DIY

Nerf Bars vs. Running Boards: What’s the Difference

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Nerf bars and running boards are commonly found on trucks, which are built to be larger than regular vehicles. They have taller ride heights and are higher off the ground, thus making it necessary to have either the nerf bar or running board installed as it can be difficult to enter or exit these vehicles.

Running boards are typically equipped as standard out of the dealership. However, if you want to give your truck a special look, nerf bars are also a great choice. 

But first, let’s discuss the differences between these truck step options.

running board
Running boards are standard accessories that assist people to step into a taller vehicle.

What are Running Boards?

Running boards or footboards provide an accessible step for people who are entering and exiting pickup trucks and other taller vehicles. They have an overall flat profile and run along the side of the truck cabin, right below the doors. 

Running boards are also perfect for SUVs and crossovers as these vehicles are also designed to provide more ground clearance. The boards are mounted somewhat flush against the rocker panels, with some SUVs having running boards that electronically retract and stow neatly into the body. 

If you require a larger stepping area before climbing into your vehicle, a running board is perfect for you.

Aside from its intended purpose, running boards also provide other benefits—like keeping your car clean. The surface of the running board is the perfect area to wipe or knock the dirt and mud off your shoes before entering the car. It also acts as extra protection from rocks, mud, and other debris that would typically fly up and hit the door.

Pros and Cons of Running Boards

Pros

Cons

What are Nerf Bars?

The nerf bar has its origins in the world of racing. “Nerf” is the term for when a racer bumps another car in order to pass them during a race. In order to do this move safely, race cars are equipped with tubular fixtures on either side of the car body. These bars help protect the cars and prevent their tires from rubbing against each other (which can make either car spin out of control or flip over) during this maneuver. 

The nerf bar has since been adopted for other applications, specifically for trucks and SUVs. Much like the running board, it serves as a lowered step to make it easier to get in and out of lifted vehicles. It’s essentially made of a single aluminum or steel tube spanning the cabin area, usually with a dedicated, slip-resistant rubber foot grip under each door. 

In some cases, nerf bars are installed in taller trucks simply to give them a more rugged look. 

Pros and Cons of Nerf Bars

Pros

Cons

nerf bar
Much like running boards, nerf bars are made of single aluminum or steel tube.

Nerf Bars or Running Boards: Let’s Compare

As discussed above, nerf bars and running boards are extremely similar in function. So to help you choose between the two, let’s put them side by side and take a closer look at how they differ from one another.

 Nerf BarsRunning Boards 
ShapeTubular with a round or oval shapeFlat and wide surface
Size 2 to 6 inches in diameter 4 to 7 inches in width
Length  Cab-length
 Wheel-to-wheel
Style Standard nerf bars

 

Sport tubes

Standard running boards
Lighted running boards
Retractable running boards
Custom molded running boards
Materials and FinishesPolished stainless steel
Powder-coated carbon steel (matte or textured)
High-quality plastic
Aluminum
Capacity  Up to 300 lbs. Up to 500 lbs.
Recommended for  Heavy-duty trucks, workhorse rigs, and off-road vehicles Modern trucks and SUVs

 

Shape

The main difference between running boards and nerf bars is their shape.

Running boards provide a flatter and wider surface to place your feet. They are often mounted flush along the length of the vehicle. They may come with non-slip step pads or tread patterns that provide extra grip when entering and exiting the vehicle.

Nerf bars feature a round and narrow surface for stepping. Some designs come with rubber foot grips below every door. From the side, you’ll be able to see the bar’s oval, tubular, or angular shape.

difference between the shape of running boards vs nerf bars
Running boards provide a flatter and wider surface to place your feet. Nerf bars feature a round and narrow surface for stepping.

Size

Nerf bars and running boards come in sizes that vary depending on which year, make, and model the parts are compatible with. In general, nerf bars have diameters measuring between 2 to 6 inches while running boards have widths in the range of 4 to 7 inches.

Both nerf bars and running boards come in two lengths: cab-length and wheel-to-wheel.

Cab-length

Cab-length nerf bars and running boards span the entire length of the passenger cabin. They run from behind the front wheel and stop at where the cab doors end. These are highly recommended for full-size SUVs.

