Personalizing a tow vehicle with a bed cover, running boards, bicycle rack and dash protector is practical and fun
Accessorizing a truck is a common ritual for owners who look to the aftermarket to personalize their rides. Today’s robust tow ratings for half-tonners have opened a new market to those who prefer the agility and comfort of these spirited trucks but still want to install just the right amount of goodies to make a statement and add convenience.
The Ram 1500 is a good example of a so-called half-ton pickup, and its tow ratings of
up to 12,750 pounds make it a strong candidate for towing many of today’s longer, fully livable trailers. Toss in a veritable candy store’s worth of accessories available through the automotive and truck aftermarket, and it’s not hard to come up with a suitable wish list aimed at trailer-towing enthusiasts.
Although the test Ram 1500 made short work of towing a 2016 23-foot Starcraft Travel Star trailer, there were a few items that we deemed necessary to improve and secure storage capability, handle outdoor recreation equipment, make it easier to get in and out of the cab, and protect the dash from the harmful rays of the sun.
To get there, we enlisted products pinpointed to satisfy specific needs. The biggest segment of this project was the installation of a Pace Edwards UltraGroove Electric Retractable Truck Bed Cover. For obvious reasons, keeping stored items out of the view of persons with less than perfect scruples makes a lot of sense, not to mention the protection-from-the-elements factor. This cover is made to blend in harmoniously with the truck’s lines, and it opens and closes with a remote key fob.
While the Ram 1500 won’t give passengers nosebleeds, there’s still a hefty step up to the cabin, especially on four-wheel-drive models, which was the configuration of the test truck. BesTop’s PowerBoard NX Automatic Retracting Running Boards fit the bill here nicely, following the mantra “out of sight, out of mind.” These running boards tuck in below the doors and are virtually invisible when retracted. Rather than contend with fixed running boards, which arguably detract from the truck’s exterior aesthetics, the PowerBoard NX running boards operate automatically when the doors are opened and closed, using Bluetooth technology.
Since the bed cover neatly keeps all supplies out of the way, the top of the bed is a perfect location for specialized racks — in this case, one that handles bicycles with little compromise. Compatible crossbars from Thule are slid into the top rails that guide the retractable bed cover. When adding the Thule Big Mouth Upright Bike Carrier to the Tracker II crossbars, two bicycles can be mounted safely and securely behind the cab of the truck. Of course, this is practical only when towing conventional trailers, and there are optional carriers available for bringing other outdoor toys along.
Last on the list was a Covercraft DashMat UltiMat Custom Cover to protect the top portion of the dashboard that’s exposed to the sun. This is a very simple installation, since the UltiMat is cut to fit the contours of the dashboard.
Pace Edwards has a strong reputation in the automotive aftermarket, and the name is synonymous with truck-bed covers. To its credit, the company emphasizes that instructions should be read carefully before starting the installation, and do-it-yourselfers must take this advice to heart. Even so, be prepared to fly by the seat of your pants, because a few of the steps are not perfectly clear. Not only does this project require strong mechanical aptitude, it can’t be done without an assistant to help with the heavy lifting and positioning.
Interestingly, only a few common hand tools are needed to mount the hardware.
To get the ball rolling, the drain holes in the front wall of the truck bed must be located. If there are plastic or rubber access ports in place, drilling holes will not be necessary. This determination is necessary because it will be very difficult to access this area for drilling once the canister is in place. The wiring harness is also routed before positioning the canister.
The canister houses the cover when rolled up and the motor, and it will need to be positioned on some sort of a support so that it will be temporarily slightly higher than the truck-bed rails. We used a bucket with a wrapper for storing tools, which worked nicely. Once the canister is lifted into position, which will take two people, the cover rails are attached to the canister. The factory protective covers for the truck-bed rails are not removed; we made the opposite assumption, requiring a little backtracking.
Sliding the cover rails into the canister seemed easy, but the first tries were challenging. Once in place, the canister will hang freely and can be pushed against the front of the bed. It’s important to make sure the lead cover rib is pulled out enough to clear the canister flange and stop. During the placement of the rails, it was easy for the cover to slip past the stop and sneak back into the canister, again slowing down the install. This issue made it more difficult to seat the cover flanges into the canister rail grips.
Although it seemed like the flanges were seated, the cover was binding, which turned out to be problematic later in the operation and required multiple attempts and reassembly. Getting there required repetitive study of the illustrations and photo in the instructions. If the rails are not mounted to spec, the cover will not roll properly and hang up when extending and retracting. Obviously, shops that specialize in this type of installation will make short work of this step.
The work at the canister is finished off after mounting the end caps to the rails and attaching them to the canister with the provided screws, a step that required some agility since access was tight. At this time the cover rails are positioned against the closed tailgate to ensure good engagement by setting the gap with the supplied tool. This is essential to provide the best weather protection.
Installing the top cover is the last step, which requires a measuring exercise before laying down the self-sticking foam tape on the front sill of the bed. Once in place, the top cover can be secured with screws. If the rail flanges placed earlier in the install are not seated in the canister flange grip just right, the cover will not fit properly. We learned that the hard way, extending the installation time and adding a little frustration to the process.
The rest of the operation was a breeze. Clamp extensions are slid on the cover rails, to which specially designed clamps are attached to secure the rails to the truck bed. No drilling is required, and securing the clamps is uneventful. Kickstands are mounted on the rear clamps to make sure the rails are level; adjustments are made by turning the knob and applying pressure to the side walls of the bed. Shims may be necessary to assure proper rail alignment so that the cover moves freely, but they were not necessary
for the test truck.
