Nerf bars, steps, and running boards all share a similar function; they make it easier for you to get in and out of your vehicle. Although all three have that one function in common, there are several differences that sets them apart. Trying to decide which one would be right for you and your vehicle can sometimes be difficult. We aim to make the decision a little easier by discussing the differences in history, fit length, size, shape, materials, finishes, and installation.
You’ll never guess one of your favorite truck accessories had a history in racing.
Running boards were used on carriages as early as the 17th century, meaning this accessory actually predates the automobile. Vehicles in the early 20th century were equipped with running boards out of necessity as they were designed with narrow and high bodies that were bolted right to the chassis; running boards were needed to get in and out of the vehicle. As car designs evolved and unibody construction became popular running boards were removed to increase aerodynamics and were no longer a necessity for getting in and out of the vehicle. The first car to be offered without running boards was the 1936 Cord. Trucks, however, maintained running boards through the mid-1950s, until a shift in design saw them removed to increase aerodynamics. From that moment, there was a decline in trucks created with running boards. Steps, nerfs, and bars made a comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a practical add-on with the growing popularity of SUVs, four -door trucks, and lifted vehicles. Nowadays running boards are one of the most popular, stylish, and practical upgrades for any Jeep, truck, or SUV. (Image of older vehicles with running boards)
Nerf Bars and Steps:
Nerf bars, also known as side steps or step bars, may not have as much history as running boards, but definitely have an exciting one. Traditionally outfitted to single-seat race cars, nerfs bars were used to execute passing maneuvers, defend against passing maneuvers, or even just fend off overly aggressive racers. The word “nerf” refers to a bump or nudge given to another vehicle to facilitate a pass on an asphalt oval race track. While nerf bars had racing-inspired origins, they are now commonly used as an upgrade accessory for jeeps, trucks, and SUVs, providing a stepping area to assist with getting in and out of a vehicle. They can also play a role in protecting rocker panels and the bottom of truck doors when off roading. (Image of older vehicle with nerf bars. Probably older race car.)
Nerf bars, steps, and running boards come in a variety of fitments.
Wheel to Wheel:
Steps, bars and boards with this fitment start at the rear of the front wheel of a truck, and extend all the way across, stopping just before the rear wheel. Essentially running boards, nerf bars, or steps with this fitment will span the entire length of the cab plus the truck box area in front of the rear wheel. These can come in either one-piece or two-piece styles. With the two-piece style, one half covers the length of the cab while the other covers the length of the area under the truck bed in front of the rear wheel. Some nerf bars and steps will not feature bed access meaning there is no step pad on the bar or step under the truck bed area in front of the rear wheel. (Image of wheel to wheel running board or nerf bar)
The most popular of the three fitments, a cab-length step, bar or board spans the length of the cab and stops right at, or close to, the beginning of the truck bed. When installed on jeeps or SUVs, these will run the full length between the front and rear wheels. (Image of cab length running board or nerf bar)
This fitment refers to a single step that can be hitch mounted, mounted under the cab, or mounted under the truck bed. Sometimes single steps have the ability to be folded up and locked into place so they are there when you need them and out of the way when you don’t. These are great for people that just want a singular step at certain points below the cab or truck bed without getting full running boards or nerf bars.
Size and Shape
Size and shape are two of the most defining features when comparing the differences between running boards, nerf bars, and steps. Both size and shape can directly affect the amount of stepping area and grip provided.
Running boards are often flat, hold a rectangular shape and have widths ranging from four to seven inches. Because running boards are custom made to fit a specific vehicle, sizing may vary from product to product and some styles may reach widths larger than seven inches. Some styles of running board have rounded edges that give them a tubular look, but because the stepping area has a rectangular and flat construction they are considered side-step boards. Some advantages to running boards are that they are flat, allowing the entire board to be used as a stepping area, and they generally include longer and wider grip pads. (Image(s) of common running board sizes and shapes)
Nerf Bars and Steps:
Nerf bars are usually easy to spot as they have an oval, round, or rung shape and range from two to six inches in diameter. Oval nerf bars offer the largest diameter reaching up to six inches, while round nerf bars offer the smallest diameter going down to two inches. The rung style includes steps that crop out from below the bar in a u-shape fashion. Since nerf bars are tubular, they typically only include stepping areas and grip pads at the points underneath the doors to allow for safe entry and exit. Some wheel-to-wheel nerf bars allow for bed access and include a stepping area and grip pad underneath the bed area as well. Some nerf bars do come down lower than running boards providing a slightly lower step that's easier to reach.
Also included in this category are single steps. Steps are usually ten to twenty inches in length and are often more affordable than nerf bars with each step being purchased in pairs of two or individually. Steps are popular on work trucks as they provide a solid step in and out of the truck without covering the entire length of the cab. (Image(s) of different nerf bar and step sizes and shapes)
Materials and Finishes
Most running boards, nerf bars, and steps are available in similar finishes and are made from the same materials. Selecting material and finish is dependent on the look and style you are going for and whether a running board, nerf bar, or step is going to work best for you. RealTruck offers boards, bars, and steps constructed of aluminum, molded ABS, steel, and stainless steel. Finishes available include black, brite, silver, chrome, diamond plate, polished aluminum, polished stainless steel, anodized aluminum and brushed aluminum. (Image of different styles or finishes of running board and nerf bar)
Most running boards and nerf bars install to existing holes on your vehicle with no drilling required. Usually this installation can be performed by one individual with basic hand tools such as a wrench and socket. Some older vehicles will require minor drilling to accommodate all the necessary brackets and hardware. We do advise however that powered drop-down or lighted running boards be installed by professionals due to their electrical components.
Brackets, bolts, and other installation materials, unless otherwise noted, are always included. Brackets and hardware may ship separately in some cases. Most auto manufacturers already have the mounting points necessary either on the frame or the body of the vehicle.
Installation needs for a set of boards, bars, or steps are different between the various manufacturers and styles and will be listed in the install instructions. Running boards generally install to the rocker panel/pinch weld area while nerf bars install to the body mount bolts or the rocker panel/pinch weld area depending on the application. Rest assured, however, that all running boards, nerf bars, and steps should support the weight limit designated by the manufacturer using the included hardware and install instructions.