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How to Transport a Shipping Container: Overcome Challenges

November 28, 2022
 By Natalie Kienzle
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How to Transport a Shipping Container: Overcome Challenges
Last Modified: June 2, 2023
International trade was revolutionized by the adoption of standard shipping containers. Aside from their standard shipboard use, they are also used on land and often need to be transported from place to place whether empty or filled with cargo.
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Knowing how to transport a shipping container in a few different ways comes in handy under many circumstances. You may be faced with a lack of transload facilities or may be facing a tight deadline. It could also be that the shipping container itself is the load. In either circumstance, working with a heavy haul carrier service simplifies the process. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates the handling of containerized cargo and shipping containers. Carriers follow specific weight recording/display practices, handling instructions, and equipment standards to ensure the safety of workers and products. The standards still apply outside of ports.  

Learn how shipping containers are moved safely when loaded or empty. See how the use of a heavy haul carrier can simplify the process. 

How to Transport a Shipping Container By Truck

Standard-sized marine shipping containers revolutionized the shipping industry once they were widely adopted. On ships, they are easily stacked with cranes and provide a secure environment for all kinds of goods. 

On land, the United States uses dry van trailers to move most truck freight. Dry vans have the benefit of being longer and lighter than most shipping containers. Even so, there are many cases where shipping containers need to leave ports and rely on trucking services. 

The simplest way to transport a shipping container by truck is through a heavy haul freight broker that is connected to drivers and carriers with specialized equipment.

Shipping containers are moved by a truck when:

  • Relocated to different parts of a port
  • Sent to transload facilities
  • Shipping as intermodal transport
  • Delivered as a storage product

Some of these transport services are easier to achieve than others. Ports have access to heavy machinery that lifts even fully loaded containers with ease.

To transport a shipping container by truck, other methods are necessary to make loading and unloading possible. Methods also change depending on whether containers are full or empty. 

how to transport a shipping container view of a reefer container on a flatbed trailer

Are Shipping Containers Oversized Loads?

A shipping container’s standard measurements also impact shipping practices. Factors such as width, height, and weight impact how easily containers are moved.

An empty, standard-sized TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) or FEU (40-foot equivalent unit) container is not considered an oversized load. If the weight of a loaded container, trailer, and truck exceeds 80,000 pounds, it will be considered a heavy haul load by the FMCSA. 

You can still transport the container by truck, but the driver and carrier will need to apply for a heavy haul permit. This allows them to move loads greater than the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) sets as the maximum. 

It’s important to learn the dimensions and weight specifications of the shipping container you need to transport. Shipping containers have very high weight capacities, which is one of the reasons they are so popular. However, that same quality can backfire since max weights on ships and trucks are different. 

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Standard construction specifications of shipping containers include:

  • Lengths of 20 or 40 feet
  • External widths of 8 feet
  • Standard heights of 8 feet 6 inches 
  • High Cube (HC) heights of 9 feet 6 inches
  • Tare weights ranging from 4,520 lbs to 8,575 lbs
  • Corten steel walls, frame, and doors
  • Plywood or bamboo flooring
  • Forklift pockets
  • Corner castings for crane lifting

You need to be especially careful with HC containers in TEU or FEU lengths. The combined height of the trailer and container could make it an oversize load if it exceeds individual state height limits. 

Always check on heavy haul and oversize limits on a state-by-state basis. Some states’ regulations and limits are actually stricter than those of the FMCSA. The FMCSA sets the maximum limits of heavy haul classifications, but states can choose to use their own so long as they don’t exceed national standards. 

Check out our article on cable drum transport for assistance on moving this type of oversized load.

What Kind of Trailer is Needed to Move A Shipping Container?

There is a wide variety of container types, but a limited number of container sizes. We’ll focus on standard TEU and FEU containers since those are the ones most often transported. There are a few different truck and trailer combinations safe enough to use for loaded and unloaded containers.

Trailers commonly used for hauling a shipping container include:

  • Flatbed trailers
  • Shipping container trailers (container chassis)
  • Tilt bed trailers
  • Step-deck trailers

In each case, OSHA regulations regarding handling need to be followed. Since these containers are moving overland, the heavy haul limits put in place by the FMCSA should also be considered. 

1. Hauling Shipping Containers on a Flatbed or Step-Deck Trailer

A flatbed trailer is a staple in any transportation company that focuses on heavy haul or oversized transport services. Since flatbed trailers don’t have a roof or sides, loading and unloading can happen from almost any angle. 

