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Truck moving a shipping container

How To Move A Shipping Container

Whether you’re wondering how to transport a shipping container cross-country (even overseas) or simply move it short distances or on/off a truck, we have you covered.  Learn how to move shipping containers of all sizes with or without heavy equipment, as well as how to transport them over long distances.

Ways to transport shipping containers

Here are the different ways that shipping containers are transported across the country and overseas. 

Intermodal Transportation

  1. By Ship or Boat (Ocean Carrier)
    To deliver a shipping container overseas, you will need to hire a qualified International Freight Forwarder who works with a non-vessel operating common carrier (NVOCC) to plan and execute all aspects of your door-to-door shipment.  Just like a steamship line, an NVOCC issues a bill of lading and takes responsibility for the safety of your load. But because it’s not a steamship line, it’s not married to schedules or routes. They can survey all available options to find a solution that meets your objectives.  Since a forwarder manages cargo for many companies, it tenders enough volume to get you good rates with ocean and landside carriers. They also are involved in transferring freight containers from one mode of transport to another – ship to train, or train to truck to get containers delivered to their destination.  International Moving Companies arrange for individuals to move their household goods overseas, not all International Freight Forwarders provide this service.

    After you secure your Freight Forwarder, they will walk you through the steps to schedule your transportation.  If transporting from the United States to another country, the Freight Forwarder will first recommend you purchase a New or Used, Cargo Worthy Inspected Container which Container Sales Group can help you with (708-693-4783). If you need to have the shipping container surveyed, Container Sales Group can arrange for the container to be surveyed by a professional surveyor for ocean export and provide you with a written certificate of inspection, if your steamship line requires it.   Once the container is ready to be transported to the first destination, the Freight Forwarder will pick it up and deliver it to the first location to be loaded and then transferred to the port.  At this point, the loaded shipping container is placed on the steamship for ocean export and your Freight Forwarder works with a customs broker to manage the entry at the new destination.  Once the container has arrived, the final step is that the container will be transported safely to the receiver.  There are a lot of steps involved with ocean export shipping, which is why it is important to hire a qualified professional.
  2. By Train
    The train is the most fuel-efficient and environmentally responsible mode of ground freight transportation for shipping containers compared to long-haul trucks.  Keep in mind you will need to arrange container transportation to and from the railyard.  The disadvantage of this mode of transportation is the routes and timing cannot be adjusted to individual requirements which may not work for you if you have a tight schedule.
  3. By Truck
    Long Haul Trucking (Cross Country) more than 200 miles — Contact your shipping container seller who will connect with a Freight Broker to help connect shippers with carriers and those needing to move a shipping container long distance.

    Flatbed Delivery – Trucks with a long flatbed can move either one 40’ long container or up to two 20’ long containers at the same time. The containers cannot be higher than 8’ 6” high. A forklift or crane will set your container on the truck at the beginning of the trip and lift it off when it reaches your site.  Flatbed Freight Brokers can make moving a shipping container more cost-effective.
    Step Deck Delivery – This truck is the same as a flatbed truck, but it has a lower deck to accommodate High Cube 9’ 6” high shipping containers.  As with flatbed delivery, the step deck is also a cost-effective way to move a shipping container.  A Step Deck Freight Broker can help you accomplish this.
    Chassis Delivery – Pulled by a trailer, a chassis is a metal frame with wheels designed to carry containers securely. A chassis, also referred to as a container chassis or an intermodal chassis, is a wheeled piece of equipment designed to carry containers between terminals, ports, railyards, depots, and shipping or warehouse facilities. A chassis is composed of a steel frame, braking system, lighting system, axles, and tires.

    Short Distance Trucking – less than 200 miles

    Tilt-Bed (Roll-Off) Delivery – A tilt-bed is the most popular delivery option, either with a straight truck or a tractor-trailer combo. The tilt beds have a flatbed that completely tilts to load and unload the shipping container. The truck will back right into the place you want your container and will be tilted at such an angle that the rear edge touches the ground then the truck will pull forward as the winch lowers the other container end.  The convenience of a tilt bed is that it eliminates the need for a forklift.

Common trucks & trailers for moving shipping containers

Tilt-Bed Truck (Rollback or Roll-Off)
We recommend using a tilt-bed truck (also known as a rollback or roll-off truck) when moving a cargo container less than 200 miles. These trucks are the safest and most convenient way to deliver a shipping container.  The bed of the truck hydraulicly lifts behind the truck cab at an angle to let the container slide off with ease as the truck pulls forward.  This means that the driver will arrive on-site and set the container on the ground with no additional equipment.

