically requires only basic shop tools, such as screwdrivers, wrenches, or pliers.

This guide will cover the installation procedures for the JC Whitney Soft Tri-Fold tonneau cover as well as the following types of tonneau covers: temporary clamping, semi-permanent clamping, retractable, and hinged lid tonneau covers. 

Note: Please keep in mind that these are just generic installation instructions. We recommend following the instructions included with your replacement tonneau cover, if available.

Before installing your new tonneau cover, make sure to park your vehicle on a flat, even surface, and place chocks behind the wheels for added stability and protection. Also, depending on the difficulty level and the size of your tonneau cover replacement and truck bed, you may want to ask someone to help you with the installation. 

Make sure to start off by opening and checking your package to see if it includes the manufacturer’s instructions as well as all the necessary pieces and installation hardware.

Tonneau cover installation typically requires only basic shop tools, such as screwdrivers, wrenches, or pliers. You can check your tonneau cover kit’s installation manual to see if you need other tools.

How to Install JC Whitney Soft Tri-Fold Tonneau Covers

Choosing the right tonneau cover shouldn’t be a hassle and installing tonneau covers shouldn’t take so long, either. If you’re looking for a tonneau cover set that’s easy to install and is made of premium quality materials, consider a replacement tonneau cover kit from JC Whitney.

Setting up your JC Whitney soft tri-fold tonneau cover should only take around 10 to 15 minutes. Listed below are the tools you’ll need and the steps to follow:

What you’ll need:

  1. #2 Phillips screwdriver
  2. Bottlenose pliers
  3. JC Whitney Soft Tri-fold Tonneau Cover Kit

Procedure:

  1. If your truck’s front bed wall is lower than the side rails, make sure to use the foam tape that comes with the tonneau cover set. Clean and dry the top of the front bed wall thoroughly. Peel the adhesive backer on the foam tape and carefully adhere it in between your truck’s bed rails. Cut off the excess foam tape with a box cutter.
  2. Place the tonneau cover over the truck bed and make sure that it fits squarely and evenly on all sides. Unravel the cover and check to see if it’s even at the tailgate. Fold the cover once you’re done checking the fit. 
  3. Place the clamp jaw under the truck’s bed rail lip and tighten securely. Repeat this step on both sides of the tonneau cover while constantly checking the tightness of the clamp. After this, completely unfold the cover. 
  4. Rotate the latch clockwise to increase tension, and rotate it counterclockwise to decrease tension. Note that the clamp should only be snug when it is engaging. Do not overtighten the latch.
  5. Next, place the jaw under the bed rail clip and rotate the latch handle downward. Make sure that the latch is tight and well-secured.
  6. If your vehicle has a utility rack, you’ll need to install the rail mount bracket. To do this, follow these steps:
    • Insert the rail mount bracket into the utility track.
    • Once the bracket is in the correct position, tighten the set screw with the supplied Allen hex.
    • Rotate the latch handle downward to engage the latch.
    • Make sure that the latch is tight and well-secured.
  7. If you need to change the position of the latch, do the following:
    • Remove the screw using a #2 Phillips screwdriver and pull the nut out using needle-nose pliers.
    • Push the screw out with the top of the screwdriver.
    • Move the latch to its new position and place the screw and nut inside the holes of the new position. Make sure that the screw is holding the latch in place. Then, tighten the screw properly.
    • Before folding the tonneau cover, place the latch in its secured, nested position to avoid damaging the tarp.

How to Install Temporary Clamping Tonneau Covers

Many tonneau covers mount on the bed rails with latches and clamps, and require no tools to install. 

Applicable for:

What you’ll need:

Procedure:

  1. Carefully place the rolled-up tonneau cover on top of your truck bed’s bulkhead. Make sure to place it as near to the cab as possible to avoid gaps between the truck bed and the cab.
  2. Once the tonneau is in place, pull down the latches in the first/forward section of the cover on both sides. Adjust the latches so that they clasp underneath the bed rail’s lip. In some cases, you may need to move the latches around a bit to ensure that they’re properly and tightly fastened. 
  3. Then, unroll your tonneau all the way to the back of your truck. Open your truck’s tailgate and, from underneath the cover, attach the latches for the rear section of the tonneau. Make sure that this end is also properly tightened and secured to avoid any slack.
  4. Test to see if your tailgate latches properly into place. Make sure that the tonneau cover doesn’t keep the tailgate from closing. If there is overlap between the cover and the tailgate, adjust the cover so that the cover is taut and properly fastened. 
red truck with folded tonneau cover
Many tonneau covers mount on the bed rails with latches and clamps, and require no tools to install. 

