Knowing Your Freight Container Options

Brief History

While the idea of transporting goods in standardized containers is taken for granted today, many may not fully consider how this basic concept has revolutionized world trade. And its history is relatively recent. Back in 1955, former trucking company owner Malcolm Mclean, with the assistance of engineer Keith Tantlinger, developed the first standardized shipping container. The concept allowed for the easy transport of goods from truck to train to ship. This new approach reduced transport costs and supported a post-World War Two boom in international trade. As standard sized shipping containers were adopted across the industry, port congestion was reduced, transportation times were shortened, and losses from damage and theft were slashed. By 1970, the International Shipping Organization (ISO) established regulations declaring 20-foot and 40-foot containers to be the industry standard.

Container Types

While dimensions were largely standardized, the types of different containers continued to expand. Here are a few of the most common:

General Purpose Containers:

Commonly know as dry storage containers, these units are the most common type of shipping container in use today. While the most common size is 20 or 40 feet, they also come in 10-foot lengths. These fully enclosed units are appropriate for normal cargo not requiring temperature control.

Open Top Containers:

By eliminating a solid roof, these containers are ideal for oversized items that may not fit in a standard container. A simple covering can be lashed down over the top to protect cargo from the elements. By keeping the other dimensions standardized, loading and unloading by crane is simplified.

Flat Rack Containers:

With no sides and two collapsible ends that may or may not be used for added stability, these containers are designed for heavier cargo that benefits from top or side loading.

Tunnel Containers:

These double door containers have openings at both ends making it easier and faster to load and unload goods.

Open Side Containers:

In addition to the normal end opening, these containers have extra doors that open to expose an entire side of the container from end to end. Extra wide cargo, such as certain construction materials, can be more easily loaded and unloaded from this type of container.

Half Height Containers:

As the name suggests, these containers are half the height of a standard container. Designed to transport especially heavy cargo, the design creates a low center of gravity making them more stable than their taller counterpart.

High Cube Containers:

HQ containers are generally one foot taller than general purpose containers. They are typically used to ship cargo requiring a slightly higher maximum capacity.

Reefer Containers:

Also known as refrigerated ISO containers, these units require an external power supply to regulate the container’s internal temperature. Fruits, vegetables, and other perishable goods typically rely on this type of container.

Insulated Containers:

Much like reefer containers, are used for perishable foods, but are also ideal for some types of pharmaceuticals, biological materials, and chemicals. A vacuum flask design allows the container to withstand temperature extremes.

Tank Containers:

Tankers are primarily designed to transport liquids.

Drum Containers:

These cylindrical containers are also designed to transport liquids and small granular goods.

Special Purpose Containers:

This “catch-all” category covers custom built containers designed to accommodate a wide range of sizes and shapes.

Project Cargo/Heavy Haul

If the equipment you need to transport does not neatly fit into any of the standard container designs, chances are you are entering into the world of Project Cargo. One-of-a-kind, oversize, overweight, and dimensionally challenging high-value cargo fall into this category. Such shipments can require extra attention for different modes of transport:

Ocean (Break bulk, RoRo):

Oversize equipment is often transported on bulk vessels, giving them the advantage of not having to be broken down. “Roll-On / Roll-Off” vessels allows large equipment that may be sensitive to outdoor elements of an ocean journey to be transported in these heated and covered luxury freighters.

Air (Air charters):

When timing is critical or product is especially delicate, the use of a white gloves air charter service may be required.


Over the road transportation can require specialized, multi-axel trailers, municipal permits, and dedicated vehicle escorts to deliver project cargo shipments. 


Knowing the precise size and weight of the cargo you need the container for is the key to finding the proper container fit. Careful consideration of how your shipment will be loaded into and out of a container is also important. Remember: the successful transport of your unique and precious cargo starts with a full understanding of expectations.  Not all freight can be transported the same way. 

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