The project was wrapped up by connecting the prerouted wiring harness to a source of 12-volt DC power and attaching a drain tube to the canister and rear of the cover rails. All the drain tubes snapped in place with little fanfare, without the use of tools.
A key fob is used to open and close the cover, which operated smoothly right from the get-go. A release handle, mounted at the canister, unlocks the cover for moving manually, should the power be lost. Of course, you’ll have to open the tailgate and crawl under the cover to access the release handle, which could be a good trick if the bed is filled with cargo.
Although there were some frustrating moments to get the UltraGroove installed, the end result was satisfying, knowing that items stored in the bed were protected from the elements and prying eyes. The smooth action of the cover brought smiles to our faces. The UltraGroove retails for $2,900.
Hauling Two Bicycles
Adding the Thule bike-rack hardware to the UltraGroove rails was almost comic relief after struggling with the bed-cover installation. The bed-cover rails are made to accept the Thule crossbar mounting components, which simply slide into the T-tracks cut into the aluminum. The Crossbar Mounting Kit includes the bolts, washers, track nuts and Allen (hex) key needed to secure the bases. This step takes only minutes.
Thule’s 430 Tracker II kit comprises specially designed feet that snap into the round bars built into the bases. After the crossbars are inserted in the feet and aligned, the bases in the bed-cover rails are tightened before going back and securing the crossbars in the feet with the provided hex key. The feet and crossbars can be removed by pushing a button at each position and lifting off the rails. To increase security, an optional lock kit can be added, which we elected to install.
From here the 5990E Big Mouth Upright Carrier is assembled and bolted to the crossbars, and the rack is ready for bikes. To mount a bicycle, the tires ride in the wheel tray and are secured with straps; the upright carrier is rotated up so the jaws clamp around the bike’s downtube.
The bikes ride upright and are very secure. Mounting and dismounting takes only a few minutes. While the kits are marketed individually, the total cost to handle two bikes is around $539.
One Step Ahead
Climbing into and stepping out of a pickup, especially a four-wheel-drive model, is less than graceful for many people. Those who are vertically challenged have to stretch to get on and off the seats, and often have to pull themselves up by the assist handles. That’s why running boards were invented.
Typical running boards are mounted below the door thresholds and, depending on the model, can impact aesthetics and ground clearance. BesTop, a name common among Jeep aficionados, markets an Automatic Running Board under the PowerBoard NX banner that adds a whole new level of convenience while preserving the exterior lines of the truck. When retracted, the BesTop running boards are stowed below the thresholds and are barely visible. When a door is opened, the running board extends via the use of linkages and a motor, providing a solid surface to step up into the cab.
Although self-installation doesn’t require the use of complicated tools, the project is not for the faint of heart. Instructions are clearly segmented but can be confusing. Do-it-yourselfers will do themselves a big favor by spending a lot of time deciphering the installation procedure. Before any of the parts can be installed, the system has to be initialized to verify that the sensors are responding to the motors in the right sequence. Wireless sensors attached in the doorjambs and a very well-designed harness simplify the power hookup dramatically.
Existing mounting points that are built into the truck’s body facilitate the installation. BesTop cleverly designed linkages to mount into these locations and provides reinforcement/support brackets to stabilize the linkages. Mounting the linkages is by
far the most complicated part of the installation process.
Beyond orienting the linkages, a certain amount of finesse is needed to place the reinforcement brackets and install the rivet nuts for the mounting bolts. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, and the steps must be followed precisely to keep from getting into trouble, which
is easy to do. Working with the mounting insert on each linkage can be confusing, so reviewing the instructions repeatedly will be time well spent.
After mounting the linkages and torqueing the bolts to specifications, support brackets are added to make sure the running boards do not flex under load. These brackets rely on inserts that are relatively easy to place and line up perfectly. Once the brackets are secure, the wiring harness and receiver are installed, and the running boards are attached to the linkages. The running boards must be cycled by hand a few times before the motors are installed to make sure they are not binding.
Installing the motors to the linkage assemblies and connecting the harness is fairly straightforward. Finally, the magnets and sensors are placed in the doorjambs, which takes trial and error to find the right gap needed to activate the linkages. The sensors and magnets/holders are attached with high-strength adhesive tape, after cleaning the surface with a 50-50 mixture of water and alcohol. Light fixtures are mounted to the linkages and plugged into the harness, and you’re done.
Although there were tenuous moments during the install that brought out some colorful language, having the automatic running boards adds a huge element of convenience and is a viable hedge against slipping and muscle pulls due to uncomfortable stretching getting in and out of the cab. The kit retails for $1,240.99.
Protecting the Dash
By the end of the second day, we still had one more detail to handle: rolling out the DashMat-brand UltiMat dashboard cover. The UltiMat, part of the Covercraft family of vehicle-protection products, is soft-molded to fit the shape of the dashboard and made of a single piece of needle-punch carpet. There are no seams, and the vents and sensor openings are precut to provide a factory look. Ten colors are available for matching the look of the interior and dashboard.
Self-adhesive hook-and-loop fasteners keep the material from moving around, although the fit is so precise, the dash cover barely moves when not secured. For $62, the UltiMat is money well spent to achieve the aforementioned benefits.
An RV/MH Hall of Fame inductee and publisher emeritus of Trailer Life and MotorHome, Bob Livingston has written countless RV technical and lifestyle articles and books, and created and appeared on the weekly television show RVtoday. A lifelong RV enthusiast, Bob now travels and lives full time with his wife, Lynne, in their fifth-wheel trailer. He continues to be a regular contributor to Trailer Life.