Road transport is by far the most ubiquitous methods of moving cargo globally. Road transport also happens to be something that individuals or shippers can easily managed directly without having to go through a broker or third party. Trucks and vehicles can frequently be sourced locally, even in the early days of an emergency response, though quality of vehicles and roads may vary.
Common Terms in Road Transport
The act of loading goods directly from one truck to another truck, frequently done at border crossing points or points at which ownership changes hands. Can be used to speed up delivery to final destination.
A powered vehicle with a heavy-duty engine specifically designed to pull large loads on trailers. Tractors usually run on diesel fuel, have multi-ratio gears, and come in the form of a large cab.
An unpowered, multi axle platform that is pulled by a tractor. Trailers can have many configurations, including being flat surfaces, enclosed, refrigerated, two part (close-coupled) or some variation of therein.
Semi-truck / tractor trailer truck
The combination of a tractor coupled with a trailer, joined with an articulated joint (drawbar) that enables enhanced manoeuvrability.
Single unit truck / straight truck
A truck where the cab and the truck bed section are permanently connected, and joints are not articulating. The wheels under the bed section can be powered from the main engine giving all-wheel drive and additional grip and handling on the road.
A rotating shaft that connects wheels on either side of the base of a vehicle. Trucks are often described by the number of axles they have. A higher number of axles may be required for heavier loads or unimproved/off road conditions.
The act of transporting cargo over short-haul distances between near-by and often predefined locations, such as between a sea port and a warehouse. Shunting vehicles may require less specialty equipment and may incur less wear and tear, and often operate in urban environments.
The act of moving cargo over long distances, comprising days or weeks and possibly crossing international boundaries. Long haul trucking may require cooking and sleeping amenities for drivers, repair equipment on board at all times, long range communication equipment, and may require off road capabilities.
A self-powered platform connected to the rear of a truck that will lift pallets/heavy cargo without the need for manual loading.
The act of switching between two modes of transport. In trucking, intermodal frequently refers to the use of shipping containers that can be loaded between different vessels and vehicles as a single unit without having to offload cargo.
Human, hand loading and offloading. Porters are heavily used in humanitarian contexts.
A truck that is hauling cargo that is yet uncleared into a country. Bonded trucking is highly regulated and comes with additional security precautions that must be complied with. Bonded trucking is typically for short-haul activities, such as moving cargo from an airport to an off side bonded storage facility.
Road Transport Arrangements
Typical road transport arrangements can look like:
Self-managed Owned or Rented Vehicles
Agencies running operations of any length in any context may wish to buy, rent or lease vehicles that are solely dedicated to and under the management of the agency itself. If an organisation decides to acquire its own vehicles, there are a number of areas to be considered, such as the type of vehicle and body type. The nature of the emergency response operation may also require that mechanical handling aids need to be incorporated into the overall vehicle specification to facilitate loading and offloading. Rented and owned vehicles can be sourced locally, or they can be imported into the response operation at the behest of the organization. Bringing in outside vehicles might be the best way of finding the best or most appropriate equipment, but may take a long time to acquire and cost a large sum of money depending on the distance. Vehicles brought from a different country will also need to undergo regular customs formalities.
Advantages to self-managed vehicles:
- Purpose Built – rented or owned vehicles can be designed, modified or built specifically to carry a particular product, such as cold chain items, which might require special handling.
- Self Manged Drivers – organizations in total control over their vehicles will be able to train and supply their own drivers, which will allow for development, specialization and quality control in case of performance issues.
- Customization – rented or owned vehicle can be outfitted with logos and visibility, and can have customs communications equipment installed and configured.
- Quality control – using a self-managed vehicle it’s much easier to ensure that the vehicle is used in an appropriate and ethical manner befitting of the agency.
Disadvantages to self-managed vehicles:
- Time and Complexity - Self-management of vehicles and fleets can occupy a great deal of time, and require excessive attention from management.
- Special Knowledge – Maintaining one or more shipping vehicles requires special skills and knowledge. Unless outside arrangements are made with third party repair services, organizations will have to identify and contract mechanics, and mange their own supply chain of spare parts. Dispatch and fleet management is also its own special skill, and requires knowledgeable and trained staff for coordinating movement of multiple vehicles.
- Costs – the start up and investment capital required to obtain vehicles, drivers and parts can be substantial, and aid agencies limited to grant funding may not be able to cover costs all at once. Operating in many contexts will also incur substantial insurance costs as well.
- Single Point of Failure – Organizations that own or manage their own vehicles run the risk of mechanical issues or an accident completely halting use of that vehicle at any time.
