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Choosing the Right Method to Transport Your Shipping Container

12 January 2024

Category: 

Tips & Guides
shipping container on a truck

Transporting a shipping container takes a bit of know-how. As an example, the average 20-foot shipping container weighs around 1.8 to 2 metric tonnes. If you’re going to be moving this amount of weight across distances there are a few options available, including DIY methods (if you own a tractor) or using trains and trucks – we’ll cover all of these in detail and more. 

How to transport a shipping container?

Shipping containers are heavy, and moving heavy loads takes some logistical planning and taking account of what routes are best to take, as well as any potential obstacles that show up. 

For example, you can’t take a truck containing large loads that take lots of space down narrow country roads, so this limits your potential options. 

It’s equally important to know what the best equipment is to move the container. If you’re moving smaller and lighter containers you might be able to use a tractor, but larger and heavier containers require larger and more powerful vehicles. 

Finally, it’s also important to take stock of safety concerns, especially due to the potential of injury or damage to the environment that can occur if proper protocols aren’t followed. 

Cost to move a shipping container

There isn’t necessarily a flat cost to move a shipping container, it can depend on several factors: 

  • Travel distance – the cost of moving the container a couple of streets away will be less than if you were moving it between cities, or even internationally 
  • Where you’re located – more remote locations or harder-to-access areas will likely cost more
  • Time of year – temperature changes could influence the cost of moving your container, e.g. if there is heavy rain or ice on the roads
  • Gas prices – as gas prices tend to fluctuate, they can affect the cost of moving your shipping container as well. 

All of this means that no one can give you a flat upfront estimate about how much it’s going to cost you, it’s not uncommon for shipping costs to fluctuate between the time of order and the completion of said order. 

Some other factors that you need to keep in mind when it comes to cost are the size of the shipping container – larger containers will usually cost more, the amount of containers you’re moving, and the type of container you’re using – it might cost a company more or require extra equipment to move different container types

The container size

Shipping containers  most commonly come in the following sizes – 8ft (2.43m), 10ft (2.99m), 20ft (6.06m), 40ft (12.2m) and 45ft (13.56m), however, in some cases custom options are also available. These can come in many size variants but commonly include 9ft and 30ft options – which are made by cutting down existing containers. 

The best size for you depends on the cargo you’re carrying, heavy machinery and equipment will likely need larger containers. Smaller containers are great for lighter loads, like batches of lighter equipment, or if you’re moving a few items of furniture. 

The number of containers you are moving

Surprisingly, it can be cheaper to move multiple containers, this is due to the cost of transportation being split over the multiple containers. 

If a company has an order for a single shipping container, it’ll cost them more to move that single container, which means some of the cost gets passed over to the consumer. However, transporting multiple containers (even to the same address) takes advantage of the full capacity of a truck and is, therefore, cheaper and more efficient. 

This only applies to an extent, as large numbers of containers needing multiple trucks increase the complexity of the shipping operation, and this may be reflected in the cost. In some cases, specialised equipment may be needed to move a large number of containers efficiently or may require additional trips, further impacting cost. 

The type of container

Transportation costs can also be affected by the type of shipping container you’re using. For example, a freezer or chemical store shipping container will cost more to move than standard containers. 

A freezer container will need to be secured differently from a standard container due to the cooling system built into the freezer container. It also requires more specialised equipment to safely load, secure, and haul these specialised types of shipping containers. 

The time of year

There can be slight variations in seasonal costs for transporting shipping containers. In peak times, there’s more demand for trucks and hauling vehicles, so it’s likely to cost more to transport a shipping container, this can also lead to decreased availability and increased lead times. 

The type of move

Depending on how you choose to transport the shipping container, it might be possible to do it yourself, if you have the tools and vehicles for the job. However, most people usually opt to hire a company or a professional that specialises in this kind of transportation and logistics. 

If you’re considering longer hauls or shipping a container overseas, it’s cheaper to ship on a round trip than it is one way. However, this depends on availability, how many containers you’re shipping, where you’re transporting your containers, or if you’re keeping your containers permanently or not. 

In case you’re shipping a few containers as part of a larger haul, it may be comparatively cheaper (but take a bit longer) than shipping via a one-way route, as you’re only paying for one part of a journey. 

