Over the years, the trucking industry has experienced steady growth and has expanded its range of services to cater to more complex supply chains. Some of these services include last-mile deliveries, drop-trailer programs, and intermodal transportation to and from ports.

With so many ways to transport cargo, manufacturers have designed different types of equipment to cater to various transportation needs. The two most popular trailers include full trailers and semi-trailers. The difference between full trailers and semi-trailers is that full trailers are equipped with front and rear axles that can support their own weight.

These trailers connect to box trucks or tractors via a coupling device. On the other hand, semi-trailers are specifically designed to be coupled to semi trucks via a fifth wheel. As such, they only have rear axles and can only support their own weight while stationary using landing legs.

In this article, we’ll share the key differences between a full trailer and a semi-trailer in terms of features and characteristics. We’ll also do a comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of both trailer types, along with a guide for choosing the right trailer for your needs. 

What Is a Full Trailer?

A full trailer is a commercial freight trailer consisting of both rear and front axles. This trailer is equipped with a drawbar used to couple it to a hauling unit, allowing for better handling and maneuverability.

full trailer
A Full Trailer © Joost J. Bakker

Most commercial full trailers vary between 10 to 40 feet in length and can pivot according to the hauling unit using the trailer’s front axle. However, this design limits the overall cargo capacity of the vehicle. Full trailers can carry up to 33,000 pounds, with cargo usually loaded from the rear.

The cost of owning this trailer depends on several factors, including the manufacturer, condition, length, and other features. Full trailers are available between $5,000 and $25,000. 

What Is a Semi-Trailer?

A semi-trailer is a trailer without a front axle, meaning a large portion of its weight is supported by a semi-truck connected using a fifth wheel. Semi-trailers have landing gears called legs that can be lowered to keep them upright when uncoupled from their units.

semi trailer
A Semi-Trailer © Ildar Sagdejev

They also feature air brakes that keep them stationary when detached. Unlike full trailers, semi-trailers can be up to 63 feet long as long as drivers have the right permit to haul doubles or triples on interstate highways.

Semi-trucks can haul up to 80,000 pounds in gross weight, depending on their configurations. Below are some of the most popular types of semi-trailers you can find:

  • Container chassis (Intermodal trailers)
  • Dry van or box trailers
  • Side curtain trailers
  • Tanker trailers
  • Flatbed trailers
  • Livestock trailers

All these trailers feature a specific design and enable different cargo-hauling capabilities. As a result, they vary significantly in terms of cost. You can expect to pay between $7,000 and $40,000 depending on the manufacturer, type, length, and condition.

Characteristics & Feature Differences

As mentioned above, there are differences between full trailers and semi-trailers. The table below highlights some of the key ones in terms of characteristics and features:

Characteristics & FeaturesFull TrailerSemi-Trailer
Coupling MethodConnected via hooking the hitch to the drawbar and locking using a latch or pin.Connected via locking the trailer’s kingpin to the tractor’s fifth wheel.
Overall LengthThe trailer by itself is usually shorter than a semi-trailer but the overall length may be longer as full trailers are typically used in longer combination vehicles.Semi-trailer lengths are generally longer than full trailers and would generally have more overall length when hauling doubles and triples.
ManeuverabilityLess maneuverable in tight spaces with a larger turning radius.More maneuverable in tight spaces with a smaller turning radius.
Trailer CapacityCarries up to 33,000 pounds.Carries up to 80,000 pounds.
StabilityMore stable on the road due to a rigid body and lower center of gravity. Less stable due to a higher center of gravity, especially when hauling laden containers.
Overall CostTypically cheaper.Typically more expensive.
Typical TransportationFrequently used to transport loose cargo for local or regional transportation.Frequently used for intermodal, bulk, and large amounts of cargo for long-distance transportation.
LoadsSmaller and lighter loads.Larger and heavier loads.
Loading VersatilityRear loading only.Can be loaded from the rear or side, depending on the type of trailer.
Coupling DifficultySimpler steps and faster.More complex steps and time-consuming.
Repair & MaintenanceEasier to maintain with lesser moving parts.More complex maintenance due to additional components.
Ease of ProcuringWidely available for lease or purchase.Widely available but requires specialized equipment and handling.

Comparison of Advantages

Both full trailers and semi-trailers provide unique benefits to truckers. Below, we’ll highlight some of the key ones for each trailer type.

Advantages of Full Trailers

The following are some of the key advantages of full trailers:

  • Suitable For Smaller Loads – Full trailers are easier to haul around due to their limited weight capacity. Their design enables easier handling, especially in urban areas and on narrower roads. They’re suitable for smaller loads and are generally used for multiple delivery points per trip. 
  • Simpler Coupling – Full trailers are connected using a drawbar, which makes them much easier to couple compared to semi-trailers. They can be attached to freight vehicles, such as box trucks
  • Lower Cost to Procure & Maintain – Full trailers are cheaper to procure and require less frequent maintenance than their counterparts. Since they don’t feature as many complex components as semi-trailers, repair costs are also lower. 
  • Lower Center of Gravity – Full trailers have a lower center of gravity and a more rigid body compared to semi-trailers. These features make them more stable on the road. 

