Food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals all depend heavily on refrigerated transportation. Without refrigerated transportation, which is used to transport goods that need to be temperature controlled, grocery stores would be near empty and restaurants would be likewise. There are three modes of refrigerated transportation, which is also known as reefer shipping. Goods can be moved by refrigerated trucks, in refrigerated containers on freight trains, and in refrigerated holds or cabins on airplanes. On all three modes, the shipments must be closely monitored throughout the journey.

There are quite a few reasons why refrigerated transportation is so important. Let’s look at some of them:

  • Fulfilling a major demand: Refrigerated transportation is required to move essential food products such as fresh produce, meat, seafood, and dairy products that are always in demand. The same is true for many pharmaceuticals, and that includes vaccines.
  • Handling a wide range of products: In addition to food and pharmaceuticals, refrigerated transportation handles other items that need to be climate controlled. Those items include chemicals, plants, flowers, personal care products, and precious art and antiques.
  • Assuring protection: Not only do reefers keep products from spoiling, but they are also capable of protecting from deterioration and loss of value, no matter what weather conditions occur.
  • Keeping goods in compliance: Rules and regulations are a major part of shipping foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. Reliable reefers make sure the goods stay in compliance with these regulations.

Now that you are familiar with what refrigerated transportation means, what types of products need refrigerated transportation, and what some of the benefits are of using it, the rest of this blog will take an in-depth look at the best practices when using refrigerated transportation. 

Reefer Transportation Best Practices

With such valuable and vulnerable cargo, it is important that all of the facets of refrigerated transportation are handled in the most efficient and effective manner. Let’s take a look at some best practices for refrigerated transportation. 

Choosing the Right Container

There are three types of containers: dry, insulated, and refrigerated. Dry containers can handle dry goods and are the least expensive type of container. Insulated containers do not refrigerate or heat goods, but they can be used for safeguarding cargo from thermal shocks, humidity infiltration, condensation, cross-contamination, and odors. They can prevent those damaging spikes or dips in temperature that can spoil wine and other consumables, but they usually cost more than a dry container. As we have mentioned already, the refrigerated container can handle perishable foods and other items that need to be climate controlled. Reefer refrigeration units circulate cool air like a massive fridge and most often are controlled digitally. They are a costlier choice than the other two container types but provide a necessity that the others don’t.

When it comes to capacity, there are two basic types of containers — 20-foot containers and 40-foot containers. Both have refrigerated versions. With a 20-foot container, the benefits are that it is more maneuverable than a 40-footer and it costs less. But the capacity is not a lot less than a 40-foot container. The 40-foot container’s cubic capacity is around twice that of the 20-foot container.

Another factor can be the insulation used in the containers to enhance the cooling effect and prevent extreme outside temperatures from affecting the goods. They can also help regulate the temperature inside.

When choosing among all the above options, there is one concern that needs to be considered above all others: What is the temperature range the goods must remain in to keep from going bad? The container you use must be able to handle that temperature concern and assure that your product will be in excellent condition when it reaches its final destination.

Loading and Unloading

Once your container has been chosen, there is still plenty to do before the actual transporting begins. The loading process can be broken into two categories. The first thing is what needs to be considered and checked on before loading. The second is how the load needs to be packed.

Before Loading

There are a few things that should be gone over before you start actually loading the shipment. These procedures will hopefully help for a more efficient timely process when putting the shipment in the reefer container: 

  • Know the type of freight in the shipment: Perishable goods need to be moved quickly, some more than others. If you are doing less-than-truckload shipping, you’re likely going to be moving different types of freight. That means you want to verify that the reefer is properly equipped for different temperature zones and that there is plenty of room for the goods and their packaging. Find out the minimum and maximum temperatures for each cargo to make sure it will stay in an acceptable range.
  • Assure there will be proper airflow: Before you start loading, make sure the airflow is taken into account. You may need to add an air chute or a T-rail to the floor that assists in the control of airflow under flat cargo. With flat truck floors, it’s important that goods should be packed on pallets so air can easily move beneath the shipment.
  • Cool the truck prior to loading: Perishable cargo must be kept at a consistent temperature during the shipping process whether it is in the truck or not. So cooling the truck to the correct temperature ahead of time can cancel out heat that could be coming through the walls of the truck.
  • Judging the number of pallets that can fit: Reefer trailers come in different lengths, the most commonly used size for a larger haul is 53 feet. With your shipment on pallets to help with airflow, you need to lock down exactly how many of those pallets will fit in the trailer. In addition to the length, you need to know the trailer’s width. From there you can make your calculations. In a 53-foot trailer, you can usually fit up to 26 pallets, which average about 40 inches by 48 inches.
  • Assure documentation is in order: If the documents are not properly filled out, this can turn into a big problem when you reach the final destination. So taking a look at them before and during the loading can save a lot of headaches at the other end.

