Driving down the road you’re bound to see a variety of different vehicles. One common sight is a flatbed truck hauling cargo. Whether it is lumber, laptops, or loose leaf paper, it’s always baffling how all that cargo can stay on the back of that truck as it travels on the road at high speeds. A worrying feeling can occur whilst you drive behind a flatbed behemoth: What if these steel pipes come loose and fall on me? Rest assured, flatbed drivers take great care and consideration when securing cargo on their flatbed. They know the consequences of falling cargo are serious, as lives and large commodities are at risk while in transport.
Every day, flatbed drivers use a variety of cargo control tools to secure their haul, all for the sake of moving essential goods throughout the country. Let’s dive into all of the cargo control basics used by flatbed drivers and demystify the profession.
1. Variety Flatbed Straps to Secure the Cargo
Flatbed Straps are one of the most important tools used by truckers to secure their cargo. In their most basic form, straps simply anchor to one side of the flatbed, then drape over the cargo and attach to another anchor point parallel to the first one. The straps can then be tightened so the item is snug against the flatbed. There are a myriad of straps available on the market for different types of cargo. All serve the same purpose but with different functionality.
a. Ratchet Straps
Ratchet straps are constructed from heavy duty polyester with reinforced seams. They come in a variety of colors and lengths. A good ratchet strap will stand the test of time, and have the working load limit clearly marked on its exterior. They sport either a flat hook or a Double-S wire hook on both ends. To use them, attach your hook to one end of the flatbed, then drape it over your cargo and anchor the other hook on the flatbed. They call it a ratchet strap because it has a ratcheting mechanism built onto the strap to adjust the length. Simply ratchet the strap until it’s tight around the cargo and you’re good to go!
b. Winch Straps
Winch Straps are very similar in construction as ratchet straps. They’re made from heavy duty polyester webbing, feature flat hooks, but do not have a built in ratcheting mechanism. Rather, they feed through a winch located on the underside of the flatbed rail. Then a flatbed driver will use a winch bar to tighten the winch, removing any excess, and ensuring the strap is taut around the cargo.
c. Bungee Straps
Bungee straps are not meant to wrap completely around the cargo, but rather act as a strap for smaller applications. They can be made from natural or synthetic EPDM rubber. They feature a metal hook on each side. They naturally stretch to a certain limit. They’re perfect for tying up loose chains on a flatbed or fastening small items together. They have found great popularity in the consumer market too.
d. Auto Straps
Auto Straps are designed for specific usage on automotive vehicles. A vehicle’s wheel is what allows it to move so easily which is obviously great for most situations, but is actually the most problematic aspect of transporting them. The wheel must be secured and stopped from moving freely whilst on the flatbed. Another thing to avoid is putting straps right over the roof of a vehicle as the straps tension could easily crush it. Auto hauling straps have specific lengths ideal for vehicle transportation.
2. Various Types of Flatbed Tarps
While flatbed straps are ideal for actually securing the cargo and ensuring it does not shift in transit, further protection must be implemented to protect the cargo from the elements. Flatbed tarps are made to seal the cargo from the outside world and protect them from water. These large tarps can cover a whole flatbed worth of cargo. Just like anything in the cargo control industry, they come in several varieties for different types of cargo. One tip that applies to all tarps is that you should properly fold them for storage when not in use, that way when it comes time to use the tarp, you can simply unfold it over the cargo and bungee the excess.
i) Lumber Tarps
Lumber Tarps are constructed from heavy duty 18oz vinyl and are heat sealed to prevent rain from slipping through. These tarps are very heavy and I would recommend having a partner of some kind to help you tarp a large load. Most lumber tarps have two long drops and a rain flap that can be tucked together for further protection. They also sport several rows of D Rings on the exterior that allow you to bind parts of the tarp together and the tarp as a whole to the flatbed.
ii) Machinery Tarps
Machinery tarps are made specifically for covering pieces of machinery. They are typically wider than lumber tarps, to accommodate any irregularly sized machinery. They still feature the same 18oz vinyl for water and rain protection. The heavy duty vinyl also offers abrasion resistance against any sharp corners on the vehicle.
iii) Coil Tarps
Coil Tarps are perfect for protecting steel or aluminum coils and other roundly shaped commodities. This is due in part to the coil tarps arched top which gives more room to rounded items.
iv) Steel Tarps
Steel tarps are very similar to lumber tarps, sans the end flap. They are still made from the same heavy duty, water resistant 18oz vinyl, with added abrasion resistance. However, the lack of end flap is more ideal for transporting large metal commodities like metal rods and sheets. They are similarly heavy like a lumber tarp so I’d recommend getting some assistance while draping this tarp of cargo, so you don’t injure yourself.
