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Deciding whether you need a car cover or not and choosing the best car cover can be overwhelming. I’ve created this guide to help you better understand car covers and what to look for when buying one so you don’t end up with buyer’s remorse.
The truth is the right car cover can make your life much easier and make your car, truck, or motorcycle so much more enjoyable.
I’ve written a lot about cleaning and detailing cars but haven’t written much about what to do once you’re finished bringing your car back to perfect condition.
In between detail session and cruises our cars face a constant onslaught of environmental hazards, even if they never leave the garage.
For me the solution is to keep them covered.
Benefits of a Car Cover
There are a lot of benefits to having a car cover. Depending on the type of cover and when and where you use it a car cover can protect from:
- Dust, dirt, and pollen
- Bird bombs (poop) and tree sap
- Industrial fallout
- Cat claws
- Tree branches
- Sun and UV rays
- Rain, snow, sleet, and hail
- Dings from car doors, garage clutter, and children
Bird bombs and tree sap
These are serious issues to protect your car from. Both can cause etching of your paint if left on too long and can take a generous amount of elbow grease and chemicals to remove, each of which wears on your paint’s clearcoat (something you don’t have much of).
Dust, dirt, and pollen
Depending on where you live all three of these can be an issue. I personally use an indoor cover to protect my car from dust and pollen. During the spring, even though my car is inside a garage, it will still turn yellow from pollen in short order. Rather than having to wash the car every time I want to drive it I can just fold up the cover and take off.
These are things like acid rain, jet fuel particulates at the airport, rail dust from a nearby railroad, etc… These will embed themselves in your paint and slowly break down your clearcoat.
Cat claws and tree branches
If you’ve ever mowed a lawn around a tree you know how much one tree can shed little limbs, sticks, nuts, etc. If you’ve ever owned a cat with claws you also know that they never seem to want to walk around or jump with those bad boys retracted. A padded car cover can protect against these assaults on your beautiful paintwork.
Sun and UV rays
The sun and it’s not-so-wonderful UV rays can do a number on both your paint and your interior. While both automotive clear coat (the top layer of your paint) and automotive glass have a good degree of UV filtering built in some still passes through and breaks down the materials underneath over time.
In the case of your paint the clearcoat is the only thing protecting the pigment underneath from fading. The longer you can maintain that clearcoat the longer your car will stay vibrant and reflective.
As for your interior, even with a quality heat and UV reducing window tinting interior temps can reach unsafe levels in the sun. The heat is the number one destroyer of the plastic, vinyl, and leather that makes up most of your interior.
Believe it or not a car cover can reduce theft of your belongings or vehicle. Protection from theft is all about deterrence and making your stuff less appealing to mess with than your neighbors. Anything you can do to make your car, truck, or motorcycle harder or more time consuming to break into and get away with will help.
Most of the time thieves are looking for easy scores. A car cover increases the time a thief would have to be exposed while getting your things. It also hides what you have from casual onlookers, making your valuables “out of sight and out of mind.”
A quality car cover will come with a lock as well that will make both removal and theft of the cover a lot more time consuming.
Door dings, garage clutter, children
Another benefit of a car cover with a degree of padding is that protects your paint from impact from the doors of cars parked next to yours, clutter in the garage that may get knocked over, and children who typically have a reckless disregard for nice things.
Rain, sprinklers, snow, sleet, hail
These are the benefits most people think about when considering a cover. Quality outdoor covers are water-repellent which help keep rain from flooding the body of the car which can lead to rust and other problems over the years (hello every 90s GM pickup truck cab corners).
Snow removal is also easier when the snow is contained to a cover. While you do risk minor scratches to your paint when removing a cover full of snow it’s infinitely better than taking a broom to your car so you can get to work on time.
Last, but not least, a standard thick outdoor cover will protect against sleet and small hail. There are even specialty inflatable covers that can shield your vehicle from larger hail. While these covers may not look sexy neither does golf ball sized dents and holes in your glass that will cost you thousands.
