What Is Hotshot Trucking? Is It a Good Way to Gain Experience?

Most soon-to-be truck drivers go through a CDL training program and then begin working for a trucking company. But not all drivers take that route. Some people prefer to test out life on the road before changing careers. 

Some professional CDL drivers enter the industry by hauling small, time-sensitive loads with a heavy-duty pickup. These individuals are known as hotshot drivers. 

Hotshot trucking can be a great first step into the trucking industry. Should you become a hotshot trucker? What’s the difference between hotshotting and driving a semi? 

Find out more about how to start hotshot trucking, the benefits of becoming a hotshot driver and the disadvantages of choosing this job over an over-the-road (OTR) position.  

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What Is Hotshot Trucking? 

A hotshot truck driver hauls freight using a pickup truck and a flatbed trailer. Most of what hotshot truckers haul is agricultural equipment, construction equipment, machinery, LTL (less-than-a-truckload) items, and other critical loads that need to be transported to one customer quickly. 

Hotshot trucks fall into commercial truck classes three, four and five. Each class is determined by the vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

Class three includes heavy-duty pickup trucks, box vans and walk-in trucks. Some super-duty pickups, large passenger vans and city delivery trucks are considered Class four vehicles. Lastly, class five includes larger walk-ins, delivery trucks and bucket trucks. 

Truck Classes by Weight

  • Class 3 = 10,001 – 14,000 lb.
  • Class 4 = 14,001 – 16,000 lb.
  • Class 5 = 16,001 – 19,500 lb.

Hotshot trucks are commonly three-quarter to one-and-a-half-ton cab-chassis-rigs or pickup trucks with a weight-distributing gooseneck. Many believe that hotshot trucking started in Texas with drivers who delivered important parts to oil drilling and pumping operations. 

Hotshot Trucking vs. Driving a Semi: The Difference

The biggest differences between these two trucking jobs are the equipment and educational requirements. As mentioned above, hotshot truckers do not operate commercial tractor-trailers. They drive pickups or other vehicles outfitted with a trailer. 

Hotshot Trailer Types

Semi-truck drivers pull large trailers such as 53’ enclosed temperature-controlled trailers, step deck trailers and bulk liquid trailers. Hotshot drivers may haul gooseneck, bumper pull, tilt deck, dovetail or lowboy trailers attached to their pickup. 

  • Gooseneck trailers can carry heavier loads and are known for their stability and tighter turn radius. These trailers require a special hitch.  
  • Tilt deck trailers use a hydraulic system to move the trailer for easier loading and unloading. When you’re ready to get back on the road, you can tilt the trailer to flat once again. 
  • Bumper pull trailers are shorter than other trailers and less expensive. Though they are a more affordable investment, bumper pull trailers cannot haul as much weight. They are best for loads under 10,000 lb.
  • Dovetail trailers are made for hauling cars or equipment with wheels. These types of trailers hang low in the back, so be aware when driving across steep inclines. 
  • Lowboy trailers work well for heavy loads because of their low center of gravity. They come in handy when hauling tall loads as well. Since they sit closer to the ground, you can clear certain height restrictions. 

Qualifications & Hotshot Trucking Requirements

Fewer qualifications are necessary to become a hotshot driver. The qualifications you need depend on the freight you plan to haul. 

All hotshot drivers need a valid Class D driver’s license, the standard driver’s license for most citizens. You do not need a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to haul freight under 10,000 lb. For loads heavier than 10,000 lb., you must have a CDL.

Not getting your CDL as a hotshot driver limits what loads you can haul. Many hotshot drivers still obtain their CDL to qualify for more jobs. Earning your CDL gives you more opportunities and sets you up for the future if you want to become a semi-truck driver.

How to Start Hotshot Trucking: 7 Steps 

What do you need to start hotshot trucking? It depends on whether you plan to work for a company or create your own hotshot trucking business. No matter what, there are a few requirements all hotshot drivers need to meet. 

1. Get a Driver’s License or CDL

All hotshot drivers need a valid Class D license or a CDL to operate. 

2. Obtain Your Medical Card

Like semi-truck drivers, hotshot drivers must obtain a medical card from the Department of Transportation. You must schedule an appointment with a DOT-certified medical examiner. A medical card is valid for 24 months. 

3. Commercial Driver’s Insurance 

If you’re running a hotshot business, commercial driver’s insurance is one of your biggest expenses. Shopping for premiums that fit your budget is important. 

Insurance quotes are based on your driving record and experience. If you have a poor driving record or recently earned your CDL, your insurance premiums will likely be higher.  

4. Get Your MC Number or Operating Authority 

Want to drive across state lines? You need an MC number from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). First-time applicants must apply for and be issued a USDOT number. If you need additional operating authority, you can apply for that once you have a USDOT number. 

