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Guide to Open Deck Shipping: Flatbeds, Step Decks, Goosenecks & More

types of open deck equipment truck graphics

You’re not like all the retail and CPG shippers out there with neat little pallets that fit cleanly in a tidy trailer.

Your freight is different.

Maybe you’re moving rolls of sod from a farm, steel beams to a construction site, or  machinery to a factory.

It’s dense, It’s heavy. It might not even fit in a trailer — sounds like you’re looking for an open deck carrier.

That’s great! But that’s not all you need to know.

Learn about the different kinds of open deck trailers and find out what you need to do to make the best use of them.

Shipper's Guide to Open Deck: Overview


When Should You Look for Open Deck Capacity?

First things first: Do you know if you actually need to book a flatbed?

Open deck capacity is best-suited for some specific use cases. In general, you’ll want to look for it if your freight has any of the following characteristics.

1. It’s a dense bulk commodity.

Building and landscaping materials of all kinds fit into this category. They’re dense, they’re dirty and they can withstand the exposure to the elements that freight will experience on a flatbed.

Some common bulk commodities are:
steel (coils, bars, sheets, rods), conduits, pipes, brick, lumber, insulation, salt, sod and mulch.

2. It’s irregular in size and shape.

Another major use for open deck freight is factory machinery or construction equipment. These objects often don’t fit neatly within the confines of a trailer and need some space to be transported safely.

Irregularly shaped freight includes:
tractors, forklifts, drills and conveyor belts.

3. It's oversize or overweight.

Much of the freight in this category is basically the same as the one above, but on a larger and heavier scale. Your heavy duty construction equipment will fit here, as will some additional massive objects.

Oversize and overweight freight includes excavators, cranes, turbine blades, prefabricated houses or larger factory equipment.


What Types of Open Deck Equipment Are Available?

When you book a standard dry van or reefer truckload, you know what you’re getting in terms of space — a trailer that’s 53’ long, 8’6” high and 8’6” wide.

But if you’re looking for open deck capacity, you have many more options available to you.

There’s equipment out there for every size, shape and weight of open deck freight. If you know your load details precisely, you can zero in on the equipment that will meet your needs.

Types of open deck equipment, chart with loading dimensions and specs for flatbed, rgn, step deck and double drop trailers
Download this as a high-resolution PDF and save it to your desktop. 


The Most Common Types of Open Deck Equipment

Flatbed Trailer

flatbed trailerThis is the most common open deck equipment, consisting of a single, long platform the width of a standard dry van trailer and of varying lengths up to 53’.

Many of the most common open deck commodities can travel comfortably on a standard flatbed. Pipes, brick, lumber — any of your basic building materials.

Length: 48' standard (45' and 53' also available)

Width: 8'6"

Height: 8'6"

Standard Weight Limit: 48,000 lbs.

Download the open deck equipment cheat sheet as a high-resolution PDF & save it to your desktop. 

Step Deck Trailer

step deck trailer

As the name implies, this consists of a two-level deck that “steps” down from a shorter front platform to a longer rear one.

You should consider choosing a step deck trailer if you need to haul freight that exceeds the height limit for a standard flatbed.

The extra depth provided by the step down means your freight can be taller and still fit under the 8’6” legal maximum.

48' trailer:
Front deck: 10'-11'
Main deck: 37′-38′

53' trailer: 
Front deck: 10'-11'
Main deck: 42′-43'

Width: 8'6"

Front deck: 8'6"
Main deck: 10'

Standard Weight Limit: 46,500 lbs. (both decks total)

Download the open deck equipment cheat sheet as a high-resolution PDF & save it to your desktop. 

Double Drop Trailer

double drop trailer

Similar in shape to the step deck trailer, a double drop also consists of a short platform and a long platform of different heights.

However, the drop between them is roughly twice as deep for a double drop trailer as it is for a standard step deck. For this reason, double drop trailers are often used for extremely large pieces of equipment or machinery (which are also frequently heavy haul).

Front deck: 10'
Main deck / well: 24'-29'
Rear deck: 10'

Width: 8'6"

Front deck: 10'
Main deck / well: 11'6"
Rear deck: 10'

Standard Weight Limit: 35,000 lbs. (all decks total)

Download the open deck equipment cheat sheet as a high-resolution PDF & save it to your desktop. 

Removeable Gooseneck Trailer (RGN)

removeable gooseneck trailer

Hauling heavy construction machinery to a work site? Your best bet will probably be a removeable gooseneck trailer, or RGN.

RGNs feature a low-riding trailer deck that detaches at the front, allowing it to rest on the ground and form a ramp.

You can drive a vehicle up onto the trailer via this ramp, then reattach it to the tractor for hauling.

Main deck / well: 24'-29'
Rear deck: 10'

Width: 8'6"

Main deck / well: 11'6"
Rear deck: 10'

Standard Weight Limit: 35,000 lbs. (both decks total)

Download the open deck equipment cheat sheet as a high-resolution PDF & save it to your desktop. 


hotshot trailer

Trailers of varying shapes and sizes that are hauled by heavy-duty pickup trucks (often called dual rear-wheel drive trucks or “duallies”) are known as “hotshots.”

These are great for transporting smaller pieces of machinery or construction equipment. If you can find a hotshot that meets your size and weight requirements, you may be able to save some money compared to larger open deck equipment.


What Are the Characteristics of the Open Deck Market?

With all the equipment options available, it’s no surprise that the open deck market is quite fragmented.

