Tom Zizzo, a journalist, has also spent many years selling truck and SUV accessories.
So, you finally got that new truck you've been wanting, but now that it's sitting safely in your driveway, it looks so naked. You're considering a shell or a top, maybe even a hard lid-type cover, but there are so many options. Where do you begin?
I spent many years selling truck accessories, but no longer do, so I will try to help by offering this information.
The first thing you want to ask yourself is, "How do I plan on using my new truck? If I put a top on the truck bed, will I still be able to use the truck in the same way?"
If the answer is yes, meaning a lumber rack and/or tool boxes aren't part of your vision, then you're ready to start looking at tops.
Tips on Buying a Truck Shell or Top
- Learn the different types of shells, tops or toppers.
- Decide on a style or brand.
- Consider which add-ons you may want or need.
- Consider buying used.
1. Types of Camper Shells or Tops
So you want a shell, or even a lid (also known as a hard tonneau cover), but you want to be able to remove it without too much trouble for that occasional large load. After all, what good is having a truck if you can't use it like a truck.
The good news is that many truck top manufacturers know that truck owners want the option to be able to remove a shell or lid.
For a good shell that's easy to remove, consider a SnugTop. It uses a J-hook-style installation that works like a clamp—no drilling.
The other benefit of this brand is that their tops are very custom fit, meaning the base rails of the shell are a contoured fit, not flat, so you will actually feel the shell fit in place when you set it on the bed.
Their tops also have a bulb rubber seal built-in along the base rail, meaning there is no seal to have to re-do when you remove and reinstall the shell.
A Leer brand top has a rubber seal and J-hooks as well, although their J-hooks are a little different. Most manufacturers require a foam tape to be installed along the base rails to seal the shell to the bed.
If that tape is not replaced when the shell is removed, it will leak after you reinstall it. Either one of these brands of shells will weigh between 150 to 200 lbs, depending on how large your truck is.
Pro Tip: Ask for the Boards the Shell Was Shipped On
A good tip to remember if you plan on removing a shell after you buy it is to ask the dealer for the boards that the shell is shipped with, that way if you do remove it, you can reuse those boards when you set it on the ground for storage.
Read More from AxleAddict
These boards typically get tossed out or recycled, so the dealer should not have a problem just giving them to you. Remember too that a lot of truck shells now have what they call wrap rails for a nice custom-fit look. They can easily be damaged, so having these shipping boards really helps.
Removing Hard Lid Covers
Hard lid covers (tonneau covers) are not as easy to remove as you might think. A hard, fiberglass, painted-to-match lid is actually quite heavy, and depending on the brand or style, it can be a little tricky to take on and off.
Believe it or not, something such as a basic SnugTop hard tonneau—which they call their TC lid or Tonneau Cover—weighs almost as much as some shells do. They have a very thick honeycomb construction, and despite what the company says, they're heavy.
Painted-to-match Leer covers are about the same in weight.
Another good painted fiberglass lid brand is the Gaylord cover, and their mounting systems have a lot of flexibility for fine adjustments.
The Easiest Lid to Remove
Probably the easiest lids to remove are the non-painted, black hard covers, such as the Undercover brand. They weigh less than half of the painted fiberglass covers, but they are also just as strong. They tend to fit great and are very easy to install.
I found that their covers on the new Tacoma beds were extremely simple to install. Professional installers can get them on in about 15 minutes or less. It's no surprise then that removing these and re-installing them is just as simple.
Since they weigh about 50 lbs. (less for the extra short mini-truck beds) and they aren't painted, taking it off and propping it against a wall in your garage takes about ten minutes and you won't have to worry about scratching it.
True, these covers don't look as good as the painted ones, but they are very functional, secure and strong. Older style covers, like the old Protecto Tops, were very flimsy, and could be broken in half like snapping thin plywood.
The newer Undercover lids are also very reasonable in price, and don't pay too much for labor if you get one of these installed, because believe me, even someone who is mildly handy could put one of these on by themselves.
You may also consider a rolling cover. They roll up out of your way into a canister in the front of the bed, and you don't have to remove it. But remember, more moving parts means more that can go wrong over time.
