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, here at Anderson Trucking Service (ATS), 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 the most common trailers found in America’s trucking landscape in 2024 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
- Standard 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 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. 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, affordable shipping solution.
Dry vans typically have a lower cost per mile (CPM) than open-deck trailers (meaning they cost less to ship with).
The main constraint to consider when booking a dry van trailer is whether or not your cargo will fit within the trailer’s fixed dimensions — the walls and ceiling. Since these trailers are enclosed, shippers should verify the dimensions of their cargo to ensure everything will fit within it.
- Dry vans made up 61 percent of the trailers produced by U.S. manufacturers in 2021 (According to ACT Research)
- Typically either 48 or 53 feet long.
- Max width: 101 inches
- Max height: 110 inches
- Maximum weight: 42,000-45,000 pounds.
- Ideal for loading/unloading using a loading dock.
- Often privately owned and branded.
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 flatbed trailer can be used to haul oversize 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.
Since Flatbeds are not enclosed trailers, the cargo they haul is exposed to elements, like the weather outside. Because of this, most flatbed drivers will carry highly-durable tarps to cover the cargo and provide additional protection from things like rain and snow.
- Standard flatbeds comprised nine percent of the total trailers produced in the U.S. in 2021
- Can haul oversize freight with proper permitting.
- Available in 24, 40, 45, 48 and 53 feet (48-foot is most common).
- Load/unload from the back, side or above: loading dock, forklift or overhead crane.
- Maximum freight height and width: 8 feet, 6 inches.
- Maximum weight capacity: 48,000 pounds.
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. Depending on the cargo-type hauled, drivers pulling refrigerated trailers may need to follow regulations like the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) or those related to moving hazardous cargo.
Refrigerated trailers boast a maximum weight capacity that mirrors dry vans (42,000-45,000 pounds).
It should be noted that — due to their insulated walls — the maximum height 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.
When needed, the temperature control system of a reefer can be turned off, and the trailer can be used like a (slightly smaller) dry van. This can help to expand your capacity reach when shipping products not requiring temperature control.
Refrigerated shipping rates can vary greatly depending on your company’s location and the time of year.
- Reefers made up about 15 percent of trailer production in 2021
- Primarily used for temperature-sensitive cargo
- Maximum weight capacity: 42,000-45,000 pounds
- Maximum height: 8 feet to 8 feet, 2 inches
- Maximum width: 8 feet, 2 inches
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. They are essentially the same as a flatbed, with the benefit of allowing additional cargo height from their lower deck. The simplicity of a flat trailer deck coupled with 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 typically haul loads of up to 10 feet, 2 inches in height before being considered over-dimensional (maximum legal loaded height varies by state).
Where flatbeds are typically 5 feet off the ground, drop-deck trailers are much shorter, measuring 3 feet, 6 inches at their lowest point. If 53-feet long, the lengths of the upper and lower decks of this trailer 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 machinery and construction equipment.
- One of the most common alternatives to a traditional flatbed trailer
- Maximum freight height (without low-profile tires: 10-11 feet (depending on location)
- Typically 53-feet long: 10-foot upper deck, 43-foot lower deck
- Maximum weight capacity: Around 46,000 pounds
- Can be permitted for oversize loads
Double Drop/Lowboy Trailers
Also known as lowboy, the double drop trailer is far closer to the ground than most other trailer types. Its proximity to the ground is thanks to two drops that occur behind the gooseneck and before the back wheels. As such, double-drop trailers can carry tall pieces of freight.
Double-drop trailers are typically heavier than step-decks and flatbeds. This limits the maximum weight of the cargo they can legally haul. Usually, double-drop trailers can haul up to 38,000 pounds of cargo before possibly requiring permits for weight. These trailers can be used for heavier shipments, but it's important to note that weight can only be permitted for single-piece freight shipments.
A double-drop trailer's length-of-load capacity is limited to its well space which varies but typically measures around 29 feet long.
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 freight or cargo exceeding legal height limits on flatbeds of step-decks.
Examples of these include industrial and farm equipment/machinery that needs to be moved to/from a job site.
- Maximum legal cargo weight limit: around 38,000 pounds
- Maximum length: Limited by well space, typically 29 feet.