Commercial insurance is required to obtain operating authority, and there’s an application fee. You can expect to pay $300 or more for a USDOT number. Additional operating authorities have separate registration fees.  

5. Register Your Business With the State

Those who plan to start a hotshot business should register with their state. Registering your business gives you a federal tax ID (or EIN). Having an EIN allows you to open a bank account for your business and hire employees. 

6. Purchase Equipment

You’ll need to invest in equipment best suited for the freight you plan to haul. You may want equipment that allows you to transport various types of freight, or you may intend to specialize in moving one kind of cargo.

To start hotshot trucking, you need a pickup and a trailer. A down payment for a dually or super-duty pickup truck could run from $5,000 to $25,000 or more. Truck pricing depends on the year, make and model. Purchasing a trailer outright could cost between $10,000 and $25,000, depending on the trailer type and condition.

7. Find Loads & Start Driving

If you’re working with a company, they will assign you loads. Hotshot business owners and self-employed drivers can search for jobs on load boards. You can find free and subscription-based hotshot trucking load boards online. 

Free hotshot load boards help you start your business and gain experience, though paid load boards will likely post more up-to-date and lucrative jobs. 

Advantages of Hotshot Trucking

Hotshot trucking is one way to get your foot in the door if you’re interested in building a career in transportation. Many semi-truck drivers test the waters with hotshotting before driving a tractor-trailer. Hotshot truck driving is relatively easy to get into, and the demand for this type of transport service is not going away. 

The advantages of becoming a hotshot driver include: 

  • Less expensive startup costs. The equipment needed for hotshot trucking is less costly. Semi-truck payments are more expensive than pickup truck payments. As a hotshot driver, your commercial insurance will also be cheaper than that of a semi-truck owner-operator. 
  • Good income. Hotshot freight provides steady work. Heavy equipment and other LTL loads will always need to be transported. Often, these deliveries are urgent, meaning the company may pay more to transport them. Hotshot trucking rates range from $1 to $2 per mile.  
  • More home time. Hotshot drivers are home more often because they haul locally. They deliver time-sensitive freight throughout one state or a cluster of states. Shorter distances mean more time at home.
  • Builds experience. Hotshot trucking helps you gain driving experience and understand federal regulations. Many hotshot driving guidelines overlap with tractor-trailer regulations. One example is FMCSA’s hours of service, which also apply to short commercial hauls. Driving every day gives you insight into a semi-truck driver’s lifestyle, too, helping you determine if you’d enjoy that career.

Disadvantages of Hotshot Trucking

Those who want to be their own bosses but aren’t ready to invest in semi-trucks find hotshot trucking to be a middle ground. The downside of hotshot trucking on your own is that you are responsible for equipment maintenance and finding loads. 

  • Maintenance is more frequent. Running lots of miles wears on your equipment. Hotshot drivers should plan on more frequent oil changes and repairs because they use their equipment heavily. Many hotshot drivers have their own businesses or work for themselves. These drivers need to plan and budget for maintenance costs since all the responsibility falls on them. 
  • Cost of operating authority. Getting and renewing your operating authority can be a hassle—and it costs money. Hotshot drivers must be prepared to apply for, maintain and budget for the operating authority they need. Most professional semi-truck drivers don’t worry about that. Company semi-truck drivers and often owner-operators utilize their company’s operating authority.
  • Jobs are competitive. When you’re a hotshot driver, job competition can be fierce. Freight needs to be hauled quickly, and many drivers are ready to take on the task. You need to be able to stick it out and build a reputation for yourself as a reliable driver. 
  • On your own for finding loads. Unlike company semi-truck drivers, most hotshot drivers find loads and plan hauls by themselves. Unless you work for a hotshot trucking company, planning your schedule and ensuring you have plenty of loads is up to you. For some drivers, this level of independence is exciting. Other drivers may prefer to have more support.

A Starting Place for CDL Truck Drivers

Hotshot trucking is a great first step to becoming a professional semi-truck driver. You will learn if you enjoy driving all day, and starting your own hotshot business is often more affordable than buying or leasing a semi-truck. 

However, you won’t receive the same amount of support or advancement opportunities as you would as a company semi-truck driver. With a company, you may have opportunities to lease at special rates or earn more as a CDL trainer.

You may want to haul different freight, work toward owning a semi-truck or not have to worry about your operating authority. At Prime, company drivers and owner-operators receive benefits and support from our team. 

Are you ready to advance your career? Current hotshot drivers can attend our Driver Training Program. Earn your Class A CDL, then start solo or team driving for Prime Inc. 

Already have a CDL? Talk to our Recruiting Department about over-the-road job opportunities and truck leasing options. We love welcoming experienced CDL holders to our fleet.

Apply online or chat with our Recruiting Department at 866-290-1568 today. We’ll walk you through how to transition from hotshot trucking to driving for our fleet. 

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