Headhaul vs. Backhaul Shipping: Understanding the Differences

Have you run into the terms “headhaul” and “backhaul” as a truck driver? If you are newer to the freight industry, there is a good chance that you are not familiar with these terms and their meanings. In some cases, a driver may pick up a headhaul load and then drop it off at a location that is closer to the company’s terminal, making the return trip a backhaul. The term “outbound” is used to describe headhaul shipments, while “inbound” is used to describe backhauls. When booking loads and driving all over North America, you want to make sure that you use the load boards or work with your freight broker and dispatcher to monitor the freight market and find headhaul and backhaul loads for your trips. Understanding the difference between headhauls and backhauls is essential for both trucking companies and owner-operators.

What is Headhaul?

In commercial trucking, headhaul shipments are loads that originate from your home area to a determined location. Backhaul loads are loads you haul from that determined area back to your hometown.

Headhaul shipments are typically loaded and shipped from the trucking company or supply chain terminal to the customer’s destination. If you are an over the road driver that does not need to go home on a regular schedule, you may make a lot of headhauls since you don’t have a location you must get back to.


What is Backhaul?

Backhaul loads are then hauled back to the company’s home area or terminal. In other words, a backhaul is a shipment made during the trip back home. Some are weary when specifying that a load is a backhaul even though it is often easy to figure out. Brokers are much tougher to negotiate with on backhauls, because they know your options are limited when trying to get back to your home base of operations.


How Do They Differ From Deadhead?

Deadhead is a related term in freight shipping, one that carriers don’t ever want to hear. The goal of a motor carrier is always to have paying cargo for the roundtrip as the shipper is only paying from point A to point B while their cargo is actively being hauled by you. Deadhead is almost the opposite of a backhaul and means returning with zero cargo. When you are driving a deadhead hauling an empty trailer you are making no money for the trip. Remember, no matter if you are driving a reefer or a flatbed, an empty trailer is bad. The more miles traveling with an empty cargo bed equals lost money. Even a partial or LTL load, meaning less than a full truckload, is better than nothing to make sure you are not entirely eating the cost of the return trip for your next load. In some cases, the deadheads also affect a company driver’s paycheck, though this depends on the carrier company’s policy.

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