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Backhoe vs. Excavator: Which Machine Is Best for Your Project?

Backhoe vs. Excavator: Which Machine Is Best for Your Project?

Though it’s sometimes difficult to tell a backhoe and an excavator apart, they differ in three main ways: size, versatility, and rotation. These factors make each machine suited for different jobs, so it’s important to choose the right one for your project.


The main difference between the two machines is size — excavators are larger and heavier, while backhoes are slightly smaller. The excavator is typically a better fit for demolition projects, mining, driving piles, drilling shafts for rock blasting, and overall large-scale industrial projects. The backhoe, as the smaller and more adaptable of the two, is better for farming, snow removal, loading jobs, and medium-scale construction and excavation projects.


The backhoe and excavator are also very different in terms of versatility. Though both machines offer a number of attachment options, the backhoe has a much greater selection and is therefore capable of a wider variety of tasks. Backhoes can also be driven on roads, which makes them the better choice for projects with spread out worksites.


Finally, backhoes and excavators have different rotation ranges which make them very different machines from an operator’s standpoint. An excavator operator can rotate the entire machine’s chassis and arm together in a complete circle, while a backhoe’s arm only pivots across a range of about 200 degrees.

The best way to determine which machine is right for your project is to learn the ins and outs of each.

Differences between a backhoe and excavator include their size, versatility, and rotation.

What Is a Backhoe?

A backhoe is an excavation machine comprised of a standard tractor base that supports a digging bucket on the end of a jointed two-part arm. The opposite side of the backhoe will often have a front loader attachment (in which case the backhoe is technically called a “backhoe loader”), so the seat swivels 360 degrees to allow the operator to face whichever side is being used at the time.

The part of the backhoe arm that’s attached to the tractor is called the boom, and the segment that holds the digger bucket is called the dipper or dipper-stick. The pivot that connects the boom and dipper is called the king-post. There is a wide variety of attachments available for a backhoe, like drills, hammers, rippers, rakes, breakers, and more. The front loader can also be replaced with different brooms, plows, and forklifts. In some cases, a backhoe can even serve as a crane by looping the straps of a lifted object over the dipper stick.

The term “backhoe” can be confusing because the digging bucket is actually on the front of the machine. But the backhoe’s name actually refers to the way that the machine digs by pulling earth toward itself, or backward, rather than pushing it forward like a traditional shovel.

Diagram of a backhoe including its bucket, stick, backhoe, boom, cab, tractor, and loader.

What Is an Excavator?

An excavator is a digging machine that consists of a boom, dipper, digging bucket, and chassis — much like a backhoe is constructed — though an excavator can have either tracks or wheels. However, while a backhoe is often made up of a traditional tractor with a backhoe attachment, the excavator is purpose-built to perform tasks using the digging arm and therefore can handle heavier projects.

One of the most notable differences in an excavator is that, unlike a backhoe, its entire cab rotates 360 degrees atop its undercarriage. Most wheeled and compact excavators also have a dozer blade attached opposite the digging arm.

Like the backhoe, the excavator also has a range of attachments that make it capable of tasks beyond standard digging, like heavy-duty drilling and demolition. Excavators are also often used in conjunction with brush-cutting attachments in forestry projects.

Excavators are often called diggers, mechanical shovels, or 360s. Excavators with tracks instead of wheels are often called “trackhoes,” a direct reference to the machine’s similarity to the backhoe.

Diagram of an excavator, including its bucket, arm, hydraulic cylinder, boom, cab, track frame, engine, and counterweight.

Which One Makes More Sense for Your Project?

There are a few factors to consider when determining whether a backhoe or excavator is the best fit for your project.


The size of your machine should match the scale of your project. If you’re working on a large-scale construction, excavation, or demolition project where sheer machine power is important, you’re likely better served by an excavator. If your project is more moderate in scope, you might consider using a backhoe.


One advantage of the backhoe is that it can travel easily across a job site and even drive up to 25 mph on roads. If your project is spread apart and you need to complete tasks in different areas, you’ll have an easier time using a backhoe.

Task Specificity

Some tasks, like digging, can be done using a backhoe or excavator, but there are others that are really only possible for one machine or the other. Evaluate the specific tasks and attachments you foresee needing on your project and make sure the equipment you choose is capable.

If you’re still not sure which machine makes sense for your project, consider speaking directly with a heavy equipment professional. Someone who knows the ins and outs of both machines, as well as their various attachments, can take a look at your site plans and make an expert recommendation as to which of these machines is right for you.

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