Trucking can be a tough business. You work hard, your costs are high, and you don't have a lot of control over the rates. That can be frustrating.
It helps to build relationships with shippers and freight brokers who can give you regular loads, and then build the rest of your schedule around them. But even if 100% of your business is one-time hauls from load boards, you can still make good money by planning individual roundtrips or entire weeks at a time.
Here are two basic rules for route planning, plus a couple of examples, to get you started.
Rule #1. DON’T DRIVE EMPTY.
A lot of owner-operators make it a policy to “just say no” to cheap freight. I totally get that. Nobody likes working for $1.00 a mile. Even if you know you’re going to make more money on the head haul, you just hate to take that cheap stuff.
The truth is that you don’t have a lot of control over the backhaul rates. They're low because there’s not enough loads or there are too many trucks in that location. You need to make your money on the head haul direction.
Plus, if you turn down that dollar a mile, chances are you’re gonna make zero. Let's say it costs your $1.50 a mile to run the truck. That means that for every mile of deadhead, you'll have to drive the same number of loaded miles for more than $3.00 a mile. Those loads are hard to find.
If you take the "buck-a-mile" backhaul, you’ll only need to make $2.00 and change on the head haul, to make that same $1.50 on the roundtrip average. There are more than 2,000 loads offered at $2.00 or more per mile every day. That’s doable. So think seriously about taking that buck-a-mile load, if you need to get out of a tight spot. You can be insulted or angry, but at least you won’t be broke.
Better yet, plan your week in advance, to avoid those low-paying lanes. If you look at the loads and the rates that are available in both directions, you can be the Wayne Gretzky of trucking: You’ll go to where the loads are going to be.
DAT publishes information on Hot Markets every week in Trendlines, a free online feature. The dark areas in the map represent above-average load-to-truck ratios, which means there's more freight there -- and less competition.
Rule #2. PLAN EVERY TRIP AS A ROUNDTRIP.
There are always more loads and higher rates in one direction than the other. The backhaul might be really low, or the lane might be pretty well balanced. If you have choices, take a load into a place that has good loads to get you back home.
Look at the load board to see what's available in both directions. (TruckersEdge Enhanced shows you the average rates that were paid in the last 90 days on each lane, and you can use those for comparison.)
A. LEAVING A CITY WITH HIGH OUTBOUND RATES. If you're starting in Memphis, or another place with above-average rates, a little extra planning can turn a so-so roundtrip into a really good one.
- A load out of Memphis might go to Chicago or to Columbus.
- The load to Columbus pays 12¢ more per mile, for about 50 more loaded miles.
- And Memphis-Columbus-Memphis gives you 100 more loaded miles. You’ll make $70 more, total.
- But Chicago has a lot more loads back to Memphis, and the rate is 30¢ higher on the return trip.
- Plus, the roundtrip average for Memphis-Chicago-Memphis is $1.60/mile. Columbus pays $1.51.
What’s the best roundtrip? They’re both pretty good, but Chicago is better. Why?
- You make almost the same money on the roundtrip
- There are more loads to choose from on the way back to Memphis
- You save about $35 in fuel and you’ll put 100 fewer miles on your truck
B. LEAVING A CITY WITH LOW OUTBOUND RATES. Leaving Columbus, or another place where outbound rates are not so great? You will want to be very choosy about the destination of your loads, because you’re making most of your money on that return trip to your home base. (This strategy can improve your roundtrip, but it doesn't fix everything. Denver is still gonna be a dead-end. Just stay away, if you can.)
C. SUPER-SIZE IT. You can also “super-size” your trip, by turning a roundtrip into a triangular route. We call this a TriHaul. (DAT Express and DAT Power load boards include TriHaul route suggestions.)
- If you are based in Columbus, you might still go to Memphis, because you know the return trip is good.
- Or you could take a load to Chicago first, and then take a second load from Chicago to Memphis. That’s a TriHaul.
- Or you can “kick it up a notch,” as one celebrity chef used to say. Go home the same way: one load from Memphis to Chicago, and a second load from Chicago to Columbus.
Instead of leaving Columbus for a 1,200-mile roundtrip with two loads, now you have an 1,800-mile trip with four loads. That adds about 50% more loaded miles. AND the rate per mile is higher – you average $1.88/mile instead of $1.51.
You'll also add a day or a day and a half to your trip, but if the schedule works, it'll be worth it. After that detour to Chicago, you’ll come away with over $3,300 instead of $1,800. That could be a good week.
Here's the math:
Learn what other truckers got paid on the lanes you run, when you sign up for TruckersEdge Enhanced. You'll see the average prices paid on more than 65,000 lanes, based on real transactions between brokers and carriers. To add rates to your TruckersEdge subscription, or to get DAT Express with TriHaul route suggestions, call 866.487.8253.