7 Types of Tow Trucks and their Various Uses

When you mention tow trucks most people imagine an oversized pickup with a boom, cable, and hook on the back. But that’s actually an older and less-capable configuration. Here’s an overview of the various different types of tow trucks and what they’re good for. It just might come in handy the next time you need to call for a wrecker.

What is Tow Truck?

A tow truck (also called a wrecker, a breakdown truck, recovery vehicle, or a breakdown lorry) is a truck used to move disabled, improperly parked, impounded, or otherwise indisposed motor vehicles. This may involve recovering a vehicle damaged in an accident, returning one to a drivable surface in a mishap or inclement weather, or towing or transporting one via flatbed to a repair shop or other location.

A tow truck is distinct from a car carrier trailer, which is used to move multiple new or used vehicles simultaneously in routine transport operations.

Ferdinand Porsche of Austro-Daimler developed an artillery tractor for the Austro-Hungarian army in 1908, the M 08. One of the batches was constructed as a recovery vehicle for the others, with a large winch on the rear platform.

The wrecker (with lifting jib) was invented in 1916 by Ernest Holmes Sr. of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a garage worker who was inspired after he needed blocks, ropes, and six men to pull a car out of a creek. After improving his design, he began manufacturing them commercially.

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The 7 Different Types of Tow Trucks · Hook and Chain · Wheel Lift · Integrated · Flatbed · Rotator.

Types Of Tow Trucks

Here are the most common types of tow trucks:

  1. Flatbed Tow Truck
  2. Hook and Chain Tow Truck
  3. Wheel Lift Tow Trucks
  4. Integrated Tow Trucks
  5. Oversized Towing
  6. Boom Trucks
  7. Rotator

The different types are determined by how the vehicle is hooked up, and there are various combinations of these types’ features as well. Tow trucks are also categorized by their weight capacity.

1. Flatbed Tow Truck

A flatbed tow truck will look a little different than the standard tow trucks you may be accustomed to seeing. The flatbed tow truck has a large flatbed a vehicle can sit on completely. The back of the flatbed truck is what allows a car to be loaded onto the flatbed. The flatbed is capable of sliding out and then tilting towards the ground.

When the flatbed is tilted and, on the ground, a car or other type of vehicle can drive up and park on top of the flatbed. Once the car is on top of the flatbed tow truck, it can be secured using a winch, and the ramp will return to its normal position.

The back of the flatbed truck is powered by hydraulics, and there will be weight limits involved that you will not be able to exceed. One of the best things about the flatbed tow truck is that it keeps cars entirely off the ground.

This gives the car a much smaller risk of damage than a car riding along the road. One of the reasons you would need a flatbed truck is if your car was ultimately totaled. Sometimes there is no way to get a totaled car to travel along the roadway on its own, and it needs to be lifted and placed on top of a flatbed truck.

If the car can no longer drive on its own, the winch will be used to pull what is left of the car onto the top of the flatbed truck. Sometimes a flatbed truck will be referred to as a slide or a rollback truck. This is because of the back end of the truck that extends out of the back of the vehicle.

2. Hook and Chain Tow Truck

The next type of tow truck is the most popular. When you think about your car being pulled along down the road, this is the truck you will very likely be thinking about and considering. At the back end of a hook and chain tow truck, you will see a hook.

The hook is going to be secured to the car’s axle or bumper. The chains then will go around the frame of the car. When this is all in place, there is a boom that will lift the car off the ground, and the back wheels will stay in place. This is a truck that will tow a car while the back end of the car is on the ground.

Although this hook and chain type tow truck design is what started the towing industry, it is not used all that much anymore because of the damage it does to cars. When all those chains are wrapped around, and the car gets lifted up, there is quite a bit of potential for damage.

The hook and chain type truck are still great for totaled cars, and you will see it used in those situations quite often. If you have a 4×4 vehicle, it is a terrible idea to use a hook and chain tow truck as it will cause damage to the rear wheels.

