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What Is a Reefer Truck?

by Rob Wagner

A reefer truck is a truck or van usually 1 ton or larger that has a refrigerated unit built either directly on the frame or is transported by trailer. It's refrigerated by diesel-powered generators and liquid carbon dioxide, or CO2. Reefer trucks range from simple ice cream trucks to large containers carrying perishable goods across the country.

Mechanical Reefer

A GMC reefer with box built on chassis.

Ice cream maker Borden Company developed one of the first mechanical reefer trucks in the late 1920s for long-haul deliveries.

Advanced Technology

Articulated reefer Isuzu truck

Reefer trucks haul hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods and require warning systems that monitor the changes in temperature that allows the driver to take corrective measures.


Tractor-trailer reefer rigs became ubiquitous on American highways in the 1950s.

The reefer truck industry exploded following passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created an extensive highway/freeway system throughout the United States.


Small vans such as this one in Japan are used for urban deliveries.

Reefer truck drivers are required to deliver perishable cargo in perfect condition and must pre-cool refrigerated units before loading goods to ensure a stable and correct temperature.

Environmentally Friendly

Note the cooling unit above the cab and outside the box.

Heavy hauler reefer trucks typically are equipped with an engine, evaporator, condenser and compressor that adhere to strict environmental emissions guidelines.

Not Just Ice Cream

Reefers now carry any product that requires a cool environment.

Many products require refrigeration before final delivery, with reefer trucks today hauling computers, medical supplies, plasma, blood and photography supplies.

About the Author

Rob Wagner is a journalist with over 35 years experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines. His experience ranges from legal affairs reporting to covering the Middle East. He served stints as a newspaper and magazine editor in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Wagner attended California State University, Los Angeles, and has a degree in journalism.

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Photo Credits

  • General Motors, Isuzu