Backhaul (maritime)

Backhaul in maritime shipping refers to the process of transporting cargo or goods on the return voyage of a vessel, typically from a destination back to its original point of departure or another suitable port. This practice allows shipping companies to optimize the use of their vessels and reduce empty container or cargo space on return trips.  Backhauls are essential for maximizing operational efficiency and minimizing transportation costs in the maritime industry. These return shipments often come at reduced rates, benefiting both shippers and carriers.

Key takeaways

  • Definition: The process of transporting cargo or goods on the return voyage of a vessel.
  • How it works: Typically it entails optimizing the return leg of maritime passport in the most cost-efficient, expedient manner possible. 
  • Types: Empty container, reefer, charter, cross-trades, regional or coastal, intermodal.
  • Pros and cons: Advantages of maritime backhaul include cost efficiency, resource optimization, inventory management, market expansion, and sustainability. Disadvantages include route limitations, logistical complexity, variable demand, container imbalance, and competitive challenges.
  • Explore your options: Companies like Maersk, CMA CGM, and MSC offer backhaul services tailored to various cargo types and destinations. 

How it works

Backhaul in maritime logistics is a strategic shipping practice that leverages the return journey of vessels. This approach involves transporting cargo or goods from a destination back to its original port of departure or another suitable location. This article delves into the workings of backhaul in maritime and its significance in optimizing supply chain operations.

One of the primary reasons why backhaul is crucial to the supply chain is its cost-efficiency. By making the most of a vessel's return trip, backhaul minimizes transportation expenses. This cost-saving measure benefits both shippers and carriers. Furthermore, it optimizes resource utilization, reducing empty cargo space and wasted resources. Effective backhaul practices also play a pivotal role in inventory management, ensuring a continuous flow of goods and preventing supply chain delays.

In addition to cost savings and resource optimization, backhaul opens doors to new markets. Businesses can access previously untapped regions and customers by offering competitively priced transportation options. Moreover, embracing backhaul contributes to sustainability efforts. Efficient resource utilization reduces carbon emissions, making it an environmentally responsible choice in supply chain management.

Backhaul in maritime logistics is not just a cost-saving measure; it's a strategic approach that enhances overall supply chain efficiency. By reducing costs, optimizing resources, and promoting sustainability, backhaul remains a vital component in modern supply chain management.

Backhaul types

Backhaul in maritime logistics can be categorized into several types, each serving specific purposes within the shipping industry:

Empty container

Empty container backhaul is focused on returning empty shipping containers to their original point of departure or another destination where they are needed. This practice helps maintain container balance and reduces the cost associated with repositioning empty containers, a common challenge in the industry.


Commodity backhaul involves transporting specific goods or raw materials back to their source or another location where demand exists. This type of backhaul is commonly used for bulk cargo, such as returning minerals, grains, or other commodities to their origin.


Reefer backhaul is dedicated to refrigerated or temperature-sensitive cargo. It ensures the safe and controlled transportation of perishable goods on return voyages, reducing spoilage and waste.


Charter backhaul optimizes charter vessels by utilizing them for additional cargo transportation on their return journeys. This strategy enhances the cost-effectiveness of chartering vessels for specific purposes.


Cross-trades backhaul involves shipping cargo between two destinations unrelated to the vessel's initial route. It enables businesses to explore new markets and reach customers they might not otherwise serve.

Regional or coastal 

Regional or coastal backhaul is tailored to transport cargo along specific coastal or regional routes during the return trip. It serves local markets and industries efficiently, reducing the need for long-haul transportation.


Intermodal backhaul combines sea, land, and rail transportation to seamlessly move cargo to its final destination. This strategy is particularly beneficial for landlocked regions and offers versatile supply chain solutions.

These diverse backhaul strategies play pivotal roles in enhancing maritime logistics, promoting cost savings, and contributing to the overall efficiency and sustainability of global supply chains.

Pros and cons


  • Cost efficiency: Backhaul is a cost-effective strategy as it maximizes the utilization of vessel capacity on return voyages. This reduces the overall transportation cost per unit of cargo, benefiting both shippers and carriers. It also helps maintain competitive pricing in the market.
  • Resource optimization: By minimizing empty cargo space on return trips, backhaul contributes to resource optimization. This includes reducing the number of empty containers and saving fuel, ultimately promoting sustainability and responsible resource management.
  • Inventory management: Backhaul ensures a consistent and uninterrupted flow of goods within the supply chain. This reliability in transporting cargo helps businesses manage their inventory levels more efficiently, preventing shortages or overstock situations that can disrupt operations.
  • Market expansion: Backhaul opens up opportunities for businesses to access new markets and customers. By offering cost-effective transportation options for goods returning to different destinations, companies can diversify their reach and grow their customer base.
  • Sustainability: Efficient backhaul practices have a positive environmental impact. By reducing the number of empty return voyages and optimizing cargo transport, backhaul helps lower carbon emissions and contributes to sustainable supply chain practices.


  • Route limitations: Backhaul options are inherently limited to the vessel's return route. This means that backhaul may not align with all shipping needs and destinations, potentially limiting its applicability.
  • Logistical complexity: Coordinating backhaul operations can be complex due to the need to match cargo availability with return routes. This complexity requires careful planning and execution to ensure efficiency.
  • Variable demand: Cargo demand for backhaul can be unpredictable, leading to fluctuations in revenue generation. Companies may not always have a consistent volume of cargo to transport on return trips.
  • Container imbalance: While empty container backhaul helps address container imbalances, it may not completely eliminate the issue, particularly in regions with significant imbalances. Companies may still need to reposition empty containers to meet demand.
  • Competitive challenges: The cost advantages of backhaul can lead to increased competition among shipping companies. While this benefits customers with lower prices, it can impact profit margins for shipping companies, necessitating careful pricing strategies and cost management.

Backhaul in maritime logistics offers substantial advantages, including cost savings, resource optimization, and sustainability benefits. However, it also presents logistical challenges and potential drawbacks related to route limitations, demand fluctuations, and competitive dynamics within the industry. Successful implementation requires a balanced approach that considers both the benefits and challenges of backhaul strategies.

Explore your options

Now that you have delved into the world of backhaul in maritime logistics and its advantages, you may be considering how to implement backhaul strategies for your shipping needs. Many reputable companies in the maritime industry, such as Maersk, CMA CGM, and MSC, offer backhaul services tailored to various cargo types and destinations. 

These industry leaders have a proven track record of optimizing return voyages, reducing costs, and promoting efficient supply chain management. By exploring your backhaul options with these trusted companies, you can tap into their expertise and resources to enhance your maritime logistics and drive the success of your business.

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