These hook and chain type tow trucks can be used when a car is stuck in a ditch or the mud. Indeed, if this is the case with your car, a few bumps or scratches will be better than leaving your car abandoned in a ditch. The winch on this truck is a powerful one.

3. Wheel Lift Tow Trucks

The wheel lift tow truck is quite similar to the hook and chain tow truck, the good news about the wheel lift is that you won’t see any hooks or chains involved. The wheel lift trucks will use something called a yoke, which is a piece attached to the back of the tow truck which goes under the front wheels of the car.

When it goes under the front wheels, it can then lift the car and tow it while the back wheels are still on the ground. Since no chain is in place, there is much less chance the front bumper will get damaged. One of the great things about wheel lift tow trucks is that they are simple, quick, and relatively easy.

If you need to get your car off the highway rather quickly, this is a great truck to consider. If you watch a professional tow truck driver, they can have one of these types of trucks hooked up and pulled away in a matter of minutes.

You will sometimes see these trucks carrying a car using the front wheels, and other times, you may notice that the back wheels are pulled up. Most of the time, this is done with the front wheels suspended in the air, but if the car is in a location that is difficult to remove it from, the back wheels can work as well.

4. Integrated Tow Trucks

An integrated tow truck is a large and powerful truck you will need if you have a large vehicle. Most people don’t think about it, but trucks and buses tend to break down quite a bit. A typical tow truck will struggle to pull something like this, but an integrated tow truck is built for this job.

These tow trucks are built with an extra axle, giving them a lot more power and stability. They are designed for large, heavy loads, and they can get vehicles out of difficult situations. You will notice that the arm of an integrated tow truck is located directly in the center of the truck. This arm is highly stable and will allow this truck to pull loads that are even bigger than the tow truck itself.

Most average drivers with cars and SUVs will not need an integrated tow truck. However, if your motor home breaks down during your next vacation, the integrated tow truck will be what you need.

5. Oversized Towing

In addition to the integrated tow trucks, you may also run into oversized towing vehicles. These are vehicles that can tow and transport large-scale operations.

You may see these towing large boats or vehicles down the road, but they don’t look like a standard tow truck. Most small towing operations will not have these as part of their fleet of vehicles, but they are available should you need to move some huge vehicles or construction equipment.

6. Boom Trucks

A boom truck is a truck with a hydraulic arm, the hydraulic arm on a boom truck is called the boom. This boom will reach out past the end of the vehicle, and it will grab the vehicles that need to be towed. The boom truck will look like a small version of a crane.

When you first see a boom truck, it will look more like a truck you might see doing electric work than it will look like a tow truck. However, that boom can be used for various purposes, and one of them is to tow a vehicle.

The boom of the truck remains in a fixed position, which allows it to be a very stable option when it comes to towing. For many years, a boom truck would tow a vehicle just like the hook and chain tow trucks will pull a vehicle.

They would wrap a hook and chains around the front bumper of the car and then use these to attach the car to the boom. Then the front of the car would be lifted while the back end stays on the ground.

As we now know, this is not the best method if you want to keep the front of the car in decent condition. Today, many boom trucks will have a sling or a belt attached to them. These slings or belts will cause less overall damage to the car, and you can get a vehicle out of a bad spot in a short period.

The boom truck is still not a good option for pulling an all-wheel-drive vehicle because it will do damage to the wheels that are on the ground. The boom truck is powerful and is uses a winch to pull the car into the proper position and continue on its way. If you happen to find yourself in a bad situation and a boom truck shows up, chances are it will be able to get you out.

7. Rotator

These are the biggest and baddest of tow trucks (and arguably the star of the TV series “Highway Through Hell”). They’re like a big construction crane with a boom that can rotate 360 degrees and can extend to some 30 feet. That gives them the strength and flexibility to handle the toughest situations.  But costing upwards of $400,000 there’s not very many around.

Towing Capacity

When you call for tow truck service, the first question besides your location is the type of vehicle.  That tells the dispatcher what types of tow trucks are suitable.  The different sizes also have different requirements for driver/operator licenses.

