Eastern Europe Shipping Blog

Expert tips on smarter shipping between the U.S. and Eastern Europe, including shipping of heavy goods.

How Many Pallets Fit in a 40' Reefer Container?

I.C.E. Transport | Jul 27, 2023 11:45:00 AM | container payload, ocean shipping


Let's talk about reefers – but not the ones you might find at the beach. Short for refrigerated containers, these specially designed shipping containers offer perks that go beyond just keeping things fresh. They also extend the shelf life of products, making it possible to reach markets across the globe.

Reefers differ from standard shipping containers in a few key ways, including capacity. How many pallets fit in a 40' reefer container could differ from what fits in a 40’ standard container, for instance, because of a few variations in internal dimensions and container weight. Here are some fundamental differences between the two in both function and design.


reefer containers for ocean shippingPurpose and functionality: Standard shipping containers – also known as “dry van” (DV) or “general purpose” containers – are ideal for transporting items that don't require specific temperature or environmental controls. Reefer containers, on the other hand, are purpose-built to transport perishable and temperature-sensitive goods.

Reefers are equipped with advanced refrigeration systems to maintain a controlled environment inside the container, ensuring that the cargo remains fresh and intact during transit.

Temperature control: Reefer containers have sophisticated refrigeration units that can regulate temperatures within a specified range, typically between -22°F to 86°F (-30°C to +30°C). This capability allows them to handle a wide array of temperature-sensitive products, such as fresh produce, frozen food, pharmaceuticals and more.

Ventilation: Standard containers typically have small ventilation openings to prevent the buildup of moisture, while reefers have advanced ventilation systems that allow precise control of airflow and humidity levels to create an ideal environment for the specific cargo inside.

Sizes: Both standard and reefer containers come in several sizes, with the most common being 20’ and 40’ in length.

Inside, reefers lose some space due to insulation in the walls, ductwork in the roof and refrigeration equipment in the nose of the container. The height in a 20’ reefer is about 9” less than its standard 20-foot counterpart, but a 40’ high-cube reefer has essentially the same inside height as a 40’ standard container.

Read more: How to Choose the Best Container Type for Your Cargo


How Many Pallets Fit in a 40’ Reefer?

How many pallets fit in a 40' reefer container or a 20' reefer container? 

Pallet sizes vary by region and industry, but a standard pallet in North America is usually 48” (1.2m) in length and 40” (1m) in width.

Overall, both standard shipping containers and reefers of 20' and 40' sizes can generally fit the same number of pallets. Assuming a single, unstacked layer of pallets, it will be 20 pallets in a 40’ reefer and 10 pallets in a 20’ reefer.

The difference will come if you stack your pallets. Due to the ductwork in the ceiling, the inside height of a 40’ high-cube reefer is a foot less than a 40’ high-cube dry van (and about the same as a regular dry van). If your double-stacked pallets would almost touch the top of a 40’ high-cube dry van, then double stacking will not be an option in the reefer.    

Here’s a rough comparison of the inside dimensions of a 40' reefer container, a 20' reefer container, and their standard container counterparts:



Container Dimensions 

Pallet Dimensions (U.S.)

No. of Pallets per Container

40' standard container

39’5” x 7’8” x 7’10”

48” x 40”

20 pallets

20’ standard container

19’4” x 7’8” x 7’10”

48” x 40”

10 pallets

40' HC reefer

38’ x 7’6” x 7’11”

48” x 40”

20 pallets

20' reefer

17’10” x 7’5” x 7’1”

48” x 40”

10 pallets


If height and weight allow it, pallets can be double stacked to achieve more efficient shipping.

Capacity can vary depending on factors such as the actual pallet size, the specific design of the reefer container, and the type of goods being transported. It's always best to consult with your shipping company or freight forwarder for precise loading guidelines.


Weight and Payload Limits

In container shipping, "payload" means the maximum weight that can be loaded into the container. Exceeding the payload capacity can lead to potential safety hazards during transportation, damage to the container, or legal issues with authorities enforcing weight restrictions. That’s why it’s so important for you to know how many pallets fit in a reefer container.

Maximum payload capacity is actually slightly higher for reefer containers than for standard containers, but when it comes to moving reefers over the road, they don’t allow as much cargo weight. That’s because the containers themselves are quite a bit heavier and require a generator to power them.

To calculate the payload of a container, you need to consider the following components:

  • Tare weight: This is the weight of the empty container, including its structural components and any permanently attached equipment or fittings.
  • Maximum container gross weight:  the total allowable weight of the fully loaded container, including both the cargo and the container's tare weight.

The payload can then be calculated as the difference between the two:

Maximum Gross Container Weight - Tare Weight = Payload.

For strategies on how to maximize payload to reduce ocean shipping costs as much as 20%, read our eBook on "How to reduce costs in heavy freight shipping."


Check Your Math

Determining optimal loading capacity for different container types can be quite complex. If math isn’t your strong suit – or your team doesn’t have the necessary resources – seeking the expertise of a seasoned freight forwarder like I.C.E. Transport is the best approach. The right freight forwarder will work with you to control costs by maximizing space utilization in ocean containers, including reefers.

To learn more about ideal pallet configuration and maximizing space, contact the experts at I.C.E. Transport.


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