Another thing to take into consideration is if you’re transporting a shipping container temporarily or permanently. If you’re transporting a container temporarily, as part of a move or to store things in a temporary location, it’s generally easier and quicker. Transporting a shipping container to a permanent location can take a bit longer – depending on where your delivery location is, and if you’re storing anything in it or not.  

The distance you are moving the container

When it comes to distance, shorter routes are typically simpler and cheaper, requiring less planning and equipment. In contrast, longer distances demand more planning, equipment and vehicles involved in the move and incur higher costs. 

The longer the distance you’re moving your container, the higher the possibility of potential challenges like roadworks or traffic which can also increase the costs.

Transporting a shipping container across short distances

In some cases, there may not be a requirement to move the shipping container across vast distances. For example, a farmer might have purchased a shipping container for storing tools or agricultural supplies, but the container was dropped off too far from the site. 

In cases like these, there are several options you can take. Very few people are going to have these vehicles to hand, they may have to be rented, and in some cases, you’ll need drivers with specific expertise to pilot them.

Forklift

Top loader forklift trucks are specifically designed to move shipping containers from A to B. However, forklifts can’t just be rented easily as you need a specific licence to pilot these. Top loaders are a good option for short hauls with 20ft containers and under. 

Crane

Cranes are another go-to option for transporting shipping containers. In fact, shipping containers are purposely built to be moved by cranes, as they are constructed with corner castings that allow the crane to latch onto each corner and then grip it securely to be moved between short distances.

Cranes are a good option for all shapes and sizes of shipping containers and are one of the best options to handle the weight of 40ft containers and upwards. 

Pickup truck

While you can use a pickup truck, it’s important to note that there are no axles that can help you secure it to the back of the vehicle. If you’re going to use a pickup truck to transport a shipping container over short distances you’ll need to put the container on a trailer bed first, this isn’t something that can be done manually and will need lifting equipment like a crane or forklift truck. 

Tractor

Similar to a pickup truck, you can use your tractor to move a container short distances, but don’t go over the towing capacity of your tractor. For reference, the maximum trailer weight of a tractor in the UK is 18.29 tonnes, so you will have to make sure that you do not exceed this weight if using a tractor for moving your shipping container. 

Transporting a shipping container across long distances

Moving shipping containers across longer distances presents its challenges. There are multiple things to take into consideration: 

  • Planning – Understanding the best routes to take keeps costs down for both you and the shipping companies. 
  • Documentation – The different paperwork you need to have on hand. Most of the time this includes information about the shipping containers’ inventory, but international shipments may need customs forms. This is going to vary from case to case. 
  • Coordination – This is especially true for longer distances, as in some cases multiple forms of transportation may be needed, this keeps any delays between transitions to a minimum. 

When it comes to transportation across longer distances, there are a few options available. Most commonly this is done by truck, train, or ship, with each transportation method having its own benefits and limitations.

Shipping container transport by truck

Trucks are the most common way to move containers. They have a good weight capacity and can take advantage of multiple road-based routes to get from A to B. 

There are various kinds of trucks suited to the job. 

Tilt bed trucks

Tilt bed trucks are great for trips that don’t exceed 200 miles. Using a tilt-bed truck comes with a solid advantage: the truck bed can be tipped at an angle, which means the shipping container can be gently slid off. However, it’s important that the ground is firm, dry, and flat to ensure the container doesn’t get stuck. 

Flatbed trucks

Flatbed trucks are considered the go-to option for moving shipping containers across both smaller and larger distances as they can carry all different sizes of shipping containers.  

Even though flatbed trucks are easy to load and unload, they do come with some precautions, the most notable one being that they require the shipping container to be secured tightly to prevent any movement during transit. 

Step-deck trucks

Step-deck trucks are ideal for taller shipping containers, often referred to as high cubes, these are 9.5ft tall, which is around 1ft more than a standard container. Step-deck trucks are similar to flatbed trucks but have much lower decks – enabling them to fit containers that are otherwise too tall for flatbeds and other kinds of trucks. 

Shipping container transport by train

A train is a great option if the shipping container’s destination is located near a rail station. This is the option that many large or industrial-based companies opt to use. However, this is not always a feasible option and depends on where an individual is getting their container shipped to. 

Shipping container transport by ship

For international-based shipping, there are the tried and true shipping lanes. If you’re shipping a container within the UK, this is most likely not going to be a great option, but for overseas and between continents, it’s most likely your best and only option. 

