There are many ways to load a container onto a trailer. Common port equipment includes ship-to-shore (STS) gantry cranes, reach stackers, top loaders and many more. However, these types of equipment are not always readily available. In fact, not everyone has access to a loading bay, so how do you load a container on a trailer?

A shipping container is loaded on a trailer by firstly positioning the trailer in a designated area. The container is then loaded on the trailer using a forklift, side loader, reach truck or other types of equipment. Lastly, the container is secured in place with twistlocks, followed by a thorough safety check. 

However, it must be mentioned that safety is a collective effort and should be emphasised throughout the entire loading process. Working with various types of equipment, including shipping containers requires undivided attention, in order to avoid accidents in all areas of operations. 

In summary, here are the steps on how to load a shipping container on a trailer:

  1. Position the Trailer
  2. Load the Container on the Trailer
  3. Secure the Container Using Twistlocks
  4. Do a Thorough Safety Check

Understanding this guide can help you avoid extra costs such as crane rentals and improve overall operational efficiency.

1. Position the Trailer 

The first thing that needs to be done is to locate a suitable area to start the container loading process. This area should be close to the laden or empty container that is planned to be loaded onto the trailer. 

Then, have the prime mover and trailer moved into the designated area. Have a safety inspector ready to facilitate the maneuver and ensure that the driver uses the mirrors and blinkers when backing into the parking position.

When in position, the prime mover needs to be set into parking gear and the trailer’s parking brake should also be engaged. The trailer should remain attached to the prime mover at all times. For extra safety, use wheel chocks as you would when using loading bays. 

Have someone inspect the prime mover, trailer and surrounding area for any obstructions. Keep in mind that all personnel should be wearing protective gear such as safety vests, helmets, and shoes.  

2. Load the Container on the Trailer

There are many different ways to load a container on a trailer. Here are some of the most common types of equipment that can be used to achieve this. 


A forklift is a very versatile and cost-effective piece of equipment used in manufacturing and warehouse operations. Its main purpose is to lift heavy loads and move them across short distances. However, diesel forklifts can also be used to lift containers.

When lifting shipping containers the forklift operator should locate the forklift pockets to insert the forks. These pockets are usually found on 20’ and 40’ containers. As long as the rated capacity of the forklift can accommodate the weight of the laden container it should have no problems loading it onto the trailer. 

It would be best to use fork extensions the extend the reach. It’s also important to note that weight distribution inside the container should be checked thoroughly before loading a laden container onto the trailer.

Container Jacks

Container jacks lift the container vertically through hydraulic pressure. These hydraulic jacks are specifically made to lift containers and work best for smaller yards with limited space.

Before setting up the container jacks, the container must be on level ground. One jack goes on each corner of the container and it can take a few minutes until the container is fully raised off the ground. Once the container has enough ground clearance, the trailer can be positioned accordingly.

In the last step, the container jacks lower the container on the trailer. One great benefit of container jacks is that they can be operated using a regular source of electricity or generators and are very affordable.


Sideloaders (also called sidelifters) are trailers that are equipped with two lifting cranes. They can safely load and unload containers on/off the ground in a process that takes about 3 – 4 minutes. 

To start the loading process, the prime mover should park the side loading trailer next to the empty or laden container. Once parked in position, the driver should engage the stabilizing legs and hook the attachments into each corner casting.

Then, the hydraulic cranes will lift the container onto the trailer. During this process, ensure that the surrounding area is clear and ensure that the sideloader is operated at a comfortable pace.

Truck Cranes

Truck cranes work similar to sideloaders. However, instead of having two siding cranes, a truck crane only has one crane, which is located closer to the truck head. They are also more typical on flatbed trucks, instead of container trailers. 

Once the truck crane is positioned next to the container, the outriggers can be deployed, in order to prevent the truck from tipping. Then, the container is lashed from each corner casting toward the top of the container with a hook. 

The crane grabs the hook, in order to load it onto the trailer. It’s also important to check the internal weight distribution of the container before starting this process.

Reach Stackers

A reach stacker is a vehicle that has the ability to lift a container via a telescopic arm. They are designed specifically to move containers and have the ability to stack them about 3 to 4 containers high and 2 deep. 

Reach stackers are more typical in facilities that operate a container yard, where empty container stacking is a common practice. When operating a reach stacker, ensure that the trailer and prime mover are parked securely.

Top Loaders

A top loader is similar to a reach stacker, however it doesn’t have any telescopic arm. With that limitation, it can only deal with one container row at a time, but has a much higher stacking range of about 5 to 6 containers. 

Top loaders are not as common as reach stackers, due to the depth limitation. They are mainly found in container yards at the port. When operating a top loader, take similar precautions as with reach stackers and ensure that the container is safely loaded onto the trailer.

Tilt Bed Trailer

Tilt bed trailers have a special feature, which lets them raise the section closer to the truck head and lower the section at the rear. This allows the container to slide on and off.

In order to load a container with a tilt bed trailer, the container needs to be raised on one end, so that the tilt bed can position below the front section of the container. The truck reverses and slides the container onto the tilt bed, before assuming a horizontal position. 

Operating a tilt bed truck can be quite tricky and could potentially damage the contents of the container. Therefore, it’s only recommended to use a tilt bed truck on empty containers, instead of laden containers.

3. Secure the Container Using Twistlocks

Now that the container is loaded onto the trailer, it needs to be secured in place, so that it doesn’t dislodge during transport. There are a total of eight steel corner castings for all general purpose (GP) shipping containers. 

Corner castings are located on each corner of the container – four at the bottom corners and the other four at the top corners. These corner castings allow shipping containers to be easily secured in place using twistlocks. 

Each trailer has four twistlocks, one on each corner. You’ll notice that when loading a container on a trailer, the corner castings are resting on the twist locks on each end of the trailer. 

Next, rotate the twist lock handle 90 degrees to lock it in place. This will ensure that the container stays locked down at each corner and is securely connected to the trailer, as it’s crucial for ensuring a safe transport.

4. Do a Thorough Safety Check

After having loaded the container on a trailer, you’ll need to ensure that it’s securely locked in and it’s ready for transportation. Below are some checklists for some of the most important items that need to be examined before departure.

Check the Shipping Container

The shipping container needs to be checked on the undercarriage, doors, walls, ceiling and twistlocks. During loading, parts of the container may become damaged or dislodged and need to be checked. 

PartInspection Areas
UndercarriageCheck for dents and holes
Doors Check locks and locking mechanism, no loose bolts and hinges are functioning
WallsCheck for structural damage
CeilingCheck for structural damage
Twistlocks Check and ensure that all four twistlocks are engaged

Check the Prime Mover and Trailer

The same principle also applies to the prime mover and trailer. Ensure that nothing is damaged during the loading process. Below is a quick checklist:

  • Check brakes
  • Check lights (prime mover / trailer)
  • Check fire extinguisher 
  • Check tire pressure (prime mover / trailer)

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Gerrit Poel

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Gerrit is a certified international supply chain management professional with 16 years of industry experience, having worked for one of the largest global freight forwarders.

As the co-founder of freightcourse, he’s committed to his passion for serving as a source of education and information on various supply chain topics.