truck with tarped load

Flatbed Tarping/Loading Safety

Tarping, loading, and unloading flatbed trailers are inherently dangerous. Careful steps must be taken to avoid accidents and ensure the safety of loading operators. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration part 393 governs the safe operation of the transport of freight. In addition to errors such as overloading and forgetting to secure a ramp, there are a number of common mistakes to avoid to be sure your flatbed trailer isn’t the reason you or your driver don’t make it home safe at the end of the day.


Steps to Ensure Proper Flatbed Truck Tarping

Prior to Tarping

Store your tarp properly when not in use and out of direct sunlight. It’s vital that tarps are stored clean and completely dry to avoid mold and rotting. Tarps should be folded and rolled for storage. Bunching or cramming generates unnecessary creases and wrinkles that lead to tears and rips. Inspect the tarp carefully prior to use. Tarp condition is paramount to keeping transported loads clean, dry, and safe. If eyelets, stitching, or material are damaged, your cargo could be compromised while in transit and a torn tarp could allow rain or snow to contact loads.

Prior to tarping your load, ensure the area where the tarp will be laid is free of all dust, oil, or debris of any kind. Keeping your tarp clean will extend its life and ensure your load stays clean. Make sure the tarping area has sufficient lighting at night and in low light or overcast conditions. Tarps can be quite heavy, especially when wet. Dimensions and thickness determine weight but most dry tarps weigh anywhere between 50 and 100 pounds.

Make sure the flatbed trailer itself is free from any damage or corrosion. Additionally, hold down openings must not have any kinks or cracks. These “D” rings must be tight and secure against the deck with no bends. The deck must be level and all ramps secure, resting firmly on the ground when lowered.

Positioning your Load

The first step is to identify the protective needs of your load. Some loads such as gypsum require an additional layer of protection. Find out if your load has any special requirements to ensure safe transport. Position your tarp by placing it evenly alongside the flatbed so the tarping spreader bars can safely lift the tarp over the load. Improper positioning can cause bunching and uneven coverage once pulled over the cargo.

Load positioning is determined by the type of freight being transported and designed to maximize trailer weight limits and the Department of Transportation guidelines. Heavy loads such as steel are smaller and are positioned strategically to evenly distribute the load. Lighter materials such as insulation take up much more space on the trailer. Building materials such as gypsum and wood products also tend to max out space on flatbeds.


Proper Weight Distribution

Weight distribution is of the utmost importance when loading your flatbed trailer. To ensure proper adherence to transport safety standards, it is necessary to calculate the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). To find the GVWR, add the trailer capacity to the trailer weight. If a flatbed truck’s gross vehicle weight rating is listed at 10,000 lbs. and it weighs 4,000 lbs. empty, its payload capacity is 6,000 lbs. 

It is also necessary to ensure the trailer tongue and vehicle hitch are not overloaded to avoid trailer sway, which is what happens when the back end of the trailer lifts as a result of improper weight distribution. The axles, wheels, and tires must also be considered in the total weight rating. Proper front to rear-load distribution is essential to avoid overloading. The center of gravity of your payload must always be as low as possible. Heavy items should be placed above the axles with even distribution across both sides of the trailer. Never exceed the recommended GVWR for your vehicle.