Drawbacks of a Car Cover
Now that we know car covers can be incredibly beneficial we need to talk about the drawbacks.
- Caring for the cover
The number one drawback of any car cover is that they increase the chance that you’ll scratch your paint. This is the single reason car covers are such a polarizing topic on detailing forums.
As you should know (if you read literally any other post on my site) any time you touch your paint you risk scratching it and to remove scratches requires polishing which removes micro layers of your clearcoat which you only have 0.001 inches of (or .0254mm), therefor reducing the life of your clearcoat.
The bright side is that this risk can be all but eliminated with the proper technique of installing and removing your cover (which I talk about later), using a quality custom-fit cover, and only installing a cover on a clean car.
Caring for the cover
Another con is that you must care for the cover. In the case of really nice indoor covers this could mean the occasional dry cleaning.
As you can see the drawbacks are far outweighed by the benefits. I’m very pro car cover. A quality car cover has made caring for my cars so much easier.
I would never go back to having to quick detail or wash my car every time I want to take it out.
Condensation, Mold, and Mildew
If you buy a cheap, poorly made cover, it may not breath well which can cause condensation/dew to build up under the cover. If left this way for an extended period of time mold/mildew can grow and you can end up leaving stains on your paint that are very difficult to remove, even with machine polishing. Quality covers should avoid this.
Universal and Ready-Fit vs Custom-Fit Car Covers
Car covers typically come in three different sizing categories: universal, ready-fit, and custom-fit. Each of which costs a little more than the former but comes with added benefits.
I personally only believe in and recommend custom-fit car covers, but we’ll get into that in a minute.
Universal car covers are just that, covers designed in the approximate shape of the average small, medium, and large vehicle to be universal in their use. I like to refer to these non-endearingly as shower caps because that’s about how well they fit the average vehicle.
These are the type of car covers you’re likely to find at stores like Walmart because they’re easy to mass produce and import.
The benefit of universal covers is that they are usually very cheap in comparison to custom-fit covers.
The drawback is that they are extremely loose around panels allowing wind to blow the cover around like a wind sail drawing dirt underneath which beats your paint to death. They also lack mirror pockets and provisions for spoilers, louvers, scoops, canards, and splitters that may extend from your vehicle and can put stress on these parts and ultimately cause damage to them.
These covers are also harder to install without dragging or pulling the cover across the vehicle which will scratch your paint.
I’m not a fan of these and don’t feel they are worth the material they are cut from. You would be better off spending the money on better tint and a higher quality wax for protection.
Ready-fit covers are a step up from universal. They are at least cut to match the type of vehicle (hatchback, pickup, van, etc..) so they have some degree of fitment but still have all the drawbacks of the universal covers in my experience.
The benefit is that these covers are stocked in most detail stores, so you’ll receive it shortly after ordering unlike a custom-fit cover which you may have to wait a couple weeks to be manufactured and mailed to you.
Custom-Fit Car Covers
Just as the name implies, these covers are custom-fit to match your vehicle as close to perfect as possible. They will be made to your specific make and models measurements and include provisions for mirrors, antennas, spoilers, splitters, and other accessories commonly found on sports cars like your Mustang, Camaro, Corvette, Porsche, etc…
These covers fit so closely to the body panels that the risk of them being blown around and beating up your paint if used outdoors is pretty much nil. If used indoors you don’t have to worry about it abrading the paint if rubbed up against.
You’ll pay more for these and will have to wait for them to be made but it’ll be worth it, and you’ll be the happiest in the end. Most manufacturers even let you pick custom color schemes to make it truly yours.
This is the only type of cover that I consider when I need to buy a cover for a car or am asked to recommend a cover for a car. It’s the perfect example of “buy once, cry once.”
Indoor vs Outdoor Car Covers
Outdoor covers are designed to stand up again the harsh conditions you won’t find indoors. They can provide protection for both outdoors and indoors but will be heavier and harder to store than a light indoor only cover.
