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A Quick Guide to Semi-Truck Trailers: Styles, Uses, Sizes

When I drive on the interstate, I often find myself contemplating the multitude of semi-trucks that share the road with me. From those hauling 52′ trailers to the ones transporting immense excavation equipment, their presence can be quite daunting.

Finding the Right Type of Semi-truck Trailer

While it’s easy to get frustrated with these behemoths sharing the road, it’s important to remember that not all trucks are created equal. Despite their seemingly similar appearance, each truck may be carrying an entirely different load. This is due to the diverse range of goods being transported across the country via our extensive interstate system.

What does that mean for you? It means you’re probably not completely accurate in your road rage when you call every single truck a tractor-trailer. Turns out, different trucks tow different stuff, and they have all sorts of different trailers to accommodate the huge variety of products we ship everywhere. If you’re in charge of shipping some of those things, you’ll want to make sure you have the right truck for your load and the right trucking software to measure telematics data. Otherwise, your shipment might deliver a few tons of spoiled tomatoes because you left them sitting in the hot Florida sun in a regular trailer without refrigeration.Three-Trucks-On-The-Highway

Different Types of Semi-truck Trailers and Their Uses

These are the different types of trucks on the road, what they’re good for, why you’d use one, and what limitations each has.

1. Van or Dry Van Trailer

Vans are what you probably think of when you think of a semi-truck. Vans are usually a 48’ or 53’ trailer pulled by a truck. By far the most common type of large trucks on the road, vans are the go-to trucks for practically everything. Most products that move from one warehouse to another will go on a van.

2. Flatbed Trailer

Flatbeds are perfect for things that are hearty, robust, and won’t get hurt in a little bit of weather. Oftentimes, flatbeds deliver building materials to construction zones because the cargo can be easily lifted up and off either side of the trailer. If you’re wondering what a flatbed is, it’s basically just a long, flat trailer, where cargo is ratcheted down on top.

3. Lowboy Trailer

Lowboys are like flatbeds, except the middle of the trailer dips down for extra height clearance. Lowboys are used to transport cargo that’s especially tall. The extra space from the middle dip helps give extra clearance on stuff like excavators, boats, and other industrial equipment with XL dimensions.

4. Reefer Trailer

By far my favorite name for a truck, reefer stands for refrigerated trailer, not that phase I went through in college. From heads of lettuce to artisanal kombucha, anything that has to stay cold needs a reefer. The way to spot a reefer is the large refrigeration unit in the front of the trailer.


5. Box Truck

Box trucks aren’t full-fledged semi-trucks. They’re more like the moving trucks you’d rent from Penske or U-Haul. Box trucks are smaller than a full-sized van. The biggest benefit of a box truck is that it fits where a regular 53-footer can’t. Most residential deliveries require a box truck.

6. Tanker Trailer

Tankers carry all sorts of liquid goodness. From milk to gas, tankers carry stuff that usually goes in a bottle. Fun fact: they’re also some of the most difficult types of trucks to book!

Additional Styles of Trucks and Trailers

1. Team Truck

Some trucks have an extra space behind the driver’s seat where people can sleep. Team trucks have a team of two drivers that take turns driving and sleeping. Team drivers can get a load from California to New York in two days – a trip that usually takes 5 or more! Team drivers move things across the country with a quickness only exceeded by an airplane – at a much lower cost.

2. Courier Van

Express deliveries for small loads might use a sprinter van or other smaller automobile via courier. They look sort of like a plumber van, but they move freight instead. If you just have a couple boxes that need to be delivered same-day across town, a courier could be your best bet. Typically, couriers only do deliveries in nearby areas.

3. Power Only Truck

Are you one of those weird people with a spare trailer full of stuff to move, but you don’t have a truck? Me neither, but if you were, you’d be looking for a power-only shipment. Folks that own a truck can pull up to your trailer, hook it up, tow the trailer where it needs to go, and unhook the trailer when they get there. Power only means you’re just paying someone for their engine to get your trailer somewhere.


4. Lift Gate

What happens when you need to deliver freight to a place that doesn’t have a loading dock? Easy, you need a lift gate. Lift gates are little elevators that fold underneath the back of a trailer to help get things from the trailer floor to the ground. Lift gates come on box trucks and some 53’ trailers, but you have to ask for them.

How to Know Which Type of Trailer to Use

There you have it! You’re now armed with the information to book the exact kind of truck your load needs. Are you shipping one box across town? Use a courier. Are you needing to get 20 pallets of Tickle Me Elmo’s from Seattle to New York in two days for Christmas? Get a van team.

The type of truck you need mostly depends on what kind of freight you’re shipping and where it’s going. Even if you don’t ship stuff, at least now you know how to identify and categorize all those different tractor trailer trucks out on the road.

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