how to lift a shipping container

The high cost of container lifting equipment means they are typically only found in locations with high container throughput. These often act as "freight hubs". However, handling containers outside of these hubs can be a challenge, and is usually solved by contracting a mobile container handling service, such as a truck crane, side loader or tilt-bed truck. Fortunately, new container lifting solutions are emerging that make owning your own container handling equipment much more affordable.

This report compares 9 different container handling options that will help steer you toward the container lifting solution that best suits your operation. 

The options are:

  1. container lifting jacks
  2. gantry cranes
  3. straddle carriers
  4. reach stackers
  5. top loaders
  6. forklifts
  7. sideloaders
  8. truck cranes
  9. tilt beds

 This report examines the pros and cons of each way to lift or move a shipping container.

Container Lifting Jacks

Container lifting jacks are a portable and cost-effective solution, suited to lifting containers in locations with lower container volume. Some models will lift containers weighing up to 32,000 kg / 70,000 lb. 

This container lifting system trades off speed and automation in return for much better pricing and portability. However, automated options reduce lifting time to under 5 minutes.

  • Can lift heavy containers
  • Handles all container types
  • Cost-effective
  • Works in tight spaces
  • Portable, on-site and between different sites
  • Does not stack containers
  • Does not move containers around on site

See the BISON range of container lifting jacks

Gantry Crane

Gantry cranes are huge cranes that sit at the dockside to lift containers from ships. They can move up and down a dock, but generally they are fixed in one location. The cost of these can run into the millions, so most operators can only marvel at the statistics before looking for other alternatives.

Although gantry cranes are widely used in ports, there are smaller, rail-mounted or rubber tyre gantry cranes available that can be used for lifting, moving, and stacking shipping containers in container depots and other medium-to-high volume locations.

  • Fast and efficient in port operations and where there is a high container turnover
  • Very expensive to install and maintain
  • Limited to one site only

Straddle Carrier

Straddle carriers come in a range of sizes, and like the gantry crane, lift containers from the top. They are mobile on-site and are able to move shipping containers about with ease, however, due to their size and weight they need to operate on reinforced concrete surface.

Smaller straddle carriers, called a "mini straddle", are sometimes used by importers, exporters and container depots handling low - medium container volumes. 

  • Reasonably fast and mobile on site
  • Can stack containers
  • Expensive ($250 k +) 
  • Can be used on a single site only
  • Requires reinforced concrete surface

Reach Stacker

A reach stacker is a fast and efficient option for handling containers. Capable of lifting very heavy containers, a reach stacker can move single containers around on site, transfer containers between the ground, the stack, rail wagons and chassis and - depending on the model - stack up to 2 - 3 containers high and deep. 

Reach stackers are automated and controlled from the driver’s seat without assistance from personnel on the ground. All this functionality comes at a cost though, with prices for new machines starting at around USD 500,000.

  • Fast turnaround
  • Automated
  • Can stack containers
  • Expensive
  • Mobile, but on a single site only

Top Loader

Top loaders are a specially adapted forklift that lift shipping containers from the top and can stack containers in a single pile. With many of the same characteristics as a reach stacker, in terms of their speed, automation and ability to move containers around. The price of a new top loader will generally start from around USD 400,000.

  • Fast turnaround
  • Expensive
  • Mobile, but used on a single site only


Forklifts are an indispensable piece of equipment you will see in most manufacturing and warehousing operations. Although they are mainly used for moving general materials over short distances, a high capacity forklift can also be used to lift and move empty and light weight containers if the need arises.

Although massive versions are able to lift heavy shipping containers, uneven container weight distribution can be dangerous, as the forklift typically lifts from a relative short base at the centre of the container.

  • Multi-purpose equipment
  • Cost-effective
  • Can’t handle all container types and weights
  • Mobile, but larger forklifts can only be used on a single site

Side Loader

Self loading trailers - also known as side loaders, swing lifts or side lifters - are a high capacity chassis that can lift, transport and transfer full containers to/from the ground or other chassis. 

This flexible equipment is ideal if you need to lift shipping containers in multiple locations. However a disadvantage of side loaders is that you also need a prime mover to operate the equipment. The container lifting apparatus weighs up to 5,000 kg (11,000 lb), which increases the tare weight compared with regular chassis and can displace available payload.

  • Takes only 5 - 10 minutes to transfer the container
  • Only 1 operator required
  • Expensive at USD 200k plus the cost of a prime mover
  • Not commonly available in many countries

Truck Crane

With this container lifting equipment, the crane is mounted onto the truck carrier itself. Unlike the side loader, which places the container beside the truck, a truck crane will lower containers to anywhere within the arc of a truck crane’s reach.

However, this reach is limited by the weight of the container, so a truck crane is really only suitable if you need to lift empty or lightly loaded shipping containers. Typically a truck crane will only handle 20' containers. The price tag sits at around USD 250,000 for the lifting apparatus, plus the cost of the truck.

  • Useful for handling containers in confined spaces
  • Mobile across multiple sites
  • Lifts and transports more than just containers
  • Expensive
  • Can’t lift heavy containers
  • Can’t handle all container types

Tilt Bed

A tilt-bed or tilt-deck chassis lowers the back end of the deck to the ground, enabling containers to be winched on, or pushed off the vehicle. This method is generally limited to empty containers, or lightly loaded containers with non-precious goods. 

At around USD 70,000 - 90,000 these vehicles cost less than the side loader, but have lower container lift capacity. A key thing to remember if you use a tilt-bed is that there needs to be enough space so that the truck can drive away in a relatively straight line. So, the site must be the length of the shipping container (20’ or 40’) plus the length of the truck and trailer.

  • Portable, can be used on multiple sites
  • Less expensive than some container lifting options
  • Can’t lift or move heavy shipping containers
  • Can’t handle all ISO container types
  • Slow turn around
  • Can't be used if the contents are fragile or need to be kept level


Prior to these options, it wasn't uncommon for shippers to pay additional wait time fees to transport companies while containers were packed or unpacked on the vehicle, pay thousands of dollars for a crane to lift and ground the container, or simply have no option available.

Now, there's a variety of solutions to lift and move shipping containers for your specific needs.

Ask us about our lifting solutions

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