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How Truck Load Choice Affects an Owner-Operator's Fuel Costs

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Fuel is expensive right now. This causes owner-operators to change how they manage truck load choices. There are two main factors we will cover that helps Independent Contractors (ICs) understand load choices and common misconceptions we hear that come up based on these high fuel prices.

  1. Load Weight

  2. “Cheap” Backhaul freight

Load Weight

Our first variable comes from a simple factor: load weight. With the current high price of fuel, some people have the attitude that they won’t haul heavy loads. This is a basic misconception that can be squashed with some easy math! The technology of trucks today along with good driving habits means that load weight shouldn’t have much impact. Let’s take a look at a few examples that are extreme, but still, showcase how little load weight should matter in your decisions on choosing loads to save on fuel costs!



“Cheap” Backhaul Freight

How many times have you heard an owner-operator say, “That freight is too cheap for me to haul”? In this market, we are starting to hear “that freight won’t even cover my fuel”. From a business standpoint, there are times when it’s understandable for an owner-operator to think this way. However, we often find that the rationale for owner-operators turning down freight can come from them misunderstanding the true cost of operating their business on a daily basis. Consistent fuel hikes over the last 8 months have made this attitude grow.


If an owner-operator believes the freight they are offered is “too cheap”, many times they will opt to deadhead or skip a day on the road altogether rather than take the load. Deadheading can be disastrous with the high price of fuel. It’s almost always better to haul a “cheap” load so that the fuel surcharge on the load will cover that variable expense of most of your fuel. One thing we hear successful owner-operators telling us right now is that they find the lightest load possible in the backhaul lane just to cover their fuel instead of deadheading.


When running a backhaul lane, we often hear them say they won’t run for anything less than a predetermined amount of money per mile. We don’t believe this is the correct way to look at freight rates. Rather than choosing loads based on revenue per mile, drivers need to look at revenue per day on a round trip or weekly basis. Fuel is a major part of this equation, and the fuel surcharge should be adequate to make up for the high prices right now. This is because whether or not a driver is hauling freight, fixed costs don’t stop. Sitting around waiting for a higher-paying backhaul also increases the likelihood of increased idle time, which is a complete sunk cost in trucking!


In order to have a better understanding of what a driver needs their revenue per day to be, they need to truly know what a day off will cost them. For our clients, the average fixed cost is around $120 - $130 per day. Once they know their fixed costs per day, as well as their break-even point to cover variable expenses, rather than saying “I won’t run for anything less than $1.75 per mile”, they should be saying “I know my breakeven point is $.75 per mile, plus $125 per day, so this is what I need to cover.”


Let’s look at an example of the things a driver needs to consider when deciding whether or not to wait an extra day to get a better-paying load. In this example, we will look at a common designated route between Ohio and New Jersey. The route from Ohio to New Jersey is considered a headhaul. A headhaul shipment is from a high volume area in a dedicated lane that usually pays well. The route back from New Jersey to Ohio is considered a backhaul. A backhaul shipment is the opposite of a headhaul. When a driver is in a backhaul, they want to look for a load that will get them out of there quickly and back into a headhaul lane.


Think of it this way; the headhaul is subsidizing the backhaul. When leaving a backhaul market, a driver can’t afford to be super picky or they’ll force a layover on themselves that will cost them more money in the end. 9 out of 10 times, picking a load to cover fuel costs and fixed costs will be more profitable than waiting. When hauling headhaul and backhaul loads it’s important to always remember to manage the average of the backhaul/headhaul revenue instead of each load individually. Just remember, the fuel surcharge is there to keep the cost of fuel at a base level, use it to your advantage to get yourself back into the strong freight markets as quickly and safely as possible!


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11 Comments


Russell Rego
Russell Rego
Jul 05, 2021

First there was BACKHAUL. Now HEADHAUL? Why is it that people who never owned or operated a semi truck come up with this terminology? And why are they always telling us that it's OK to haul cheap $1.75 backhaul? Oh yeah brokers also love to use the term backhaul?


It is these people who have ruined the rates out of NJ as well as Florida. NJ has some of the busiest seaports and airports in the country. And there is plenty if freight. If you deadhead out, and let the freight rot on the dock, rates will go up.


My YTD loaded miles is at $4.05 and my all miles is at $3.77. I don't worry about my fixed cost…


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ATBS Staff
ATBS Staff
Jul 07, 2021
Replying to

Yes, we are an independently-owned company. We work directly for owner-operators to help them run more successful businesses, regardless of what carrier they drive for.

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The regional perspective. In defense of atbs, I agree with them. Your daily revenue needed to be profitable is the bottom line. I always figure I don't have a back haul. When I do, it's extra money. I won't take loads that are not profitable to start with. I also keep truck cost down by using a used truck. This means when I get caught with a lower margin load, I can survive. It all begins with your equipment cost. You can't come out of the gate running. You have to crawl, then walk, then run!

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my Weekly payments of 1300 don’t allow me to walk or crawl if they did my payments in this lease would scale and not be set in stone. Also let me ask you this, chew on this thought for a second:

if the company pays a company driver to do company customer loads they pay .55 cpm. They have the same fuel cost at .50 cpm. That’s 1.05 cost a mile. In order to pay a company driver they must also pay workers comp insurance. They must pay liability insurance and a truck payment as well. If they only paid half of what we pay it would still be 100 bucks a day Without workers comp. the company average per…

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in my opinion this is poor business sense. It would make better business sense to haul only in dedicated shipping lines as an independent contractor. one thing this article does not address is a drivers only product that he/she can sell and that’s TIME. Every hour I spend driving making no money takes away from an hour I could be spending making money and unlike other professions I have a specific amount that I have to sell. If I take a 1.50 a mile load for 1000 miles. It takes 20 hours (of my clock) to make that deliver hook to hook. I take the load to get back into the shipping lanes As this article suggest. with fuel prices…

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Russell Rego
Russell Rego
Jul 05, 2021
Replying to

My goal is to gross average $1600/day that I am out on the road. I am a one truck owner operator. I quote $4 to $5 per mile, and sit. Some laugh and hang up. But there is always someone willing to pay for reliability.


My motto is run half the miles for double the rate. Tighten capacity and increases rates.

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