What Is a Unit Load?

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  • Written By: M. McGee
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 31 January 2020
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A unit load is a shipping term that refers to a multi-part collection of goods that is packaged for easy transport. In most cases, this means that several items are stacked on a pallet and then wrapped together to make a single bundle. The pallet will have slots to allow a forklift to pick it up and move it without disturbing the products. While this is likely the most common type of unit load, any amount of product that is packaged for transport in a similar way is single unit. The term applies to everything from handcart-sized units to intermodal shipping crates.

The most confusing thing about a unit load is that it is an indefinite measurement of space, volume and weight. There are no rules that say the load has to be above a certain size or below a specific volume. The only rules imposed on the measurement are that it is made of multiple pieces connected together and it is specifically designed to facilitate shipping. If the shipper commonly uses forklifts and pallets, then that is the likely unit load, but If the shipper uses cargo containers instead, that would be called a unit.


Regardless of its size and content, the unit load is secured as one solid piece. With smaller shipping systems, this often means the individual goods are wrapped up using packing wrap. This thin and stretchy plastic is almost identical to the plastic wrap used in household kitchens. Larger units will typically use wooden crates or metal shipping containers.

While nearly anything could be a unit load to someone, modern shipping has standardized the movement of goods well enough that three main sizes are more common than any others. The most common warehouse unit is the pallet. These wooden or plastic devices are no more than platforms that are specifically tailored to forklifts. They have slots that allow the forklift’s tines to slide in so the goods remain secure while moving.

Handcart or rolling cart-sized units are more common at endpoint locations, such as the internal warehouse of a department or grocery store. These units are usually set up so one person can move them from place to place with minimal effort. In this case, the goal is to take a shipped product and move it to a location where it is sold; therefore, the overall content of the unit load is much lower.

The last common size for a unit load is a shipping container. Intermodal transportation uses standard-sized shipping containers that move from the back of a truck or train car to a ship’s deck and then back, all without opening the container. Intermodal systems allow the efficient and inexpensive transport of goods by combining the loads of multiple shippers into a single, easily-transported bundle.


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