Drivers are an essential component to self-managed trucking fleets, equally as important and the vehicles themselves. Even if an organization has a perfectly maintained fleet, if they are using poor quality drivers, or don’t invest in training drivers, then accidents, damages, cargo loss and possibly issues with fines or law suits may occur. Agencies seeking to maintain their own vehicles and have a staff pool of drivers should ensure that the hiring practice is transparent and skills and knowledge are clearly demonstrated. When recruiting drivers, agencies might consider:
- Asking for documentation to prove authorized license to operate the vehicle in question
- Request a background check
- Ask the applicant to demonstrate their driving skill first hand in a safe location
- Have technical questions prepared
- If possible, enact a drug screening program
Humanitarian organizations have become increasingly reliant on third-party transport providers as a method of moving cargo into and around response operations. The overall running cost of using third-party companies may be higher, but in the volatile nature of response activities, outside companies can help start operations quickly, and organizations can start or stop operations as quickly as needed without concern for what to do with large physical assets like trucks. Even if an organisation owns its vehicles, there may well be occasions when a need arises for additional capacity to meet peak activity or other short-term needs. This can be met by the use of vehicles supplied by a third-party commercial transport provider.
Third-party transport companies and arrangements can usually be sourced locally within or near the emergency context, and utilizing them also serves the function of putting money into the local economy and fostering local acceptance of the aid agency in question. Organizations should follow all due diligence when soliciting and selecting third-party transport companies, and follow their own internal procurement procedures wherever possible.
Advantages of third-party transport:
- Flexibility - organisations can use commercial providers to meet fluctuating demand requirements
- No size constraint – organizations that may only ship infrequently, or only ship small quantities and may not need self-managed vehicles on hand at all times. Third-party transport caters to variable loads and journeys.
- Cost – third-party transporters will have virtually no start-up costs, and the transporter may be able to offer a more cost-effective and a more efficient service by sharing loads with other shippers.
- Complexity – the administration of vehicles and drivers is no longer the responsibility of the organisation, allowing the administration teams of the organization to focus on other areas.
Disadvantages of third-party transport:
- Ethics concerns – third-party transporters don’t directly represent a contracting organization, and as such may engage in activities aid agencies might find unethical, such as transporting equipment for parties to a conflict or employing child labour. Driver standards are also not controlled by the shipper, and activities such as drug use or unsafe driving may occur.
- Additional risk – though shippers may utilize additional insurance, there is always an increased risk using third-parties who may have less vested interest in the delivery of aid cargo.
- Cost – though start up costs may be substantially less with third-party transporters, over a long enough period of time and with enough cargo, third-party commercial transport may always be higher per kg. Organizations who are in a long-term programme and ship high volumes of cargo might encounter cheaper costs through renting or owing their own self-managed vehicles.
Considerations for both third-party and self-managed cargo transport:
Whether the vehicles being used are owned, hired or are managed by a third-party, it is important to ensure that all local laws relating to the licensing, insurance and regulation of vehicles are adhered to:
- Drivers have a legally obtained licence to operate the class of vehicle they are driving on public roads and highways
- Fees are paid for specific loads such as oversized or hazardous gods
- Vehicles should be insured to at least the minimum required by law. Different organisations will have internal policies regarding the extent to which their own vehicles should be insured
- Vehicles may also require documentation relating to the maximum permissible weights in terms of gross vehicle weight, axle weight and payload.
Unique Concepts to Road Transportation
It is important to be able to select the appropriate vehicle for the purpose required even if, at a later stage, it is necessary to revise this choice to reflect availability in the field. See below a description of the main body types and combinations that are available.
Body and Size
The overall size of the vehicle is largely tied to the load in question. There are many factors that might limit the weight of a vehicle, including local infrastructure, road conditions, local laws and even the overall quality of the vehicle itself. Generally speaking, the size to payload needs can be defined as in the table below:
Max Gross Weight (Tonnes)
*Estimated Payload (Tonnes)
Typical Length (Meters)
Single Unit Truck
2 axles / 4 wheels
Single Unit Truck
2 axles / 6 wheels
Single Unit Truck
2 axles / 6 wheels
Single Unit Truck
Single Unit Truck
Tractor Trailer Truck
Tractor Trailer Truck
Tractor Trailer Truck
Tractor Trailer Truck
Close coupled trailer
*The estimated payload is the weight of goods that can be carried without exceeding the maximum gross vehicle weight. Where law does not specify a maximum gross weight or local circumstances allow, this payload may be increased. For high volume / low weight cargo, the load may reach maximum capacity before weight limits are met.
