What Is the Difference Between a Truck and a Tractor?

truck and tractor

When you’re first starting out in the truck business, it can be confusing trying to sort out all of the truck-world lingo, such as, “What is the difference between a truck and a tractor?” A truck can refer to any number of larger vehicles that require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive. A tractor is one type of truck that is capable of carrying heavier loads than a regular (or “straight”) truck. 

There are so many words in the truck business that seem at first to mean the same thing — semi-truck, tractor-trailer, 18 wheeler, semitrailer — that it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by all these terms that truckers use on a regular basis.

Luckily, once you have started immersing yourself in the world of truck driving, it becomes easier to puzzle all these terms out. Before you know it, you’ll be tossing out truck lingo without thinking about it twice! 

Until you get to this expert level, we’re here to help you sort out all these truck words and what they actually mean.

Trucks and Tractors: What Do the Words Mean? 

As you’re trying to sort out all these different words, it can be helpful to take a look at what the words themselves actually mean, both in the truck driving world and beyond. 

So before we enter our mini online truck school to learn the difference between a truck and a tractor, let’s take it back a step further and go to vocabulary school first.

Truck: Defined

In general, when people say truck, they are referring to the kinds of trucks that we teach you to drive at TDI. However, the word “truck” has been around for a very long time — longer even than the invention of cars!

Before automobiles were invented, the word “truck” simply referred to any wheeled structure used to support and carry heavy things from one place to another. So, years and years ago, a “truck” might have meant anything from a wheelbarrow to a horse-drawn cart. 

Tractor: Defined

As you probably know, a tractor is a term used in the truck driving world and in the farm world. On a farm, a tractor is used for things such as plowing or harvesting fields. There are also tractors in the world of airplanes. 

Obviously, none of these are what we mean by the word tractor when we use it to refer to a truck. So how can this one word be used to describe such very different vehicles? 

The word “tractor” also originated before motor vehicles existed. It meant simply a device capable of pulling heavy things. 

So What Is The Difference Between a Truck and a Tractor?

Now let’s put it all together. 

Part of the reason that there’s so much confusion about the difference between a truck and a tractor is that tractor refers to a subset of trucks. In other words, “truck” can refer to a wide variety of vehicles, ranging from pickup trucks to garbage trucks, and a tractor is a specific kind of truck.

When we talk about tractors as a type of truck, we’re talking about trucks designed specifically to pull trailers. Trailers are the wagon-like part attached to the backs of trucks. Tractors are different from other kinds of trucks because they have a fifth wheel mounted over the rear axle that enables them to pull a trailer. 

To put all this another way, a truck is able to carry the weight of its cargo without any additional “help.” But a tractor, which is a type of powerful truck, is used when the cargo is too heavy to be carried by a regular or straight truck. 

Tractors are used when a truck’s heavy cargo needs to be supported by not just a structure with wheels, but by an additional power supply. Tractors also go by a number of other names, such 

as semi, big rig, and 18-wheeler.

Tractors are generally used to pull semi-trailers, which are a specific type of heavier trailer. Semi-trailers do not have front axles or the ability to move on their own. They are supported in the back by their own wheels and in the front by a fifth wheel that gets mounted to the tractor.

What Kind of CDL Do I Need to Drive a Truck or a Tractor?

Now that we’ve discussed the difference between a truck and a tractor, you’re probably wondering what kind of CDL you need to drive these vehicles. There are three classifications of CDLs.

A Class C CDL allows you to drive vehicles with more than sixteen people and to transport hazardous materials. With this type of license, you can drive vehicles such as buses, hazmat vehicles, and trailers.

With a Class B CDL, you can drive vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 26,001 pounds or more, or to tow a vehicle up to 10,000 pounds. This means that you would be able to drive straight trucks, box trucks (such as delivery trucks), and larger buses (such as segmented buses or school buses).

A Class A CDL lets you drive vehicles with a GVWR of 26,001 pounds or more, or to tow a vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds. This is the type of license that allows you to drive tractors, truck and trailer combinations, flatbeds, and livestock carriers, as well as most Class C and B vehicles.

Ready to Drive a Tractor?

Here at TDI, our training focuses primarily on CDL Class A. This means that, once you’re finished with our school, you can drive any kind of truck, including those powerful tractors. 

With our help, you’ll have your CDL and be ready to drive those tractors in just three weeks and for a starting price of $225. 

To learn more about getting your CDL with TDI, contact us today. We look forward to teaching you everything we know about how to become a safe, efficient, and confident truck driver.