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Heavy Haul

Dry Van vs. Reefer: Which is Best?

The question of whether a dry van or a reefer is best depends a lot on the lanes you work in and the type of cargo you carry. There are less than a quarter the number of reefers on the road in the United States compared to dry vans, specifically, 400,00 reefers and 1.7 million dry vans. That’s a lot of trailers on the road. But why so many more dry van vs reefer trucks? Here’s what you need to know and how to decide whether a reefer or a dry van is best for you.

dry van vs reefer

Dry van or reefer: Which is right for you?

Before you start transporting loads, you need to understand the different shipping methods, trailer types, and which work best for different cargo. 

  • Dry van: The most common type of trailer, it can haul a variety of products, both short and long distances.
  • Heavy haul: This type of trailer is suited for hefty and often unusual loads.
  • Flatbed: Often used for hauling equipment, crates, and miscellaneous materials, this type of trailer is good for loads that wouldn’t fit efficiently into a dry van.
  • Reefer or refrigerated: This type of trailer is for hauling perishables that need to be at a certain protected temperature during transport.

There are other trailer types, too, each made to carry certain cargo types, and some highly specialized. It is important to know which equipment is best for which loads and each type’s pros and cons.

This guide will focus on comparing reefer trailer to dry vans and loads. Size is usually where the similarities end.

What is a dry van?

A dry van is the most common type of trailer because it’s very versatile. It’s basically a contained box, which is why it’s often called a box trailer. When uncoupled or unhooked from the cab, it has legs the trailer stands on. Finding loads for dry vans on load boards is pretty easy because of the different cargo types it can carry.

Dry vans usually haul non-perishable and dry items: electronics, appliances, non-perishable food, and other things commonly hauled on pallets. Essentially anything that’s dry, non-perishable, and will fit in the trailer can be hauled by a dry van.

Most dry vans are between 48′ and 53′ long, 13′ 6″ high, and 102″ wide. Some have roll-up doors, loading ramps for connecting with various loading docks, aerodynamic skirts, and an e-track system to improve fuel mileage.

Advantages of dry vans:

  • Versatility. They can carry a variety of cargo types for short or long haul runs.
  • Security. Dry vans do a great job of protecting cargo because they’re fully enclosed from weather and easy to lock and secure.
  • Convenience. You can use the drop and hook load method (drop one trailer, pick up another) without having to wait for the trailer to be unloaded. This keeps your truck moving and saves you time on multiple runs.
  • Affordability. Dry van shipping is more affordable than many other hauling methods.


The primary challenge of dry vans is the wood floor. Wood is easily damaged by moisture and condensation, which can mean more frequent repairs. This moisture can come from the freight itself or open doors, especially when unloading or loading during bad weather.

What are reefer trailers?

A reefer trailer or refrigerated trailer is a trailer that can be temperature controlled using a kind of portable HVAC system. Reefers often haul several LTL shipments in one load to more than one location. Anything perishable or that requires a certain stable temperature can be hauled in a reefer. Find specific types of reefer loads on a load board that caters to shippers with perishable freight. Examples: frozen goods, perishable foods, chemicals, and even pharmaceuticals.

The reefer truck has several parts, including an evaporator, condenser, compressor, and the reefer engine attached to the trailer that runs the HVAC system. It’s also much more insulated than a typical dry van. But the dimensions are similar at 48′ to 55′ long, 13′ 6″ high, and 102″ wide. The difference is the interior cargo space, which is usually smaller because of insulation.

Floors are usually metal because it handles temperature changes and moisture much better than wood.

Advantages of reefer trailers:

  • Demand: There will always be a need to transport perishable goods. Since there are so many fewer trailers, it is typically easy to find reefer loads. That’s why reefer load rates are often higher than dry van load rates. 
  • Versatility: You don’t have to carry only refrigerated loads. You can also carry dry goods and other temperature-sensitive loads with a reefer trailer.
  • Security: Reefer trailers are also easy to secure and excellent at protecting freight from weather and theft.


  • Reefer trailers come with extra responsibilities. You have to clean the trailer thoroughly between loads and control and monitor the cooling equipment and trailer temperature.
  • The constantly running motor can be noisy.
  • There’s usually not a drop and hook option available. Loading and unloading times can be longer at docks.
  • There is more equipment to maintain, and malfunctions can mean losing the load if not caught in time.
  • Trailers must be pre-cooled before loading cargo, which adds to preparation time.
  • They are expensive. The additional motor and equipment mean more fuel consumption.

Reefer loads can be very lucrative, especially sensitive loads. Some reefer trailers have sophisticated features, like zones that let you set different temperatures in different parts of the trailer. These are often in high demand.

Use load boards to connect with shippers and carriers.

No matter what you’re driving, whether it’s a dry van, flatbed, or reefer, the best thing you can do is use load boards to avoid deadhead runs. Empty trailers still cost you money for fuel, time, and wear and tear on your truck. A loaded truck is a profitable one. Connecting with reliable brokers and verified loads is a great way to keep your truck always working for you.

Deciding between a dry van or a reefer trailer depends on the cargo you’ll be hauling. Either way, it’s important to know the differences and make each hauling method work for you in order to start your trucking business.

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