How to Install Semi-Permanent Clamping Tonneau Covers

Some tonneau covers are installed using rails and clamps that must be bolted on. Unlike temporary tonneau covers, semi-permanent tonneau covers need to be installed using a few tools and hardware that are sometimes included in the package. 

Applicable for:

What you’ll need:

Procedure:

  1. Depending on what kind of semi-permanent tonneau cover kit you purchased, you may need to install the shims first. Shims are little plastic or rubber pieces that rest against the clamps to help ensure a perfect fit. If your set requires you to connect the shims first, do so. If not, you can proceed to place your tonneau’s rails on top of your truck bed’s rails. After that, position and attach the connecting clamps. Once everything is in place, fasten the bolts and the connectors tightly so they can’t move around. 
  2. Once the rails are installed, position the cover on top of the rails. Close your tailgate and unfold the tonneau cover. The cover should fit perfectly into place and align with the snapping buttons. You can adjust how the cover is positioned if anything seems out of place.
  3. Test to see if all the mechanisms, levers, and handles in your truck bed are working properly. Depending on the installation instructions for your tonneau cover set, you may need to install additional components to your tonneau cover. Roll the cover back and proceed with the installation of rubber bumpers, drain canisters, tubes, etc. 
  4. Make sure to conduct another test once the tonneau cover and all its components are installed properly. Once everything is working nicely, you’re all set.

How to Install Retractable Tonneau Covers

Retractable tonneau covers are installed in a similar way to temporary and semi-permanent clamping tonneau covers. However, the main difference is that the actual cover for retractable-type tonneaus is in a separate canister that feeds into the rails. 

Applicable for:

What you’ll need:

Procedure:

  1. Before installing a retractable tonneau cover, you may have to seal the gap between the truck bed and the cab before inserting the canister (depending on what kind of retractable tonneau cover you have). Once you do that, place the canister of your retractable tonneau cover in the middle of the truck bed and make sure the canister is perfectly centered. 
  2. Place your tonneau cover’s rails on top of the truck bed rails. Attach the tonneau cover rails to the canister. Make sure the sides of the retractable cover are in their proper position; that is, they should easily slide when activated. 
  3. Place the fastening clamps along the cover rail undersides until they’re in their right locking positions. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when placing these clamps. Once these clamps are in place, bolt them together halfway to secure your cover rails. 
  4. Make sure that the rails at each end of the truck bed are the right size. If not, place a shim behind the clamp to correct this. Then, you can finish tightening the bolts on the clamps.
  5. Install any additional parts, such as pull straps, water canisters, tubes, and electrical components, to your retractable tonneau cover.
  6. After installation, make sure to test everything and make adjustments as you see fit. 

How to Install Hinged Lid Tonneau Covers

Hinged lid tonneau covers are made of a solid material that opens via shocks connected to the interior rails.

Applicable for:

What you’ll need:

Procedure:

  1. Before installation, make sure to wipe the bed rail and the underside of the hard tonneau cover with alcohol. Apply the rail tape carefully to the underside of the cover where it comes in direct contact with the rails of the truck bed. 
  2. With the help of a few friends, lift the cover over the truck bed and gently lower it down on the bed rails, making sure that it fits perfectly.
  3. Once the tonneau cover is in place, crawl inside the new cargo space and install the C-clamps at each corner to secure the tonneau cover’s inner rail. After hand-tightening the clamps, you may want to use a deep socket or a wrench to tighten the bolts further.
  4. Open the hard-top tonneau cover and attach the bottom of the shocks to their corresponding knobs, which should be hanging down from the cover rails. 
  5. Leave the top open and fasten all bolts and attach all gaskets tightly. If applicable, add batteries. Make sure to test the locking mechanism and other features before you call it a day. It’s dangerous to drive with an open hard-top tonneau cover, so make sure to check the tonneau before driving and only open it when you’re already parked. 

Note that different brands and types of tonneau covers will have different installation instructions. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s guide that comes with the package.

Before getting a new tonneau cover, make sure it’s compatible with your truck’s year, make, and model to avoid installation issues and component damage.


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