Generic Body Types
The desired vehicle body/trailer type will vary according to the goods or materials being carried, the terrain, the distance, and the prevailing security conditions on the ground. There are many variants of body/trailer type available. Generic body types might include:
Flatbed / Platform - The simplest and cheapest body type, comprised a flat surface resting on the axles with no sides or protection. Flatbed/platform bodies provide all round access to the load, but offers little security or protection from the weather. Loads carried using the open sided flatbed/platform vehicle will need to be secured using netting/ropes, and will likely need to be covered with plastic or tarpaulin to protect against the elements. Trucks in many humanitarian contexts might use the equivalent of a flatbed truck with built up side walls – this method helps protect against items falling or being taken from the interior of the load, but will still require covering with some form of tarp.
Box truck / Van body – A truck body with hard and rigid sides that enclose the platform completely. This body type reduces the payload of the vehicle due to the fact the physical structure adds weight, but provides protection for a perishable product and added security. Construction of the external body will depend upon the needs for insulation, waterproofing or strength. Access is usually provided by a rear door. Sometimes a door will be built into one, or both, of the body sides for special access. Box/van trucks are also ideal for special needs situations, such as refrigerated loads.
Curtain side / drop side bodies - Curtain sided / drop side bodies overcome the disadvantages of access; the full bed can be exposed by either pulling back a curtain or dropping the side of cargo space. This improves the speed of loading as well as unloading. Advantages of load restraint and weather protection are maintained, while body weight might less than the box body. Curtain sided /drop sided bodies are less secure however, as contents are easier to access and cannot be locked.
Tankers - Designed to carry powders or liquids, usually shaped in a way to prevent the vehicle from tipping over due to shifting weight. Tankers require a pumping mechanism and hoses to discharge the load, and some tankers have pumps built right into the back.
Bulk carriers - Built similar box bodies, only without the roof. Bulk carriers are useful for large loads of loose goods that don’t require typical manual loading, such as grains, gravel, or even fruits. Bulk carriers might have a mechanical tipping mechanism built right in, otherwise offloading bulk items may be done by hand and very time consuming. Bulk carriers are typically covered with tarp.
Double/Close-Coupled Trailer – a tractor pulling more than one trailer, linked like a chain. A double trailer configuration adds more weight to the load as more axles and connections are required, but adds increased manoeuvrability.
Trucks in all of their forms are by their nature difficult to manoeuvre, having special difficulty turning around and backing up. Aid agencies planning cargo operations using trucks must keep the turning and parking needs of vehicles in mind for planning purposes.
When contracting or purchasing trucks for consistent use in or around warehouses, the available parking, loading/offloading and turning space available for the vehicles must be taken into account. Many warehouses have enclosed fencing or walls, and may only have one single entry gate. Any vehicle used for pick-up or delivery must be able to enter the space, turn around and back up if needed. Additional consideration must be taken if multiple truck loads are to be enacted at once – will one truck inside being loaded/offloaded prevent another truck from entering, leaving or manoeuvring?
Long haul vehicle movements may be along narrow roads with no shoulders, cross roads or turn around space. An especially long truck may not be able to turn around if needed while en-route, and may need to reach its destination or next large intersection, which may be hours or days away.
Table: Safe truck turning radius by body / length
Truck Body Type
Vehicle Length (m)
Safe Turning Radius (m)
Articulating Tractor Trailer
Diagram: Truck turning radius
Single Unit Truck (No Separated Trailer)
Truck with Separate Trailer
There are a number of safety considerations when planning and managing road cargo, these might include:
Load Securing – Ideally, cargo will be properly secured. A secured load does not just mean sealed to prevent theft, but also to prevent cargo from falling off, or worse, vehicles tipping over and causing accidents. Hard sided box trucks should be properly locked, while intermodal containers may be officially sealed depending on the delivery terms. Cargo stored on flat bed trucks or trailer should be properly tied down and covered. At minimum, cargo should not move around inside or on the truck surface as the vehicle moves, and there should be no spillage or falling items on the road causing hazards for people and other drivers. Local regulations might also govern things such as the vehicle weight, the way it is loaded and how the load is distributed.
Road Conditions – In many humanitarian contexts, road conditions are extremely poor. Vehicles should be well maintained as possible, and drivers should not take unnecessary risks. Trucking on poor road conditions such as mud, loose soil or standing water can be augmented by the use of 6x6 trucks (3 axel vehicles will all wheel drive) or any vehicle with a drive shaft that powers the rear axles. Drivers should also understand the route, and have some experience navigating adverse driving conditions.
Infrastructure – In the immediate aftermath of a rapid onset emergency, or as a result of armed conflict, infrastructure such as roads and bridges may be fully or partially damaged. Routes that may have been previously accessible may be inaccessible. Third-party transport companies and hired drivers should exercise caution around damaged infrastructure.
