How to Maintain and Clean Your Tonneau Cover

Last year, Don put a soft-cover roll-up tonneau cover on his truck. He plays bass for a couple of bands and he carries his guitar and amplifier around from gig to gig. The tonneau cover does the job Don wants it to do, hiding the contents of his truckbed from prying eyes, and keeping everything dry. 

But Don’s garage is too full of musical equipment to house both his truck and his wife’s SUV, so Don parks on the street. If he parks on the west side, then his tonneau cover gets direct sunlight for most of the day, and those harmful UV rays. He can park on the east side of the street with the shade of the trees, but then the truck and tonneau cover are covered with tree sap and bird droppings. Besides the sun, those two things are the worst enemies of a tonneau cover. 

Then, one night Don removed his musical equipment and was too tired to put the cover back down. The gardeners came the next day. By the time they were done mowing the parkway, the Velcro-lined side rail on the right side of the truckbed was covered with grass clippings, and they have been hard to get out, and they compromise the seal. 

Don needs to pay attention to the care of his tonneau cover, and he knows it


What type of tonneau cover do you have?

Tonneau covers come in basically four flavors:

Soft-cover tonneaus 

These are anchored at the bulkhead, stretched out over the truck, and they lock in over the tailgate. They secure down the side with clamps or sider rails.The materials we are dealing with are mostly marine-grade vinyl. 

Tri-fold tonneau covers

Some of these tri-fold models are soft-cover tonneaus secured to an aluminum alloy folding frame. Others are hard panel tonneaus that are hinged together and fold out over the truckbed, again locking over the tailgate. These tonneau covers use marine-grade vinyl, and the hardtop versions are aluminum alloys with power-coated paint. 

Retractable tonneau covers 

These tonneau covers are typically made from interlocking slats that run between side rails and roll up into a box or canister up against the bulkhead of your truck bed. They are generally made from aluminum alloy and painted black with a powder coat process. 

There are also hinged tonneau covers, but those are a bit different and easier to keep clean. For the purpose of this blog post, we are talking about the three mentioned here. 


Cleaning starts before you fill a bucket with water

Parking. Where you park your truck dictates the kind of abuse your tonneau receives. UV rays from the sun are harsh on vinyl. Parking in your garage or in the shade is preferable. Trees are a source of sap and droppings. This will also vary depending on where you live. Arizona sun is much different than the sun exposure you receive in Seattle. There is also a difference in the trees that deposit leaves and droppings on your truck and tonneau. 

Putting a load in your tonneau cover. Soft tonneau covers are not designed to support a load, and you should refrain from putting any kind of appreciable weight because it can damage the vinyl or stretch it out, which only makes it more susceptible to the ravages of weather and other elements. The same goes for tri-folds and retractable tonneau covers. Your tri-fold tonneau cover may have a weight rating of 300 pounds, but that doesn’t mean you should be leaving that load on there for a week. 

Removing foreign substances. As we’ve said many times, tree sap and bird droppings are likely the two things you will see most on your tonneau cover. If you live on a busy street, you’re likely to find more interesting things. One night Don found a chocolate milkshake splattered across his tonneau. Remove these things as quickly as possible. You should also be looking out for environmental problems such as road tar and other byproducts of nearby construction. The real problem is if you allow these things to build up in layers. A layer of road dust, add some tree sap, and then some overspray from a nearby building being painted. Soon you have a coating on your tonneau that is difficult to remove. When you find something stubborn or sticky, use a solution of witch hazel or alcohol to get off the residue and any dirt or debris that might have gotten mired in it.  

Be mindful of what you carry in your truck bed. Sure, you’re only going around the corner, but cover that paint can, even though you need it right away. It doesn’t take much to splash it over the underside of your tonneau. 


Start with an inspection

An overall inspection before you clean your tonneau cover is a good idea. This will show you areas that need attention and repairs or maybe the replacement of components. If you have noticed any leaks in your truck bed, pay particular attention to those spots. 

Areas to pay attention to include:


The bulkhead is almost always the main anchor point for your tonneau cover, regardless of the type it is. Check to make sure the clamps are secure. Check the integrity of the seal and any weatherstripping.