Advantages of Semi-Trailers

The following are some of the key advantages of semi-trailers:

  • Higher Load Capacity – Semi-trailers are designed to transport larger amounts of cargo in a single trip. As a result, most carriers use them for longer-distance transportation. Plus, drivers can also haul doubles and triples for multiple client deliveries or large shipments. 
  • Able to Carry Various Types of Loads – As mentioned above, semi-trailers offer incredible design versatility. Therefore, truckers can use them to transport various types of loads, from perishable items to vehicles, chemicals, livestock, and dry bulk.
  • More Fuel-Efficient – Semi-trailers have a higher gross weight capacity than full trailers, meaning they can haul more cargo than their counterpart in a single trip. This makes them more fuel-efficient for carriers and allows them to reduce their cost per mile
  • Better Maneuverability – Semi-trailers have a much smaller turning radius which makes them more suitable for reversing and navigating tight corners compared to full trailers. 

Comparison of Disadvantages

Both trailer types also come with different disadvantages, which we’ll discuss individually below.

Disadvantages of Full Trailers

The following are some of the key disadvantages of full trailers:

  • Limited Payload Capacity – Full trailers are inferior to semi-trailers in terms of how much cargo they can carry. This makes them inefficient for long-distance freight transportation as they generated relatively less revenue per trip than their counterpart. 
  • Larger Turning Radius – Although the smaller size of full trailers makes them easier to drive around in urban areas, their fixed front axles limit their maneuverability. In other words, they’re more difficult to maneuver when navigating tight spaces, such as parking lots and loading bays. 
  • Unable to Haul All Cargo Types – Full trailers are not as versatile as semi-trailers when it comes to hauling different types of cargo. For instance, they can’t transport oversized cargo such as heavy machinery. 

Disadvantages of Semi-Trailers

The following are some of the key disadvantages of semi-trailers:

  • Higher Safety Risks – Semi-trucks have a higher center of gravity, meaning they’re more prone to roll over. Their pivot point around the fifth wheel could also potentially cause jackknife accidents.
  • More Time Consuming to Couple & Uncouple – Coupling semi-trailers with tractors using the fifth wheel or other trailers using a converter dolly can be a long and tedious process. 
  • Higher Initial & Recurring Costs – Semi-trailers are much more expensive to procure compared to full trailers. They also have higher recurring repair and maintenance costs. 
  • Limited Coupling Flexibility – Semi-trailers can only be coupled to semi-trucks or other trailers using a converter dolly. Without the presence of a fifth wheel, semi-trailers are not usable.

5 Key Considerations When Choosing Between Full Trailers and a Semi-Trailers

Many truckers, especially new ones, struggle to decide which trailer type better suits their requirements. Therefore, below are five key considerations you can use to simplify your decision when choosing between a full trailer and a semi-trailer.

Equipment Compatibility

You may want to select trailers that are compatible with your equipment. For example, if your fleet mainly consists of semi-trucks, it may be more suitable to select semi-trailers over full trailers, due to compatibility.

Client Requirements

The next thing you should do when choosing a trailer is to evaluate the needs and expectations of your existing clients. Consider their cargo type and shipping volume, as well as the routes and areas you’ll be operating in.

Semi-trailers are a better option for long transits. In contrast, full trailers are better for multiple deliveries within a smaller radius. Whether you’re looking to get started or expand your operations, communicate with prospectus clients and learn about their shipping needs. 

Business Direction

Regardless of the industry you’re operating in, you should do your due diligence and learn about the opportunities in the market before investing in equipment. The trucking industry is incredibly diverse, with hundreds of potential niches you can explore.

For instance, you can opt for intermodal transportation near ports or venture into the warehousing industry. Besides purchasing new equipment, you can have interchange agreements with other carriers to gain access to different types of semi-trailers for cargo diversification or full trailers for multiple deliveries. 

Skilled Labor

Next, you need to evaluate your existing drivers and learn about their capabilities. Both trailers require different types of expertise in terms of handling. Therefore, you need to ensure your drivers have the necessary skills and experience to operate full trailers or semi-trailers.

The US Department of Transportation (DOT) also requires drivers hauling doubles and triples (two or three semi-trailers) to possess a special license. Therefore, you should invest in trailers that most of your drivers can utilize.

The last thing you want is to have full or semi-trailers with no drivers to haul them due to turnover or leaves. 

Profit Projections

In addition, you need to do your due diligence and calculate your potential revenue and cost per mile when working with existing or prospecting clients. This will help you understand how much profit you can generate at maximum capacity for either type of trailer.

Some of the key costs you need to keep in mind when choosing trailers include truck expenses such as fuel, repair and maintenance, rental of truck terminals or drop yards, and more. Furthermore, you would also need to consider the initial cost of procuring equipment, insurance coverage, wages, and taxation.

Following profit projections, you would be able to make a well-informed decision on which trailer type would best suit your business’s profitability.

Industry Insight

The trucking industry is highly competitive. Therefore, you need to consult your vendors and business partners on the evolving market trends. Ideally, you should look to identify and capitalize on blue ocean niches and try to operate with as little competition as possible.

For instance, if you’re considering semi-trailers, prioritize types most competitors aren’t meeting the demand for within your operating vicinity. Take full advantage of digital freight matching platforms, load boards, and other information sources to identify markets to tap into. 

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Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 12 years of experience in the fields of logistics, trucking, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire to educate others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.