Flatbed and stepdeck trucking play a vital role in the modern economy. From raw materials for manufacturers, lumber and sheetrock for new homes and commercial properties, to heavy machinery for farm operations and infrastructure projects, and many loads in between, much important freight arrives on a flatbed.
For flatbed drivers, many of which are small carriers and owner-operators, the work is more physically demanding and often a little dirtier than hauling dry van and reefer loads.
But it can also be more rewarding — and more lucrative. For example, among small carriers and owner-operators, flatbed haulers in recent years have produced higher earnings on fewer miles, and per-mile flatbed rates over the past year have climbed to all-time highs as demand for flatbed loads has soared.
The flatbed market is particularly hot right now, with demand for loads soaring and rates following suit. “And we haven’t seen the ceiling yet,” said Chad Taylor, capacity development manager at Loadsmart.
For truckers looking to pivot to flatbed, the market’s ripe for newcomers. Moreover, demand for used dry van and refrigerated trailers is high and supply is limited, meaning dry van and reefer carriers could easily sell their used trailers and use the proceeds to jump into flatbed hauling.
But what’s it take to get into the segment? More than just chains, straps, tarps, and a headache rack, though those are also necessities.
We talked to a few flatbed veterans to get their advice. Here’s what they had to say.
Find a mentor and study up on load securement.
Though proper load securement practices aren’t specific to flatbed, open-deck hauling presents a unique and necessary focus on securing loads safely and compliantly. There are plenty of online resources and training courses available from compliance firms and the U.S. DOT about the minimum requirements for proper cargo securement when hauling open-deck.
But beyond learning the minimum requirements and pursuing other training, much of it comes down to common sense, says veteran stepdeck hauler and owner-operator Bill Ater. “I usually do a lot more than what’s minimally required” on load securement, says Ater. “That’s where common sense comes in. You need to step back and take a look think about scenarios like slamming on the brakes or hard steering to avoid a wreck,” he said. “And if there’s slack in any of the straps, well then it’s useless.”
He recommends finding a mentor who knows the ropes on flatbed load securement and can help coach newcomers. Likewise, he says there’s been a wealth of new information pop up on YouTube in recent years.
Be prepared to work a little harder and get a little dirtier.
“It’s a dirtier job, and it’s just more work,” said Dan Heister, a longtime owner-operator for Boyd Bros. Transportation. In addition to still running flatbed, Heister also teaches incoming flatbedders at Boyd Bros. about load placement, load securement and other finer points of open-deck hauling.
For him, the extra work is a positive aspect of flatbedding. “It’s what drew me to it. There’s exercise built into it,” he said, climbing around loads, setting tarps, and securing chains, straps and dunnage.
“It’s definitely a lot more work. A lot more physical activity,” said Joey Slaughter, an independent owner-operator and flatbed hauler out of Virginia. “You have to be prepared for that, but I enjoy it.”
You’ll need chains, straps, tarps, dunnage, and other extras.
In addition to the actual flatbed or stepdeck trailers, open-deck haulers also need on hand all the tools it takes to secure any given load. That includes likely 10 or more chains, portable straps, and tarps of various sizes, in addition to equipment like dunnage (like small wooden beams to help aid in securement) and bumpers to protect tarps from any sharp corners.
Heister, for example, says he keeps enough tarps, straps, chains, binders, dunnage, and pads on hand for two loads. “You never know what you’ll need on a particular load,” he said. “I like to be over-prepared.”
This extra equipment, and a headache rack to store them in on the back of your truck, will likely cost an additional few thousand dollars in initial investment.
Ater recommends considering what types of flatbed loads you want to haul and invest in the equipment you’ll need to haul those loads specifically, rather than stocking up on equipment that may be unnecessary. A carrier who hauls machinery, for example, will need different equipment than those regularly hauling sheetrock, lumber, or steel coils.
Heister also recommends looking into options to lease tarps and straps, if available. That way, you can write the expense off on your taxes every year, unlike buying your own, which depreciate on a scheduled basis. And you don’t have to worry about buying new ones when old tarps wear out.
Be ready to ask shippers more questions about loads.
“With dry van or reefer, most folks just worry about where it’s going and the rate,” said Slaughter. “Whereas with open-deck, we have a lot more questions.” Slaughter says it’s common to need to ask about tarping vs. no tarping, whether a load is oversized, and other questions specific to each load. “We need to know that stuff,” he said.
Fuel mileage may vary.
Though flatbed loads are often times lighter than a fully loaded dry van or reefer, they’re also often dragging air — which can reduce fuel mileage. “Sometimes, a load will just be like a parachute back there,” said Slaughter. “And it’ll cause you to get terrible fuel mileage.” Other loads may be lower profile and not create so much drag, but these variances in fuel mileage are something to consider before transitioning to flatbed.
A different load every day and better delivery times.
“I like looking behind me and not having to stare at a big white box,” says Ater. That’s generally another draw for flatbed haulers: With every load, there’s a new aesthetic in the mirror. Likewise, says Ater, “99 times out of 100,” he gets a welcomed greeting when he pulls in with a load. That’s a departure from the cold receptions he used to get bumping a dock as a dry van carrier.
Also, says Slaughter, pick up and delivery windows are generally better for flatbed operators. “It’s more of Monday through Friday, 8-5 kind of work,” he said. “We rarely have those 3 a.m. delivery appointments. I enjoy the day work.”
Lastly, you’ll need to find flatbed freight — and digital tools make it easier than ever.
Flatbed has seen demand and rates pricing sore over the past 12 months, and that momentum is expected to continue.
New tools available to small business motor carriers make it easier than ever to make a transition into a new segment — even one as dramatic as switching from dry van to flatbed.
“The barriers for entry have been removed,” said Loadsmart’s Chad Taylor. “Apps like Loadsmart give you a way to instantaneously shift to a new type of freight and find those loads on your smartphone.” Loadsmart began offering flatbed freight from top shippers like The Home Depot earlier this year, and flatbed haulers can easily filter searches and find top-paying loads within Loadsdmart’s loadboard app.
Like in other segments, flatbed operators can be easily and quickly paid within the app and have access to Loadsmart’s on-call support team for any and every load booked through the platform.DISCOVER YOUR LOADS
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