Bottom Line
Headhaul, backhaul, trihaul
How to use spot freight and a higher-paying third leg to optimize your routes

Special to Land Line

Many owner-operators turn to the spot freight market – a load board – when they need a backhaul, sometimes taking a low rate just to get home. As a result, it's easy to think of load boards and backhauls as "cheap freight."

These days, that just ain't so. From April to June this year, spot market rates for vans were higher than contract rates on 24 percent of lanes nationally, according to TransCore Freight Solutions, which runs the DAT Network of load boards, including OOIDA's own

Indeed, instead of settling for a straight round trip between Points A and B, you may be able to increase your loaded miles and profit by adding two higher-paying legs on your way back home – forming a triangle route or "trihaul."

Running a third leg

Say you haul a weekly load from Chicago to Dallas. You need a backhaul to Chicago to reposition your truck in time for the next outbound trip, but that Dallas-Chicago lane doesn't pay much. This is a good time to experiment with trihaul routing.

Almost any trihaul route will offer a better rate than a straight backhaul.

With some smart HOS planning, a little math, and a truckload rate index tool or a fully featured load board, you can take three steps to create profitable triangular routes:

1. Draw a 250-mile circle from where you are

  • Ordinarily, triangle routes adding at least 250 miles to your trip will boost your total number of paid miles even when the rate is not substantially better than the original backhaul, says Mark Montague, rate analyst at TransCore Freight Solutions and author of a TransCore white paper, "The ABCs of Trihaul Routing."
  • On your load board, look up mileage and rates from the Dallas metro area to major metro areas that are between 250 and 1,000 miles away, Montague says. Eliminate cities that are less than 250 miles from Chicago.
  • "When I looked at available loads, I saw that going from Dallas to Kansas City and then to Chicago is the most profitable route," says Montague. "The extra Kansas City leg adds 175 miles to the trip, but both legs of the trihaul pay more than the straight headhaul to Dallas. In this case, trihaul routing would earn you an extra $410."
  • "The bottom line," says Montague, "is that, together, the loads from Dallas to Point C and Point C to Chicago should put more money in your pocket than a straight backhaul."

2. Map the hot markets

  • Look at outbound loads from your top "Point C" options and evaluate the market conditions that determine rates – or the rates themselves, if your load board has this feature – on the second leg of your return trip.
  • Markets with a lot of outbound freight, and a relatively high load-to-truck ratio, are likely to have higher rates. If your load board has rate and demand indicators, look for the actual rates being paid by brokers in those lanes for the week, plus historic rate trends (they should go back at least one year plus a month for proper perspective). This information will help you to identify a handful of cities that are top candidates for the third point of your new triangle route.

3. Calculate and compare round-trip revenue

  • List your revenues and costs for the two or three triangle routes and compare them to a straight round trip. You can use the example in the sidebar or design a spreadsheet tailored to your specific operation. Once you have it set up, you can reuse the spreadsheet to analyze other routes quickly and efficiently.

Load boards and their freight analysis tools are better than ever. So are spot market rates. If you're already putting time and energy into finding a backhaul, go one step further. Try a trihaul. LL