Packing the Load

With your trailer cooled, your goods prepared, and your calculations done, the focus turns to actually loading the shipment. Here are some things to keep in mind when loading the trailer up:

  • Time is of the essence: In any case, it is vital to move as quickly as allowable when loading cargo in a reefer container. But that is especially true if the cargo needs to be unrefrigerated prior to loading. This will not only stop the cargo from heating up, but can reduce any chances that the residual heat it carries with it will induce hot spots that could form in the trailer and affect other freight.
  • Make sure there is proper clearance between loads: It’s important to maintain good clearance between the goods and the walls and ceiling of the truck. This should also be the case if there are different types of freight in the reefer container. Here’s a look at some ideal clearance guidelines:
    • Between the trailer sidewalls and the freight, there should be at least 1 to 2 inches of space
    • Between the ceiling of the reefer container and the freight, there should be at least 9 inches of space
    • Between the freight and the back end of the truck near the doors, there should be at least 4 inches of space
    • Double-check that the evaporator outlet is not blocked.

Turning Off the Refrigeration Unit While Loading

Going on the assumption that you cooled the truck before loading and that you have determined an efficient plan to swiftly load the freight, you can turn off the refrigeration unit while loading. There are a couple of reasons why it can be beneficial. First, it prevents the unit’s fan from sucking warm air into the truck and may improve fuel efficiency. Second, humidity could cause freezing or thawing of the product.

Follow Any Guidelines Set Forth by the Shipper

In some cases, a shipper will want specific inspections to be made on their refrigerated cargo. These inspections should be checked before and throughout the loading process. If a list isn’t provided, it might be worth checking with the shipper to see if there are any additional instructions they have concerning the shipment.

Checking the Temperature

When the reefer container is in transit, temperature monitors are constantly giving updates on the state of the shipment. But when it comes to loading and unloading, it is equally important that the shipment be checked regularly as it is being put in or waiting to be put in to make sure it is staying within the correct temperature range.

Treat Unloading Like Loading

When it comes to the best practices for unloading, most of the suggestions mentioned above for loading still apply. Trying to make the transition from reefer container to storage as quickly as possible is as important as it was in loading. You don’t want to have a temperature control problem when you are in the final stages of the delivery.

Pre-Trip Inspections

In addition to the aforementioned procedures, there are some other boxes that need to be checked off concerning the preparation and maintenance of the reefer container. Here are some steps that can help assure the safety of the product.

Assessing and Cleaning

Nobody wants to start filling a reefer container that is dirty or might have some type of structural concerns, so here are some tips on what to look for or do before you reach the loading stage:

  • Check with the shipper to see if they have any specific cleaning guidelines. There are shippers that have specific cleaning methods or a list of approved chemical substances.
  • Scrutinize the refrigerated container you will be using. Look for any damage — like problems with the ceiling panels, side walls, or doors — that could compromise the temperature the unit must maintain.
  • Run the refrigeration unit at high speed for at least 20 minutes to verify the refrigeration unit is working properly.
  • Make sure all debris has been cleared out of the container and that it has been cleaned to the standards of the shipper, that can be a basic cleaning or it may need to be sanitized. When it will be carrying food or other odor-absorbing cargo, it is especially crucial that all areas of the container be particularly clean to limit any chances of the food becoming tainted.
  • Clean the drains to ensure proper drainage.


Maintenance should always be figured in with any equipment you are using. That is particularly true when dealing with a trailer that is transporting refrigerated goods. Any breakdown along the route can quickly mean the shipment is ruined. Here are a few ways that maintenance can improve the longevity of a reefer trailer:

  • Make sure all of the functions on the temperature control panel are working properly.
  • Look for oil leaks.
  • Go over the engine, belts, and hoses.
  • Check tire pressure.
  • Assess the exterior for any damage to the body or other parts.
  • Inspect the air chutes for blockages or holes that might alter the temperature.

The Transportation and Delivery Process

After making sure the refrigerated container is prepared and your shipment is loaded properly, there can be no letting up in being vigilant. Determining the most efficient route and making sure that it is communicated and understood keeps the shipment on the timeliest path and means less of a risk that the shipment will be put under any undue strain. If the shipment has to be stored and secured at any time during the journey, all partners need to be aware of it and have the needed resources to handle it. Throughout the journey, temperature monitors should be used to keep constant track of the temperature and send out real-time visibility alerts if there is any deviation. GPS location, the container door status, and the fuel status can also be relayed on the monitors.

Post-Trip Inspections

When the shipment has been dropped off, make sure all the documentation is in order, and then see if everything is still in good condition on the vehicle or container. Here’s a list of areas that should be checked:

  • Refrigeration unit
  • Temperature monitoring equipment
  • Engine
  • Brakes
  • Tires
  • Lights
  • Seal
  • Electrical system
  • Rear axle
  • Steering
  • Transmission
  • Instrument panel
  • Mudflaps.

Hwy Haul’s Technology Can Help You Accelerate Into a New Reefer Transportation World

There are plenty of challenges when dealing with a service as crucial as refrigerated transportation and freight. This blog has shown how important it is to stay on top of each and every aspect of refrigerated transportation as well as with the equipment used to fulfill that journey. To do that you need reliable partners with experience and knowledge. One such partner is Hwy Haul, a leading digital freight platform for fresh produce. Their next-generation platform connects shippers directly with truckers by eliminating intermediary friction, introducing end-to-end digital applications, and building advanced cold chain compliance with the goals of delivering freshness, reducing waste, and creating a future for sustainable growth in the produce industry. To see what Hwy Haul has to offer and get a quote on multiple types of equipment and services, check out our website today.