What Is Backhaul in Trucking?

Published on
Feb 8, 2023
Contributed by

Freight carriers always have efficiency on their minds. With fuel prices and trucking costs on the rise, it’s more important than ever to find ways to save resources. One thing that can help is backhaul trucking. So, what is a backhaul in trucking? Can backhauling help you optimize your fleet? Read on to find out.

What is backhaul?

The definition of backhauling is a logistics strategy in which a commercial truck driver transports a load on their trip back to their origin point. It is the opposite of deadheading, which is when the driver makes the return trip with an empty truck. What about the difference between headhaul vs. backhaul? Both are common shipping terms, but headhaul is the initial load the driver takes to the destination. After the driver makes their initial delivery, they pick up the backhaul from a nearby location and take it back to a destination near their origin point. Backhaul trucking can be done with any type of truck, including vans, reefers, and flatbeds.

Misconceptions about backhauling

The biggest misconception about backhaul is that it’s just cheap filler that is more trouble than it’s worth. While it’s true that carriers can’t be as selective on a backhaul as they are on a headhaul, they can negotiate competitive rates, plan the right routes, and use backhaul as a revenue generator. If you know you’re delivering in a low-volume area, try to plan your backhaul ahead of time. If you can’t do that, use tools that help you quickly search for a high-paying backhaul. Flock Freight’s patented technology is one such tool. Our shared truckloads (STL), for example, help to eliminate the fragmentation and inefficiencies of traditional full truckload and less than truckload modes—whether you’re headhauling or backhauling.

Types of backhaul trucking

While the backhauling definition always involves moving freight from point B to point A, instead of vice versa, there are two different types carriers should know about.

Internal backhaul

Internal backhauling is when a company implements this form of logistics for its own fleet. Many large companies, like Amazon and Walmart, have their own truck fleets that are constantly making deliveries and returns from warehouses, distribution centers, and end-user locations. These companies might use backhaul trucking to deliver returns or damaged goods back to warehouses or even to return empty totes, bins, and boxes to be refilled.

External backhaul

The majority of backhaul trucking is external: companies contract with brokers and carriers on an as-needed basis to deliver return loads. The driver’s initial delivery and return delivery could be for the same company, for example, returning unwanted or damaged goods, or for different companies. They may need to drive a few miles to pick up the backhaul load from a different company, but will still save many deadhead miles.

Advantages of backhauling

The goal of any carrier is to keep their drivers moving and making money. That’s why many carriers use external backhauls to fill gaps in their schedules and avoid deadhead miles. That leads to benefits such as:

  • Increased fleet utilization: There doesn’t have to be a question of headhaul vs. backhaul. When drivers transport freight both ways, they have fewer deadhead miles. That means less work for dispatchers and allows them to maximize their fleet’s utilization.
  • Increased efficiency: When you optimize your fleet with backhaul, you’ll use your fleet more efficiently—offsetting some of the costs of wear and tear and maintenance.
  • Increased revenue: All the benefits of backhaul ultimately ladder up to one: increasing overall revenue. Getting paid for return trips increases your revenue and decreases your overall costs per mile.

Challenges of backhauling

If there are so many benefits to backhaul, why aren’t all carriers doing it? There are also some challenges to keep in mind:

  • Planning: Some carriers treat backhaul as an afterthought rather than integrating it into their business plan. While it can be worth it to pick up backhaul loads on-the-go, you’ll get bigger benefits when you have a plan. That means you’ll need to know how much space each truck has, which routes are optimal, and how many stops are required.
  • Dealing with delays: When a driver experiences delays on the initial delivery route, that can affect any backhauls you have planned. Accommodating possible delays while maximizing drivers’ time is always a balancing act.
  • Demand: Both headhaul and backhaul trucking require demand. If overall trucking demand is down, you have a fleet of specialty trucks or you serve a more linear supply chain, it can be time-consuming to find loads.

How backhauling impacts profitability

Carriers pay fixed costs per route for things like gas, insurance, leases and wages, whether or not their driver has a load on their return trip. That’s how backhauling increases your profits and efficiency. Here’s an example for a typical dry van traveling from Chicago to Minneapolis. To simplify our profit calculations, we’ll consider only the cost of fuel.

  • Miles per gallon: 7.5
  • Round-trip distance: 820 miles
  • Fuel needed: 110 gallons
  • Fuel price: $4.52
  • Round-trip cost: $500

Based on the route, fuel charges, and other costs, the carrier charges the shipper $850 for the delivery. The round-trip journey is going to cost the carrier about $500, whether or not they take goods on the return trip. With no backhaul, the carrier makes a profit of $350. Now let’s assume the carrier takes a backhaul load at 80% of the rate of the delivery: $680. Their total earnings for the trip are now $850 + $680 = $1530, while their costs are the same: $500. That leaves the carrier with a profit of $1030—much more than returning with the truck empty. Without backhaulWith backhaulEarnings $850$1530Round-trip cost$500$500Profit$350$1030

How to find backhaul loads with Flock Freight

Backhaul trucking logistics don’t have to be complicated. Flock Freight’s patented pooling algorithm finds and fills trucks’ empty spaces, further increasing the profitability of backhauling. Our shared truckloads help you earn up to 20% more per haul and keep your drivers moving. All you have to do is create an account and you could be booking backhaul loads in 30 minutes. Sign up today and make finding freight easier than ever.