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How To Operate a Skid Steer: A Step-by-Step Guide

How To Operate a Skid Steer: A Step-by-Step Guide

A skid steer is an incredibly versatile tool that you’ll likely find on most job sites, but learning how to operate one can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Small but mighty, this type of equipment can weigh as much as a small vehicle, and its compact size makes it a popular choice for a variety of projects—whether you need to haul materials or debris, dig up landscaping materials or level and grade a piece of land.

Skid steers are multipurpose workhorses suitable for both commercial job sites and DIY home projects. While they’re fairly easy to operate, it does take some practice. If you’re looking to learn how to operate a skid steer, follow these step-by-step instructions to get started.

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1. Learn the Basic Skid Steer Controls

Basic controls will vary depending on which skid steer you’re using. The following is an overview of John Deere skid steer controls.

Learn the Basic Skid Steer Controls

Starter Controls

Different skid steers have different starter controls — typically either an ignition operated by a key (similar to a car) or a keyless starter button. You’ll find them in the top right corner of the cab.

Automatic Lockout System

Skid steers come with an accessory or parking lockout system that automatically comes on once you start the engine. There will be buttons or toggles with lock symbols near the main instrument panel that you’ll need to switch on in order to begin operating the machine. Your seatbelt and overhead safety lock must be in place before switching the parking brake off.

Steering Levers/Joysticks

The main points of contact for controlling a skid steer are typically two hand joysticks, located on the left and right sides, and foot pedals. The following controls are based on a John Deere skid steer using an ISO control pattern (as opposed to the dual lever foot control you’ll find on most Bobcat skid steers).

Steering Levers Joysticks

Left joystick: Driving controls (left hand)

  • Push forward—drives skid steer forward
  • Pull back—puts skid steer in reverse
  • Move to the left—turns left
  • Move to the right—turns right

Right joystick: Boom and bucket controls (right hand)

  • Pull back—raises the boom up
  • Move to the right—opens bucket
  • Move to the left—closes bucket
  • Push forward—lowers the boom down

Monitoring Features and Gauges

At minimum, your skid steer should have the following gauges and controls:

  • Fuel Gauge: Displays the amount of fuel in the fuel tank
  • Engine Coolant Temperature Gauge: Indicates the engine coolant temperature
  • Auxiliary Hydraulic Override Switch: Allows the auxiliary hydraulics to operate after exiting the machine and discontinues the hydraulic flow that drives the skid steer’s attachments Often used when switching attachments)
  • High Flow Switch: Used to power attachments that require a high flow rate to operate
  • Hydraulics OFF Indicator: Red indicator light displayed when hydraulics are disabled
  • Hydraulic Oil Temperature Indicator: Red indicator light displayed when hydraulic oil temperature is too high
  • Water-in-Fuel Indicator: Alerts operator when water is detected in the fuel system
  • Parking Brake Indicator: Red indicator light displayed when the parking brake is engaged

Skid steers, such as those made by Bobcat, will also show fault codes on the instrument panel when there is an issue.

2. Start the Skid Steer

To enter the skid steer, make sure the bucket is lowered to the ground or you won’t be able to open the door. The skid steer should be off upon entering.

  • Face the skid steer with both hands on the grab bars. Go up the steps and shut the door.
  • Once inside the cab, make any adjustments to the seat to ensure all controls can be reached.
  • Buckle the seatbelt and pull down the overhead safety bar (similar to the ones on amusement park rides) until it locks in place to secure yourself in the seat. You won’t be able to start the skid steer unless the safety bar and seatbelt are securely fastened.

Next, locate your starter controls.

  • In the top right corner of the cab, insert the key into the ignition or click and hold the starter button to start the engine.

3. Disengage the Traction Lock Override System

With your seatbelt and overhead safety lock securely in place, switch the parking brake off.

  • Disengage the lockout system by pushing the red parking brake button.
  • The red “P” indicator light should switch off.

4. Raising and Lowering the Boom

Before going anywhere, practice raising and lowering the boom.The right joystick is used to control the boom and bucket.

  • To raise the boom off the ground: Pull the right joystick back
  • To lower the boom back down: Push the right joystick forward

5. Dumping and Scooping Controls

Once you’re comfortable raising and lowering the boom, practice using the dumping and scooping controls.

  • To raise the boom off the ground: Pull the right joystick back
  • To open the bucket: Move the right joystick to the right
  • To close the bucket: Move the right joystick to the left
  • To lower the boom back down: Push the right joystick forward

5. Driving a Skid Steer: Forwarding and Reversing

While the right joystick is used to control the boom and bucket, your left joystick is used to drive the skid steer.

