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Reefer Truck vs Dry Van: Choosing What’s Right For You

February 21, 2023
 By Natalie Kienzle
Reefer Truck vs Dry Van: Choosing What’s Right For You
Last Modified: June 2, 2023
When the choice between van types isn’t obvious, it’worth examining the differences before starting the shipping process. Choosing the right trailer type is a big step in protecting your shipments during transit.
Different Trailer Types   |   Reefer Trailers   |   Reefer Trailer Uses   |   Dry Van Trailers   |   Dry Van Uses   |   Reefers as Dry Vans   |   Insulated Dry Vans   |   Our Services

Reefer truck vs dry van selection has to do with more than temperature needs. There are the obvious loads, such as fresh meat or frozen goods, that require refrigerated transport services. Dry van trailers also offer a wide range of options and are a common method of transport. Choosing the right one for your goods is a matter of getting the details right. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) have regulations in place to ensure food items are correctly hauled, but they don’t state which methods are required. Choosing a reefer trailer or a dry van for a load is mostly up to the shipper and sometimes the driver.

Let’s review some key differences between the two types and when shippers might prefer one over the other.

What’s the Difference Between A Reefer Truck vs Dry Van?

Before you can pick one type of trailer or another for your goods, you should become familiar with the different types. Reefer trucks, or reefer trailers, vs dry vans are only two of the options. 

Other trailer types include:

  • Flatbed trailers
  • Heavy haul trailers
  • Insulated trailers

Even within these types, there are varieties, so it’s important for shippers to understand the differences. By doing so, they can weigh the benefits with specific cargo. This way, shippers can choose the right trailer for any type of cargo they need to haul

reefer truck vs dry van overhead view of a line of parked trucks and trailers

What is a Reefer Trailer?

A reefer trailer is a closed in trailer with insulation and an attached refrigeration unit, also known as a genset

Reefer is the commonly accepted term for any type of refrigerated:

  • Truck 
  • Van 
  • Trailer
  • Marine container. 

Refrigerated trailers come in the same standard sizes as other trailers commonly used in the trucking industry. 

  • 48 feet
  • 53 feet

In either of these sizes, reefers can tackle full truckload or Less Than Truckload (LTL) reefer loads. Weight capacities can fluctuate based on the equipment being used, but are typically between 42,000 and 45,000 pounds.

The interior space of a reefer trailer will be slightly smaller than a dry van. This is due to the insulation used on walls and roof that helps with temperature maintenance. 

Despite the name, you shouldn’t actually compare a refrigerated truck to the kind of refrigerator used in homes. Those types of refrigerated units are designed to actually bring something’s temperature down. 

A reefer unit is designed to maintain a set temperature anywhere between standard room temperature to below freezing.  

So long as there is enough fuel and any equipment malfunctions are avoided, reefers can maintain steady temperatures for several weeks. This is crucial for anyone looking to ship perishable foods from overseas. 

What is a Reefer Trailer Used For?

Reefer trailers are most commonly used to haul perishable items such as food. Most of the U.S. population lives far from farms in urban areas that rely on grocery stores. Keeping goods fresh or frozen during long hauls would be impossible without reefer trailers. 

Other items carried by reefers include:

Reefer trucks are also used when a specific humidity is required, or even to keep things hot. Because of this, reefer transport services are part of the Climate Controlled Transport (CCT) industry. 

The Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) conducted a survey to get a better idea of common hauls among reefer drivers.  

North American Refrigerated Trailer Survey Report 2022

GoodsPercentage of Reported Loads
Food Service21%
Dairy, Milk, and Eggs3%
Heat Only6%
Source: TMC Market Intelligence Series

Although there seem to be various repeats in the survey, such as ‘grocery’ and ‘food service’, consider just how many things grocery stores carry. Food service can also indicate products going to restaurants or hotels. 

Technology has advanced greatly in recent years due to pressure to combat food loss and waste. Many reefers can be set to multiple temperatures and have features like divided compartments. By being able to create individual compartments, each one can maintain a unique temperature and humidity level. 

If you are looking to arrange shipping for a grocery store and have at least some items that need refrigeration, these specialized reefers are a logical choice. Rather than hiring a dry van for a partial load and a reefer for another partial load, everything can ship in a single unit while being kept at different temperatures. 