3. More Flatbed Gear
Flatbed straps and tarps play an integral role in cargo control. However, there are many other products on the market designed to aid in the process.
A] Corner/Edge Protectors
Corner Protectors (also known as Edge Protectors) are designed to protect both the strap and the cargo. The force created by a tight strap can crush items beneath. Adversely, cargo with sharp edges can easily cut through a strap. A torn strap is an out of service strap as far as safety is concerned. Obviously protecting the value of the cargo is integral to flatbed trucking. A corner protector is a plastic or metal barrier between the strap and the cargo. It creates a large surface area for the strap tension to distribute itself, thus protecting the integrity of the cargo.
B] Chains & Binders
When the cargo is too massive for just flatbed straps, you’ll want to use some heavy duty transportation chains. Chains have a higher working load limit than most flatbed polyester straps. Similarly to straps, a chain must be adjusted to fit tightly around different sized loads. To accomplish this you’ll want a chain binder. A chain binder essentially binds two points of the chain together to make the chain fit snugly around the cargo. There are two commonly used styles of chain binder: lever & ratchet. A lever chain binder uses a lever system to tightly bind the chain together. It is very quick and easy to insert the chain, pull the lever, and walk away. However, what you gain in speed, you lose in safety. Massive amounts of potential energy are stored in the lever, and it’s quite common for the binder to snap back and recoil into the air or towards you when unbinding the chain. The ratchet chain binder exists as a safer solution. It uses a ratcheting system to adjust the binder and thus tighten the chain. It takes more time to ratchet the binder tight. However, because tension is released slowly as the ratchet comes undone, there is no way it can recoil and injure you. I recommend using ratchet chain binder whenever possible to avoid injury.
Just as a corner protector helps protect the cargo from being damaged by a winch strap, a moving blanket is also a valuable tool for protecting your cargo. If you have anything that is not covered, has an irregular shape, or is painted, you’ll want to create a soft barrier between that item and the tarp/straps. The moving blanket serves this purpose and also acts as a shock absorber for when the cargo bumps around in transit. They come in non-woven and woven varieties. The woven is stronger and more durable, but also costs more than the non-woven variant.
D] Flatbed Winches
As stated earlier, flatbed winches are the mechanism by which winch straps are adjusted and secured on a flatbed. However, there are a few versions of the winch that you should keep in mind before hitting the road. There is the weld on winch, which is commonly welded on the underside of a trailer rail. Other drivers need some flexibility in their winch placement, so they opt for a winch track and sliding winches so they can easily adjust the placement of their winches depending on the cargo. Additionally, there are stake pocket winches which fit into a trailer’s stake pockets and provide an extra winch if necessary. There are almost too many winches to mention in this blog alone, but they all work about the same, only differing in how and where they are placed on the flatbed truck.
E] Tire Chains
Whether it’s a summer day with sunny skies and clear roadways, or winter weather with a torrential blizzard and icy roadways: the cargo must be delivered either way. Icy roadways pose an extreme danger to flatbed drivers and their cargo. Due to the massive weight of flatbed trucks, one wrong move on ice can send them flying across the road at dangerous speeds, unable to control their tires. Flatbed drivers need a reliable way to gain some traction in the snow. Tire chains give them the traction they need to traverse snowy and icy conditions on the roads. Some states even mandate the use of chains.
Hopefully the next time you take a trip on the highway and spot a flatbed truck, you will have more of an appreciation for the painstaking profession that can be flatbed trucking. Not only are flatbed truckers responsible for transporting valuable commodities across the country, they are also directly responsible for the safety of other drivers. Without flatbed drivers, the economy and business in the United States would be severely damaged. The tools they use to protect cargo are the unsung heroes in the story of a bustling America.