What Is It Like to Be a Long Haul Trucker?
Americans have had a love affair with long haul trucking for years, because they equate this way of life with the way cowboys lived back in the day.
While there definitely are some similarities, over the road truckers live a far different life than those who drove cattle, lived on the open plains for months at a time and lived on beans and jerky!
There is clearly an aura of romance, excitement and adventure in both ways of life. For this reason, many dream of one day becoming truckers.
However, those who follow through find that while it’s great to be driving the roads that cross the US, there are also many problems and discomforts truckers must deal with as they go.
For this reason it’s a good idea to learn the facts about long haul trucking from someone like me who actually worked as an owner-operator for several years.
Training and Licensing
The only way to get into the business is to take a driver training course.
These can last between four to six weeks and can cost between $1,000 to $7,000.
When you graduate, you'll qualify for a CDL (Commercial Driver's License). Once you have one, you're ready to go to work.
Some companies will provide the training you need at a more reasonable cost, but you will then have to work for them for a period of time, so choose carefully!
Buy the Right Equipment
To be comfortable, safe and successful, owner operators need to own the right equipment,
All truckers need to travel fully outfitted so that they have instant access to housing, a toilet and food no matter where they are.
There are times when you are waiting to pick up or drop off a load when there are no eating, housing or bathroom facilities available, so if you have what you need on board you don’t have to worry about these issues.
This means you should drive a truck that has a sleeper attached to it. These come in a variety of sizes. Some are even as large as small campers and have their own showers.
Our sleeper had a small hanging closet, a ¾ bed with a heavy vinyl cover, a small cube heater, a porta-potty, a small TV, a small microwave, a small two way refrigerator, a toaster, paper plates, plastic goods and basic food supplies.
We also kept a generator on board behind the sleeper that allowed us to run electrical devices when we were parked for the night.
Because we were properly outfitted, we could nap, sleep, eat, watch TV and use the toilet as needed.
People who want to truck for a living can choose to
- buy their equipment, get their own jobs and take care of all of their own paperwork,
- do the same as above but hire people to drive for them,
- buy their own equipment and hire on with a company that finds jobs for them and handles the majority of their paperwork or
- become an employee-driver for a big trucking company and work for a salary.
Those who choose to work as employees make a straight salary and have no vehicle costs, but they must go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do.
Owner operators have more costs, but they also have much more control over how they do their jobs and how much they have to spend. They generally make more money than employed drivers.
However, it's important to note that owner operators only get paid when they are loaded. Empty trucks earn nothing, but the travel costs remain the same.
Types of Trucking Businesses
There are also different types of trucking you can do. For example you can haul
- refrigerated food products,
- dry products,
- vehicles and equipment or
- specialty loads.
You need specific types of equipment for each method, so it’s important to understand their pros and cons before you start your business.
Although you must carry insurance, you still need to be careful about liability because no matter what you carry, you’ll be transporting items that cost many thousands of dollars.
If things get lost or damaged, it may be up to you to pay part or all of the costs.
Furthermore, some businesses are more difficult to do than others. For example, if you are hauling livestock, you are on a limited time schedule. You have to get the product quickly so that the animals survive the trip and arrive in good condition.
On the other hand, if you are hauling rolls of cable on a flatbed, you are not as tight for time, so your work is much less stressful.
How Things Work
Either you or the company you work for advertises your business. Companies call and negotiate prices, and once prices are set, drivers are contacted and given loading and drop off directions.
Each state has requirements you must meet and fees you must pay in order to be able to transport products across state lines. They give you stickers that show you are legal to do this.
Every state has “weigh stations” that require truckers to stop for inspection and weighing. If your truck has any issues, the Department of Transportation workers will refuse to let you move on until they are repaired or upgraded. They often fine you, as well.
Those who simply drive for others have no equipment expenses, but owner operators must buy and maintain their vehicles.
Prices for trucks, even used ones, are extremely high. New ones can cost well over $100,000. Trailers and equipment are also costly.
How much you pay for these items often determines how successful you will be, so it pays to shop around and get the best deal you can find.
Most truckers will drive between 100,000 to 150,000 miles per year and are on the road for many months at a time.
Some owners think that the more they drive, the more they earn, but this isn't true.
Those who earn more choose loads that pay the best and also provide the opportunity to get a good paying load when they head to their next destination.
