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Which semitruck trailer is best for your load?

If you’re looking for a semitruck to carry a load of freight, you’re in luck. There are around 3.2 million trailers currently on U.S. roadways, which gives you a lot of options! It’s a double-edged sword, though, when you aren’t quite sure what you’re looking for. The same point applies to the amount of information about trailers available online. This list of trailers and what they carry will help you sort out the basics.

Which trailers are most common?

Dry vans

Versatile dry vans, which require only a standard commercial driver’s license to drive, are the most common semitrailers on the road. With fully enclosed cargo space, these trailers offer built-in protection from weather and easy safeguarding against in-transit damage and theft. Along with these benefits, it’s cheaper to ship via dry van than other trailer types.


Open flatbed trailers can carry shipments that can’t travel in an enclosed dry van, often due to their dimensions. Along with the complexity of hauling bulky, high-value goods unprotected from outdoor elements, flatbed drivers must manage considerable safety risks. In the wrong hands, transporting unusually sized cargo on public roads can be highly dangerous. Accordingly, flatbed drivers require more training and are typically better paid than dry van drivers, contributing to higher shipping rates.

Reefer/refrigerated containers

At first glance the temperature-controlled reefer trailers used in cold-chain logistics look like dry vans and offer the same advantages. These benefits include weather protection and safeguarding against damage and theft. Unlike dry vans, though, reefers must maintain a constant temperature to prevent the degradation or adulteration of cargo. Drivers receive special training on temperature-controlled freight handling, including constant temperature monitoring. They must also know the basic mechanics of their cooling units in case they break down. As a result, reefer trailer shipping is more expensive than dry van and flatbed shipping, and drivers are better compensated.

What are some specialty semitruck trailers?

Two specialty trailers are actually adaptations of the standard, “legal” open-deck flatbed. They are step-decks (or drop-decks/single-drops) and lowboys (or double-drops), and all three are available for five-, six- and seven-axle rigs. Eight-axle trailers also come in legal and lowboy configurations. 

Additional trailers built for specific kinds of loads include:

  • Dump/tippers
  • Hoppers
  • Intermodals
  • Tankers

Cargo examples and their recommended trailer type

Based on what you need hauled, one of the following types of trailers will probably work. Find the example that’s most like your cargo for a recommendation.

Non-perishable grocery items, textiles, paper goods, furniture

Dry van – As a general rule, dry vans can move any kind of freight that fits inside their trailers. Just make sure your goods don’t require a constant temperature.

Perishable fresh and frozen grocery items, flowers, pharmaceuticals, paint

Reefer – Refrigerated trailers that have what’s usually a mechanical or cryogenic active cooling system, air vents and an insulated body.

Branches, fill dirt, gravel, sand, stones, trash

Dump/tipper – Often confused with more expensive dump trucks, dump trailers use hydraulics to raise the end directly behind the tractor. These trailers are available with and without frames, and with bottom, end or side dump options.

Grain, frac sand, plastic pellets, coal

Hopper – Hoppers are trailers with rigid sides, an open top, and sliding doors in the bottom. Because of this, they’re great for bulk commodity loading and unloading. Usually hopper loads are covered with a tarp during transit, except for coal, which remains uncovered most of the time.

Non-perishable, palletized imports/export with low time sensitivity 

Intermodal – These are fully enclosed container trailers for shipments traveling via more than one transport mode. In fact, they travel almost exclusively between ports and rail terminals, depots, distribution centers, warehouses, etc. They’re specially designed to quickly transition from one mode to the next. 

Asphalt, beverages, chemicals, pesticide, fertilizer, sand, petroleum, water

Tanker – Maybe the most easily recognized specialty trailer type, tankers carry their cargo in a cylindrical, enclosed container. They haul bulk liquids or dry bulk, including some kinds of food, typically in aluminum or steel tanks. Depending on what they transport, some require hazmat placards.

Heavy or oversize materials and equipment 

Legal, step-deck or lowboy flatbed – Read Find the best flatbed trailer for your heavy or oversized load for detailed information and recommendations.

Knowing which semitruck trailer you need is the first step

If you’re looking for someone to move your goods, now you should have an idea of where to begin. The next step is to research various businesses and their services to find a good fit for your needs. To find companies for refrigerated shipments, check the FreightWaves Ratings list of the Best refrigerated trucking companies. Read Top flatbed trucking companies to learn which businesses specialize in the type of flatbed you need. And if you’re considering whether to rent or buy a dry van, How much is a dry van trailer? may help.


What are the standard dimensions of a dry van or reefer semitruck trailer?

Standard dry van and reefer trailers are 48 or 53 feet long. They are 8.5 feet wide, and usually between 8’6” and nine feet tall. They’re capable of hauling 42,000 or 45,000 pounds of weight.

What’s the biggest trend in semitruck trailer innovations?

Telematics has become one of the most important trends in trailer innovation. Companies seeking to mitigate supply chain disruptions across nearly every industry are increasingly turning to smart technologies. With ongoing component performance monitoring, businesses can maximize trailers’ utilization rates and extend their lifespans.

Which companies manufacture trailers?

Three companies hold the largest market share of the $12 billion semitrailer manufacturing industry in the U.S. They are Wabash National Corporation, Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company and Great Dane LLC. The market size has expanded an average of 1.1% each year between 2017 and 2022.

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