"The Road Home" Podcast

Episode 11: The Differences Between Dry Van, Refrigerated, And Flatbed

Welcome to "The Road Home" everyone! This is TruckingTruth's podcast for those considering a career in trucking or trying to survive their first year on the road.

Listen on Google Play Music

Episode 11: The Differences Between Dry Van, Refrigerated, And Flatbed

New drivers coming into the industry have several options when it comes to the type of freight they'd like to haul, but the main contenders are dry van, refrigerated, and flatbed. There are some similarities between them, but some very significant differences that you'll want to understand before making a decision. So we'll discuss how each relate to each other when it comes to pay, home time, available miles, job duties, and the regions of the country you'll be running.

Join The Discussion

Transcript: The Differences Between Dry Van, Refrigerated, And Flatbed

Hey folks I'm Brett Aquila with TruckingTruth.com and welcome to another episode of our podcast 'The Road Home' where we help prepare new drivers for life on the road.

Today I want to cover the different types of freight you can haul and how they differ from each other when it comes to pay, job duties, lifestyle, and home time.

Dry Van

We'll start with dry van. A dry van in nothing more than an empty box, basically, that can haul any sort of goods which do not require strict temperature control and can be loaded through the back doors. You could be hauling anything from cereal to auto parts to hazardous chemicals.

The pay rate for dry van will fluctuate wildly from company to company. Some of the best, and some of the worst paying jobs are dry van jobs. Often times a company may start at a relatively low rate, especially if you're brand new to the industry, but they often give a series of significant raises throughout the year, to entice you to stay with the company longer, and that can put your pay on par with any company out there.

Home time opportunities is where dry van has a huge advantage over most types of freight. If you're looking to get home daily, or maybe weekly, dry van is the best place to start. The freight tends to be more regionalized with a smaller percentage of the freight travelling coast to coast and most runs averaging anywhere from 300 - 750 miles. So it's easier to find a job that can get you home more often in dry van than in most other types of freight.

In dry van you will also find a lot of freight is drop and hook. All that means is that you drop your loaded trailer at the customer and then hook to an empty trailer, or vice versa, without having to wait for a live load or unload. This is a great way for dry van drivers to keep those wheels turning and get those miles up there each week.

You will also find a lower percentage of freight that goes coast to coast so your chances of running all 48 states with a dry van company are fairly slim. Even in a 48 state division you will normally stay on one side of the Mississippi with an occasional run to far away places if you're lucky.

As far as physical labor goes, dry van covers the entire spectrum. There are plenty of jobs that require almost no physical work whatsoever, and there are jobs that require the driver to do some or all of the unloading.

One feature of dry van freight is that it tends to fluctuate quite a bit throughout the year, especially before and after the holiday season. Things will stay pretty busy from about late spring through early fall, and then it will be super busy until about mid December when the holiday freight is mostly delivered and things slow down significantly.

January through April tend to be pretty slow overall but of course you'll have no problem making a living. But in dry van you really do want to make hay when the sun shines. When the freight is heavy you should run hard, so if lean times hit you're prepared for it.


Now with temperature controlled freight you're pulling what's referred to as a reefer, or a dry van that has insulation in the walls and a gigantic diesel-operated heating and cooling unit on the front. The temperature in these units can be set throughout quite a wide range, from below zero to above 100 degrees and you may find yourself hauling anything from ice cream to sides of beef or anything that a dry van can haul.

The pay in temperature controlled freight works out to be about the same as dry van. Most companies pay by the mile and your miles will work out about the same as dry van.

Now there is a significant difference from dry van when it comes to home time, the average length of haul, and the regions of the country you tend to run. If you're looking to get home more often you're going to struggle to find that opportunity with refrigerated freight, which on average travels longer distances than dry van freight so it's not often you'll only run one region of the country.

You will find a much larger percentage of the freight goes coast to coast so you'll get an opportunity to see more of the country, but you'll get home less often. Most refrigerated companies will get you home every two to three weeks.

The physical work is about the same as dry van. There are plenty of jobs that require very little or no physical work by the driver but there are also plenty of jobs that do require unloading. Food delivery to local restaurants and stores is one way you can get home evrey night pulling refrigerated freight but these jobs tend to require the driver to do the unloading and often require some experience in the industry first.

One of the advantages to temperature controlled freight is consistency throughout the year. Because you can haul a greater variety of goods it's a little easier for temperature controlled freight to stay busy during the slower times. So instead of the large swings you'll find in dry van, refrigerated freight tends to be a little more consistent throughout the year.