Indoor Only Covers
Just because you’re blessed with a garage, shop, or other covered parking for your vehicle doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from a cover.
If your garage is anything like mine it has its own perils such as the doors of neighboring cars, hanging bicycles, lawn equipment, children running by, and dust and pollen that accumulate during the spring and summer every time the door opens.
The right custom-fit indoor cover can protect against these while also being very light, soft, and stretchable.
I personally purchased a cover to stop the dust and pollen from accumulating on my car in between washing and driving. I hate how annoyingly imperfect that fine layer of dust on otherwise perfectly clean car is.
All that being said, do not use an Indoor Only cover for outdoor use. They simply aren’t up to the task.
Outdoor Car Covers
Outdoor rated car covers, sometimes called all-weather or weatherproof car covers, are more resistant to water, dirt, UV, and impact by design and will typically weigh more and cost more.
Quality outdoor covers are designed to be water-repellant but breathable (not water proof). This way they can protect your vehicle from rain (which includes acid rain and other contaminants that can degrade your cars paint, plastic, and rubber) but still allow moisture to evaporate that would otherwise get trapped underneath and damage your paint.
As soon as the rain stops the cover, and your paint, will dry out safely.
Most outdoor covers are constructed with multiple layers to keep dirt, dust, and other debris out. They will stop bird bombs, tree sap, leaves, other fallout from ending up on the paint and clogging drain tubes and air intakes.
Another benefit to the construction of outdoor covers is UV and thermal protection. They’ll stop the sun from shining through your windows and turning your interior into a greenhouse and destroying your upholstery.
A great example use for an outdoor cover is leaving your car at airports for extended periods of time while traveling. A quality outdoor cover can help protect against door dings, fallout from the airplanes, casual onlookers (thieves), and the sun and UV reflecting off the pavement and other cars.
On top of all that, outdoor car covers can be used indoors as well. They will just weight more and take up more space when stored due to the beefed-up construction of the material.
Car Capsule Covers
Another type of car cover that comes in both indoor and outdoor models are capsules or bubble car covers. These are plastic inflatable covers that encapsulate the whole car, resembling an airstream trailer.
The benefit to these is they are essentially hermetically sealed capsules for your car that filter air into the car and protect it from any contact.
These are ideal for long term storage of collector’s cars especially if they are stored in a shop, storage unit, or garage.
Car Cover Fabric – Synthetic Microfibers vs Cotton
Typically, you’ll only find cotton-based covers for indoor use. This is because cotton doesn’t have any inherent UV or water-repellent properties. These covers range from light laminated cotton to thicker woven and napped flannel. This is an excellent material for indoor only use.
Synthetic fabric on the other hand is used most in outdoor covers, though it is found on indoor covers as well. Synthetic fabrics such as solution-dyed polyester and acrylic microfibers have a come a long way and can be just as soft and easy to work with as cotton while providing natural UV and mildew resistance and water repellency.
When it comes to degree of protection in synthetic fabrics it’s more about the layers than the specific material so don’t fret too much on the which manufacturers proprietary fabric blend is best and instead look at how many layers the cover has and if it has a soft lining.
I personally lean toward synthetic fabrics these days for both indoor and exterior use.
Picking Out the Best Car Cover
Deciding which cover to get is all about your intended use and location. You wouldn’t buy the same cover to protect a car in the Arizona desert as you would for the daily 5 o’clock rain in Florida or for a car that never leaves the garage except on perfect days.
While color and cost are part of your decision your choice is ultimately dictated by your use case.
Unfortunately, there is no best car cover for all uses and situations.
If your primary use is protection from the Sun, UV, and blistering heat you’re most likely looking for a car cover made from Sunbrella. This solution-dyed acrylic material is naturally UV-resistant and very durable. It won’t break down from extended sun and heat exposure for a very long time.
Sunbrella covers can be treated for water-repellency making them decent all-around covers.
