Cleaning and Maintaining Your Tonneau Cover

Updated on May 15, 2024

Written by
 RealTruck Expert Team

So, you just received and installed your brand-new tonneau cover from RealTruck®. Your truck’s a bit dirty, but you don’t have time to spend hours hand-washing—you might as well cruise through the automated car wash. Plus, a quick coat of spray wax is probably good for the canvas tarp, right? 

Not so fast. While not advertised too often, tonneau covers aren’t just an install-it-and-forget-about-it type of modification. Most require specific maintenance and care procedures, ensuring a long-lasting finish and even lengthier service life. But what exactly do these processes look like? And what steps should you take to protect your investment? 

Stay tuned for the answers to all of these questions and more. In this guide, the experts at RealTruck® tackle cleaning, maintaining, and prolonging the life of your tonneau cover, including the recommended steps, products, and the general dos and don'ts of aftercare.

Cleaning Your Tonneau Cover

To start things off, let’s discuss cleaning practices. While a tonneau cover is part of your pickup truck, its cleaning procedures are different from those of other body panels. Factors like where you can wash your truck and the products you may wash it with may differ depending on the tonneau cover’s style, material, and finish.

Soft Tonneau Covers vs. Hard Tonneau Covers

Tonneau covers come in several constructions, though we’re limiting this discussion to soft versus hard bed cover options. Each requires different cleaning methods and products to ensure a long lifespan and a clean, like-new finish every wash.  

First, let’s talk about soft tonneau covers. Soft tonneau covers refer to any truck bed cover with a vinyl or canvas tarp, including soft folding and soft roll-up. For the sake of this article, we’ll also include hard tonneau covers with vinyl and canvas overlays, like the BAK Revolver X4ts Tonneau Cover. Soft truck bed covers are far more sensitive to chemicals, cleaners, waxes, and detergents. They’re also more delicate—rogue automated car wash brushes can cause irreparable damage, which typically isn’t covered under manufacturer warranties. 

Alternatively, hard tonneau covers comprise any truck bed cover with rigid construction, including one-piece, hard folding, and most retractable options. These rigid tonneau covers typically feature robust fiberglass, polymer, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), or aluminum constructions with durable, automotive-grade finishes, making them far more secure and durable than their soft counterparts. In most cases, no precautions must be taken when cleaning a hard tonneau cover. Just follow manufacturer guidelines, and don’t use any product you wouldn’t use on your truck’s paint.

Hand-Washing vs. Automated Car Washes

Who doesn't love an automatic car wash? Fast, convenient, and affordable, automated washes are perfect for truck owners who need more time and patience to wash their pickups by hand. However, you should reconsider if your truck is sporting a tonneau cover. In this section, we’ll discuss which automated car washes we’d recommend and which to avoid. 

Stay far away from car washes with spinning brushes. Aside from the obvious risk of scratching and swirling your truck's paint, there are a couple of reasons to avoid these types of automated car washes. 

First is the possibility of damaging your tonneau cover via abrasion. Second, the side brushes can shift your tonneau cover's side rails over time, eventually bending or dislodging the clamps that hold it in place. At the very least, you’ll need to reinstall the side rail—at worst, irreparable damage to the cover can occur. Though several tonneau cover owners may scoff at these claims, these issues are typically more cumulative than immediate.

A touch-free car wash is your best bet if you must take a tonneau cover through a car wash. By employing sensors to gauge your vehicle's size and contours, a touch-free car wash lives up to its name, cleaning your vehicle with pressurized water and detergents. Brushes don't come into play here, which is good news for your tonneau cover. However, be sure to decline the spray wax option, as these chemicals can wreak havoc on canvas, vinyl, and rubber surfaces. 

Ultimately, we’ll always recommend hand washing for maximum safety, and most professionals agree. Washing your truck by hand helps to avoid paint damage caused by abrasives lodged in automatic brushes.

Hand-Washing Your Soft Tonneau Cover

Though hand-washing your tonneau cover is the safest bet, here are a couple of things to remember. 