Clamps get lots of use and lots of opportunities to work loose. You should check them regularly, especially when you are washing your tonneau cover. 

Rear latches 

The rear latching mechanism probably gets more latching and unlatching motion than the clamps, so this is an area that needs inspection. Look for excessive wear or loose fastening. Even if you have a soft tonneau cover, these rear latches serve as a barrier and a vital part of your security. Don’t be surprised if, even after a few years, the rear latches are stiff and take some effort to latch and unlatch. Plastic, rubber, and vinyl all expand and contract with the weather. If your tonneau cover is tight, that’s a sign of quality construction. 

Siderails and Velcro

If your tonneau cover has side rails or Velcro, or both, these also need to be inspected. Look for debris, tree sap, leaves, or anything else that has become embedded in the side rails or Velcro. 


Look underneath your tonneau cover with a flashlight. This is especially true depending on what you normally carry on your truck bed. Remember that Christmas tree you brought home last year? Lots of sap and pine needles to get stuck underneath. 

Drainage tubes

Does your tonneau cover have drainage tubes to direct the water from the side rails or other areas, routing it out through the bottom of the truck bed? Make sure they are intact and all connections are tight. 

Retractable covers

Watch those retractable covers. Some fit together tight when they are rolled out. Others have gaps where debris and leaves can get in. Try to keep them clean. If you can, blow them out on a regular basis with compressed air. 

Removing the tonneau

You should consider this. Removing and reinstalling everything gives you a chance to discover damage and excessive wear. If you have a retractable tonneau, this also allows you to inspect the canister. Anything mechanical is susceptible to problems. 


Time for a washing

Ordinarily, we suggest you wash your tonneau cover when you wash the rest of your truck, using a car washing solution. Use a soft-bristle brush. Occasionally, however, it is time for a more substantial cleaning. When the seasons change is a good time, or whenever you polish, wax, and detail your car.


The marine-grade vinyl used in tonneau covers is sturdy and designed to stand up, but you should use a cleaner that is designed for vinyl. There will be a selection at your favorite auto parts store. You can also refer to the directions that came with your tonneau cover, or check the manufacturer’s website. Many tonneau cover manufacturers recommend their proprietary cleaner, and they charge you handsomely for it. Pay special attention to what not to use. Lot’s of younger truck owners make the mistake of using dish detergent. The end result will not be as good as if you use something specifically for vinyl, and if you have a gloss finish, dish detergent will leave it dull.  


There was a time a few decades ago that most cleaners and detergents were designed to activate best with hot water. That is no longer so. Most soap-based cleaners on the market today work well with cold water, so turn that kettle off. 

A brush

Get yourself a good soft-bristle brush with a blunt wooden or plastic handle. Most vinyl materials have a leather-grain finish, and you want to work your way into the grain. If your tonneau cover is a smooth finish, refer to the instructions or the manufacturer’s website to see what they recommend. 

The washing process

Lots of water is the best recommendation. You want to hose down your tonneau cover and have the water float away as much of the dirt and debris as possible. Then start scrubbing with the brush. You shouldn’t be afraid to put some elbow grease into it, although if yours is a soft tonneau cover, you want to be careful. Brush in a circular motion. If there is a definite grain pattern, wash with the grain. Do a section at a time and overlap sections liberally. Rinse, thoroughly, a lot. Try not to let soap dry on the tonneau cover. 

A chamois or microfiber towel

It’s okay to leave your tonneau wet, but chances are you want to apply a protectant at this point (which protectant is the subject of another blog post), so remove as much of the water as possible. 


Wrapping it up

Most tonneau covers are designed to give you years of use. Yours will, too, if you take care if it. Choose the right tools, select the right cleaners, and perform the maintenance steps regularly.

About the author

David Patterson

Our editor, who brings a wealth of experience in tonneau covers and truck accessories sales to our editorial team. With over a decade in the industry, David has a deep understanding of the products and a knack for helping customers find the perfect fit for their trucks.

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