For excessive rain you want to look for a cover that has densely woven microfibers for high water-repellency and is treated for mildew growth. A good “rainproof” car cover will have 3-5 layers to add to the water resistance and protect against falling debris such the Covercraft WeatherShield HP.
These covers will be constructed with encapsulated fibers that are more resistant to water absorption. This means moderate rain will be quickly shed and shaken off easily.
Snow & Ice
For frost, snow and ice you want a similar cover to what I described above for rain. This is because you don’t want ice forming under the cover against the car else you risk damaging things if you try to remove the cover while frozen.
Never remove a cover frozen to a car. If you must remove a cover with ice under it I recommend pouring some room temperature to lukewarm water (NOT HOT) over the cover to melt the ice so it can be pulled off easily.
There are also covers out there specifically designed for ice protection. These covers truly are waterproof because they are meant to stop the formation of ice under the cover and be removable as soon as the storm is over, or when you must leave for work.
Anything other than light sleet and hail will require a hail storm specific cover. A thick outdoor cover can provide some protection to hail smaller than a dime but anything larger will still leave marks.
For this there are padded and inflatable hail car covers that can protect against larger hail such as the Hail Protector by Hail Storm Products
While they do look silly they look a lot better than dents, broken windows, and increased insurance premiums should your car get hammered.
Dust & Dirt
For dust and dirt, you need a custom-fit cover. There is no other option. If you live in an area where there is a lot of wind and dust flying around a loose-fitting universal cover will lead to dust trapped between the cover and your paint that will act like sandpaper on your paint.
Look for a cover with densely woven and layered fabric that fits closely to the car such as the Covercraft Dustop. This goes for both outdoor and indoor covers.
If you’re looking for scratch and ding protection you need to look for a thicker, layered cover like the Covercraft Noah. This will help with the occasional basket ball or bicycle handlebar impact as your kiddos move around your car or truck.
If you just want to stop light scratches from cat claws or family brushing up against the car while walking in and out of the house, then you can get away with the thinner dust stopping covers.
Bugs, Bird Poop, & Tree Sap
If your car is going to sit outside under trees you need to find a cover constructed of densely woven layers, such as the Covercraft Evolution, so these contaminants stay on the surface of the cover.
A thin cheap car cover will allow these droppings to slowly work their way to your paint.
Car Cover Lining Importance
One of the most important factors of a car cover that people never think about is the lining of the cover. Since the biggest drawback of using a cover is the potential to scratch your paint it’s important that you only purchase covers that are advertised as having a soft lining made of fleece, polypropylene fabric, microfiber, or woven nylon.
I would never consider a cover that didn’t mention anything about being gentle on your paint. You’ll find this a lot on cheap no-name covers on sites like eBay and Amazon.
Partial Coverage Car Covers
You may not realize it but you can buy covers that only cover a portion of your vehicle. This may be useful if you’re just looking to cover the contents of the bed of your truck while parked, the cab windows while sitting in the sun, or to cover the removable hardtop on your convertible Miata while storing it.
These covers can cost less than a full coverage cover, and all the same considerations apply to these as a full cover.
How to Install a Car Cover Without Scratching Your Paint
The best way to install a car cover on most vehicles is:
- Unfold the cover along the middle of your car or truck from the middle to the front and back.
- Unfold the sides down the side of the vehicle.
- Tuck the cover around the front and back bumpers.
- Lock the cover with the included cable lock (if you have one).
Never drag or pull a cover while installing. You will scratch your paint. With great protection comes great responsibility!
How to Remove and Fold a Car Cover Without Scratching Your Paint
The best way to remove a car cover without scratching your paint is:
- Unlock the cover.
- Untuck the front and rear bumpers
- Fold the sides of the cover up the sides of the vehicle to the top middle of the car.
- Fold the cover up the middle of the car or truck in 1-2ft sections from the front and back to the middle of the vehicle (usually roof).
Never drag or pull a cover while removing. You will scratch your paint.
