Backhaul Trucking vs. Headhaul: Navigating the Market

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Backhaul Trucking

With so many factors influencing shipping prices – volume, handling, location, transport mode, driver time, and more – navigating the freight market can be more than a little confusing. 

One factor that plays a considerable role in pricing a freight journey is its categorization as either a “headhaul” or “backhaul” trip. 

What’s the difference, and which is the better choice for you as a shipper?

In this article, we’ll define these key terms, introduce the concept of deadhead miles, and explore how different freight lanes influence the market – and how you can leverage this to get the best deal for your shipment. 

Let’s get started!

What’s the difference between backhaul and headhaul trucking?

Headhaul trucking

Headhaul trucking – also known as fronthaul trucking – is a driver’s initial trip to deliver a shipment. 

In other words, the headhaul journey is the outward journey a driver makes from their original location (Point A) to their destination (Point B). It’s the first leg of the journey before the return trip is made. 

And speaking of the return trip, that brings us to… the backhaul.  

Backhaul trucking

Backhaul trucking is the route a driver takes to return to their point of origin. 

If the headhaul trip was made from Point A to Point B, as above, the backhaul trip takes place between Point B and Point A. 

The driver, having made their delivery, now needs to make the trip home – whether there’s a shipment on board for him to deliver or not. The necessity of the backhaul leg creates a third term that we’ll introduce here: deadhead miles. 

Deadhead miles

Miles driven without a shipment on board are referred to as deadhead miles – and, as the name suggests, these aren’t exactly the life of the logistics business. 

A driver travels a deadhead mile during any part of the journey in which they don’t have cargo on board – they’re empty trailer miles. Deadhead miles aren’t all that popular because, while necessary, they aren’t creating revenue for the carrier.

One simple way for carriers to avoid deadhead miles is to locate shippers looking for loads to transport on the backhaul, meaning that the carrier is “working” both legs of the journey.

These backhaul shipments are typically offered at a cheaper rate than the in-demand headhaul trips, creating a smart opportunity for shippers looking to travel in that direction.  

How do backhaul and headhaul trucking affect the market?

Think of it this way: If you got a truck delivering a shipment from Point A to Point B, it makes sense to have it drop off a shipment from Point B to Point A on its return journey. 

While freight routes rarely work out as perfectly as this simple example, the basic principle is to avoid as many deadhead miles as possible. If a truck is on the road, it may as well be carrying something!

The quantity of headhaul and backhaul trips needed in a given geographic area creates a backhaul or headhaul market. 

Let’s explore what each of these markets looks like, how they affect you as a shipper, and what you can do to take advantage of your market. 

Headhaul markets

A headhaul market exists where there is more outbound than inbound freight trips

This provides plenty of business for carriers, and given the demand for carrier services, new carriers are likely to be attracted to this market. In North America, the midwestern states typically have headhaul markets, as do the lanes between North America and Canada and Mexico, due to the export of American goods to these destinations.  

As a shipper, a headhaul market creates competition between loads, which can increase shipment prices. 

If you’re working in a headhaul market, it’s worth being aware of this as you shop for the best freight transportation deals. Partnering long-term with a dedicated carrier or logistics firm can also be a great way to prioritize your loads in a saturated market. 

Backhaul markets

The opposite of a headhaul market is a backhaul market a market that exists where there are more inbound than outbound freight trips

Backhauls can be tricky for carriers to navigate, as they risk racking up those dreaded deadhead miles on return journeys. In North America, the shipping lanes from Mexico and Canada into the US are typically characterized by a backhaul market, with fewer imports happening in this direction. 

This can work to your advantage as a shipper, as carriers may be willing to negotiate pricing to get a load for their backhaul leg. For this reason, a backhaul market tends to drive shipment prices down

No matter the market, optimize your trucking routes with Jansson

At Jansson, we’ve had over a decade of experience navigating the logistics landscape in North America – backhaul, headhaul, deadheads, and all! 

As an independent agent of Landstar, Jansson has access to an extensive network of carriers, helping us to keep prices low – and quality high. 

Offering a range of transportation and warehousing services, Jansson can cater to heavy-haul, LTL, and specialized loads – OTR and intermodal –  for either backhaul or headhaul journeys. 

If you’re looking to navigate the logistics market and secure the best pricing for your load, then the team here at Jansson is ready and willing to make it happen. To find out more, or to request a free quote, reach out to Jansson today!

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