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Tarping a Load

  1. In preparation for tarping your load, read all signs in the loading area to assess what your needs will be for straps, blankets, tie downs, etc.
  2. Always start tarping your flatbed truck from the back of your load. Begin by unrolling the tarp and working toward the back while keeping the centerfold of the tarp in the center of the load.
  3. Once the tarp is unrolled, cover the back of the load in its entirety by pulling the bottom of the tarp tightly so it is touching the flatbed trailer.
  4. Next, unfold the tarp once on each side, keeping the tarp centered throughout the process.
  5. If multiple tarps are being used to cover the load, repeat the steps above to ensure all exposed cargo is covered.
  6. Once all tarps have been unrolled and your load is completely covered, roll or fold up any excess tarp material and use bungee cords to secure D-rings.
  7. In the case of tall, uneven, or oddly shaped loads, an extra tie-down strap can be thrown over the tarp to secure it and prevent billowing while in transit.Safe and efficient tarping is essential when it comes to higher volume products. You can use a combination of items to secure the cargo on your flatbed trailer. Chain binders, chains, and cargo straps will all help keep the freight in place and not allow it to shift during transport. If your load includes separate items such as lumber, it must be packed tightly.
  8. Attach the tarp to the system spreader bar and pull it over the load.
  9. Once the tarp has been laid over the cargo, secure it to the flatbed with straps.
  10. Ratchet down if necessary to ensure the load does not shift in transit.
  11. Complete a thorough safety check before leaving the loading dock.

Types of Flatbed Loading Tarps

Flatbed tarp types

Machinery Tarps

Machinery tarps are designed for covering large irregular-sized loads and protect manufacturing or machine equipment from weather and road vibration. Typical machine tarps are 24′ wide and 30′ long to cover a large machine with one tarp. Some have end flaps. Because it’s difficult to determine what size tarp is needed for loads, it’s often recommended to have a large rectangular tarp that can be turned sideways for different configurations.


Coil Tarps

Coil tarps are commonly used to protect cable spools and steel or aluminum coils and have a rounded top-half to be fitted over cylinder-shaped loads. The side flaps are more rectangular shaped and split in each corner allowing for the transport chain to pass through.

There are three ways that rolled steel coils are transported on flatbed trucks. Suicide, the most common way, orients the flat side of the coil to the sides of the trailer. The name comes from the idea that if the coil were to break free it would roll towards the truck cab or off the back. Another method is Shotgun, with the flat side of the coil facing the front and back and the coil would roll off the sides if it were to break free. Eye to the sky means the flat sides of the spool are laid down on the flatbed with the spool hole facing up (eye to the sky).


Steel Tarps

Steel tarps covering steel stock loads are designed to protect shorter and lower-profile loads. To cover steel loads, lumber tarps can be used in conjunction with steel designed tarps.


Lumber Tarps

Lumber tarps commonly have flaps at each end to cover the ends of lumber and contain grommets and multiple rows of D-rings for a variety of tie-down points. Most full-size flatbed trailers will require two tarps to cover the load.


Smoke Tarps or Nose Tarp

Smoke tarps are designed to secure the front of a flatbed load and protect the load from exhaust smoke, soot, and road wear. A smoke tarp is smaller than a regular steel or lumber flatbed truck tarp and flat or fitted to cover just the top front of a load. Smoke tarps generally have a boxed-in top and are fitted to secure tarp around the edges of the load. Flat smoke tarps are a simple rectangle that’s folded over the edges of the cargo.

Keeping several tarp repair kits on-hand is highly recommended to address any unexpected, last-minute repairs while on the road. Although preventative maintenance is always best, taking action at the first sign of deterioration will prevent extensive damage and limit the need for expensive repairs or total replacement of your tarp. In any case, weather, extensive use, and normal wear and tear will almost certainly lead to a need for regular repair and maintenance to remain useful.


How to Repair a Tarp

  1. Thoroughly clean the area in need of repair using rubbing alcohol.
  2. Cut a circular or oval-shaped patch approximately 1″ – 2″ larger than the tear or hole on each side. Square patches are not advised as the sharp edges have a tendency to disconnect or peel more easily than rounded edges.
  3. Apply vinyl cement to both the top of the tarp (where the patch will be applied) and the underside of the patch. Liberally cover the entire patch with vinyl cement and apply a generous amount to the area around the tear on the tarp (roughly the same size as the patch).
  4. Wait for 2 to 5 minutes to allow the surfaces to become tacky.
  5. Place the patch on the tarp by pressing firmly and evenly with your hand or a roller device.
  6. Tarp can be moved after 5 minutes but for best results, it is recommended to wait 8 hours before use.