Vehicle Marking – Depending on the context, there may be national and local laws that require vehicles containing any form of DG items to be properly labelled and marked while on the road.
Driver Behaviour – Drivers and operators of vehicles are responsible for using a vehicle on the road with a safe and secure load. Local laws will often state that the drivers in transit have full responsibility for the safety of their load, even if they did not load it personally. Even in countries or local contexts where such laws are present but are not implemented, respected or followed, every effort must be made to ensure that the organisation’s drivers are following the regulations that have been established. Most humanitarian organisations also have their own safety and security policies that need to be followed.
In-transit Theft – The main sources of vehicle theft are from depots, from overnight parking areas and from the roadside. Theft can be committed by stealing an unattended vehicle, forcibly hi-jacking a vehicle, or bribing drivers. Drivers are central to prevention of this type of loss, and their integrity is essential. Consequently, careful recruitment and selection of drivers is critical. Training will impress upon them the need for care, and procedures to follow to avoid risk of theft. Driver identification cards can be used for added security and to avoid thieves gaining access to vehicles by misrepresentation when parked on third party premises. However, there is little to prevent deliberate collusion by drivers. Vigilance is essential and attention to any pattern of discrepancies on loads. A thief intending to steal a loaded vehicle benefits from:
- knowledge of an attractive load;
- the opportunity to access it;
- time to steal it and to get away before detection;
- a market for the goods; and
- limited or negligible perception of risk.
Sending Goods by Road
Road Transport Documentation
There is no universal standard to documentation used for cargo shipped by road.
Domestic truck movement - In the majority of situations in which aid agencies operate, most cargo movement on roads operates domestically, which doesn’t require international customs clearance. Domestic cargo movement can be tracked in variety of ways, but the most common is a waybill. Many third-party transporters can use their own waybills, however agencies may wish to utilize waybills in their own formats. Organization specific waybills tend to take specific needs into account, such as accounting for metric tonnage or tracking based on batch/lot number of medication, things which may not be tracked in the waybill provided by a transport company.
International Truck Movement – Many countries globally recognize what is called a “CMR” international waybill. The CMR was proposed and agreed upon under the United Nations CMR Convention of 1956, and subsequently adopted by the International Road Transport Union. The CMR functions similar to an Airway Bill (AWB) or Bill of Lading (BOL) in that it is a standard and uniformly recognized document for the transport of goods between two countries. The CMR does not take the place of a regular waybill – all traditional documentation will be still be required, and formal customs procedures for importation must be respected – but the CMR standardizes the language for authorities to understand the nature of goods either being imported into a country, or across a country. It is important to note that the CMR is not recognized everywhere in the world, there are currently only 45 countries who recognize the CMR, consisting mostly in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Countries who don’t currently utilize the CMR will have their own means of importing cargo, depending on national laws and regional trade arrangements. Prior to importing goods to any country of operation through road transport, shippers and consignees must investigate the import and export laws for both countries.
Unlike air and sea freight which can pass over or around countries relatively unnoticed, many international shipments using trucking will be required to pass through the territory of one or more additional countries to reach their destination. In order to facilitate this process, vehicles may have to travel with what is called a “through bill of lading.” The through bill of lading should contain the relevant information required by the countries through which the vehicle is passing. Vehicles transiting through third-countries may also be subject to enhance scrutiny and inspection, or be required to take additional security protocols to ensure cargo does not enter the local market without undergoing customs. In some cases, banned substances will not be allowed to pass through a country’s national borders at all, even if the final destination is another country.
Occasionally, national laws and the policies of individual transport companies prohibit trucks from crossing borders all together. To mitigate this problem, many states of adopted pre-defined transshipping points at specific places along their borders. At these points, cargo can be offloaded and placed in temporary storage, or even transsloaded directly to another vehicle. When this border transshipment occurs, all relevant documentation will still travel with the cargo.
Route Planning and Scheduling
For effective route planning and scheduling, the appropriate persons in each organization need to be involved in the development of the distribution plan or at least be aware of it and understand it. Vehicle routing and scheduling needs to fulfill the following objectives:
- maximising vehicle payload through loading, and maximising vehicle utilisation by maximising number of loaded journeys per vehicle
- minimising distance by reducing redundant or overlapping deliveries and minimising time required to complete tasks
- meeting customer requirements, in terms of cost, service and time
- meeting legal requirements in terms of vehicle capacity and driver's hours
The nature of the movement can be split into two basic types:
- Primary Movement - Involve typically bulk movements between two specific locations. This may be between two warehouses in a network or from a port or railhead to a warehouse
- Secondary Distribution - Movements that may involve multiple deliveries within a defined area, such as a regional or local warehouse to extended delivery points.