Wheel-to-wheel

Wheel-to-wheel nerf bars and running boards extend further than the passenger cab and stretch towards the rear wheel. This provides them with an additional function—you can easily access items inside the truck bed from the side of your vehicle or reach any roof/utility racks on top of your vehicle.

Style

Nerf Bars

example of a standard oval nerf bar
Oval nerf bars provide a wider surface than round nerf bars for better access to the vehicle.
Standard nerf bars

Standard nerf bars are tubular in shape with round or oval-shaped ends. Oval nerf bars provide a surface that’s between round and flat. They provide a wider surface than round nerf bars for better access to the vehicle.

example of a sport tube nerf bar
Sport tubes are typically decorative and are installed on vehicles that sit lower to the ground.
Sport tubes

Sport tubes have a smaller diameter and a lower weight capacity than standard nerf bars. They are typically installed on vehicles that sit lower to the ground since they are mostly decorative. The ends of sports tubes typically curve under the vehicle.

Running Boards

Standard running boards

Conventional running boards are long, rectangular footboards that are mounted flush against the body of the vehicle. They run along the length of the cabin in a single piece below the doors.

example of lighted running boards
Lighted running boards make it easier to enter or alight the vehicle in low-light situations.
Lighted running boards

These running boards feature built-in lighting that make them more visible to make it easier to enter or alight the vehicle in low-light situations. These LED lights illuminate not just the top of the step but also underneath it, making it easier to avoid puddles and find your footing on uneven terrain.

example of retractable running boards also known as power running boards
Retractable or power running boards are motorized steps that extend and retract from the body of the vehicle.
Retractable running boards

Also known as power running boards, these motorized steps extend and retract from the body of the vehicle. Retractable running boards are activated by electric door sensors and powered by motors located at the end of each bracket.

Custom-molded running molds

These running boards provide trucks and SUVs with a sleeker look. Custom designing this component allows you to seamlessly blend them in with the curves of your vehicle and even color-match them with your truck’s paint job.

Materials and Finishes

Nerf bars are typically made from thick-walled steel tubing that comes in either a polished or powder-coated finish. Cold-rolled stainless steel is polished, while carbon steel is powder-coated. 

Polished steel features a reflective finish that doesn’t tarnish or corrode, while powder-coated steel has a chip and scratch-resistant surface.

Most running boards make use of high-strength plastic supported by an integrated aluminum frame. They often come in a matte black or dark grey color. The surface of plastic footboards may have a molded step, while those made from aluminum are often stamped with a tread design to prevent slipping. Carbon or stainless steel may also be used. 

Weight Capacity and Durability

Nerf bars made from dense steel, if installed with heavy-duty mounting brackets, can support a maximum weight of approximately 300 lbs. at a time. Running boards have greater weight capacity because of the support frame that run underneath them. They can carry up to 500 lbs. at a time.

Plastic and aluminum nerf bars or running boards are understandably lighter than their steel counterparts. They have lower weight limits but are an affordable option for those who have no need for the extra capacity. If your priority is durability and strength, carbon or stainless steel is the way to go.

Installation

Nerf bars and running boards are installed in a similar manner.  Some require drilling, but most vehicles have pre-drilled mounting holes that only require the part to be bolted on. Installing a nerf bar or running board is an easy and quick project that can be done in under an hour.

Nerf Bars vs. Running Boards: Which is Right for You?

Running boards and nerf bars essentially serve the same purpose. They also provide a certain aesthetic to your vehicle. If you’re looking for a sleek and formal look with a wider stepping area, consider the running board. Their wider and flatter profile are perfect for those with families. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a sportier feel, then nerf bars are for you. 

Nerf bars are narrower and do not provide a lot of surface area for stepping, but they typically blend in more seamlessly with your vehicle’s design. 

Whichever you choose, make sure they are mounted on properly. Seek a professional installer’s advice to get a precise fit and to avoid any damage to your vehicle. Accidents may happen if they are suddenly dislodged from their mounting points while someone is stepping on them. 

Damaging running boards and nerf bars are very easy if you take your vehicle off-road, so do consider the reduced ride height before hitting the boulders!

running board
Whichever you choose between running boards and nerf bars, make sure they are mounted on properly.
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CarParts.com

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In the Garage with CarParts.com is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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