There are times when partial or even LTL reefer loads are the better option. Our article, “Refrigerated LTL Freight: Transform How You Ship”, can give you additional information

What is a Dry Van Trailer?

A dry van trailer is an enclosed storage unit used to ship goods by truck while keeping them protected from the elements.

Dry van trailers are by far the most common form of cargo transport unit in North America. Used in almost every industry imaginable, chances are the majority of the items in your home traveled via dry van shipping at some point or another. 

Much like reefers, dry vans come in two common sizes:

  • 53 feet: 45,000 pound capacity
  • 48 feet: 42,000 pound capacity

Their simple design has allowed dry van trucking to become the most popular method of moving freight in the United States. According to the ATA, trucks were responsible for hauling 72.2% of all freight during 2021.  

While we don’t have the figures that break that down by trailer type, you can be sure that dry vans are likely at the top of the list.

What is a Dry Van Trailer Used For?

A dry van trailer is a cost-effective way of moving any boxed and palletized freight that isn’t temperature sensitive.

From shampoos to auto parts, dry van trucking has provided transport for millions of products used daily. It’s a very versatile method of shipping, and standard sizes make the loading and unloading process quite simple. Dry vans can even be equipped with lift gates to make deliveries possible even when there is no loading dock.

However, there are limits to their capabilities, some more obvious than others. 

  • Not suitable for goods requiring temperature control
  • Does not have reinforced flooring for heavy haul or oversized cargo
  • All goods must fit through the standard sized opening that is 8’ x 8.2’ 

Except for temperature control, a reefer van also can’t handle oversized loads or items that don’t fit through standard openings. 

If you need to move this type of cargo, you will need to look into flatbed style trailers or similar styles that can accommodate heavy loads out-of-gauge measurements. 

speed blurred image of two semi trucks on a highway at night

Can a Reefer be Used as a Dry Van?

The main difference between a dry van vs reefer trailer is the presence of a refrigeration unit. A reefer trailer that has its refrigeration unit turned off can be used as a dry van. 

Why is this significant? Reefer trailer rates average about 50 cents more per mile than dry van rates. A driver dropping off a reefer load is likely going to try to pick up another one to avoid deadhead miles. Unfortunately, depending on the season or location, reefer loads may be limited. 

Reefer loads are often live loads, meaning they need to be unloaded right away. Few reefer carriers use drop and hook freight practices for fear of a load sitting too long and possibly spoiling. 

If a driver can pick up a standard load and use their reefer as a dry van, it’s still better than deadheading to the next destination. Since the cargo won’t need the services of the refrigeration unit, it can stay off and not become an additional cost. 

What is an Insulated Dry Van?

When shippers need to keep something at a steady temperature, but don’t want to take on the full expense of a reefer, insulated trailers are an option. 

An insulated dry van trailer is one that has been insulated to help maintain temperatures, much like a reefer, but does not have a refrigeration unit. 

Although they have limited range, these insulated dry vans are actually very helpful for short hauls or trips taking place overnight. 

If goods are within coolers or pre-chilled to a specific temperature, an insulated trailer is a good option. 

Shippers will often use insulated trailers to move freight such as:

  • Wine
  • Medication within separate cooling units
  • Certain types of produce

As long as the surrounding temperature isn’t extreme, insulated trailers can transport such products without issue. In places with intense winters, an insulated trailer can also keep the cold out so products don’t freeze in transit.

In the right weather and with the right products, the choice between reefer truck vs dry van is thus avoided entirely. 

Keep Your Cool With USA Refrigerated Freight

You aren’t the first shipper to struggle with a reefer truck vs dry van decision, and you won’t be the last. The freight industry has been tight in recent years, and companies are just trying to keep goods moving in the best way they can.

USA Refrigerated Freight is here to be part of the solution. We offer cold chain solutions for a variety of temperature sensitive products. 

We commonly arrange transport for:

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Frozen Foods
  • Fresh Produce

Call us today at (866) 849-4923 to speak with an experienced cold freight specialist. Have a more specific concern? Get a risk-free quote online today. 

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