The process of getting a shipping container on and off a ship depends on the port itself, including how large it is, how busy it gets, and what kind of equipment and staff they have access to. Often, ports use cranes or forklift trucks to transfer containers between the ship and port and also ensure the necessary steps are taken to secure the cargo at sea. 

It’s important to consider that shipping overseas has its complexities – depending on the cargo, there are customs duties, documents, and international shipping laws and regulations to follow. 

Unless you’re located near the port, there are also other transportation considerations. If you’re further inland from a port, you may have to transfer the container by truck or rail which will impact the costs. 

Preparing a container for movement

Before moving any shipping container it is necessary to take several steps to ensure it’s moved as safely and securely as possible. These include weighing the container accurately, distributing and properly securing loose contents, and having the full details of the container’s inventory. 

Get it to the proper weight

Firstly, find out the maximum gross weight of your container, this is the weight of any contents and the weight of the empty container itself. You’ll need to know this to ensure your equipment and vehicles can handle this weight, as well as stay within legal limits. 

If your gross weight exceeds the load that the vehicles and loading equipment can handle, you’re going to have to either find an alternate method of transport or reduce the shipping container’s contents. 

It’s a good idea to give yourself a little margin for error in the weight, don’t load up your container right until it’s at maximum capacity or the maximum capacity your vehicles and loading equipment can handle. 

Distribute and secure items

The contents of a shipping container being transported involve a lot of movement, meaning the contents are usually frequently moved and tossed around, making it important to secure any loose items. For example, if your container is being loaded and unloaded via a tilt-bed truck, the contents can be shaken around a lot while being tilted, and potentially damaged. 

Some ways to secure your container contents might include:

  • Wedging items together
  • Tying objects to walls
  • Screwing in temporary braces to the container floor

Inventory condition and contents

It’s important to inventory and assess your container before and after transporting it. This is to safeguard you as it gives you an accurate record in case of any damage or displacement during transit. However, it’s important to note that accountability for damaged or missing items depends on the terms of your contract with the transporters. 

Additional considerations when transporting a shipping container

There are some final things to take into consideration before you undertake any logistics or transportation planning. These can be easily overlooked but can both protect you and your broader community. 

Insurance and liability

There are multiple kinds of insurance available, and the right one is going to depend on your circumstance. Here are a few options you might consider: 

  • Container Insurance: Container insurance focuses on the physical container itself, covering damages or losses that the container may incur during transit.
  • Marine Cargo Insurance: This type of insurance covers the cargo itself while it’s being transported by sea. It typically includes coverage for loss or damage due to perils such as sinking, fire, theft, and weather-related events.
  • Freight Insurance (Carrier’s Liability Insurance): Freight insurance, often provided by the carrier or shipping company, covers the liability of the carrier for damages to cargo during transportation.
  • Inland Marine Insurance: This insurance covers cargo while it’s in transit within a country or region, including transportation by road, rail, or inland waterways.
  • Project Cargo Insurance: This specialised insurance is for oversized or high-value cargo that may require unique handling and transportation methods.

This list is by no means exhaustive, if you’re confused about which option is best you might want to inquire with a trusted insurance company. 

Environmental considerations

There are lower carbon footprint options to choose from, the top options being trains and lower-emission ships. This might be something that you have to inquire about with the transportation company you’re using, or you can look for companies that specialise in greener methods. 

In the transportation of cargo containers, non-biodegradable materials may be used to secure cargo, this can include styrofoam, different types of plastics, as well as other polystyrene that are more difficult to recycle. 

Large transportation projects come with some positives and negatives. 

  • On the positive side, these projects create and maintain many jobs across many communities and are often a sizable portion of the economic activity of a community if they’re located near transportation hubs, such as depots and ports. 
  • On the downside, trucks used to transport shipping containers contribute to air pollution, the high weights they carry can damage local roads. Land cleared for major roadworks and large ports or storage areas can disrupt the local wildlife and can damage their habitats. 

Conclusion

There are many options available to transport your shipping container. The best method and the lowest cost is going to vary dramatically on a case-by-case basis. For shorter transportation trips, a DIY approach may be somewhat feasible, depending on whether you have access to the required equipment and the skills to use it. 

On the other hand, longer or international transportation routes will nearly always require outside help or hiring professional services and alternate modes of transit. 

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