How to Unload Pallets From a Cargo Trailer

Written by cody sorensen
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How to Unload Pallets From a Cargo Trailer
A forklift can move pallets with ease. (forklift and pallets image by timur1970 from

Unloading pallets from a cargo trailer can be done with a forklift. The forks of the lift are inserted into the slots of the pallet and the pallet is lifted up, then hauled off the trailer. Cargo may be loaded into vans or on flatbed trailers. The type of trailer will determine how pallets are unloaded. A van trailer is unloaded from the rear onto a loading dock. Flatbeds are unloaded from both sides on the ground. Knowing how to centre pallet weight on the forks and use the correct levers on the forklift are key to safe unloading.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Forklift
  • Dock or unloading area

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  1. 1

    Position the flatbed cargo trailer in an open area where the forklift can access both sides of the trailer.

  2. 2

    Release all cargo straps or chains from the trailer and remove them from the pallets.

  3. 3

    Spread the forks on the forklift so that the outer edges will be just inside the outer, load-bearing boards of the pallet. Some forks do this hydraulically and some have to be moved by hand. Use levers for the hydraulic type. Tilt the forks forward, get in between them, then push forks outward for the manual type.

  4. 4

    Position the forklift on either side at the rear or head of the trailer. Line it up with the first pallet. Raise the forks to the level where the tips can enter the two holes in the pallet. Use the up and down lever to accomplish this.

  5. 5

    Drive the forklift forward until the forks are under two-thirds of the pallet's length. Use the side-to-side lever to position the fork evenly. Lift the pallet 3-inches off the deck, then back up 6-inches. Set the pallet back down on the trailer and then drive the forklift forward until the forks are under the entire length of the pallet.

  6. 6

    Lift the pallet off the trailer and tilt the fork boom back a few inches. Back straight away from the trailer to avoid snagging other pallets. Drive to the location where the pallet is to be placed and lower it to the ground using the hydraulic lever. Tilt the fork boom forward until the pallet is square on the ground. Set it down completely and then back the forks out. Unload remaining pallets in the same manner. Alternate pallet removal from one side of the trailer to the other. Do not unload an entire side of the trailer at a time. This could shift the load and cause the trailer to tip.

  1. 1

    Back the van cargo trailer up to a loading dock. Stop 10 feet before getting to the dock and engage the parking brake. Get out and open the rear doors of the trailer all the way until the outside side of the doors touch the trailer sides.

  2. 2

    Get back in the truck, release the parking brake and back up to the dock using the driver- and passenger-side mirrors. Follow dock workers' instructions as to where you should stop the trailer. Square the rear end of the trailer up with the dock. Set the parking brake. Exit cab and place a wheel chock in between the trailer wheels to keep them from rolling.

  3. 3

    Lift the steel loading ramp on the dock, then lower it over the gap between the dock and the trailer.

  4. 4

    Drive the forklift up the loading ramp and follow flatbed trailer unloading instructions. The main difference is that you are now loading from the rear of the trailer rather than from the sides. Keep the forklift boom or mast low so you don't hit the top of the cargo van trailer as you enter and exit. Watch the inner side walls of the trailer while driving on and off the trailer --- with or without a pallet on your forks. Again, alternate removing pallets from each side of the trailer to maintain load balance.

Tips and warnings

  • Alternate the unloading of pallets. Unload one pallet from one side of the trailer, then one pallet from the other side. This is called counterbalancing the trailer. Don't unload an entire side of pallets at a time, as it could potentially damage or flip the trailer.
  • Keep and eye on your surroundings at all times to avoid hitting a pedestrian or object with your forks.

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