Reefer Freight: What It Is, Pros and Cons

If you’ve been around trucking for a little while now, or even if you’re just starting, you’ve heard the term “reefer freight.” Reefer freight is one of the pillars of the trucking industry. A large percentage of the transport trucks running across the highways are reefer trucks.

What is reefer freight?

The “reefer” in reefer freight is an abbreviation of “refrigerated.” If you need to maintain the cargo temperature in transport, you ship it in a reefer truck. Reefer loads come in full or partial trailer loads and less than truckload (LTL) lots.

Most of the time, you’ll find food products, manufacturing chemicals, or pharmaceuticals shipped in temperature controlled conditions. There are three main categories of temperature controlled freight: frozen, refrigerated, or maintained (heated).

Pros and cons of reefer freight

Whether or not reefer freight trucking is the right business for you depends on various factors. Whether you’re a green driver just starting or an established owner-operator looking to expanding your business, consider these pros and cons:


Lots of work available

Reefer freight is in higher demand and bounces back from economic setbacks faster than other methods of transport. That’s because no matter what crisis impacts the U.S., the demand for food, drink, and medicine rarely subsides. In January 2021, Transport Topics News reported that reefers were among the cargo types that bounced back quickest from the economic impact of the pandemic.

The need for temperature-controlled supplies rolls on through the holidays and is unaffected by the seasons. Reefer drivers benefit from consistent loads week in, week out, and all year around.

Higher prices for cargo

Reefer loads pay better than dry van freight. Goods transported this way often require sensitive temperature control. Most food and beverage companies ship their goods in a refrigerated trailer kept at 32-36°F, like your fridge at home. Most frozen trucks operate at -10°F. Some chemicals and pharmaceutical products require even colder temperatures. The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNtech, for example, requires shipment at -80°C to -60°C (-112°F to -76°F).

In colder weather, reefer trailers also operate as heaters to maintain warmer cargo temperatures during transit. This prevents freezing or other temperature damage for some foods, alcohol, chemicals, and sensitive electronics. Reefer transport is more complex to operate because the loads are sensitive to temperature changes and because it takes specialized equipment to maintain the right temperature.

The types of cargo that require refrigeration are often more valuable than dry freight, impacting the cargo rates shippers are prepared to pay.

Easier pickup and delivery

Grocery chains, distribution centers, and food processing facilities typically have well-organized and well-run loading docks that handle thousands of pounds of cargo daily. The result is easy, stress-free loading and unloading.

Fewer deadhead miles

There are two reasons reefer trucks run fewer deadhead miles.

  1. Because there are so many reefer freight loads available, drivers have fewer gaps between loads. More loads mean more load density, so you don’t have to drive far for your next pick-up.
  2. Because reefer units don’t have to be reefer units. If you find that refrigerated products are going one way and dry products are going back the other, you can easily turn off the generator and run the trailer dry on the return journey. Reefer trucks generally have the same interior space as dry vans.

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