If you own a pickup truck, you probably haul cargo, even if only occasionally. Maybe your cargo is a bike or motorcycle, or lumber and building supplies for projects, or simply household trash. Whatever you haul in your truck, it's important to keep it securely in the bed when you're on the road. Items that are allowed to shift around in transit can become damaged, scuff-up the truck's bed or even fly out, and in some states, you can be fined (or denied entry to a landfill) for hauling trash that isn't either covered with a tarp or secured.
So what's the best way to tie down your truck's cargo? It depends on the cargo -- several methods can be used and they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.
Click on any photo for an enlarged view.
Rope Tie Downs
When using rope to secure objects in your truck's bed, be sure it is strong enough to hold the weight of the load. Go shopping and you'll find many types of rope made from different materials. I normally use nylon rope because it is relatively inexpensive, is easy to trim and the knots don't work loose as easily as knots tied in natural fiber ropes. Plastic rope, like that used with boats, holds up well, but it is slick and stiff and can be difficult to tie into a tight knot that stays secure.
Rope Strenths & Weaknesses
- Rope is relatively inexpensive and available from all sorts of retailers, including grocery stores, hardware and discount stores. You probably already have some rope in your garage or basement.
- Rope is difficult to tie tightly, and once tied, it tends to become loose.
- Rope can be hard to untie when it gets wet or when your fingers are cold.
- Multiple ropes always seem to form a big knotted pile, even when you put them away neatly.
- Stretch rope across uneven objects and you'll see it doesn't conform to the shapes -- some items will remain unsecured.
Ratchet Strap Tie Downs
A ratchet strap has a hook on one end and a lever mechanism with a short strap and hook on the other end. A slotted spool is located at the center of the strap. To use the straps, secure the hooks to a strong components, like the metal loops or rails on the truck bed. Next, slide the strap through the middle slot and then turn it back in the direction you started from. Pull most of the slack out of the strap and begin moving the lever ("ratcheting" it) forward to turn the strap around the spool.
When both hooks are secure, the strap tightens as you move the lever . A 6 foot long strap will typically cover any length under about 5.5 feet, and reduce to as short as about 1 foot. To loosen a strap, pull it a little tighter first and then release the locking device.
Ratchet Strap Strengths & Weaknesses
- Ratchet straps are available in a number of sizes and lengths, and with variable load ratings.
- The straps are easy for one person to handle.
- Ratchet straps have hooks sewn to their ends, so you don't need to tie them.
- The straps stay tight in transit.
- Overtightening the straps can damage your cargo.
- Ratchet straps are more expensive than rope.
- A strap can become caught in the ratchet, creating a jam.
- The straps can become tangled, although the mess is not not usually as bad as what you'll experience with rope.
The photo illustrates that ratchet straps don't always touch every piece of cargo you're trying to secure.
Tarps to Cover Cargo
Tarps can be handy cargo covers, but they're often not the best choice, especially if you're traveling long distances. Consider the pros and cons before you use a tarp.
- Tarps are available in many sizes and are made from a variety of materials.
- Tarps keep cargo dry.
- They prevent loose items from blowing out of the truck bed.
- It's easy to fold tarps neatly for storage.
- Plastic tarps rip easily.
- Canvas tarps are expensive.
- A wet tarp must be dried before it's folded for storage.
- Tarps can be difficult to tie off in a way that keeps them from flapping (and ultimately tearing).
- If a tarp is too large, you'll have to tuck it in or fold it; the grommets around its edges won't be in a position where they can be used to secure the tarp.
- A too-small tarp won't cover the load, and will probably flap and tear.
- Tarps can be hard to secure when covering irregular loads.
Bungee cords and rubber straps are used to help secure cargo, and while both can help keep an object from shifting, think of them as tie-down accessories, because they are most helpful when used to help hold a tarp or other type of cover in place. The cords have a hook on each end, making it easy to stretch them over an object (or from a tarp loop to the truck bed) to secure it on both sides.
A collection of bungee cords makes it easier to secure items that aren't secured tightly enough using other methods.
Elastic Cargo Netting
Stretchy, elastic cargo nets can be a good choice when you need a tie down that fit snugly over cargo that's a variety of shapes and sizes. Elastic nets are handy when you're using a tarp, too, because they help hold the tarp in place -- the tarp protects cargo from rain and dirt and the net helps keep the tarp from shifting.
- Available in different shapes and sizes.
- Usually reasonability priced.
- Long-lasting iff stored out of the weather and sun.
- A net's load securing capability is limited by the size of elastic cord.
- Nets are better at keeping things in the bed than preventing them from moving around.
- Nets are often best used in conjunction with ropes or ratchet straps.
Web netting is heavier and more bulky than an elastic net, and that can be a pro or a con depending on the type of cargo you're hauling.
- Keeps cargo in the truck bed.
- Made from a heavier material than elastic netting, so better at keeping the load from shifting.
- Available in different shapes, sizes and load ratings.
- Must usually be secured with bungee cords, rubber straps or other devices if not the exact size for a truck bed or specific load.
- More expensive than the other tie downs.
- If it gets wet, web netting may need to be dried before storing.
Truck Bed Covers
You'll find all sorts of pickup truck bed covers. I'm on my second Retrax bed cover, and recommend the brand to anyone who's looking for a durable product.
Bed covers won't hold your cargo in place, but they'll usually keep it dry, and a cover may be all you need when you're hauling (short) items that won't become damaged (or damage the truck bed) if they shift a little in transit.