Step Deck vs. Flatbed Trailer: What Are the Differences?

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If you’re in the market for a new or used trailer, specifically a drop deck, step deck, or a flatbed trailer, it can be challenging to determine which one is the best fit for your needs. Hauling larger cargo, especially those that require permits, presents unique challenges for drivers and operators. Understanding the differences between these trailer types can save you time, money, and hassle during the purchasing process.

What is a Step Deck Trailer?

A step deck trailer, also referred to as a drop deck or lowboy trailer, is designed to transport tall cargo that exceeds the legal height limit for traditional flatbed trailers. By using a step deck trailer, drivers and operators can transport tall cargo without obtaining special permits.

Step deck trailers consist of two decks – an upper deck and a lower deck. Many step deck trailers also offer ramp capabilities, facilitating easier loading and unloading of equipment. The lower deck’s reduced height allows forklifts to access the cargo more conveniently, as they are closer to the ground. Depending on the type of freight and loading/unloading requirements, step deck trailers can come in fixed-neck, gooseneck, or removable gooseneck (RGN) options. Fixed-neck trailers offer more limited loading and unloading options, while RGNs can be loaded from either the front or the back.

Commonly transported freight on step deck trailers includes heavy machinery and equipment, tractors, building materials, agricultural materials, and machinery.

Double Drop Deck Trailer

For extra-heavy and large loads, double drop deck trailers are used. These trailers feature two higher decks, one in the front and one in the back, which surround a lower deck known as a “well.” Their ability to accommodate more axles allows them to carry taller and heavier loads. Double drop decks often have a flip axle that can be laid on the deck when not used or flipped down when hauling additional weight.

Federal regulations specify that trailers must maintain a certain number of axles depending on the weight of the freight. Using a drop deck trailer with extra axles enables drivers and operators to transport heavy freight without requiring additional permits. When choosing between a step deck and a flatbed trailer, it is crucial to consider both the height and weight requirements.

What is a Flatbed Trailer?

Flatbed Trailer

Flatbed trailers are versatile trailers without sides or a roof, commonly used for standard-sized loads. When transporting heavier freight, many flatbeds offer the option of adding additional axles to comply with federal weight guidelines. Technically, drop deck and step deck trailers are variations of flatbed trailers with additional decks.

Flatbed trailers can be made from aluminum, steel, or composite materials. They can also have additional features such as curtain-sided walls, extendable decks, and multilevel decks (drop deck). The standard deck height for flatbed trailers is approximately 5 feet, and they can carry loads up to 8′ 6″ in height.

Common types of freight carried on flatbed trailers include raw materials, construction supplies and equipment, lumber, heating and cooling units, formed concrete, and vehicles.

Step Deck Trailer vs. Flatbed Trailer: Choosing the Right Option

The primary question to consider when deciding between a step deck and a flatbed trailer is the type of freight you will be hauling. For shorter freight, a traditional flatbed trailer will suffice. On the other hand, if your freight exceeds 8′ 6″ in height, a step deck trailer is the better choice.

It is essential to familiarize yourself with the legal load dimensions for commercial trailers to ensure compliance. While the dimensions vary from state to state, here are the general overall limits:

  • Length: 48 to 53 feet
  • Width: 8 feet 6 inches
  • Height: 13 feet 6 inches
  • Weight: 80,000 lbs.

Additional factors to consider include:

  • Flatbed trailers have a typical deck height of 5 feet, meaning freight cannot exceed 8 feet 6 inches in height.
  • Step deck trailers have a lower deck height of 3 feet 6 inches, allowing for freight heights up to 10 feet.
  • Step deck trailers have an average upper deck length of 11 feet and a lower deck length of 37 feet, totaling a general legal maximum length of 48 feet.
  • Step deck trailers generally weigh more than flatbed trailers, so careful consideration of freight weight is necessary not to exceed the 80,000-pound limit.
  • Double drop deck trailers have a lowest deck height of 22 inches, accommodating freight heights up to 11 feet 8 inches.

Whether you require a step deck or a flatbed trailer, Hale Trailer Brake and Wheel, Inc. offers a wide range of rental options and knowledgeable representatives across 12 locations. Their extensive inventory of commercial trailers, along with reliable service offerings, makes them the go-to source for all your trailer needs.

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