While there are some carriers who specialize in open deck freight, others will interchangeably haul open deck equipment or a dry van trailer depending on demand.

Exact statistics about the number of open deck drivers and carriers out there are difficult to pin down, but here are some fast facts about the market:

  • Open deck freight accounts for roughly 20% of the $700 billion North American transportation market.
  • There is a great deal of fragmentation in the open deck market; it is a segment of the truckload market, which skews heavily toward smaller carriers and owner-operators over carriers with large fleets.
  • A majority of the 350,000 owner-operator drivers in the U.S. will haul open deck trailers either primarily or in addition to dry vans and/or refrigerated trailers.
  • Industries that most frequently ship open deck are industrial production, oil and gas, construction and housing, and landscaping.


Is Open Deck Freight Seasonal?

It sure is, and for good reason — the industries and projects that typically require open deck equipment are themselves seasonal.

Construction Season

In many parts of the country, construction projects can’t get underway until the threat of severe winter weather has passed for the year.

Even in more moderate climates, they don’t really get under way until the weather warms up in springtime.

Much like produce season, construction and landscaping season begins early in the spring in the South and heats up with the temperature in the North and Midwest several months later. You can expect demand for open deck capacity to track with these seasons.

Landscaping Season

Similar to construction season, these projects can't get underway until the weather heats up.

Hurricane Recovery

Throughout the south, demand can remain elevated into the fall in areas that were damaged by severe weather during hurricane season.

Winter Weather

Particularly in the northeast, major snow and ice storms can spur sudden and intense demand for road salt.

Christmas Trees

November and December typically see increased demand to haul trees from the Pacific Northwest in preparation for the holiday season.


8 Things You Need to Know to Ship Open Deck

The differences between shipping truckload and shipping open deck don’t stop at equipment, markets and demand centers.

If you’re shipping open deck, you need to be aware of some key details to hammer out to ensure your booking and pick-up go smoothly and your freight arrives safely.  

1. You need to know your commodity extremely well to get an accurate quote.

Flatbed freight is tougher to quote than palletized dry van freight because it is so much more unique. In order to get a reliable quote from your provider, you need to come with all the details.

Accurate dimensions and weight are the most important, as they’ll determine if you need oversize permits for your load.

Beyond that, know your commodity type, how it will be secured to the trailer, whether it needs protection from the elements and anything else your carrier should be aware of.

2. Your freight needs to be strapped or chained down.

You can’t just leave your open deck freight sitting on the flatbed unrestrained. It could create an extremely dangerous situation for your carrier and other drivers if it falls off in transit.

Straps are fine for most freight that will ride on a standard flatbed or step deck trailer — lumber, insulation and so on.

If you have something a bit larger and more unruly, you may need to restrain it with chains for some extra PSI of grip.

3. You may need to cover it with a tarp or Conestoga.

If your freight can be damaged by the elements — or simply by air rushing past at 75 miles per hour on the freeway — you’ll want to cover it up.

Much flatbed freight can be covered with a simple tarp underneath its strapping. But if your freight is irregular in shape and may be damaged by tarping, you’ll want to book a Conestoga.

Conestogas — like their covered wagon ancestors — are rigid frames that hold up a soft covering like a tarp. There are Conestogas available for most standard open deck trailers.

4. You might need special equipment to load and unload your freight.

Most of the freight that’s shipped on flatbed trailers isn’t palletized or loaded and unloaded in a loading dock with a forklift. You’re going to need to figure out how to get it onto your carrier’s vehicle.

If a crane is needed — and it very well might be — be sure to reserve it with plenty of lead time for delivery and pick-up dates you’re 100% sure you can commit to.

5. Oversize and overweight freight require permits and may require escorts.

Any freight that exceeds the loadable dimensions and/or legal weight limit for your trailer will require a permit from any U.S. states and Canadian provinces that the truck will pass through.

The only exception to this rule is that many (but not all) states permit an overhand at the front of rear of your trailer by up to 5’.

For freight that is larger than 12’ wide or 13’6” high, you may also need an escort to scout the route ahead and warn your driver of upcoming hazards or road restrictions. Carriers are typically responsible for securing escorts.

6. The more specialized the equipment, the more lead time you need.

Some of the equipment types listed above are quite scarce across the U.S. If you need anything beyond a standard flatbed trailer (and even for those), be sure you provide as much lead time as possible to give yourself a chance of finding it.

7. Carriers will reward you for helping with loading and tarping.

One of the best ways to stay on your open deck carriers’ good side and attain that coveted “Shipper of Choice” status is to be willing to lend a hand.

Be sure your facility is staffed appropriately with a team that is ready to handle the labor involved with getting your freight on the trailer.

The easier you can make loading and tarping for your carrier, the more they’ll want to work with you in the future.

8. Work with a 3PL to get it all right.

Unsure about anything you’ve read so far? You’re definitely not alone. Booking an open deck load can be complicated, and the best way to ensure you do it correctly is to get some help.

Third-party logistics providers (3PLs) can help you understand what kind of equipment your freight needs, know whether you’ll need permits to move your load, help you find a great carrier in a fragmented market and teach you the ins and outs of open deck shipping.


Talk to Our Specialists for All Your Open Deck Needs

Our knowledgeable and experienced open deck specialists can connect you to a network of 8,000 open deck carriers to move your most unique loads.

Get in touch today to ask us about equipment, size and weight limits, state and national regulations, permit requirements, and anything else you can think of. We want your next open deck load to move so smoothly you’ll trust us with the one after that as well.

Talk to an Open Deck Specialist