With so many different trailers on the roads today, it can be difficult to discern what each is used for and which is best for your freight.
Having been in business since 1955, we’ve seen trailers evolve and helped customers select the best type for them. In fact, we’ve worked directly with the leading trailer manufacturers to create several of the trailers you see going down the road today.
In this article, we’ll break down some of the most common trailers found in America’s trucking landscape and how each is used. This will leave you with a better understanding of which trailer type best fits your needs.
The most common trailer types used to move freight in the trucking industry are:
- Dry Van Trailers
- Standard Flatbed Trailers
- Refrigerated Trailers (Reefers)
- Drop-Deck/Step-Deck Trailers
- Double Drop/Lowboy Trailers
- Hotshot Trailers
- Conestoga Trailers
- Curtainside Trailers
- Extendable Drop-Deck Trailers
- RGN Trailers
- Extendable RGN Trailers
Dry Van Trailers
When it comes to the shipment of pallet-based, boxed or loose commodities, dry van trailers are the go-to solution. Typically measuring in at 53 feet, the dry van trailer is the most common type of trailer on the roads today.
For the most part, dry van trailers are used to ship the items that people use every single day. Some of the world’s largest corporations, including Walmart, Target and Procter & Gamble, use dry van trailers to transport their inventories. Inventories such as clothing, non-perishable food items and household goods are commonly transported using dry van trailers.
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 a loading dock.
Characterized by their enclosed container used to keep materials safe, these trailers have a maximum weight range of 42,000-45,000 pounds. Note, because of the encasement of the cargo inside and the inability of their floors to support a lot of weight, these trailers are not suited to carrying oversized loads (unlike a flatbed).
That said, dry van trailers are a versatile and cost-effective investment for any company looking to expand its fleet.
Standard Flatbed Trailers
In addition to the dry van, the standard flatbed trailer is an incredibly common type of trailer. Although they come in several different sizes (including 24, 40, 45, 48 and 53 feet) the 48-foot flatbed trailer is the most frequently used.
Versatility is a key feature of these trailers. Often used to haul steel, construction equipment, lumber and other open-air commodities, the flatbed’s open back and sides make for easy loading and unloading via forklift or overhead crane.
The maximum height and width of any freight transported using these trailers is 8 feet, 6 inches. The flatbed trailer rests 5 feet off the ground and can haul a maximum capacity of 48,000 pounds.
Because it doesn’t have a container to house its contents (like a dry van), the standard flatbed trailer can be used to haul oversized freight as long as the necessary permits are acquired and the proper routes are followed.
The securement of freight on standard flatbed trailers — and all others — must be done properly using chains, straps and various tarping solutions.
Refrigerated Trailers (Reefers)
Just as the name suggests, refrigerated trailers (also called reefers) were designed to move any freight requiring temperature control. Their temperature control and insulated walls make them the only type of trailer that is 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 that mirrors that of dry vans (42,000-45,000 pounds).
It should be noted that — due to their insulated walls — the maximum height that a reefer can haul ranges between 8 feet and 8 feet, 2 inches while the maximum width is 8 feet, 2 inches. Like the dry van, reefers cannot haul any commodity that exceeds the length of their deck.
Drop-deck or step-deck trailers are commonly used as an alternative to the flatbed trailer when the height of a load is a factor. The simplicity of a flatbed coupled with their added height capacity makes the drop-deck trailer a commonly utilized method of transport.
Comprised of an upper deck and a close-to-the-ground rear section, drop deck trailers can haul loads of up to 10 feet, 2 inches in height before being considered over-dimensional.
Where flatbeds are typically 5 feet off the ground, drop deck trailers are much shorter, measuring 3 feet, 6 inches at their lowest point. In the 53 foot version, the lengths of the upper and lower decks of these trailers are 10 feet and 43 feet respectively.
Because of their versatility and ability to carry taller loads, step deck trailers are a widely popular option among carriers spanning the globe. You’ll commonly see these trailers hauling agricultural and building materials as well as various types of machinery that fit beneath their 10-foot, 2-inch ceiling.
Double Drop/Lowboy Trailers
Also known as lowboy, low bed or float trailers, the double drop trailer is far closer to the ground than any other trailer type. Their proximity to the ground is thanks to two drops that occur behind the gooseneck and before the back wheels respectively. As such, double-drop trailers can carry tall pieces of machinery.
With a weight limit ranging between 40,000-80,000 pounds (depending on the number of axles) double drop trailers are plenty capable for heavy hauls. Note, because of the nature of these trailers, the length of load capacity is limited to the well-space which typically measures 29 feet in length.
The maximum legal height of any freight carried by a double drop trailer is 11 feet, 6 inches before being considered over-dimensional. This advanced height capacity makes them the perfect solution for any company hauling large equipment. Examples of these include large industrial and farm equipment that needs to be moved to/from a job site.
