Dry Van vs. Reefer Trailers: Which is best for your freight?

When moving freight across the country, the volume of equipment types available can seem endless. What each is used for and which is best for my commodity are common queries asked by shippers far and wide. We know you want to make the correct decision for your shipment but just aren’t sure how to do so. 

Here at ATS, we’ve witnessed these trailer types evolve over the six decades we’ve served the U.S. trucking industry. When used correctly, each trailer becomes a great tool for shippers, the hammer to the nail, the mast to the sail. For this reason, you must understand how to use them to your benefit.

In this blog, we’ll compare the dry van trailer to the reefer trailer so you have a better understanding of the use case for each and how these, seemingly similar, trailers differ. 

What is a Dry Van Trailer?

The Dry Van Trailer is hands down the most common trailer on America’s roads. These trailers feature a box-like enclosure that is dedicated to protecting freight from the elements while in transit. 

Because they’re typically 53’ in length and boast a maximum weight range of 42,000-45,000 pounds, these trailers provide versatility to shippers in the food and beverage, retail and non-durable manufacturing industries. 

Van semi trailer on interstate

What Is a Dry Van Trailer Used To Ship?

When it comes to the shipment of pallet-based, boxed or loose commodities, dry van trailers are the go-to solution. Because of their 53’ deck, dry van trailers can comfortably fit a maximum of 26 pallets across their floors. 

Distinguished by the box-like enclosure that houses its contents, the dry van trailer boasts protection from the elements, ample storage and versatile capacity across industries. 

Most commonly, dry van trailers are used to ship the items that people use every single day. Some of the world’s largest corporations use dry van trailers to transport their inventories. 

These inventories include but are not limited to non-perishable food items, consumer and household goods, various liquid commodities and healthcare products.  

Because of their boxlike shape and ability to back right into the bay of a loading dock, these trailers are the ideal equipment type for any shipper/receiver working from one. As such, dry van trailers become more popular every year as the U.S. economy surges on the back of rampant consumerism.

What Are Dry Van Trailers Not Suited To Haul?

Because of the encasement of cargo and the inability of their floors to support the weight of oversized freight, these trailers are not suited to carry these shipments. As such, any freight that exceeds the length of their deck (53 feet), the height of their ceiling (8 feet, 6 inches) or their weight capacity (45,000 pounds) won’t be moveable via dry van. 

Any commodity that needs to be accessed from the side of a trailer — as opposed to the rear — shouldn’t be hauled using a dry van. Since these trailers don’t have an open deck, companies without loading/unloading docks will have more trouble removing/adding freight to these trailers. 

Another commodity that won’t be suited for dry van transportation are products that need to be temperature controlled. Since these trailers don’t have a cooling unit attached, keeping products such as ice cream frozen in the Arizona summer is impossible.

For this reason, if you’re a shipper moving temperature-controlled, oversized freight or don’t utilize a loading dock, a dry van won’t meet your needs. 

How Does Using a Dry Van Impact Shipping Cost?

Since their versatility makes them the most commonly used trailer type, the dry van is an affordable option for shippers. Like all equipment types, the price you pay to use a dry van is subject to the current pricing in the transportation market for your shipping lane. 

That said, using a dry van to haul freight is often the most cost-effective method of transport available. This can be tied — at least in part — to the fact that the cost for a company to purchase a dry van is relatively minuscule when compared to the reefer or more specialized trailers

Freight shipment on the highway

What is a Reefer Trailer?

Refrigerated trailers (also called reefers) are trailers with temperature-controlling units built into them. These units are designed to control the temperature of any freight that’s sitting inside. This includes keeping freight warm in the dead of a Minnesota winter or cold across the desert of Arizona. Any temperature-sensitive freight that requires heating or cooling to keep it fresh during shipment, should be transported using a reefer trailer. 

What is a Reefer Used To Ship?

Reefers are used to move any freight requiring temperature control. This fact, coupled with their insulated walls makes them the only type of trailer that’s properly-suited to haul perishable items. Products like fruit, pharmaceuticals and ice cream are commonly moved using these trailers.

Refrigerated trailers boast a maximum weight capacity of right around 42,500 pounds. It should be noted that — due to their insulated walls — the maximum height that a reefer can haul is 8 feet and the maximum width is 8 feet, 2 inches. Like the dry van, reefers cannot haul any commodity that exceeds the length of their deck.  

