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When individuals or companies need machinery or freight hauled somewhere quickly, they often turn to hotshot truckers.

This occupation not only fills a significant need for many people, but it also can be a lucrative opportunity for independent owner-operators.

What Is Hotshot Trucking?

Hotshot trucking involves delivering small, time-sensitive loads to customers on a one-time basis. For instance, if someone needs a combine moved from one town to another within the day, they’ll post it on a load board, and a hotshot trucker looking for a job will agree to drive it.

These loads can vary in size and the distance that needs to be traveled – some may need to go across town while others need to be delivered across the country.

Hotshot truckers don’t typically use the heavy-duty semis to do these jobs and instead use medium-duty trucks and trailers. Additionally, owner-operators are usually the ones doing these jobs either as a main source of income or as a side gig.

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What You Need to Start Hotshot Trucking

The exact list of things you’ll need to start hotshot trucking will depend on where you live and the types of loads you’re driving, but there are a few things every hotshot trucker needs:

  1. An operating authority and USDOT identification number. In order to legally drive freight for pay, you’ll need to have an up-to-date operating authority. This certifies you to act as an independent freelance or contract driver rather than just an employee for a company.

    In addition to this, your USDOT identification number indicates that you’re allowed to haul freight over state lines.

  2. The required liability insurance. This goes hand in hand with getting an operating authority, as you’ll usually need to have insurance in order to apply for an authority, but it’s just as important to note.

    The exact type of insurance you’ll need will vary based on your state and the loads you’re hauling, but you need to have it in some form to protect yourself, your customers, and the other people on the road.

  3. A commercial driver’s license. You’ll need a CDL if you’re going to be driving a vehicle that weighs more than 26,000 pounds (this includes the truck, the trailer, and the load).

    Truck drivers already have CDLs, but if you’re getting into hotshot trucking for the first time, you should check to see if you need to get one as well.

  4. A truck. This may sound obvious, but it’s a necessity that isn’t to be overlooked. You’ll need to own your own truck if you’re going to be doing hotshot trucking, as you usually won’t be able to use a company truck to do this freelance work.

    You’ll usually need a truck that falls in Class 3-5, and you’ll need it to be reliable. You won’t be able to finish jobs on time if your truck regularly breaks down, and you won’t make much – if any – money if all of your cash is going toward repairs.

    For reference, some examples of Class 3 trucks are Ford F-350s, Chevrolet Silverado 3500s, and GMC Sierra 3500s. Class 4 trucks include the Ford F-450, the Chevrolet Silverado 4500, and the Ram 4500, and Ford F-550s, Chevrolet Silverado 5500s, and Ram 5500s are all in the Class 5 category.

  5. A trailer. You won’t be able to take much freight with just a truck, so having a reliable trailer is just as important. When you’re investing in a trailer, pay attention to what kinds of loads you want to haul and how far you want to take them. This will greatly impact your decision of what you want to buy.

    Here are some examples of different kinds of trailers:

    • Bumper pull trailers

    • Gooseneck trailers

    • Tilt deck trailers

    • Lowboy trailers

    • Dovetail trailers

    Each of these trailers is designed to haul a different type of freight and has different abilities as far as stability and strength go, so when you make your first trailer purchase, consider one that will give you the most versatility as far as the jobs you can take.

Benefits of Hotshot Trucking

Hotshot trucking comes with a variety of benefits, some of which include the following:

  1. It’s a low-cost startup. It can be expensive to start a business, even if you aren’t necessarily renting an office or hiring employees. While you will still need to invest some money into your hotshot trucking business, it isn’t as much as you’d need to spend for other types of businesses, especially if you already have a truck.

    Upkeep and insurance for your truck are also going to be less expensive than they would be for larger tractor-trailers that many owner-operators drive, cutting down on your expenses over time as well.

  2. The high pay. While you won’t get a regular paycheck as a hotshot trucker, you can charge premium rates for each of your jobs. You’ll need to stay competitive, of course, but often customers who desperately need something shipped or delivered immediately are willing to pay more than they would normally.

    Plus, you don’t have an employer taking a share of your earnings on top of what goes toward operations and overhead, so that’s even more for you to take home. You can also take on as many jobs as you want to help pad your paycheck if you want to.

  3. It’s interesting. With hotshot trucking, you’ll get to haul a wide variety of freight types to some interesting locations. This presents a fun challenge that you likely won’t get driving for a carrier, which is why some drivers do hotshot trucking on the side even if they drive tractor-trailers as well.

    You also get to pick your jobs, which means you’re choosing your schedule as well. This adds to the rewarding nature of this work for many people.

Challenges of Hotshot Trucking

  1. Keeping track of all of the regulations you need to follow. Owning a business of any kind can be a legal minefield, and trucking is no different. Because you’re technically considered a business owner, you’re the one in charge of making sure you have all of your required licenses, insurance, and USDOT and MC numbers.

    You’re also the one who has to make sure you’re following HOS regulations and aren’t driving too many hours, are securing loads properly, and that your truck’s brakes and other functions are operating correctly. Plus, you’ll need to keep track of each state’s rules that you’re driving through.

    This isn’t impossible to handle, but it is a lot of work, so be ready for it if you’re going to get into hotshot trucking.

  2. Inconsistent paychecks. The drawback of being your own boss is that you don’t get a consistent paycheck handed to you each month. You have to find your own work, which means your pay will likely vary from week to week and from month to month.

    You’ll also need to use some of the money you earn for repairs, licensing, and other expenses, so some months you may take home even less than you were expecting.

  3. Inconsistent work. While there is rarely a true lack of work for truck drivers, there may be lags in loads for hotshot truckers in your area. You’ll need to be ready for this, and you’ll also need to be ready to take loads that don’t fit within your preferences for distance and time away from home.

    In addition to this, your schedule will likely vary quite a bit more than it would if you were driving for a carrier, as you won’t have a set schedule for the week. You may even need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if a job comes in.

Hotshot Trucking FAQ

  1. Do hotshot truckers make good money?

    Yes, hotshot truckers do make good money. While your salary will vary based on where you live, how many loads you take on, and your rates versus your expenses, some hotshot drivers can make six-figure salaries.

    Usually, though, full-time hotshot truck drivers make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year.

  2. Is being a hotshot driver worth it?

    Yes, being a hotshot driver is worth it. If you enjoy driving but don’t want to regularly drive long-haul routes, hotshot driving is a great career choice. You get to set your rates, choose your jobs, and have the freedom of being your own boss while still making good money.

    Many people find the challenge of the unique and time-sensitive load you’ll encounter as a hotshot driver interesting as well.

    However, if you want a more predictable schedule, paycheck, and benefits, being a hotshot driver may not be worth it for you.

  3. How do I start doing hotshot loads?

    You can start doing hotshot loads by checking load boards once you have all of your permits in place. You can’t just start driving once you have a truck; you’ll need to register your business, get your operating authority, and obtain insurance.

    You also may need some additional certifications like a USDOT number if you’re going to be hauling loads in more than one state, and you’ll need to make sure you’re compliant as far as safety regulations and taxes go as well.

    Once you have all that taken care of, start keeping an eye on your local load boards. This is where customers will post jobs for drivers to pick up. Make sure you look for loads that match what your truck and trailer can handle, and then get to work building a solid reputation and client base.

By - Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job.

His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.