  • To propel the skid steer forward: Push the left joystick forward with your left hand
  • To propel the skid steer in reverse: Pull the left joystick back

Always know where your mirrors are when going in reverse. Most skid steers have a large overhead mirror along with a backup camera for newer models.

6. Turning Left or Right

To turn left, push the left joystick to the left. To turn right, push the left joystick to the right. If you push the left joystick forward and to the right, you’ll propel in that direction.

  • To turn left: Push the left joystick to the left
  • To turn right: Push the left joystick to the right

7. Scooping Your Material

Once you’re comfortable with all the controls, you’re ready to use your skid steer to scoop up a pile of material. Your boom should be low and to the ground when approaching the pile.

  • Drive to your material pile: Use the left joystick to drive the skid steer toward the material pile. Stop the machine just before you get to the material pile.
  • Drop your boom and bucket to ground level: Push the right joystick forward to lower the bucket all the way to the front edge of the pile. You should be able to see that the front blade of the bucket is flat and to the ground.
  • Drive forward and scoop the material: With the skid steer positioned directly in front of the pile, move the right joystick to the left to close the bucket and scoop up your material. For larger piles, it helps to propel forward and scoop at the same time.
  • Back up from the pile: Once your bucket is filled, pull the left joystick back to back up from the pile.
  • Raise the boom: Pull the right joystick back to raise the boom and full bucket to a safe carrying height. You should carry loads close to the ground, yet high enough to clear obstacles. Skid steers can tip over if loads are carried too high.

Carry loads low to ground

8. Dumping Your Material

Once you’ve filled your bucket with material, it’s time to dump it. It’s a good idea to practice scooping and dumping with the same pile to get a feel for the machine.

  • Drive to the dump pile: Use the left joystick to drive to your dumping site.
  • Position yourself in front of the dump pile.
  • Lower the boom: When you’re ready to dump, push the right joystick forward to lower the boom and full bucket toward the ground.
  • Dump your material: Move the right joystick forward and to the right to lower the boom while opening the bucket and dump your material.
  • Curl the bucket back in: Move the right joystick to the left to curl the bucket back in before backing up.
  • Back up from the dump site and lower the boom back down.

Safety Considerations

Like any type of heavy equipment, skid steers can be dangerous — and even fatal — if certain safety measures aren’t taken. The most common causes of skid steer injuries and deaths are crushing and rollover accidents, and in most cases, they can be prevented. Keep these tips in mind when operating a skid steer and always refer to your machine’s operating manual for a more complete overview of safe operation practices.

  • Check your surroundings: Once inside the skid steer, it can be difficult to see behind you. Always check your surroundings when operating, and establish a clear signal for when it’s safe to approach the skid steer if working on a job site.
  • Don’t overload the bucket: Loads can shift and move during transport, and loads that surpass the weight limit can cause a skid steer to overturn. Check the weight capacity of your skid steer before operating.
  • Carry loads close to the ground: Carrying loads too high can cause the skid steer to tip over. Carry loads close to the ground, but high enough to clear obstacles.
  • Always turn the engine off before exiting: If you need to exit the cab, lower the attachment and turn the engine completely off.
  • Always secure your seatbelt and overhead safety bar when operating
  • Check for any missing or damaged parts before operation
  • Never work under a raised skid steer bucket
  • Never lean out of the cab during operation






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Renting a Skid Steer vs. Hiring One Out

The cost to rent a skid steer typically ranges from $200 to $500 per day, $600 to $1,500 per week and $1,200 to $4,000 per month. On the other hand, hiring a professional operator can cost around $65 to $95 per hour. Deciding between renting a skid steer yourself or hiring a pro comes down to the type of skid steer you choose, the job you’re doing and your skill level in operating the machine.

If you’re new to skid steers and need one for a complex job — like achieving a smooth, dip-free grade in someone’s backyard — you’re better off hiring a pro. Complex jobs require some finesse that comes only after many hours of practice, and will probably take you much longer to complete and ultimately cost you more.

Less complex jobs like digging and moving dirt are easier to get the hang of, even as a beginner. If you just need to move large amounts of material from point A to point B, renting a skid steer might make more sense. It’s also a better option if you’ll have a fair amount of downtime between uses of the skid steer, like intermittently hauling material during a weeklong landscaping project.

From dozing and grading to digging and transporting materials, skid steers are an invaluable tool for a wide range of projects. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the main controls and spent some time practicing the basics, you’ll be ready to safely operate a skid steer for your next project. Take a look at our selection of skid steer rentals, or check out our guide comparing the top skid steer brands and how to choose the right one for you.

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