What Are Running Boards on a Car?

Running boards are car accessories that make it easier to get in and out of a vehicle with high ground clearance. Continue reading for a complete breakdown.
Written by John Davis
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
Automotive running boards are add-on car parts designed to make it easier to get in and out of a vehicle with high ground clearance. They are popular on pickup trucks and SUVs and typically provide a stepping surface below the cabin doors.
While running boards aren't going to improve your car's performance, they can be a massive quality-of-life enhancement for your ride. Whether due to your height, a medical condition, or the presence of children, choosing to install running boards can take the hassle and discomfort out of climbing into your truck or SUV. 
If you're considering a running board installation for your car and are looking for a complete breakdown of the devices and their pros and cons, you're in the right place. Today, we'll cover all the facts about these handy truck accessories so you can choose whether or not they're right for you.

What are running boards on a car?

Running boards—also commonly referred to as side steps, side bars, or step bars—are automotive accessories that make it easier to climb in and out of a truck, SUV, or other taller vehicle. They typically attach beneath the vehicle's doors and rocker panels, and they provide a step up into the vehicle. 
Running boards may stretch down the side of the car from wheel to wheel, or they may be the size of a single step below the doors. 
They are common add-ons for off-road vehicles and trucks and SUVs with high ground clearance, like the
Toyota Tacoma
GMC Sierra
, and
Chevrolet Silverado
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Types of running boards

Running boards come in a variety of types and variations. While all types of running boards serve the same purpose, more or less, some include additional features that contribute to the utility of the vehicle. Let's take a look at the most common types of running boards.

Traditional running boards

Traditional running boards are flat steps that attach beneath the vehicle's doors. They are usually quite wide, with the average width being five to seven inches. 
Traditional running boards are typically built with heavy-duty metal or a lighter material, like aluminum or fiberglass, and are topped with a durable rubber or plastic stepping surface. This type of running board commonly begins at the front wheel and runs the length of the vehicle, terminating behind the rear doors. 
Some traditional running boards have LED lights to help you get in and out of the vehicle in the dark.

Nerf bars

Nerf bars are similar to traditional running boards in that they usually run the length of the vehicle. However, the difference is that nerf bars are tubular devices, usually made out of aluminum, with rubber or plastic shelves attached to the top of the tube. 
This type of running board is popular on lifted trucks and SUVs because they effectively lower the vehicle's ground clearance, making it easier to climb into the car. 
MORE: How to know if a mechanic is taking too long with car repairs

Side steps

Unlike traditional running boards and nerf bars, side steps do not run the length of the vehicle. Instead, they look like individual ladder rungs attached beneath the doors of a vehicle or below a truck's tailgate
While they serve the same purpose as full-length running boards, they allow the high ground clearance to be somewhat maintained. 

Electric running boards

Electric running boards are the most expensive type of vehicle side-step device. These accessories may be full-length traditional running bars or nerf bars, or they may be short side steps. What separates electric running boards from the other variations is their automated retractable design.
If you install these devices on your truck or SUV, opening the door will send an electric signal to the running boards, causing them to swing out beneath the doors—when you close the doors, the running boards will retract to their concealed position. 
While pricey, these accessories are highly-efficient, as they allow you to take advantage of all of the benefits of traditional running boards without sacrificing your car's ride height

What are the benefits of running boards?

Running boards provide a variety of benefits for truck and SUV owners. Let's take a look at some of the most prominent advantages of these accessories:
  • Easy vehicle entry and exit. The primary purpose of running boards is to make it easier to climb in and out of the vehicle. For owners of large trucks or SUVs with high ground clearance, running boards can reduce the amount of stretching or jumping required to enter the cabin.
  • Protection from rocks and road debris. As you drive, your wheels kick up rocks and other debris from the road, especially when driving on unpaved roads. Running boards can provide protection for your car's doors by blocking some of that debris.
  • They help keep your interior clean. Running boards can function as doormats for your ride. This is because you can use the running board's stepping surface to wipe mud or dirt off your shoes before entering the vehicle. 

What are some disadvantages of running boards?

While running boards provide several valuable benefits for drivers of larger vehicles, they are not without their downsides. Let's take a look at some of the running board cons:
  • They reduce ground clearance. While your car's high ground clearance is probably the reason you're interested in running boards, lowering the ground clearance too much can reduce your vehicle's off-road prowess.
  • They get extra dirty during the winter. During the winter, running boards can become packed full of snow, salt, and other debris. This can become dangerous if the frozen snow causes the running boards to be slippery.
  • They may contribute to seat damage. Anecdotal evidence shows that people are more likely to exit a vehicle with running boards by sliding off the seat onto the side steps. Over time, this can lead to the degradation of the seat's fabric. 

How do you install running boards?

Are you planning to add running boards to your truck or SUV? If so, you can choose to take your vehicle to an auto repair or body shop for installation, or you can make it a weekend DIY project.
If you choose the latter option, the exact installation steps will depend on your vehicle and the type of running boards you purchase. However, regardless of those factors, you'll need to follow this general outline of steps:
  1. Locate the factory holes in your car's frame—this is where you'll mount the support brackets for your new running boards. If your vehicle does not have pre-drilled holes, or if the holes' positions don't match your running board kit, you may need to drill new ones.
  2. Use the hardware that comes with your running boards to install the front brackets. Leave these brackets finger-tight for now.
  3. Install the rear brackets following the same procedure.
  4. Place the running boards on the brackets and line up the mounting holes.
  5. Feed the bolts through the holes and use the included hardware to mount the running boards on the brackets.
  6. Make sure the steps are level and even, then tighten all of the connections to the proper specifications.
  7. Repeat the entire process on the opposite side of the vehicle. 

How much do running boards cost?

The exact cost to install running boards on your car will depend on the vehicle type, your location, and the type of running boards you choose to purchase. However, you can generally expect the price range to be between $200 and $400.
If you choose to hire a professional mechanic to install your side steps, you can expect the price to jump by another $50 to $150
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Running boards are designed to make it easier to get in and out of a vehicle with high ground clearance. Additionally, they can help prevent body damage by deflecting rocks and road debris, as well as functioning as a doormat to help keep your car's interior clean.
Yes—running boards can affect gas mileage, although it may not be noticeable. That's because running boards negatively affect the vehicle's aerodynamic design by effectively acting like small wings or spoilers on the side of your truck or SUV.
To counter this problem, you can opt for retractable running boards that are tucked away beneath the car when not in use.
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