Flatbed Truck or Step Deck Trailer
For long delivery distances over 200 miles, we recommend using a Flatbed truck or Step Deck Trailer which are typically the most available and affordable transportation methods. 20 & 40ft Standard (8’ 6” high) containers go on the Flatbed and are tightly secured and driven to the delivery site. Any High Cube (9’ 6” high) shipping containers must be delivered on a Step Deck Trailer, because of highway height restrictions. The only downside to a Flatbed or Step Deck truck is it requires a forklift or crane operator to remove the shipping container from the truck at the delivery site.

Side Loader Truck or Truck Mounted Crane
A Side Loader Truck is essentially a truck fitted with a loading system operating on one side for handling shipping containers.  This method is ideal for the delivery of containers that need to fit into constricted spaces or for moving a container over an obstruction like a wall or fence.  A Side Loader eliminates the need for a crane or forklift and the container can be easily placed on the ground with two side lifting cranes on the truck.

Shipping container moving equipment


On and Off a Ship

The current method of unloading container ships is to pull them into a dock and line up container cranes and start offloading containers one at a time.

Container cranes are a type of large dockside gantry crane found at container terminals and used for loading and unloading intermodal containers from container ships. Also known as ship-to-shore (STS) cranes, STS gantry cranes, harbor cranes, or container-handling gantry cranes.

Below are the different cranes:

  • Full Gantry Crane:  One of the most common gantry cranes, it has two supporting legs that move across fixed rails. This crane typically works in a designated area and easily allows vehicles to pass underneath. The trolley moves within the main span, and the main beam has no overhang.
  • Semi-Gantry Crane: Most semi-gantry cranes have a single leg that runs along the surface and another that runs along a runway system fastened to a wall or other vertical structure. However, the difference in height between the two legs is a matter of your site or needs.
  • Portable Gantry Crane: This gantry crane is easy to assemble and dismantle on worksites; it provides greater flexibility than most. However, it is small and can only handle small loads.
  • Adjustable Height Gantry Cranes: An adjustable gantry crane can be portable or immobile. However, it has a customizable design with varying height and span possibilities. Depending on your demands, you may alter the base’s width, height, and horizontal beam length.
  • Single Girder Gantry Crane: A single girder and rail are necessary for this type of crane. The trolley and hoist are usually under-hung. They operate beneath the bridge surface. Moreover, it is a light-to-medium-duty crane that suits work environments with little headroom. In addition, it offers cost-effective lifting options.
  • Double Girder Gantry Crane: This type of crane consists of two girder beams that make up the bridge. It also generally consists of a top-running trolley and hoist. It is best for heavy-duty purposes.
  • Rubber Tyred Gantry Cranes: This is a large machine designed to load and unload containers at the container yard and has a wide application thanks to its mobility.

On and Off a Truck

Trucks are the most common means used to transport (move) shipping containers. Below we list what type of equipment is needed for the different types of delivery trucks.

  • Tilt Body (rollback or roll-off) needs no additional equipment to offload a shipping container.
  • Flatbed & Step Deck trucks/trailers may require you to use a crane or forklift depending on the size of the container. The main difference is that a typical flatbed trailer is 5 feet above the ground, meaning freight cannot exceed 8 feet and 6 inches in height. Step deck trailers have a lower deck height of 3 feet 6 inches and cannot exceed 10 feet in height.
  • Sideloader consists of two side lifting cranes combined with a trailer or truck and requires no additional equipment to offload a shipping container.  Sideloaders are commonly used in four different operations:  lifting cargo from/to ground level, transferring from/to another chassis, stacking containers, and road transport.
  • Forklifts:  Not all forklifts can lift & move a shipping container because of their size & weight.  As an example, 20ft containers come with forklift pockets, but they measure 69” from the inside on one pocket to the other pocket and are wider than most standard forklifts.  That is why, a standard warehouse forklift should never be used. What is recommended is a Container Handler or Reach Stacker, which can efficiently handle, and lift loaded containers and stack empty containers around a storage or warehouse facility.
  • Cranes:  The most common are mobile cranes that are made of a boom and mounted to a truck bed that can lift & move shipping containers easily and around difficult areas.  Most importantly they are road legal and are available in different configurations such as Stiff Booms, Folding Booms, and Hydraulic Cranes.

Can you move shipping containers without heavy equipment?

Unfortunately, it’s not feasible to move shipping containers without heavy equipment. After all, they’re built to transport or store large (or large amounts of) cargo, with strong steel walls protecting their contents. For short distances (think: moving a shipping container a short distance on your property), you may be able to get by with a Bobcat, but shipping container deliveries and other long-distance transport will require heavy equipment.

Work with the best in the shipping container business.

Container Sales Group buys containers directly from the steamship lines to offer our customers the highest quality containers at the most competitive prices. We’re a women-owned business, established in 1998, and have locations throughout the US.

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