Never remove a frozen cover unless it’s specifically advertised as waterPROOF and for ice protection. You will damage both the cover and the car. If you must remove the cover pour some room temperature water over the cover (NEVER HOT or you’ll crack your glass) to help release the ice from the car and cover.
How to Secure Your Car Cover
A quality car cover will be lockable and come with a lock and cable and grommets in the cover to run the cable through. Ensure your cover is pulled down under all sides of the vehicle and install this cable and lock.
If you’re worried about theft of your car cover you can also write your name on the inside of the cover in case it walks off and ends up in a pawn shop or online. Most thieves aren’t going to use the cover they are going to sell it.
If you’re just trying to figure out how to keep your car cover from blowing off then my suggestion is to buy a custom-fit cover that comes with an elastic edge and a cable and lock.
How to Place a Car Cover on When There is an Antenna
Most quality custom-fit covers will come with a grommet that you can install after cutting a hole for your antenna or will already have the old for you.
If you’re installing a universal cover you may have to buy a grommet separately. If the cover is cheap plastic, you can simply cut a hole and then use a lighter to melt the edges of the hole so it doesn’t fray.
How to Care for a Car Cover
Given the cost of a quality car cover and its intended purpose it’s important that you take care of it. A car cover in poor shape can do more harm than good when it comes to your car.
Dirty and tattered covers will scratch and mar your paint. Dirt build up on and within the cover can also wick water through the cover reducing any water resistance the cover may have had and reduce breathability causing moisture to build up between the cover the paint which is very bad long term.
Any quality cover will come with instructions on how to wash the car cover and care for it. If you misplace these instructions, you can usually contact the manufacturer for a new copy.
Some covers even require dry cleaning only so it’s important to do some investigation at the manufacturers site before washing.
In any case, here are some general care cover care tips.
Car Cover Care Tips
- Don’t use a washer with a center agitator to clean a car cover.
- Don’t use fabric softeners
- Don’t use a dryer to dry non-woven and specialty car covers. Drape them over the car instead and let them air dry. Cotton, polycotton, and flannel can be dried on low heat (sometimes labeled as “Delicate.”
Car Cover Machine Washing Instructions
- Using a large capacity washer without a central agitator, fill it with warm water and add ¼ cup of a gentle all-purpose clean (APC) like Simple Green.
- Put the cover in the washer and set the washer to two rinse cycles to ensure all cleaner is removed after the wash cycle.
- Air dry the cover by either hanging it or installing it on the car and letting the water evaporate.
Light indoor-only satin stretch covers usually require dry cleaning. Don’t place these in a washer if you can avoid it. If you must wash it yourself do so by hand.
Car Cover Hand Washing Instructions
- Mix APC with warm water in a large basin
- Use a sponge to gently scrub the cover
- Flip the cover over and scrub the other side
- Rinse with clean water or wipe with a towel soaked in clean water to remove the APC
- Air dry the cover by either hanging it or draping it over the vehicle
How often should I wash my car cover?
Only wash the cover when it becomes visibly dirty. Washing too frequently wears away the chemicals that give covers their weather resistant properties. That being said, don’t be afraid to wash your cover. As talked about above, dirty covers will scratch your paint and will have reduced water-resistant properties.
Is it safe to put a wet cover on my car or truck?
If your cover is breathable (aka not water-PROOF) then it’s perfectly safe to put a wet cover on a clean vehicle. The water will evaporate safely. This is my recommended way of drying a cover since it helps keep the material’s shape and doesn’t take up any space.
Can I “Scotchguard” my car cover?
This is usually not a good idea. Most car covers are already made with a durable water repellency which will last the life of the cover if you properly care for it. Also, most covers are made to be breathable to prevent moisture buildup under the cover which can damage paint and lead to mold growth. Adding a product like Scotchguard can negatively affect the breathability of the material.
How should I store my car cover?
I recommend storing the cover dry and folded up into a storage bag or tote. You don’t want the cover laying on a shelf collecting dust. Any dust on the cover when you install it will scratch your car.