Hot Shot Trailers
These trailers have become increasingly popular among carriers spanning the globe. Hot shot trailers are low-lying flatbed trailers that can be pulled with pickup trucks categorized from classes 3-6. As such, carriers using hot shot trailers do not need to own a traditional semi-tractor since they can be pulled using a specialized pickup truck. This removes a lot of the trucking industry's barriers to entry from this process.
Hot shot trailers provide a far more cost-effective way to haul freight, especially for short distances, than your traditional semi-truck flatbed trailer. Companies that specialize in shorter lengths of haul have been using these hotshot trailers with great success.
In terms of size, most hot shot trailers on the market measure 30-40 feet in length and rest between 3 feet, 4 inches and 3 feet, 6 inches above the ground. Because these trailers are so much smaller than the other options available to carriers, the overall weight they can carry suffers. A 40-foot hot shot trailer can haul no more than 16,500 pounds of freight.
What hot shot trailers give up in carrying capacity they make up for in convenience and cost-efficiency. This makes them a great alternative for companies who need to haul freight that would otherwise result in LTL capacities on larger trailers.
Conestoga trailers are a specialized trailer type designed as an additional option for freight that requires in-transit protection from the elements.
Typically measuring 53-feet long, Conestoga trailers are a great alternative to many open-deck trailers as they commonly come in step-deck, double-drop and flatbed iterations.
Though Conestoga's are used in a number of industries — to transport freight of all types — industries with sensitive cargo, which could be damaged by tarping it, such as the aerospace and energy sectors utilize them most frequently.
Related: What is a Conestoga Trailer?
Curtainside trailers are similar to Conestoga trailers in that they both feature built-in tarp systems. Cutrainsides have a solid top, rear and front and hanging tarps on each side. As such, these trailers can only be loaded from the back or sides and not from above (unlike a Conestoga).
Curtainsides are an excellent option for moving freight that requires protection from the elements in transit as its tarps create a seamless barrier to keep cargo from interacting with wind, rain, dirt and debris.
Extendable Drop-Deck Trailers
These trailers are used to haul exceptionally long freight. To do this, the middle portion of these trailers can be extended from its original length of 38 feet to a maxed-out length of 65 feet. This makes them perfect for hauling any freight that exceeds the legal length limits of traditionally sized trailers.
The maximum capacity of these trailers is 43,000 pounds and, much like the standard drop deck trailer, this trailer can accommodate a maximum legal height of 10 feet. Commonly used to transport large machinery and extra-long raw materials, these trailers are very useful in the right situation.
Removable Gooseneck Trailers (RGN)
Another common class of trailers is the RGN family. These trailers, which come in a variety of sizes, can be used in a lot of the same ways as traditional trailers. In an industry that houses a wide variety of options for shippers to choose from, RGNs are certainly worth consideration.
As the name suggests, the gooseneck — used to secure the trailer to the tractor — at the front of these trailers can be removed. By doing so, the driver places the front of the trailer on the ground. This creates a ramp for loading and unloading equipment making RGN trailers the perfect tool for hauling large machinery from point A to B.
Like traditional trailers, removable gooseneck trailers come in various sizes. . .RGN
The most commonly used member of the RGN family, the RGN can be used with two or three axles depending on how much capacity is needed.
RGNs provide ease of use for carriers hauling large industrial equipment. Simply drive your equipment onto the trailer before its departure, safely secure it and drive it off once you reach your destination. This removes the need to have cranes and forklifts on hand for the loading/unloading process.
These RGNs are used in a lot of the same ways as the double-drop trailer. As such, they have the same weight and height restrictions as their double-drop counterparts.
Like the double-drop trailer, the amount of well-space needed is a prime factor in whether these trailers are used. Any time a load exceeds 30 feet in length, the space provided by the wells of these trailers becomes insufficient.
When well-space is an issue, the extendable RGN provides a solution. Similar to the expandable double drop trailer, the expandable RGN is built for extra-long freight.
With the capability to expand its well up to 50 feet in length, these specialty trailers provide ample capacity to haul large equipment, materials and oversized freight.
Depending on the number of axles used, the weight capacity of these trailers can be hefty. The maximum weight range for these expandable RGN trailers is 42,000 pounds (3 axles) to 225,000 pounds (19 total axles).
Which Trailer Type is Best For Your Freight?
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of each of the trailer types available to you and what each is used for. Now is the time to weigh these options and pinpoint which you feel would best fit the needs of your freight.
If you need to move perishable food and beverage items, a reefer is the correct trailer type for you. If you have pallet-based commodities, consider a dry van. When making this decision, it’s always best to keep capacity, budget and length of haul in mind.
If you have any questions or are wondering how ATS can help you make these kinds of decisions, please feel free to contact us. We are always here to help in any way you need.