First, know your material. Soft tonneau covers come in canvas and vinyl constructions, and both feature nooks, crannies, and stitches where dirt likes to hide. In both cases, we recommend investing in a soft-bristled brush for thorough cleaning, ensuring the soft tarp returns to its like-new finish every wash. Avoid stiff bristles, as these may be too abrasive for glossy black vinyl. 

Second, know your chemicals. While featuring properties that benefit paint, automotive waxes and detergents may damage your soft tonneau cover. Harsh chemicals and waxes can dry out vinyl and discolor canvas, leading to cracks, rips, tears, and excessive fading. If you need to question whether a chemical is safe for your tonneau cover, we’d recommend consulting the product’s manual. If all else fails, you can always use a diluted, PH-neutral soap, like conventional dish soap. 

Also, avoid polishes and shines as these products may have similar effects as waxes and harsh chemicals.

Hand-Washing Your Hard Tonneau Cover

So, what about hard tonneau covers? 

As previously mentioned, most hard tonneau covers feature robust fiberglass, polymer, ABS, or aluminum constructions with durable, automotive-grade finishes. This design allows for easy cleaning—essentially the same as any other truck body panel. 

Accordingly, follow similar steps for the tonneau cover as cleaning the rest of your truck. Avoid dirty sponges to prevent scratching, use automotive-grade soaps, and rinse frequently to prevent hard water spots. After washing, you may use an automotive-grade wax or ceramic coating for further protection—though avoid rubber seals and matte-finish areas, as waxes may cause unsightly staining and discoloration.

Maintaining Your Tonneau Cover

With tonneau cover cleaning covered, let’s move on to tonneau cover maintenance. Several tonneau covers feature maintenance-free designs, including upgrades like sealed ball bearings and internally lubricated rollers. However, the "maintenance-free" title doesn’t necessarily mean to install it and forget about it. In this section, we’re covering some basic maintenance steps to ensure reliable, long-lasting service.

Clean and Lubricate Mechanical Components

Unless the manufacturer explicitly states against doing so, periodically checking the condition of your tonneau cover’s mechanical components, like hinges, tracks, and locks, is always a good idea. If any components look excessively dirty or damaged, clean, lubricate, or replace said components to ensure your tonneau cover functions as designed. 

We recommend dry, automotive-grade spray lubricants to improve operation without making a mess, as with most damp, oil-based lubricants.

Follow Manufacturer’s Weight Capacities

While not necessarily maintenance, this factor will undoubtedly help to guarantee your tonneau cover lasts as long as designed. 

Nearly all tonneau covers have predetermined weight capacities outlined in the manual. These ratings are there for a reason—if you should happen to forgo this rating and damage your tonneau cover from overloading, you’re liable.

Routinely Inspect Mounting Hardware for Tightness

Regularly check your tonneau cover’s clamps and hardware for tightness as part of routine maintenance. Miles of bumpy roads and engine vibrations can slowly loosen nuts and bolts, allowing your tonneau cover to shift, unlatch, or fall off while driving. No one wants to watch their tonneau cover catch wind like a sail and eject from their truck’s bed.

When In Doubt, Consult the Manual

When in doubt, consult your product’s manual. Ultimately, the manufacturer knows best—it’ll know the exact weight ratings, maintenance procedures, and what voids the product’s warranty. 

If the answers you’re searching for are still unclear, reach out to the experts at RealTruck. We’re available seven days a week to handle all your questions, product inquiries, or order assistance.

Tonneau Cover Maintenance FAQs

Q: Are automated car washes safe for my tonneau cover? 

A: While we always recommend hand-washing, some touchless car washes may be acceptable for trucks with tonneau covers. Stay away from spinning brushes and waxes, as these may cause irreparable damage to your tonneau cover. 

Q: Can I use a polish or shine on my vinyl tonneau cover? 

A: No. Most chemicals, aside from conventional PH-neutral soap, do more harm than good, especially over long periods of use. Stay away from polishes and waxes to prevent drying, cracking, and fading. 

Q: How often should I check my tonneau cover’s hardware for tightness? 

A: We recommend checking tonneau cover hardware after 500 miles of driving and then again at every oil change.

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