- Maximum legal freight height: 11 feet, 6 inches-12 feet, 6 inches (depending on location)
Hot Shot Trailers
Hot shot trailers are low-lying flatbed trailers that can be pulled with a class 3-6 pickup truck. 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 a traditional flatbed trailer. Companies that specialize in shorter lengths of haul have been using these hot shot trailers with great success.
In terms of size, most hot shot trailers on the market measure 30-40 feet long 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, the overall weight they can carry suffers. A 40-foot hot shot trailer can typically haul no more than 16,500 pounds of freight, sometimes less.
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.
- Do not require a traditional semi-tractor
- Most 30-40 feet long
- Maximum freight height: 9 feet, 6 inches to 10 feet (varies by location)
- Between 3 feet, 4 inches and 3 feet, 6 inches above the ground
- Maximum weight: no more than 16,500 pounds
Conestoga trailers are a specialized trailer type designed as an additional option for freight that requires in-transit protection from the elements. Conestogas feature a fixed rail/canopy system that can pulled back for loading and pulled forward to cover freight during transport.
This system is especially beneficial for cargo that would be damaged by traditional tarping and for freight with sharp edges that could, potentially, shred a driver's tarps.
Typically measuring 53-/48-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.
Conestogas are a relatively specialized type of trailer, making them more expensive to use than other open-deck trailers in some scenerios. However, Conestogas are a great alternative to tarping and are becoming increasingly common.
- Typically 53 feet long
- Available in step-deck, double-drop and standard flatbed configurations
- Features a fixed-rail, sliding-canopy system
- Used for freight requiring protection from the elements
- Maximum weight: 42,000-45,000 pounds
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. Curtainsides are typically 48- to 53-feet long, with a maximum cargo capacity of 40,000-43,000 pounds.
- Alternative to dry van and Conestoga trailers
- Usually 48- or 53-feet long
- Maximum cargo weight: 40,000-43,000 pounds
- Solid top, rear, front with a hanging tarp on each side
- Loaded from the back or sides, not from above
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 an original length of 38 feet to a maxed-out length of 65 feet. This makes extendable drop-decks perfect for hauling 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, 2 inches.
Commonly used to transport large machinery and extra-long raw materials, these trailers are very useful for shipments exceeding 38-feet long and between 8 feet, 6 inches and 10 feet, 2 inches in height (location depending).
- Middle portion extends from 38-feet to 65 feet
- Maximum weight capacity: 43,000 pounds
- Maximum legal cargo height capacity: 10-11 feet (depending on location)
Removable Gooseneck Trailers (RGN)
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, self-propelled machinery and equipment.
Like traditional trailers, removable gooseneck trailers come in several sizes.Standard RGN
The most commonly used member of the RGN family, the standard RGN can have two or three axles, depending on cargo weight. RGNs are typically used when height is a factor as they allow cargo up to 11 feet, 6 inches in height.
RGNs provide ease of use for hauling large equipment; simply drive the equipment onto the trailer before its departure, safely secure it and drive it off at its destination.
This removes the need to have cranes and forklifts on site for the loading/unloading process.
Standard RGNs are used in a lot of the same ways as double-drop trailers — they have the same weight and height restrictions.
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.
- Available with two or three axles
- Maximum legal cargo weight: 38,000 pounds
- Maximum permitted cargo weight: 55,000-65,000 pounds
- Maximum length: Limited by well-space, typically 30 feet
- Maximum legal height: Up to 11 feet, 6 inches (depending on location)
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 long, these trailers provide ample capacity to haul large equipment, materials and oversize cargo.
Depending on the number of axles, the weight capacity of these trailers can vary substantially.
The weight range for an expandable RGN trailer is 38,000 pounds (2-3 axles) to 225,000 pounds (19 total axles).
- Maximum cargo length: 50-feet long
- Maximum legal cargo weight: 38,000 pounds
- Maximum permitted cargo weight: 225,000 pounds (depending on number of axles)
- Maximum cargo height: Up to 11 feet, 6 inches (depending on location)
Which Trailer Type is Best For Your Freight?
Now you have a better understanding of many 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 palletized commodities, consider a dry van. When making this decision, it’s always best to keep capacity, budget and length of haul in mind.
In the trucking industry, using the right trailer is key when it comes to safely and uneventfully moving cargo from origin to destination.
Make sure to specify accurate information with your transportation provider, which will help them order the correct truck and trailer. Necessary information includes:
- Piece count
- Name of commodity
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.