A Trucking Term Trio: Headhaul, Backhaul, and Deadhead


Time for a pop quiz, team! In one of our recent blog posts, Shipping Shoptalk, we laid out lingo popular in freight industry circles, and now we’d like to revisit two and add a third to your growing repertoire. Do you remember what backhauls and headhauls are? Extra credit for those who know what a deadhead is. There’s a difference between defining a word and understanding its function, so we’re going to break them down and explain what they are.

In our industry, a deadhead is not, in fact, a fan of the band, Grateful Dead. It might as well be a curse upon carriers for as much as we like encountering it in freight (which is not at all!). Deadheads happen when trucks make it to point B but have no backhaul to carry to home base, leaving them with an empty trailer, and empty trailers are bad business. They are an occasional, necessary burden to bear while driving to a location that has a load ready for pickup, but otherwise, carriers should avoid them at all costs (to save on costs).

While most drivers are paid in the event of a deadhead (though typically not as much if they had cargo), it can cost owner-operators money, even out of pocket.

It’s not just a monetary danger for carriers. An empty trailer can endanger the driver. With a deadhead, trailers aren’t anchored by the weight of a load and become hazardous in bad weather (even against a strong wind). Bad weather means an unwieldy trailer, which is perilous for everyone on the road. 

Backhauls are a step up from a deadhead—a pretty big step, actually. These are the journeys trucks take, cargo in tow, back to their point of origin (or near to) in order to start their next delivery. Drivers typically find backhaul from shippers different from their outbound load so they aren’t left with a deadhead mileage.

Let’s say your driver has an outbound load from a primary customer in Jacksonville, Florida, for a warehouse in Richmond, Virginia. Then, on their way back home, they drive out to Norfolk to pick up a load from a separate client, slated for delivery back in Jacksonville. The driver backhauls the freight to Florida and delivers it before going to home base.

Backhauls aren’t always direct trips back to home base, and can involve dusting off another freight lane—or the roads taken regularly by your carrier company.

Another possibility for a backhaul is if the customer for your outbound load has a delivery for the driver on their return trip. This is often called a re-load, or a round-trip load. It saves time and money, since backhaul is guaranteed.

Because backhauls are necessary, even though they’re intermediary pickups, demand is lower, which makes rates lower. It’s imperative that the truck returns to their home base in good time to load up with freight from one of their primary customers, since headhauls—as we’ll explain in a moment—are the best -hauls. Better a backhaul than a deadhead, though.

And, of course, we’re saving best for last: for carriers, headhauls are the golden goose. Headhauls are the highest revenue generating shipping lane. These are shipments that are closer relationally to the carrier themselves. They are usually easy to acquire loads from primary customers and promise a full truck; there’s no need to drive empty. These are the best jobs for everyone involved

So, remember: love headhauls, hate deadheads, and embrace backhauls! If you’re a carrier in need of some help filling backhaul lanes, look no further. Here at FreightCenter we love to help.