Lesson 2: Trucking Services - Full Truckload (FTL)

A Wellington Motor Freight transport truck pulling a roll tite trailer.

What is it?

Full Truckload (hereafter FTL) is the largest service segment of trucking and receives its namesake simply because shippers either use all the available space in the truck's trailer or hire the truck at dedicated capacity. Trailers can vary in size but are most commonly 53- foot tandem axles with the ability to haul 43,500 LBS. Heavier freight is managed with Tri-axle 53-foot dry vans which can haul 52,000 - 77,000LBS depending on the state or province they operate. Other FTL equipment such as flatbeds will be covered in coming segments, but our focus for this segment will be on dry van or refrigerated trailers since they are the most common trailers used for FTL.

The interior of a new 53 foot refrigerated trailer.
The interior of a new 53 foot dry van trailer.


When is it used?

The majority of FTL services bring goods from one origin to one destination, but FTL can also be utilized in a dedicated process with multiple stops. For example, a driver could have two pick-ups in one state and deliver to one facility, but generally all in service of the same customer. The most common FTL shippers are those who require time-sensitive delivery or those who have higher customer volumes and consistent freight output. FTL carriers will bring freight of all kinds (FAK) from warehouses and distribution centers to retailers, food companies, manufacturing, and more. Put simply, the variety of goods utilizing FTL goes just like the old saying "if you bought it, a truck brought it".


Things to consider: Weight & Size

In general, shippers use an FTL carrier if they move freight ranging from 20,000 LBS to 77,000 LBS of freight, but State and Provincial laws can vary. Shippers or their transportation partners need to understand these regulations when shipping their products and goods. Depending on the state and route, shipments over those weight limits require special permitting, this is called Heavy Haul. For this reason, shippers need to how much their freight weighs in order to effectively and legally ship it.

Product or pallet size can also change a shipper's strategy. Standard truck trailers can fit up to 26 industry-standard pallets on the trailer's floor, plus more could be stacked on top. However, stacking can be tricky, and the shipper is required to ensure shipments are loaded safely to avoid shifting and damage.

To maximize space even more, FTL carriers can offer the option between standard dry van trailers described previously, or 'plated' dry van trailers. Shippers with wide cargo utilize a plated trailer since these trailers are 102 inches wide inside. One of the largest industries that use plated trailers is the Ready to Drink (RTD) industry. Companies like Coca-Cola or Pepsi need this type of equipment as their pallets are larger than standard and will not load effectively into a standard dry van without reducing the number of pallets able to be shipped in one truckload.

Another strategy for maximizing space is to utilize an LCV or long combination vehicle. These are common in Canada between major metropolitan distribution centres (like Montreal and Toronto), but less common in general since they have many special restrictions. Companies need special training, staff members, and locations to run them since they can only be used on certain highways. Additionally, the maximum gross weight does not change and is divided between the two trailers (with the second trailer also needing to weigh 10% less than the first), so it works best with lighter, bulky freight.

An infographic explaining how many standard pallets fit inside a standard dry van trailer and what the maximum gross weight of the trailer and commodities can legally be.

*Gross weight is regionally specific. In Canada, many Tri-axle trailers have been restricted to 77,000 LBS, but many US states do allow up to 80,000 LBS. If freight is traveling through many states and/or is crossing borders, it will have to match the maximum gross weight of the most restrictive state. However, maximum gross weights can also be increased using permitting and overweight specialty services.


Things to consider: Rates and Accessorials

We take a deeper dive into markets, economics, and the factors driving freight rates in later lessons. For now, it's worth noting that typically, but not always, FTL carriers price their service based on a per-mile rate between the origin and destination points on what are sometimes called 'lanes'. Rates can also be quoted as an 'all-in' price for the line haul and any extra services needed. Many times, 'all-in' quotes are used when dealing with motor carriers in the spot market or with freight brokers who secure truck capacity on behalf of shippers.

Any extra work outside of the original FTL quote could result in accessorial charges. If there is no loading dock available, or a tailgate lift will be needed to move freight into the trailer, or something else comes up as the freight is moving, it's possible an accessorial will be charged to the shipper or broker. Shippers with freight that requires extra handling by a truck driver, or may be on a route that requires something 'extra' needs to tell the motor carrier about those extra services, so the add-on cost (or accessorial) can be addressed in advance if at all possible.


What kind of equipment moves it?

FTL shipments cover a wide variety of industries, products, and commodities, and as such involve a wide array of equipment. Most equipment pieces combine a truck and a specific type of trailer. The product or commodity will dictate the type of equipment that will be used.

  • Most common equipment types
    • Dry vans and plated dry vans
    • Refrigerated trailers or reefers
    • Flat deck - step deck - lowboy - and roll tites
    • Tandem trailers or LCVs (Long combination vehicles) - one truck pulling two full-size trailers
    • Containers
  • Specialty or industry-specific Equipment
    • Livestock trailers
    • Auto haulers - stacked bi-level trailers
    • Tankers / Grain / bulk dry and liquid depending on commodity
    • Live bottom - open top for loading, ability to disperse through floor dispenser - grain, seeds, stone
    • Dump (hydraulic lift) - construction specific
A collage of different equipment types commonly used in Full Truckload shipping including, roll tites, dry vans, reefers, temperature controlled trailers, livestock trailers, grain haulers, oversized loads, tanker trailers, dump trucks and more


FTL shipments typically move the nation's regular freight on point-to-point lanes for one customer at a time. Shippers usually have a large volume of freight going to and from one place on a regular basis, and require the FTL capacity on an ongoing basis. The commodities and products being shipped will dictate what equipment is used and how it is loaded, especially when considering if it is palletized or floor loaded (or other), and how heavy it is. Rates and overall cost can be heavily dependent on market conditions, so it is important for all involved in the industry to keep a watch on trends.


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