It may work great when you first get it, but give it a year or two and it may need some occasional adjusting, or sometimes a lot of regular adjusting.
Roll covers also take up bed space, and they are notorious for leaking. That's why most of them come with drain tubes. A good, secure cover is the Pace Edwards Full Metal roll cover. It costs almost as much as a shell, but it is designed well and has few problems.
What do you want your truck to look like?
Good shells and higher-end models will cost well over $2,000 at the end of the day, so before you even start looking, keep that in mind.
Even when there are special sales, a simple, color-matched fiberglass shell can cost between $1,200 and $1,400, depending on the brand.
Shells are not what they used to be, which were gel-coated (not painted) plastic pieces of garbage that fit lousy, and spent more time on the side of the freeway than on the bed of your truck.
Plastic shells are now non-existent and most fiberglass tops are clear coat enamel paint, just like your truck. I know they seem expensive, but if you just spent more than $35,000 on a brand new truck, you should put something on it that is comparable in quality to the truck itself. After all, you wouldn't buy a $5 tie for a $1,000 designer suit.
High-End Tops and Their Downsides
Expensive styles of tops usually have all-glass doors with hidden or semi-hidden hinges for that realistic SUV look. SnugTop's models that have this all-glass, frameless rear door are the XV (eXtra Vision) or the Super Sport models.
It's all about the look, nothing more. Going with that SUV look may be the coolest, but remember that if and when you do break that back door, it's expensive. Trust me, a lot of people break the back door on their shells.
Backing into the garage with the door up is the most common scenario. Same goes with Leer's popular 100XL model. Remember that the glass in these doors is tempered safety glass, but not laminated like a windshield, so all it takes is one small rock, and all that glass will shatter into very small pieces.
Aluminum-framed doors on the other hand are much cheaper to replace, sometimes half the cost for the part. Most basic fiberglass shells use aluminum-framed rear doors.
SnugTop calls its basic top the Cab High, meaning it is level in height with that of the cab of the truck. Leer's is called the 100R. Of course, all of these tops I just described are cab level in height.
These two types of tops are the most popular, and I highly, highly recommend looking at actual tops at an accessory dealer so you can see the quality difference in the parts they use.
SnugTop vs. Leer
SnugTop's shells tend to cost more than any other brand, but that's mostly because they use more expensive parts. It's arguable if that means those parts are better, but they look and feel better, like sturdier latches and metal, not plastic hinges.
SnugTop shells also have thicker fiberglass construction, which may mean nothing unless you want to mount a rack on top of it or if you have an off-road truck and actually use it that way and subject the bed to a lot of flexing.
There are of course many other models, most of which involve extra height for the camping enthusiast or just someone with a need for more headroom and space.
Leer has several taller models, the model 122 being the tallest, but I personally think they look ugly. SnugTop has a very smooth-line taller top called the High Liner, but its availability is sometimes limited as most people want the clean look of a cab high top.
The Best Brands
Notice I am mainly talking about SnugTop and Leer here. That's because these are the two most widely known and popular brands on the market today. There are other more obscure brands, but be careful what you buy.
I have seen manufacturers come and go, and good luck getting parts or service for these tops once the company goes under. SnugTop and Leer have been around for a while. Century is a decent brand, and it's owned by Leer so it's basically a cheap Leer.
Glasstite used to be a really good brand, then they sold out to different corporate owners a few years ago and the service went down the tubes.
A.R.E. is another brand, and they have a very distinct model of top where the tailgate of the truck bed is removed, making it a full walk-in rear door, but be careful with this one, it's prone to many potential problems. The fit from A.R.E. isn't that great either.
3. Other Options and Add-Ons
Yes, truck caps or shells have many optional features.
The most common is the inside carpet lining. Most shells have this, that is to say most dealers will stock tops with this option and many models actually come with this option included.
Is carpet necessary? No, not really, it just looks much better than the raw fiberglass, and it helps to insulate the shell better. The carpet is like speaker box carpet, and it's indoor/outdoor grade, so it won't get mildewed if it gets wet.
The front of a top usually has a sliding window, so the inside of the now covered bed can be accessed from the truck's rear cab window-provided your truck has a rear sliding window. Solid windows are usually standard, but you would only want that if your rear cab window is solid as well.