In both cases, the emphasis is on achieving full utilisation of the resources used - filling the vehicle to capacity minimising the distance travelled and optimising the hours which the driver is being paid to work.
Unlike sea or air cargo transportation, humanitarian actors will almost certainly be involved with the direct loading of cargo vehicles at some point. Loading of cargo onto a truck may appear fairly straight forward, however there are several things that shippers may need to consider. Frequently, third-party transport companies and private vehicle hires may understand the loading needs of their own vehicles, but in the event agencies are self-managing loading or the third-party service does not have the capacity to mange loading, organizations may have to take the lead.
The overall balance of the load on the bed or cargo hold of any truck varies based on the body, while the overall weight limits of each of the vehicles varies based on the vehicle itself – prior to planning a cargo load, it is strongly advised to research the type of vehicle to avoid accidents.
Single unit or conventional trucks are designed to carry 70-80% of cargo weight over the rear axle, balancing the load of the cargo against the weight of the cab.
Cab over engine truck
When loading cab over engine or conventional pickup trucks with heavy cargo loads, start above the rear axle with weight distributed just before the axle towards the centre of the bed. Loads pushed too close to the cab can obscure the rear view of the driver, will increase the distance required to break, and may reduce traction to the road due to uneven weight distribution. Loads pushed too far to the rear will be more unstable and can also cause problems with traction. Loads sticking far off the rear of a smaller truck should be avoided whenever possible – excessively long loads not only cause weight imbalance to the vehicle, but may be hazardous to other vehicles and passengers.
Tractor / trailer configuration trucks are designed to keep cargo weight centred between the two axles. When loaded to a tractor weight should be evenly distributed in the centre of the bed, while trailers without a truck may be loaded with weight slightly moved towards the rear axle.
Trailer and tractor trailer truck
When planning a load on a trailer, consider the “X” planning strategy – if a line is drawn between each of the wheels where they make contact with the road, where the two lines intersect to form an “X” is where the centre of gravity for any cargo load should go.
When loading all vehicle types, ensure that cargo weight is also centred in along the short edge of the bed as well. Cargo weight too far to one side or another can lead to instability in the vehicle, impacting turning or even leading to vehicles tipping over.
Cargo Configuration for Road Shipping
Whether shipping cartons or oversized bulky items, there are recognized loading and securing methods to minimize accidents and damage to cargo.
Cartons / sacks – when loading cartons or sacks into the bed of a truck, avoid stacking in pyramid or forming piles. Cartons and sacks should be stacked in even rows, as low to the bed of the truck as possible. Stacks should be arranged in interlocking "brick” format to avoid stacks from coming apart, and where possible, stacks of cartons or sacks should be secured with netting, tarp or rope, especially if the truck bed has no sides.
Bulky items – bulky items such as timber, generators, or other large equipment should be firmly secured to bed of a truck using rope or chain of appropriate strength.
Any place where a rope or chain passed over cargo and is secured to both sides of the vehicle is referred to as tie-down. A general guide for how many tie-downs to use can be seen below:
Number of Tie-Downs
Length of Load
Weight of Load
shorter than 1.5 meters
less than 500 kg
shorter than 1.5 meters
greater than 500 kg
longer than 1.5 meters but shorter than 3 meters
Longer than 3 meters but shorter than 6 meters
longer than 6 meters but shorter than 9 meters
4 (at least)
greater than 4,500
additional tie-down for every additional 3 meters gained after 9 meters
Typical loads of cartons and basic relief supplies can be secured using nylon rope, however extremely heavy equipment such as generators or vehicle should be secured using chains. The best way to gauge the strength of a series of chain tie downs to secure a load is what is known as the “working load limit” (WLL). WLL is measured by combining the WLL of each individual chain or rope used as a tie down. As an example, if a load is secured with four chains with a WLL each of 500 kgs, the TOTAL WLL for that load is 2,000 kgs.
To properly design a WLL for transport of heavy or bulky cargo, the total WLL of all tie-downs should be at least half the weight of the load itself. As an example, if a truck is transporting a generator that weighs 3,000 kgs, the combined WLL of all the securing chains should be at least 1,500 kgs. The WLL on the tie-downs accommodates for shifts in weight as the truck turns, stops or accelerates, shifting the centre of gravity of the heavy load. A general guide to WLL per chain type can be seen below.
Work Load Limit (WLL) in Pounds (kgs)
Chain Size (cm)