Last Updated: September 27, 2022
If you’re using freight services for personal or business needs, you’ll need to know how to measure your freight. Learning how to precisely measure your cargo and calculate things like its density and dim factor will help you ensure that your shipments stay within your budget and on deadline.
Below, you’ll find our complete guide to freight measurement. We’ll show you how to accurately determine your freight’s dimensions and take correct measurements—including measuring your pallet. We’ll also demonstrate how to use those numbers to calculate the information your carrier or freight forwarder will need to get you an accurate quote and timeline.
First, though, let’s talk about the difference between shipping cargo as freight and shipping parcels.
Freight Shipping vs. Parcel Shipping
How do you decide if what you’re shipping is freight? The line between parcel and freight shipping is often subjective. In general, parcel shipping is for individual packages that you can easily ship through carriers like UPS or FedEx.
Packages that are heavier than 150 pounds and bigger than 108 inches in length or 165 inches in length plus girth (2x width + height; see our handy formula below!) are usually shipped as freight. Just keep in mind that these numbers aren’t set in stone.
The shape of a shipment is another way to determine if something should be considered freight. Is what you’re shipping large and bulky, or smaller and more manageable? Bulky or oddly shaped items like furniture are probably better off shipped as freight. Shipments on pallets are also considered freight.
Now that you understand what type of items would likely be moved as freight, let’s talk about why precise cargo measurements matter.
Why Accurate Freight Measurements Are So Important
Correct measurements allow you to plan, and they allow the carriers and forwarders you partner with to plan as well. In essence, they eliminate surprises for everyone involved.
Freight shipments are loaded into trailers or ocean containers in ways that maximize the usable space. Additionally, carriers and freight forwarders schedule freight based on the measurements you’ll provide, so you need to be as precise as possible. In fact, your freight carrier or forwarder will often measure freight using what’s called a dimensioner, a machine that uses imaging equipment and a scale to get exact measurements.
If your measurements are off—and your carrier or forwarder receives a shipment that’s a different size than they were anticipating—they may end up adjusting your rate, which impacts your final price. Additionally, the company’s plan for loading trucks and containers may change, which might result in delays.
In summary, accurate measurements will keep your budget and your schedule in line, so it’s well worth your time to get it right.
With that, let’s take a look at how to get it done.
How to Measure Your Freight
You’ll measure your freight in a couple of different ways in order to give your carrier or forwarder everything they need for an accurate quote. You’ll need to calculate the shipment’s weight, physical dimensions, cubic size, and dimensional weight. These will help you choose the right freight service—and get the most precise quote.
How Do You Calculate Freight Weight?
Weight is one of the most straightforward aspects of measuring your freight. The weight of your freight is exactly what it sounds like: It’s simply how much your entire shipment weighs, including the pallet and any other packaging.
You will need this number for another freight calculation (dim weight), so write your cargo’s weight down and keep it handy.
How Do You Measure Your Freight’s Dimensions?
Next, you’ll need to measure the physical dimensions of your freight—the length (L), width (W), and height (H) of your item or items in inches. To avoid confusion—and sound like an expert—make sure you keep your dimensions in this order:
Length, Width, and Height
How Do Measure the Length of Your Freight?
Length is the longest dimension of your item.
In terms of palletized freight, length is the longer of the two sides of your pallet. So, if you’re measuring palletized freight, you can simply take your measurement along the longest side of your pallet—as long as there’s no overhang. If your cargo extends beyond the pallet, make sure to include any overhang in your measurement. (By the way, if your pallet does have overhang, you might want to reconsider the way you’re packing it. Pallet overhang can lead to freight damage and cargo issues.)
Record your length in inches.
How Do You Measure the Width of Your Freight?
Once you’ve measured the length, measure the other edge of your cargo—or the other side of your pallet. Check to see if there’s overhang when measuring your width. If your cargo extends beyond the pallet, make sure to include it in your measurement.
Record your width in inches.
How Do You Measure the Height of Your Freight?
Finally, measure how tall your freight is. Measure from the bottom of your freight (including the pallet!) to the tallest part of your freight, and record the height in inches. So, if your pallet is 6″ high, and you’ve got 42″ of cargo on top of it, your height will be 48″.
Record your height in inches.
How Do You Measure the Girth of Your Freight?
You may not need the girth of your shipment, depending on how you ship it. This measurement is often used by parcel carriers to determine pricing and/or cut-offs for certain modes of transportation. Either way, it’s a good thing to know how to calculate, just in case.
Simply put, the girth is the distance around your shipment. If you’ve ever wrapped a piece of tape around your waist, you’ve measured your own girth. Once you have the package’s length and width from above, you can easily calculate girth with this formula:
(Length x 2) + (Width x 2) = Girth
Pretty simple, right?
How Do You Measure Irregularly Shaped Objects?
