What is 'LTL'?


Every industry has it’s own lingo and it takes time to learn everything you need to know so you can roll in the deep. This article defines 'Less than TruckLoad' shipping and how LTL operations work. If you are new to shipping give yourself time to decode the language. it took me 6 months working full time and I still hear (and make up) new ones all the time. We'll start with most widely used and misunderstood term, 'LTL'.

LTL very simply means “Less than Truckload” freight. Using my home turf as an example, our LTL carriers in Boston pickup and combine many small shipments from local manufacturers going to similar destinations throughout the US to fill trailers and move them economically. On the other hand, truckload carriers in Boston move one large shipment that occupies an entire 48'-53' trailer directly from Boston to California, for example. LTL Trucking companies run 'hub & spoke' operations (picture a bike wheel). The hubs are distribution centers located strategically throughout the US to optimize the movement of freight through the carrier’s system. The spokes are local terminals also located strategically to reach the highest density shipping areas without overlapping the next closest terminal. These local pickup & delivery operations have dock height warehouses with 1-100 bay doors and a similar number of trucks, trailers and drivers. 

These local facilities receive countless trailers from regional hubs packed to the nearest square inch (ideally) with “inbound” shipments. These shipments originated from all the other local facilities in the system. During the early hours of the next morning an “inbound" crew will back these trailers against the dock and unload every shipment and “cross-dock” to the appropriate door and load onto the local delivery trailer. The local based drivers at these spoke facilities run their local routes every day often making the same stops day in and day out much like a newspaper route. 

After the local delivery driver has delivered all this inbound freight his truck is empty and he is ready to pickup “outbound. freight. Hence the reason deliveries are generally made in the morning while pickups are made in the afternoon.  As the delivery/pickup driver return to the local facility with this outbound freight, yet another crew starts their day unloading these local trailers and building outbound loads.

We all know sharing is caring. Picking up many smaller shipments from different customers in the same area and combining them to share a truck & travel as far as possible creates an affordable way to move these smaller shipments. It is interesting to note that the moving industry has not yet caught onto this idea except for some forward thinking companies (link to FF). 

As the term indicates this applies to freight that is not a truckload. But, alas, if it were only that easy… 

First I will explain what LTL is and then it would make sense to explain what LTL is not. DISCLAIMER: These are guidelines and there are exceptions in every case but to apply Pareto’s Law of 80/20 this will get you to about 95% correctness.

 LTL is:

  •  > 100 lbs
  •  < 20,000 lbs
  •  On/in a pallet/skid, crate, carboy, tote, (See this list)
  • Adheres to the NMFC rules (Definition of NMFC)
  • BOL required
  • Limited liability according to NMFC (Read: limited insurance)
  • business to business
  • business to residence or vice versa
  • Loaded w/ other freight and protected by being loaded 'high and tight'


LTL is a great option for businesses (And non-commercial shippers) moving large and heavy shipments quickly and relatively cheap. You can’t have it all though. If you want damage free shipping you won’t get quick transit times and cheap rates. Instead perhaps you should check out a white glove service  or a local moving company. If you want guaranteed delivery you won’t receive rock bottom pricing. Instead ask your broker for expedited options.

But, for an overall reliable service to move dead weight across the country in a very timely fashion LTL is your best bet. Contact me for advice on how to become eligible to ship freight even if you are a business or startup without a dock or an ebay operation based out of a residence