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Skid Steer vs. Compact Track Loader: Which is Best?

Skid Steer vs. Compact Track Loader: Which is Best?

Skid steer loaders are a staple on construction sites of all sizes, as they can perform a variety of earthmoving tasks, from digging and landscaping to debris removal. There are two main types to choose from: wheeled skid steers and compact track loaders.

Skid steers and compact track loaders generally perform the same functions and can be interchangeable. The biggest difference? Skid steers have wheels, while track loaders run on tracks. The type you choose can significantly impact the success of your project, so it’s important to understand which tasks each one is best suited for.

To help you decide whether a skid steer or track loader is best for your next project, we’ll explain how each one works and cover the key differences between the two.

Skid Steer Compact Track Loader
Terrain Designed for asphalt, concrete and pavement Thrives on uneven and soft terrain
Speed Can move and turn quickly in small spaces Tracks reduce max speed, especially during turns
Maneuverability Can perform very sharp turns and rotate in tight spaces Performs sharp turns but may require more space to maneuver
Power Designed for lighter loads that require less horsepower Added weight and traction can accommodate heavier loads
Cost Lower maintenance, fuel, transportation and upfront costs Costs more upfront and has higher maintenance and fuel costs
Maintenance Wheels are cheaper and easier to maintain Difficult-to-access undercarriage complicates maintenance
Site Cleanup Minimizes damage on hard surfaces but can tear up soil and softer ground Gentler on soil, sand and gravel but can mark asphalt and concrete

What Is a Wheeled Skid Steer?

Parked skid steer with wheels

A wheeled skid steer is a compact machine designed primarily for digging and landscaping jobs. It runs on four wheels and contains two arms that can connect to multiple attachments, including buckets, snowblowers and pallet forks. Because the wheels are affixed to locked axles, a skid steer operator must increase the speed of the wheels on one side to steer the machine.

Used for: Small digging and landscaping jobs

What Is a Compact Track Loader?

stationary compact track loader on a job site

A compact track loader is a type of skid steer that runs on two parallel tracks instead of wheels. These machines are very similar in size to a skid steer and perform many of the same functions, but their weight and added traction make them better able to move over slippery or uneven terrain. Track loaders come in multiple sizes and can perform a variety of tasks, including earthmoving, excavating and demolition.

Used for: Earthmoving jobs requiring increased traction and stability

Key Differences Between Wheeled Skid Steers and Track loaders

Skid steers and compact track loaders share many similarities, but they each have distinct features and capabilities that set them apart. To ensure that you choose the right loader for your project, carefully consider the following factors.

Terrain

Skid Steer

Skid steers with wheels excel on hard, flat surfaces. If your job site is on concrete, asphalt or another developed surface, a skid steer is likely the better choice. Wheels are less likely to damage these types of surfaces and allow the machine to move quickly over even ground. That said, wheels don’t work as well on snow or wet surfaces, so you may have to use snow tires or wait for the site to try if the ground is slippery.

Track Loader

Compact track loaders are a better choice for undeveloped ground, uneven terrain and job sites that are wet or slippery. Where a skid steer might sink into sand or mud, a track loader can remain stable without an issue. This is because the tracks evenly distribute the machine’s weight and come with added traction to prevent slipping.

Speed

Skid Steer

If you’re looking for a fast-moving machine, a skid steer is likely the best choice. Skid steers are lightweight and lack slow-moving tracks, allowing them to move much faster than track loaders on flat surfaces. They are also better designed to perform sharp turns and maneuver through crowded worksites in less time.

Track Loader

Track loaders can’t move as quickly as skid steers, so tasks that require driving back and forth over long distances can take longer to complete. This typically isn’t a problem for longer projects or localized tasks but should be considered for projects running on a tight schedule. However, a project on unstable terrain will face fewer project delays if you opt for a track loader.

Maneuverability

Skid Steer

Skid steers can make incredibly sharp turns and rotate almost in place, making them easy to maneuver in tight spaces. If you have a crowded job site or limited space to work, a small skid steer is a good option.

Track Loader

Because track loaders also operate on fixed axles, they generally have the same turning capabilities as a wheeled skid steer. However, they are typically larger and move slower than skid steers, so they may not perform quite as well in tight spaces. Three-point turns are also recommended for these machines to avoid extra wear on the tracks.

Power

Skid Steer

Skid steers are lightweight machines with a higher center of gravity than track loaders. While larger models can still perform heavy-lifting tasks, they may have a lower weight capacity than their tracked counterparts. Their reduced traction can also make pushing high-resistance materials more difficult.

Track Loader

Tracks create a more even weight distribution and increase contact with the ground. This allows track loaders to have a higher lifting capacity and push more weight without slipping. Some compact track loaders also offer higher horsepower than skid steers with wheels, making them better suited for high-power jobs.

Cost

Skid Steer

The cost to rent or purchase a skid steer can vary by location and manufacturer, but those with wheels typically cost less upfront and are cheaper to maintain than track loaders. Due to their lightweight design and smaller engines, skid steers can also save on fuel and transportation costs.

Track Loader

Compact track loaders generally cost more upfront to buy or rent, and tracks are more expensive to replace than tires when damaged. If you choose to purchase a track loader for your project, you may want to make extra room in your budget to cover potential maintenance and damage costs.

Maintenance

Skid Steer

If you’re looking for an easy-to-maintain machine, a skid steer is your best option. Skid steers typically require less frequent maintenance than track loaders, and parts are much easier to replace if something does go wrong. Wheels also make cleaning and inspecting the undercarriage easier, which is advantageous for teams operating on a tight schedule.

Track Loader

Because a track loader’s tracks can almost completely cover the undercarriage, you can expect to spend extra time with cleaning and maintenance. This can be a daunting task for one-off projects or those with smaller budgets, so many project owners choose to rent a skid steer rather than buying to avoid spending extra time and money on maintenance.

Site Cleanup

Skid Steer

While a machine’s capabilities are important, you’ll also need to consider how it affects the site after the job is finished. Tires are typically gentler on hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt, while tracks can damage them. If your project requires you to work on these surfaces, opting for a skid steer can save you from repairing surface damage later.

Track Loader

Minimizing damage on grass and other soft surfaces is easier if you use a track loader. Because tracks are flat and evenly distribute a machine’s weight, track loaders don’t tear up the earth or leave deep ruts behind like a wheeled skid steer would. While they can damage hard surfaces, track loaders will save you time during site cleanup for landscaping jobs.

Before you buy or rent a skid steer loader, be sure to consider which type is the best fit for your project. Skid steers with wheels are an affordable choice for smaller jobs on flat surfaces, while compact track loaders thrive on uneven ground and worksites that require a little extra power.

If you’re interested in renting, contact a local or online equipment rental company to help weigh your options and find updated rental prices in your area.

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