Outside of perishable food, beverage and pharmaceutical items, reefers are also used to haul hazardous materials that must be temperature controlled. Some examples of these are: Acetic acid, phenol, propionic acid, and ethyl acetate. 

Since these trailers are used to transport the food and beverage items that end up on the plates of families across the nation, if a reefer EVER hauls a shipment of hazardous materials, it can’t haul consumable commodities again. 

Now I’m a Reefer . . . Now I’m Not

Sometimes, when there isn’t a large amount of reefer freight available for transport in their area, a reefer can pivot their service offering. They do this by simply removing the heating/cooling variable from the equation and operating as a — slightly smaller — dry van.

What Are Reefers Not Suited to Ship? 

As previously stated, due to their insulation, reefers aren’t able to support oversized freight of any kind. Additionally, the decks of these trailers cannot support anything weighing more than 42,500 pounds. As such, these trailers are only designed to transport temperature-controlled freight in specific quantities and won’t be useful for any other type of transport. 

Additionally — when the heating/cooling unit is used — these trailers are generally more expensive than the dry van. As such, using them for any shipment outside of their designated purpose isn’t usually cost-effective. 

How Does Using a Reefer Impact Shipping Cost?

The commodities transported in these trailers come with heightened liability risks. This fact, coupled with the urgency of perishable item shipments and the cost of fueling the cooling units on these trailers, raises the price of their service. 

Because of the urgency with which they are employed, reefer freight capacity typically comes at a higher price point than dry vans. This price hike can be directly tied to the risks associated with the highly perishable nature of the items that are transported using these trailers. 

To further this point, consider this: 

Ever wonder why fresh fruits and vegetables are offered at a higher price than a loaf of bread? Why a carton of raspberries costs more than a box of cereal? These discrepancies are thanks to the shelf life of perishable produce items. As the urgency of a shipper rises and capacity is a necessity, so too does the price of finding capacity and the cost to the consumer. 

Which Equipment Type is Best For Your Shipment?

There are large differences in the type of businesses each of these trailers should be used for. To provide you with another way to distinguish this, here is a quick guide for you to reference:

What Are The Differences Between Reefer and Dry Van Trailers?

  Dry Van Reefer 
Maximum Weight Capacity 45,000 Pounds 42,500 Pounds
Maximum Height Capacity 108 - 110 Inches 92 - 98 Inches
Maximum Deck Length 53 Feet 53 Feet
Temperature Controlled  
Loading Dock Compatible 
Protection From The Elements
Use-Case Versatility (Generally)  
Hazmat Compatible


Take Stock of Your Shipping Needs

In the end, the trailer that you choose completely depends on your shipping needs. 

Ask yourself: 

  • What dimensions do I need?
    • Weight, height, number of pallets, length?
  • Do I need temperature-controlled functionality?
  • How much am I willing to spend?

Your answers to these questions should give you a crystal clear understanding of which of these — aesthetically similar — trailers are right for your business. 

If you need to move goods such as clothing, furniture, appliances or any pallet-based commodities not requiring temperature control, the dry van trailer is right for you. 

If you need to transport any type of goods requiring temperature control the reefer trailer will perfectly address your needs. 

Finally, if you need more help or are left pondering other shipping-related topics, don’t hesitate and reach out to us. We’re more than happy to help you in any way that we can.


Tags: Freight Brokerage, Multimodal Shipping, Project Logistics, Dry Van Shipping, Less-Than-Truckload (LTL) Shipping, Terminology

Blake Ryan

Written by Blake Ryan

Blake began his career with ATS in May 2020 and was an integral piece in the opening of our new office in Lenexa, Kansas. Today, Blake serves as the regional office manager in Lenexa. The fast-paced, growth-focused atmosphere that comes with opening a new office makes Blake's job exciting and challenging. To service customers in this brand new facility, Blake leans on his history in the tech startup field as he works to promote ATS from the heart of Kansas.

Get the Latest Content Straight to Your Inbox!

We Have a Podcast! Find Us on Your Favorite App.

Apple Podcasts logoSpotify logoGoogle Podcasts logoAmazon Music logoAmazon Music logo

Beyond the Road Podcast logo

Recent Posts

Work With a Transportation Provider You Can Trust

You don't want your freight in just anyone's hands. Find a transportation provider that cares about your safety and your reputation. Learn how ATS can help.

Connect With an Expert