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Lifting Options

How To Unload Shipping Containers Without A Loading Dock

7 Options To Consider

Bison Group

12 May 6 Minutes


Stuff, Strip, Unload, Load Containers - All Without A Dock

So you need to stuff or strip a container, but you don’t have access to a loading dock. What are your options? There are lots of different equipment options and processes that can help you get the job done.

How you go about procuring the right equipment depends on your operation and budget. Buying and maintaining your own equipment may make sense if you’ve got an established operation with regular container throughput. But if you’re running a shorter term project or have capital constraints, renting the equipment, or paying a contractor to supply a container handling service, may be right for you.

From an operating standpoint, you have two general options for loading and unloading containers without a dock:

Option #1 - Keep the container on the chassis

  • Lift the cargo between the ground and the container
  • Use a mobile yard ramp

Option #2 - Put the container on the ground

  • Use a crane
  • Use a heavy forklift, reach stacker or mini straddle
  • Use a swing lift or side loader
  • Use a vertical container lift or C-Lift
  • Use a fixed C-Lift in place of a dock

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these options.

Option #1 - Keep the container on the chassis

For regular or palletised cargo, a dock isn’t always essential and keeping the container up on the chassis may be a practical option.

Lift the cargo between the ground and the container

You might move the cargo inside the container with a pallet trolley or by hand. Then use a light forklift at ground level to lift the cargo in or out of the container.

The drawback of this approach is double handling. Every piece of cargo needs to be moved into the container, then moved again when it’s inside the container.

Use a Mobile Yard Ramp

To avoid double-handling cargo, a ramp is a good alternative. Variously called a yard ramp, container ramp, forklift ramp or portable dock, you can run a light forklift from the ground up to and inside the shipping container while the container stays on the chassis.

Ramps can be fixed into position (a stationary ramp). Or you can use a mobile ramp and move it around your site to process containers in different places. Two common complaints with container ramps are they take up valuable space, and they can be dangerous to run forklifts up and down.


  • Relatively cheap to purchase and maintain
  • Easy and fast to set-up
  • Can be used around a site


  • Reversing a forklift up and down a ramp can be hazardous
  • Some cargo weights and distributions can unbalance light forklifts.
  • Ramps aren’t well suited to loading large or heavy cargo

Option #2 - Place the container on the ground

For some operations, it’s just not safe or practical to load or unload the container when it’s sitting on the chassis. Maybe the cargo is heavy, bulky or fragile. Or maybe you need time to load the cargo, and demurrage or chassis detention fees are expensive.

Fortunately, there is a range of options for positioning containers on the ground for stuffing or stripping. The critical question here is what equipment is best for you for lifting the sea can off the trailer?

Here are your options:

Use a crane

Cranes need little introduction. They come in a wide range of designs and lift capacities and have been in use for decades. You might contract a mobile crane service. Or you could install an overhead crane or gantry at your facility to lift the container off the chassis.

The wide availability of mobile cranes and crane services mean they are widely used for placing containers on the deck. But if you’ve got a regular stream of containers coming through your site, or you’re working a long distance from an urban centre, the cost of crane hire can be super expensive. The other drawback is coordinating the timing of the crane with your haulage and container loading operation. Delays and downtime waiting for a crane to get to you, or having a crane sitting idle at your site, can really hit you in the pocket!

Use a Heavy Forklift, Reach Stacker or Mini Straddle

If you’re a shipper and you want to avoid the cost of contracted crane hire, then on site container handling equipment is well worth considering.

From heavy forklifts, to reach stackers, to top loaders to mini straddle carriers, you have plenty of machines and brands to choose from (such as Kone, Liebherr, or Hyster). With this equipment, you can lift containers on and off chassis, as well as move and potentially stack containers around your site. Container movements are quick and you only need one trained worker to operate the equipment.

All this functionality comes at a cost though, with prices for new machines starting at around $350,000. Ownership and maintenance costs are not cheap either. Plus, give some thought to the ground surface you need to run a container handler. A concrete pad or reinforcement is often needed to avoid churning up the ground.

Use a Swing Lift or Side Loader

In North America, Europe and most other parts of the world, you’ll struggle to find a swing lift, but in other countries, like Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and South Africa, you’ll find swing lifts (also known as side loaders) working in all the main centres. Typically these trailers, with container cranes mounted at each end, are owned by haulage companies and offered as part of their regular haulage service. The swing lifts deliver the container and lift it on and off the deck for shippers to process the container at ground level.

Fast, safe and easy for a trained driver to operate, swing lifts are an excellent way to position containers on the ground.

However, they’re only available in some places. And where they are available, the cost of a swing lift service can be high, compared with a regular skeletal or flat bed trailer. For example, you might pay $100 more per container for delivery and collection by a swing lift versus a skelie.

One other limitation to be aware of with swing lifts is their tare weight, which means there’s a limit to the container payloads they can carry. If you’re loading heavy containers, you may need to contract both a skeletal trailer to haul the container AND a side loader to lift it. Doubling up two trucks, trailers and drivers is another high cost you might prefer to avoid.

Use a Vertical Container Lift or C-Lift

Vertical container lifts, also known as C-Lifts or container lifting jacks, are another category of container handling equipment you can use to put the container on the ground for loading or stripping.

Like cranes and the other handling equipment we’ve profiled, there are a range of models and options to choose from: portable C-Lifts you can take out into the field, through to high capacity, automated C-Lifts that you can use at sites with steady container volumes.

C-Lifts are a fraction of the cost to own and operate compared with the other container handling systems. They have a high (32 tonne / 70,000 lb plus) lift capacity but at the same time they are compact and portable, making for a small storage footprint and easy relocation. With a C-Lift you can position containers in different areas, including confined spaces or indoors. On the other hand, a C-Lift won’t stack or move containers, if that’s something you need to do.

Automated fixed C-Lifts can directly replace a dock. These can extend the capability of your site or warehouse by creating new points of entry for goods, at a fraction of the cost of installing a dock.

Learn more about our C-Lift M Series, X Series, and F Series.


So in summary, there are plenty of options available for stuffing and stripping containers without a dock. If this is something you’re considering, you’ll be weighing up a bunch of factors:

  • Cargo type, size, weight and quantity
  • Container throughput
  • Equipment availability
  • Your budget & timeline
  • Ownership & hire options
  • Site conditions and constraints

Hopefully, this article helps you by profiling your different options and narrowing down which ones you should continue to explore.