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A Closer Look: Skid Steer vs Track Loader Face-Off

skid steer vs track loader

Skid steers and compact track loaders are similar machines that can do the same functions with different efficiency. Both models are good at digging, material handling, landscaping, loading dump trucks, etc.

Besides a bucket attachment, others allow these loaders to drill holes, break concrete, and remove tree stumps and roots, to name a few.

Apart from all the attachments, the diversity of skid steers and track loaders also comes from their varied sizes. Skid steers and compact track loaders come in small, medium, and large frames, allowing them to handle different workloads, tasks, and job site challenges.

Another benefit of skid steers and track loaders is their maneuverability. Thanks to a fixed-axles drive system, both can turn within their footprint (own vertical axis / zero-degree angle) — a great feature when working in tight spaces or a crowded job site.

Operator driving a Kubota SVL 75 compact track loader.

The main difference between skid steers and track loaders is their undercarriage. Each has its pros and cons, which we’ll discuss in depth.

Understanding Skid Steers

Skid steer in a forested worksite.

Skid steers, also known as skid steer loaders, travel on four wheels. The drive train consists of fixed axles rather than differential axles — like the one in most cars.

Differential axles allow wheels to rotate at different RPMs, so vehicles can turn without slipping or skidding. When a vehicle turns, the inside wheels must travel a shorter distance than the outside wheels. The differential is a mechanical device that allows inside wheels to rotate at lower speeds to maintain traction, enabling the vehicle to turn smoothly.

Each side’s front and rear wheels rotate at the same RPM on skid steers thanks to a gears and chains mechanism connecting them. Each side wheels are “locked” or “fixed” between them.

The skid steer’s engine power two hydraulic pumps — one for each side of the machine. The hydraulic pumps deliver pressurized hydraulic fluid to the hydraulic motors responsible for driving the wheels on their respective sides.

Skid steer loaders can do tight turns (turns with zero angles) by speeding forward the wheels on one side and the opposite wheels backward. For regular turns, the technique consists of speeding one set of wheels on one side more than the other, but both in the same direction.

When turning, the machine skids or drags its wheels across the ground, being the reason for the name “skid steer.” As mentioned, the skidding movement combined with the compact size helps work in tight spaces where precise maneuverability is necessary.

A drawback of the skidding motion is that it generates excessive friction between the tire and the road, causing accelerated wear on the tire tread — flat spots.

Wheeled skid steers are especially effective on flat, hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. Tires provide excellent traction on hard surfaces and achieve higher travel speeds on smooth surfaces, ideal for applications requiring faster transportation between flat ground work areas.

But flat grounds don’t necessarily mean a lack of debris, sharp objects, or other hazards. So most skid steer owners and operators use solid tires with their skid steer loaders when there are risks of punctures or cuts at the job site.

Before we continue, it’s important to understand that technically a skid steer is a wheeled machine, but some people use the term for rubber tracks and wheeled skid steers. Terminology can be confusing up to the point that many people will call a skid steer a Bobcat, even if it is not a Bobcat product.

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Understanding Track Loaders

A Kubota SVL 95 parked before a Tekamo HD service truck.

Compact track loaders are skid steers on tracks. Track loaders also use a hydraulic system to move.

The powertrain starts with the engine, which can be diesel or gasoline, depending on the model and manufacturer. The engine produces mechanical power by burning fuel and converting it into rotational motion.

The rotational motion then powers the hydraulic pump, which sends pressurized fluid to drive motors. Drive motors receive hydraulic pressure and convert it into torque to drive the tracks.

Before the rotational force from the drive motors reaches the tracks, a reduction planetary gear system multiplies the torque generating sufficient force to drive the tracks and propel the track loader forward or backward. The extra torque ensures the machine can move smoothly and efficiently, even in challenging terrains.

Compact track loaders have dedicated tracked undercarriages containing the following parts:

  • Sprocket.
  • Idler wheels.
  • Top and bottom rollers.
  • Track chains — links, bushings, pins.
  • Pads or shoes.
  • Recoil spring assembly.

What is a track loader good for? The dedicated undercarriage has distinct advantages, like enhanced traction on slippery surfaces, stability on uneven terrain, and flotation on soft ground.

Compact track loaders have two parallel tracks to evenly spread the machine’s weight over a large area providing stability and efficient operation on rough job sites. By the way, a brief parenthesis to discuss the term “parallel tracks.”

In the context of track loaders, the term “tracks” inherently implies that they are parallel. If the tracks become unparallel for any given reason, the consequences would be the following:

  • Uneven weight distribution.
  • Reduced stability.
  • Altered steering and maneuverability.
  • Increased wear and tear.
  • Potential damage to undercarriage components.
  • Reduced efficiency.

Back to track loaders, their tracks can be either rubber or steel.

