Flatbed Trucking – What To Love, What To Hate

After 20 years of trucking, flatbed trucking is absolutely my favorite, and there are plenty of reasons. But it’s not all fun and games, and you will find a few drawbacks. In fact, there are a few things you’ll hate.

If you don’t mind a little hard work, exercise and getting dirty, you may like being a flatbedder. And if you’re the type of trucker who takes pride in their work and appreciates a job well done, flatbed trucking could be just the niche for you.

Most Flatbed Trailers Have Spread-Axles

What are spread-axles? Spread-axles refers to the trailer axles being separated, usually by 10’2″. Because of this gap, each axle can weigh up to 20,000 lbs. If you know the freight being loaded is going to put you close to the 80,000 lb limit, there’s a lot less guess work in where to place the load.

This gives you up to 6,000 lbs of wiggle room in the loading process and eliminates the need to slide the trailer axles. In fact, nearly all U.S. based carriers have fixed axles with no ability to adjust the spread.

No Bridge Weight Formula

Commonly known as the Bridge Scale Formula, this formula determines the distance allowed between the rear tractor axle and the trailer’s axle or axles. As confusing as this FHWA document is, each state has it’s own laws on the subject.

Not dealing with this is a byproduct of the spread-axle design. Since the trailer axles are fixed, the need to “slide the tandems” is eliminated. Again, this just makes a trucker’s life easier.

There are a couple drawbacks with these axles that you need to be aware of.

  • You’re allowed 20,000 lbs on each axle for a total of 40,000 lbs, but the latter number is the maximum. I’ve seen spread-axles off by as much as 2,500 pounds. The spreads might total 38,500, but one axle is 1,500 over it’s limit.
  • Some Canadian provinces don’t allow these axles. Because of this, some trailers are equipped with sliding axles. This allows a driver to close the gap.
  • Super-single tires may reduce that 40,000 lb limit in some states.

You Know Exactly How The Load Is Secured

There’s a story behind strapping these down. What a pain.

Most likely, you know how the load is secured because you did the work. You strapped, chained and tarped your freight. You trust your work and you’re comfortable with it. Looking at some of the freight loaded in vans, I’ll chose the safety and security of a flatbed, hands down.

Products like steel coils and large paper rolls are often split-loaded, with a good 20 feet of empty floor space between the front and back half of the load. Single pallets in the center of the trailer aren’t strapped down.

Drop and hook trailers are a whole new ball game. If a van has a seal on the doors, a driver has no clue how it’s loaded. Are the pallets double stacked? Are they shrink-wrapped? Will it shift before you hit the next weigh station?

When you hook to a preloaded flatbed, at least you have the opportunity to not only inspect the load, you can inspect the securement. I’ve gone as far as pulling tarps if I wasn’t happy with the previous driver’s job.

Cranes And Heavy Equipment

You don’t see too many cranes in the van segment, but you’ll certainly see a few flatbedding. Everything from cranes to payloaders, even gigantic magnets are used in different industries.

There’s a reason flatbedders always have hardhats, high visibility vests and steel toed boots. Whether it’s a warehouse or construction site, you’ll need them.

Higher CPM

Generally speaking, flatbed pay plans are a few cents higher than dry van or refrigerated carriers. They know the job is harder. They also need to compensate for the on-duty time for loading and tarping.

Note: Tarping a load takes time, but not every carrier offers tarp pay. Do your homework before you hire on.

No Grocery Warehouses

Few places are more agonizing than the average grocery warehouse. That means no more lumpers, ti-hi sheets, pallet exchanges or cases of refused product to deal with.

I have to admit, not all grocery warehouses were a pain in the you-know-what, but most manage to keep you there way too long. In my experience, they’re a great place to avoid.

Flatbed Trailers Don’t Wake You Up

Unlike a refrigerated trailer, flatbeds don’t start and stop all night long. Seriously, most of us are used to the noise of a diesel engine running, and we can sleep through it. But the on and off stuff really drives me nuts.

Deadheading Costs Less

Deadheading comes with a price. It sucks up time and fuel. Flatbeds can’t help you in the time department, but they certainly use less fuel when empty.

This is especially true if you’re using a mid-roof sleeper. Flatbeds are generally lighter, obviously lower and have less drag than the vans. If you must deadhead, at least you can do it for less.

Room To Grow With Oversized

Another Wisconsin to California haul. I made this run in 2010.

Hauling oversized loads is a great way to improve your skill and your income. The pay per mile generally goes up based on the size of the load. It also comes with new challenges beyond driving.

  • Possessing, reading and understanding the permits and accompanying documentation.
  • Knowing what flags, oversize banners and markings each state requires.
  • Being aware of curfews, no travel days, pilot car requirements and other rules that change regularly.
  • Being prepared to get pulled in at every weigh station.

Hauling oversized loads is one of the more rewarding trucking jobs, at least in my opinion. Like anything else in trucking, it’s a skill you’re constantly improving at.

Note: Winter weather does pose a downside to hauling oversized freight. In many states, oversized loads are required to stop and wait out snowy weather rather than chain up. Again, do your homework before you take the load.

Cherry Picking Winter Freight

There’s nothing worse to pull in a storm than a 53′ dry van, loaded light. Whether it’s a summer wind storm or Wyoming winter, the wind pushes you all over the road.

With a flatbed, you can skip anything tall and light. Flat steel or coils, pipe, even heavy bagged product like rock salt make great winter freight. It’s not that hard to find and book a load that’s less than 4′ high and heavy.

Flatbedding – What To Hate

Flatbed trucking certainly has it’s rewards, but it’s not all fun and games. There are a few drawbacks.

  • Backing up with a spread-axle trailer can be a real trick.
  • Steel mills and a few other large shippers can be nearly as bad as the grocery warehouses. Not as bad, but nearly.
  • Throwing straps and tarping loads can be hard work. So can untarping and rolling them back up. Bad weather just makes it worse.
  • You will get sweaty, dirty and grimy. It comes with the territory.
  • You’ll take more showers.

One final thought on the bad side of flatbedding is how the segment reacts to the economy. Flatbed trailers generally experience a slowdown well before the other segments.

This leaves an advantage for carriers who offer both van and flatbed opportunities. At least you can hook up to a van should the flatbed freight slow down.

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