If the shipping container is loaded and traveling more than 200 miles, a flatbed or step-deck trailer is recommended

Step-deck trailers are similar to flatbeds in that they don’t have a roof or sides inhibiting loading. However, if you need to transport an HC shipping container, it has a lower deck that allows for the safe shipping of taller materials. 

back view of shipping containers on chassis waiting to be hitched to a trucl

2. Hauling Shipping Containers on a Tilt-Bed Trailer

When a shipping container itself is the load, a tilt-bed trailer is another popular option. Because the bed itself can tilt, unloading is simple and requires nothing more than the built-in winch and a little help from gravity. 

However, there are several cons to using a tilt-bed trailer such as:

  • Price: The cost per mile for the use of a tilt-bed trailer will be greater than a flatbed or step-deck trailer.
  • Weight Limit: These trailers are best suited for empty containers or a lightly loaded TEU. If you need to ship loaded containers of any size, this is not a good option.
  • Shifted Loads: Because these trailers work by lifting and tilting a trailer onto a ground-level position, unsecured cargo within might get damaged. 

If you plan to use a shipping container as an on-site storage unit or in the creation of a tiny home, tilt-bed trailers are still a good option. It’s also a good option for delivering containers to locations that don’t have additional equipment like cranes or forklifts. 

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3. Hauling Shipping Containers on a Chassis

Container chassis are designed specifically to move shipping containers by truck. They can be modified for various lengths and fitted with additional axles to support heavy weights. 

So long as the right equipment is available at the loading and unloading locations, a chassis is the most cost-effective way to move a shipping container. When you need to move loaded containers to distribution centers or warehouses, a chassis has an ideal height for a docking station. 

Drayage services will often use container chassis to deliver units to nearby warehouses for transloading or intermodal services. They can also return empty containers back to port to save you time and money. 

Picking the best method is going to depend on your specific needs and capabilities. 

semi-truck hauling a shipping container down the highway

How Much Does it Cost To Transport a Shipping Container?

We’ve gone over a few different ways describing how to transport a shipping container, so you should consider that costs to move one change based on circumstance and method. Distance also factors in for companies that charge by the mile. 

When estimating the full cost of transporting a shipping container, factor in:

  • Flat fee charges
  • Differences in loaded vs unloaded containers. 
  • Related fees for taxes and insurance
  • Per mile charges
  • Charges for related equipment
  • Sitting fees

Depending on these factors, moving a shipping container can cost you between a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Below, you’ll see a simplified breakdown of per-mile costs per trailer type when using a professional freight service. 

Average Costs per Trailer

Trailer TypeRateCharge By
Flatbed or Stepdeck Trailer$2.00 – $3.15Per Mile
Tilt-Bed Trailer$150 – $200Per Day
Container Chassis$80 – $100Per 100 lbs. 

These are average prices based on various service quotes. Delivery service rates in your area may be higher or lower depending on things like terrain, seasonal weather, and route. 

While there are places where you can rent trailers on a daily or even monthly basis, the DIY approach to moving shipping containers isn’t recommended. This is especially true for loaded containers of any size. Unless you have experience operating machinery such as forklifts or trailers, professional shipping container transport services are the way to go. 

Moving a Loaded Shipping Container

A loaded shipping container, regardless of size, has a very high likelihood of being overweight. If the container has been filled overseas in Europe or Asia, you need to consider that the weight limits imposed on their trucks tend to be higher than those allowed in the U.S. 

Since the U.S. is one of the few nations not using the metric system, this can create additional confusion. 

Additional factors that can make final weight calculations challenging include:

  • Inaccurate weighing of containers between delivery stops
  • Varying tare weights of semi-trucks, day cabs, and other vehicles used
  • Varying permit load restrictions by state
  • Different weight limits on state vs federal highways
  • Different state qualifications for non-divisible loads

As soon as you need to pull an oversize/heavy haul permit, the shipping costs go up. If the container is shipped across state lines, you need a heavy haul permit for each state the container will pass through. 

Working with a heavy haul freight broker will give you a better idea of what permits you may need and their related costs. Hiring a broker also adds to the expense, but is the best way to avoid penalty fees.

Move Shipping Containers With Heavy Haul and Oversize

How do you move a shipping container with ease? You contact the experts at Heavy Haul and Oversize and let us know exactly what you need. 

With decades of experience in the heavy freight industry, we know our way around shipping containers and the various heavy haul regulations of each state. Loaded or unloaded, long or short, Heavy Haul and Oversize is your reliable shipping partner. 

Call us today at (855) 490-2433 to speak directly with a representative. If you already know what you need shipped, fill out a form today to get your load-specific quote. 

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