  • Light Duty. Light duty towing vehicles are compact and maneuverable, with a lower overhead clearance required.  With towing capacities of 5-10 tons they’re limited to sedans, light trucks, and smaller SUVs.
  • Medium Duty. Medium duty towing wreckers include most flat beds, and have a capacity of 15-20 tons.
  • Heavy Duty. Heavy duty towing wreckers are built with chassis based on semi-trucks and have capacities of 25-50 tons.  Rotators commonly go up into the 50–75-ton range.

Five Reason Way You Need Tow Trucks?

1. Improperly Parked Cars

If you have ever parked in a place you weren’t supposed to, you may have had experiences with a tow truck already. Improperly parked cars notoriously get towed, and there are typically signs around warning you of this possibility.

In most cases, an integrated truck will be used to tow the vehicle, as they are often the most flexible, but different companies may use different kinds of trucks. Of course, it also depends on the vehicle.

2. Car Accidents and Breakdowns

If you have ever been in an accident or broken down on the side of the road, you have likely dealt with a tow truck before. When vehicles are immobile or severely damaged, they have to be towed away from the site and to a safe location.

The tow truck that is used to pick up wrecked or broken-down vehicles will depend on the vehicle or the nature of the accident. For example, if your vehicle remains on the road and can still be wheeled away, your towing company may use an integrated truck or a wheel-lift truck.

However, if your vehicle is trapped in a ditch, a boom truck may be necessary to lift it out. Flatbed tow trucks are also commonly used to tow away vehicles in both situations.

In most cases, the tow trucks take your vehicle to a repair shop, back to your home, or to a specified location. Many repair shops also offer towing services and roadside assistance for this reason.

3. Heavy-Duty Jobs

Some towing trucks are reserved for heavy-duty jobs, and all types of towing trucks have heavy-duty versions. A standard size, an integrated tow truck can handle parked cars and trucks, but sometimes semi-trucks and school buses need to be towed, which may require a special vehicle.

Businesses that possess a large fleet of vehicles, especially those with buses and other vehicles, may have tow trucks as a part of their fleet as well.

4. Transportation

Some tow trucks are simply needed to transport a vehicle, machine, or piece of equipment from one place to another. The size of the tow trucks used for these jobs will depend on the type of vehicle. Tow trucks are used to transport large volumes of equipment and material to certain locations.

5. Industry-Specific Uses

Tow trucks are needed all over the place, and specific industries either use them frequently or always have them on hand. Tow trucks are common in all of the following areas.

  • Private use: Most towing companies are private companies that you hire to recover after an accident, a breakdown, or something else.
  • Local police: Some police departments own their own towing trucks, while others will contract jobs to private companies.
  • Government departments: Other government departments have their own towing trucks. For example, fire departments, transportation authorities, and departments of public works may have their own vehicles for towing.
  • Military use: The military may also have tow trucks of their own that help them recover stranded vehicles as quickly as possible.
  • Packaging companies: Since packaging companies have fleets of vehicles, they may have their own towing trucks as well.

Which Tow Truck Do I Need?

Now that you have a better understanding of what the different tow truck types are, you have to decide which one you may need.

When you call the towing company, you should express to them any concerns you have. If you have a high-end vehicle and are worried about damage, you may want a flatbed truck where the car is well above the ground.

If you have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, make sure you communicate this when you call in to have your car towed. If your car is in terrible condition and it is not a simple breakdown, you may need something with a powerful winch to be able to pull the car down the road.

Lastly, if you are driving a large bus, truck, or motor home, make sure the towing company knows so they can send the proper equipment. You will very likely have to wait for your tow truck to arrive, so you may as well make sure they are sending the proper one.

It is not fun to continue to wait until the next one with the proper size and features comes along. Most towing companies are experts in getting cars out of difficult situations or dealing with cars that are not drivable. Chances are, whatever your situation is, they have probably seen it before.