When you’re not shipping palletized freight, measurements can get a bit trickier. In plain terms, you’re going to need to use the longest measurement for each one of your dimensions. Think about it this way: If you shortchange your measurements in any one dimension, your carrier or forwarder might not leave enough room to fit your cargo in its intended trailer or container.
If it helps, one common strategy you might use is visualizing your irregular freight as though it’s in a box. When you measure, you’re looking for the dimensions of that theoretical box—because that’s how your carrier will pack it.
How Do You Measure Pallet Dimensions?
When you’re measuring a pallet, just like other types of freight, you’ll start with the length of the pallet—the longest side. Write those numbers down in this standard order:
Length x Width
One of the most common pallet sizes is a 48″ x 40″ pallet. That means the pallet is 48 inches long by 40 inches wide. You’ll also see pallets that are 48″ x 48″ or 42″ x 42″. Standard pallet height is commonly 6″.
Remember, when you’re measuring palletized cargo, if there’s any overhang, you’ll need to include that in your measurements. (And, if you can avoid overhang on your pallets, it can save you from cargo damage in the long run.)
You’ll also need to tell your carrier the height of your shipment. This will be the measurement from the bottom of the pallet to the tallest point of your cargo. In some cases, this dimension will be up to you, since you can decide how tall you end up stacking your pallet.
How Tall Can You Stack a Pallet?
Many shippers try to keep cargo to a maximum height of 48″. Keep in mind that 48″ includes the height of the pallet itself. So, if your pallet is 6″ tall, you’ve got 42″ of cargo space above.
Why 48″? This height allows carriers to double-stack pallets one on top of the other. If you stick with this standard, you’ll have more flexibility in terms of which carriers will accept your cargo. Because it also offers more flexibility for carriers, it often means a lower freight cost for you.
If you’re sending palletized freight regularly, you might consider asking your carrier or freight forwarder about optimizing your packaging. Sometimes, a few tweaks in the way you palletize your freight can save you significant money in the long run.
How Much Weight Can a Pallet Handle?
Standard 48″ x 40″ pallets can hold up to 4,600 lbs. of cargo. However, carriers, forwarders, or retailers receiving your pallets may have their own restrictions and preferences in terms of pallet size, pallet dimensions, and pallet weight. In other words, talk to your partners before committing to a particular method of stacking or loading your pallets.
Protect Your Shipment from Damage
These four best practices for palletized freight will give your goods maximum protection against bumps and bruises in transit.
How Do I Calculate the Volume of My Cargo in Cubic Feet?
If you want the long answer, check out our article: How to Calculate Cubic Feet and Other Easy Freight Math.
The short answer? Use this simple formula:
Length (inches) × Width (inches) × Height (inches) = Volume (cubic inches)
The answer will give you the volume of your freight in cubic inches.
Then, divide by 1,728, and you’ll have the volume of your freight in cubic feet.
How Do You Calculate Dimensional Weight of Cargo?
Some carriers, including air freight providers, use dimensional weight to price shipments. You might also hear this referred to as “dim weight.” Because dim weight is based on your package’s physical dimensions, it takes the size of the package into account, as opposed to just looking at the package’s actual weight.
Actual weight: The gross weight of your shipment in pounds.
Dimensional weight (also known as volumetric weight): An estimated weight based on calculated dimensions.
The larger of these two becomes what is called your chargeable weight. In other words, it’s what the carrier uses to calculate the cost of your cargo.
Although carriers may use different dim factors, we’ll walk you through the overall formula so you understand how it works:
Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x Dim Factor = Dimensional Weight
Although it varies by carrier and route, one formula that many shippers use is:
Dimensional Weight Formula for Domestic Shipments:
Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x 8.9 = Dimensional Weight
Dimensional Weight Formula for International Shipments:
Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x 10.4 = Dimensional Weight
Once the dim weight is calculated, the carrier will compare it to the actual weight and use the greater of the two to calculate your cost. So, for example, if your dim weight is 49 and your actual weight is 42, the carrier will use the dim weight of 49 to determine what you’ll pay.
How Do You Calculate the Density of Cargo?
Many carriers look at your cargo’s density in order to determine the freight class of your shipment. Freight classification is one of the ways the industry simplifies and standardizes the shipping process—and determines pricing.
To learn more about calculating density, check out our article on calculating cubic feet, density, and other handy freight math.
What’s the Next Step?
Once you’ve accurately measured your freight, the next step is to contact your carrier or freight forwarder. Along with your measurements, they’ll need to know the origin and destination for your cargo, as well as a few other items to get you an accurate quote for your shipment. By ensuring that your measurements are careful and correct, you’ll set yourself up for an excellent working relationship with both carriers and freight forwarders alike—and you’ll eliminate the possibility of any unpleasant surprises along the way.
Packaging makes all the difference. As you’ve seen, the dimensions of your cargo directly impact your cost to ship it. If you’d like to investigate more efficient ways to package your cargo in order to save on freight costs, talk with one of our experts. We can help you choose the right methods for packaging your freight so you get the best rates—and so your cargo arrives in excellent condition.
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