An option for that front sliding window in the shell is to have one with the capability to fold down, or in the case of Leer, it can be removed.
Why is this a good option? Because cleaning the rear cab window once a shell is installed becomes quite a chore without it.
The gap between the truck bed and cab is very tight, especially now since trucks have more streamlined designs, and if you want a nice custom look, the shell has to fit this way. Fold down glass is also available with solid windows as well, for the same reason.
Don't get a boot. This option is still offered, but I highly, highly recommend not getting it. They leak, they rub off all your paint, they don't last and the list goes on. With folding front sliders now available, they really aren't necessary.
Racks on top of shells are also common options. The best thing to do is to order the shell with the tracks pre-installed. Either Thule or Yakima tracks are cross-compatible, and even if you're not sure what specific type of rack you want, you at least now have the option to install the towers and bars on the tracks after you get the shell.
You may even have these parts already and want to transfer that system to the shell. Tracks also give you the option to vary the spread between the bars. They can typically hold about 165 lbs. I only know of one shell manufacturer that offers the option to have the roof made thicker to accommodate extra weight, and that's SnugTop.
They call it the sportsman package, and for a price, they will make the roof thicker as well as reinforce all of the critical stress points. Tops with this option can carry up to 500 lbs, which is perfect for a small aluminum boat. For most, this option is probably overkill.
A Word on Leaks
Camper shells leak. But very often, it's the beds, not the shells, that leak, and I'll do my best to explain this. I hear this a lot: "The shell on my old truck never leaked." You say this because your old truck is likely worlds apart different than your new truck. Pickup beds were never meant to be sealed. Just closely look at your bed before you put anything on it, and you'll start to notice gaps, holes, unsealed seams, etc.
Older pickups had nice, rectangular metal boxes for beds; today, they have plastic rail caps, tapered lines, tie-down holes, and some aren't even beds at all, like the '05 to current Toyota Tacoma. No coincidence: the Tacomas leak the most, and it's because of the bed, not the shell. It's the two front corners that are the biggest trouble spots. Most shops will try to mitigate that with silicone and or butyl tape seal in those corners, but it's not 100% effective.
Nevertheless, having said all that, if you put a top or shell on your bed and experience a heavy downpour, you're going to find water in your bed. Don't be alarmed if your shell leaks. The best way to find the problem is hop in the bed—ON A DRY DAY—and have someone outside hit it with the hose. You should be able to pinpoint the problem.
Keep Your Cargo in One Place
4. Buying Used
You can get a really great deal buying a used shell if you know what to look for. I had a customer once who not only got the exact fit, but he found a used shell that was the same color, and it wasn't a common color either. He bought the shell used for $500, and new, the same shell would have cost $1,500.
Do Your Research
The key is to know what fits what. Full size Chevy beds for example:1988 will fit up to 1998, and some 99s. 2000 up to 2006 Chevy beds are also the same, despite the body style changes. The 2007 model is different than all of them.
Simply measuring the bed though will not always be enough to know if the used shell you're looking to buy will fit. This is because most truck beds are now tapered, meaning the bed is wider in the front and narrower in the back.
Chevy started doing this in 88, Ford in 97 and Dodge in 94. The new full-size Dodge truck beds are so tapered in fact that lumber racks on these beds don't seem to fit until you push the rack all the way forward.
Try It On
Setting the shell on the bed is the best way to determine if it will fit. Remember that even if the shell appears to fit, if the rear door doesn't open and shut right, or lock, what's the point of even having the shell on the bed.
Some dealers also offer close-out shells, because truck bed fits have gone through so many changes over the last five or six years, they may still have a top in inventory that they would love to get rid of.
I once sold a shell to a guy that only fit a 2003-04 F150 crew cab with the extra short bed, and it was even in is color, and he got it for almost $800 less than if he had ordered it, and the shell was technically brand new.
Ask, Ask, Ask
Remember to always ask about warranties and paint finish for those really good deals you see advertised.
Sometimes shells will be offered super cheap, but they may only come with a one year paint warranty, where most have a lifetime warranty.
Good luck, and I hope this info helps.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.