Dispatchers provide mileage that is “as the crow flies”, but the actual mileage can be much more, which means the dollars per mile can be greatly reduced. So, knowing how to use a GPS or read a map can make a big difference in someone’s income.
While the per mile dollar amounts may seem high, expenses can quickly reduce profits.
Unless a person works as a driver, he will have to pay all equipment costs plus the costs of fuel, repairs, motels, diesel fuel and food. These items can greatly reduce profits, but they are also tax deductible, so this can help balance the financial scales a bit.
The average owner operator takes home between $35,00 and $50,00 per year after expenses. The average cross country driver makes around $39,000 per year before taxes.
However, these figures are based on the experience of the individual, how many miles he drives per year, how much he averages per mile and how good he is at managing his business!
Who Are the Truckers?
Long haul truckers, both men and women, come from all walks of life.
- Some are in it for the money while others just want the adventure.
- Others simply do it so that they can keep a roof over their heads!
Jobs are plentiful, so once people complete their driver training, they find work quickly.
Truckers have mixed experiences while they are on the job: beautiful scenery, the open road, beggars, nice neighborhoods, truck stops, accidents, vehicles on fire and people doing all kinds of crazy things.
One time we saw a man sunbathing on the tool box that was located between his truck and his travel trailer. The truck was going 60 miles per hour at the time!
Drivers work long hours, are forced into primitive conditions at times, don’t make much money, have high costs, live lonely lives, and their family relationships aren’t the best.
Yet, they always have a smile, a joke and a helping hand for each other, and just about all of them love what they do.
A Day in the Life
I can’t speak for other truckers, but I can tell you what one day in our lives as owner operators was like when my husband and I were in the trucking business.
We hauled a 45 foot long flatbed trailer with a long nose Pete. Since we paid cash for our equipment, we were able to take a more leisurely attitude about where we went and what we carried. We drove approximately 50,000 miles per year and completely shut down during the winter months.
We carried everything from military supplies and equipment to jet engines. Companies placed the items on our flatbed, so all we had to do was secure them with straps, cords and sometimes our side kit.
We were leased on to a company in Kentucky, so we got our loads through a dispatcher. We could accept or reject loads as we pleased.
Our truck would sit cleaned up and ready for the next trip, so when the call came, we loaded up, hooked up and headed out.
When that big engine started, both of us felt the thrill of the possible adventures that were waiting for us! We were never disappointed.
- Each morning I would prepare breakfast as my husband checked the truck and the load.
- We would drive for a few hours, stop for coffee and then move on.
- We’d pull into a truck stop and either cook or buy lunch.
- Then we’d drive until late afternoon and, once again, pull into a truck stop.
- Once there we would fill our fuel tanks, have dinner, buy a shower and then settle in for the evening. (For $5 they would give you time in a private shower and towels.)
- Sometimes we’d visit with other truckers in the special lounge provided for them. Other times, we’d read or watch TV and then go to bed.
- The next morning, we’d follow the same routine but would use the truck stop restrooms to clean up before moving on.
Sometimes we’d run into other truckers we had met in the past and caravan with them for awhile.
Once we reached our destination, we would wait to offload, then call in to see where we’d be going next.
While all of this seems mundane and simple, it never was because we would run into all sorts of people and situations along the way.
There were always people begging or trying to sell us something. We met former ministers, retired military people and even a couple who had lost their goat farm and were now living in their truck trying to earn a living!
You never knew what each day would bring, but each was an adventure!
Is Cross Country Trucking for You?
Some people do well with this career, but others hate it.
You have to go to school to learn how to drive, deal with the DOT, put up with companies that try to cheat you, drive long, lonely hours and spend months at a time away from family and friends.
On the other hand, in the right circumstances you don’t have a boss on your back all the time, can pick and choose your trips and can see places you would never have known about but for your work. You also get to meet interesting and unusual people along the way.
There is much more to being a long haul trucker than what I’ve described here, but this gives you some idea about this career. The attached video gives you a more in depth look, however.
Now that you’ve had a taste of what it is like to be a cross country trucker, you know that it may not be for everybody.
However,if you think you’d like this career, do some further research and decide whether it might be a job that will work for you.
Do you think you'd like to become a long haul trucker?
© 2017 Sondra Rochelle