The trucking industry is one of the most important industries facilitating the rapid, continuous, and efficient transport of nearly 70% of goods and services in the United States alone.

Hence, truckers play a significant role in the growth of the country’s economy and ensure consumers and businesses have access to everyday goods, from food to medicine, fuel, electronics, and raw materials for production. 

The modern trucking industry has many terminologies to describe different practices and aspects of operations. One of the most common terms is headhaul. In simple words, headhaul refers to the first leg of a freight transport, moving cargo from the origin to the destination.

In this article, we’ll share a detailed overview of headhaul in trucking and how it compares to backhaul and deadhead. We’ll also provide effective tips and strategies for truckers looking to overcome the obstacles associated with headhauling. 

What Is Headhaul in Trucking?

In the trucking industry, headhaul refers to the process of transporting freight or cargo from the point of origin to its final destination. It’s essentially the primary leg of a trucking trip, making it the precursing trip of a backhaul, which differences we’ll allude to in the following sections.

To understand how headhaul arrangements work, you need to understand the concept of supply and demand. Many areas in the country experience high demands for a particular good or product at certain times of the year.

For instance, popular shopping destinations in major cities receive a huge influx of seasonal products during Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Understanding Headhead Using an Example

Let’s take a look at a more concrete example. New Hampshire has the least farmland in the country. In light of this, the state receives mainly freshly harvested produce via trucks from April to early June to storage facilities, stores, and food processing plants. 

hedahaul delivery
A Truck Delivering a Headhaul Load

When truckers deliver the cargo to these facilities, the freight leg can be classified as headhaul, as it refers to the initial transport. When returning back, they make transport processes foods or equipment back to or near the initial location. As this is the second freight leg, this transport is called backhaul.

Headhaul Versus Backhaul

In the same context of the example above, truck drivers delivering loads to a destination don’t have any cargo to bring back to their base location. So, they take this opportunity to schedule another haul so they don’t return to base empty. This is called backhaul trucking.

The primary difference between headhaul and backhaul is that headhaul is one-way and represents the initial phase of the trip whereas backhaul is the return trip. That being the case, drivers headhauling may or may not have bookings for the return trip. 

The second difference is the rate. Truckers heading back to base don’t usually charge a headhaul rate in order to secure the load, as they would have to otherwise make an empty trip back. However, this doesn’t mean they’ll haul cargo for just gas money. 

Headhaul Versus Deadhead

Deadhead trucking can be a carrier’s downfall, and occurs when a freight truck returns without any cargo. When drivers travel with an empty cargo bed or trailer, they incur expenses without generating any income.

Moreover, deadheading means that trucks are operating well below their GVWR rating. Therefore, they’re not anchored by the weight of the load, which can increase the risk of accidents if drivers are not careful. 

Depending on the company’s policy, deadheading can also result in a percentage cut from the driver’s paycheck. However, in many cases, the practice is inevitable. For example, carriers offering headhaul services often require drivers to deadhead to the next pickup destination. 

Challenges Associated With Headhauling

Headhauling is a basic industry practice. It allows truckers to transport freight on routes with the highest trailer volumes and revenue-generating shipping lanes from shippers to receivers.

However, headhauling comes with many challenges you need to understand before taking it on, including the following.

  • Competition – The trucking industry is highly competitive. With so many carriers and owner-operators in the market, securing headhaul loads can be an immense challenge. Along with improving and maintaining service quality, you also need to be flexible on price to beat your competition and obtain loads to a desired route and schedule. 
  • Profitability – Headhauling without a backhaul can reduce a carrier’s bottom line, due to added fuel and maintenance expenses without generating revenue. It also increases their opportunity costs as drivers spend time on the road while not generating revenue for themselves and the company. This can be a great obstacle to profitability, especially in highly competitive markets. 
  • Market Trends – Some locations have more inbound loads than outbound, resulting in an imbalance between headhaul and backhaul. This can lead to prolonged layovers or deadhead miles. Hence, another obstacle truckers have to face is adjusting to the seasonal market trends and switching from their preferred routes. Both these adjustments can impact business sustainability. 
  • Route Planning & Scheduling – When practicing headhaul trucking, route planning, scheduling, and equipment management require a more delicate balance to ensure a streamlined workflow with minimum disruptions. However, obtaining this balance can be challenging as carriers have to employ multiple high-tech solutions and hire the required expertise to use them accordingly. Both processes require heavy investments, which creates another potential obstacle. 

Overcoming Headhaul Challenges

One of the biggest challenges associated with headhauling is securing a load on the return trip. Today, many truckers face long layovers and head back to the depot without any load – both issues that increase their overall cost per mile. Below are some ways truckers can adapt to overcome these challenges and issues.

Leverage Freight Brokers

Freight brokers are the most important middlemen in the trucking industry, with an extensive network of shippers and receivers. These individuals or companies can help carriers find loads once they complete a headhaul shipment.

By securing backhaul loads, they can reduce or eliminate deadhead miles and reduce their overall cost per mile by increasing their revenue. 

Explore Load Boards

Load boards are highly recommended tools for truckers getting started in the industry. These solutions are essentially online platforms on which shippers, receivers, and brokers post their loads for carriers to bid. A lot more can be accomplished beyond identifying headhaul and backhaul loads, such as delivery planning, route management, invoicing, factoring, and more.

Utilize Digital Freight Matching (DFM) Platforms

Digital freight matching platforms are AI and machine learning-enhanced tools truckers can use to find loads and negotiate with shippers, receivers, and brokers in real-time. These digital marketplaces also allow you to communicate with different parties and learn about their shipping requirements quickly.

You can also set up automated headhaul and backhaul freight matching and booking to simplify and accelerate your route planning and administrative processes. 

Plan With Transportation Management System (TMS)

A transport management system is one of the most important tools trucking companies use for several aspects of operations, from order management to scheduling and billing.

Essentially, they help truckers establish a solid foundation to carry out their daily operations. In this context, they can help you schedule your headhaul shipments and backhaul deliveries on the same routes and minimize deadhead miles when picking up the secondary load. 

Rent Truck Terminals

Truck terminals offer several amenities and services to truckers, including restrooms, eateries, truck repairs, maintenance, and more. From an operational perspective, they serve as excellent resting facilities for drivers to layover instead of driving back to base without cargo, reducing deadhead miles in the process.

Additionally, truck terminals that are located within close proximity to a carrier’s regular pickup and delivery location can also serve as a base for truckers to perform headhauls.

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Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 12 years of experience in the fields of logistics, trucking, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire to educate others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.