Now there are plenty of flatbed opportunities for rookies coming straight out of school, and in fact some flatbed companies are even running their own company-sponsored training programs. I have to admit that I'm a little nervous about the idea of a rookie coming straight out of school and hopping into flatbed. There are a million things a new driver has to worry about already, without the added burden of learning the procedures and doing all of the extra work involved with tarping and strapping a load.

But there are tons of rookies who get through it just fine so it's totally doable, but just be aware of the fact that you're taking on extra risk and extra work at what is already the toughest time in any driver's career. So be ready for a tough go of it, especially early on.

Now flatbed drivers often make a little more per mile than dry van or refrigerated drivers do, and they also get extra pay for tarping loads. But on average they turn a few less miles than the others. So in the end, flatbed may pay as much or maybe even a little more than the others, but I promise you you're going to earn every penny of it. Flatbed is the type of job that most drivers either love or hate. You're often going to be a hardcore flatbedder for life, or you don't want anything to do with it.

Interestingly enough flatbed is very similar to dry van when it comes to the regionalization of the freight, the average length of haul, and the home time opportunities. If you're looking to get home more often or you only want to run certain areas of the country then flatbed might have what you're looking for. A lot of flatbed customers are only open on the weekdays, and the freight tends to stay in a smaller region of the country instead of going coast to coast, so a lot of flatbedders can get home on the weekends and possibly even more often than that.

The average length of haul with flatbed is closer to what it is in dry van. Many of the runs will be anywhere from 300 - 750 miles, with probably a few more runs averaging above 1,000 miles in length than you'll find in dry van.

Now the physical work is of course where flatbed separates itself from the rest. It is common to have to lift tarps in excess of 75 or 100 pounds, and also some rather heavy chains and blocking to help secure everything. You will also have to climb up on top of the load on a regular basis which can be incredibly dangerous. There is no shortage of stories involving flatbed drivers falling off the freight onto the parking lot so you have to be extremely cautious when you're up there.

Most flatbed companies will require you to pass an agility and strength test to make sure you have the physical capacity to do the work required. Normally you will have to lift a 50 or 75 pound box to shoulder level and demonstrate that you have recently decent balance and flexibility. Each company has a little bit different way of testing you so find out what's required when you're researching companies.

Flatbed freight also tends to follow similar cycles to dry van freight, where you're busiest in the spring through fall and things drop off a bit in mid to late winter.

So let me summarize quickly the best types of freight to look into for different circumstances you may be facing.

If you're looking to get home as often as possible I would look into dry van or flatbed. If you're looking to stay out longer and see more of the country then refrigerated place is the place to start looking.

If you like the idea of doing some physical labor then flatbed would be the obvious choice, but there is no shortage of dry van and refrigerated jobs that require the driver to do the unloading so keep your eyes open for opportunities there also.

If you don't care what type of freight you haul but you just want to make the most money possible well there really isn't an easy answer for that one. There isn't a clear cut winner when it comes to final earnings. You'll have to evaluate opportunities on an individual basis to see where the best potential lies, but there often won't be a clear cut winner. So I would say do not make the decision about which type of freight to haul based on pay. Choose the type of freight you'd like to haul based upon home time, areas of the country you'd like to run, and the job requirements. The pay in the end will work out well no matter what type of freight you haul.

So as you can see there are quite a few similarities between the three major types of freight but plenty of significant differences also. So when you're looking for that next job make sure you really take the time to think over the type of job you'd like to have and don't choose one type of freight over another simply because you're hoping the pay will be better. There are no guarantees that you'll make more money with one type of freight over another and you don't want to be stuck doing a job you don't like for pay that didn't live up to the expectations.

So choose the type of freight you'd like to haul carefully and take your time learning the ropes so in the end, when the work is done you can sit back, relax, and enjoy The Road Home.

I'm Brett Aquila with TruckingTruth and we'll see you next time.

Why Join Trucking Truth?

We have an awesome set of tools that will help you understand the trucking industry and prepare for a great start to your trucking career. Not only that, but everything we offer here at TruckingTruth is 100% free - no strings attached! Sign up now and get instant access to our member's section:
High Road Training Program Logo
  • The High Road Training Program
  • The High Road Article Series
  • The Friendliest Trucker's Forum Ever!
  • Email Updates When New Articles Are Posted

Apply For Paid CDL Training Through TruckingTruth

Did you know you can fill out one quick form here on TruckingTruth and apply to several companies at once for paid CDL training? Seriously! The application only takes one minute. You will speak with recruiters today. There is no obligation whatsoever. Learn more and apply here:

Apply For Paid CDL Training