Rubber tracks‘ benefits are better flotation, less damage to delicate surfaces, a smoother ride for the operator, and less noise. Rubber tracks have several tread patterns for specific surfaces, such as zig-zag patterns for slippery slopes, c-pattern recommended for snow, and there are even turf-friendly ones like the hex pattern.

On the other hand, steel tracks are highly durable and can withstand rugged and abrasive terrains. They are less prone to punctures, cuts, and damage, making them suitable for heavy-duty applications and job sites with sharp objects or rocky environments.

Steel tracks have a higher load-carrying capacity and offer more grip because they are heavier. Their service lives are longer, and you can generally fix them by replacing a damaged link, unlike rubber tracks — we don’t recommend trying to fix a worn-out or damaged rubber track.

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Skid Steer vs Track Loader: A Detailed Comparison

Skid steers and compact track loaders are similar construction equipment at a glance. However, their undercarriages set them apart in key parameters.

For example, even when wheeled and tracked skid steers have high maneuverability and can perform tight turns, track loaders have a larger turning radius than wheeled machines.

Also, both machines can do excavations, earthmoving tasks, and land-clearing jobs, but compact track loaders have higher breakout force due to the improved traction. Tracks allow the machine to generate more force at the bucket or attachment, making them more efficient for heavy digging and lifting tasks.

The key differences between skid steers and compact loaders are speed, traction, and ground pressure, depending on their working terrain.

For instance, skid steers are faster on flat and smooth surfaces. Their wheels have a smaller area of contact with the ground than tracks. Less contact area reduces friction between the machine and the ground, allowing smoother and faster movement.

Track loaders have a higher contact area with the ground, leading to slow-moving tracks than wheels. More gripping points enhance traction in slippery or sloped terrains where skid steers will get stuck or slip.

Ground pressure becomes a consideration when working on soft surfaces and loose terrain, like sand or muddy environments. Compact track loaders have better weight distribution than skid steers because of the larger contact area of tracks, meaning low ground pressure and flotation.

Another huge advantage of compact track loaders is that they can conform to the terrain thanks to their flexible link chains for continuous contact while traveling on uneven terrain, giving them enhanced balance, stability, and a higher lifting capacity than skid steer loaders.

We should also mention similarities when comparing skid steers and track loaders. The boom lifting path and available attachments are two standard features on wheeled and tracked versions.

Skid steers and track loaders come with two lifting mechanisms: radial and vertical lift paths.

The radial lift mechanism has a single pivot point that raises the bucket in a curved path. The vertical lift is a more complex mechanism with two pivot points allowing the bucket to go up in an S-curve approximating a straight line.

A radial lift path offers more visibility than vertical and is suitable for tasks that require excellent reach at mid-range height.

A vertical lift path has a greater lift height and excels at drilling jobs that use an auger attachment because of the vertical motion.

Speaking of attachments, they are often interchangeable between skid steers and track loaders, thanks to the universal quick attach, a standardized attachment mounting system for easy and quick attachment changes.

In the following list, you’ll learn about other skid steer attachments available rather than buckets.

Attachment What is it for
Forks

Lift and transport pallets and heavy load materials.

Auger Drill holes in the ground for tasks like fence post installation or tree planting.
Grapple Handle irregularly shaped or loose materials, such as logs, rocks, and brushes.
Brush Cutter Clear dense vegetation, brush, and small trees.
Sweeper Site cleanup.
Trencher Dig narrow trenches for utilities like cables and pipes.
Snow Plow Pushing snow.
Broom Light-duty sweeping tasks (often used with a collection hopper).
Landscape Rake Prepare seedbeds, grade soil, and removes rocks.
Concrete Mixer On-site concrete mixing and pouring.
Bale Spear Handle large round or square hay bales.
Stump Grinder Remove tree roots and stumps.
Soil Conditioner Break up and prepare the soil for planting or landscaping projects.
Hydraulic Breaker Break concrete, rocks, and tough materials.
Rock Bucket Sift and sort rocks and debris from the soil.
Tree Shear Cut through and removes trees and limbs.
Hydraulic Grader Grade and level surface to achieve precise slopes and flatness.
Mulcher Grind vegetation and small trees into mulch.
Tree Boom Lift and move trees or heavy objects safely.
Tiller Cultivate the soil in preparation for planting or gardening.
Hydraulic Tilt Attachment Add hydraulic tilting capabilities to the skid steer's standard bucket for working on uneven terrain.

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Making the Right Choice for Your Job

A Kubota SSV65 skid steer and a John Deere 317G compact track loader side by side. The overlay text reads: which do you choose?

Which is better, track or wheel skid steer? It depends on several factors. Let’s take a look.

The first factor that generally comes into play is money. The initial cost of skid steers is typically 10-20% lower than track loaders. Skid steers are lighter, and their undercarriages manufacturing process is simpler, thus making them less expensive.

Consider the maintenance of the undercarriage. Skid steer undercarriages are cheaper and easier to maintain than track loaders. You can rotate wheels and maintain proper inflation to extend their lifespan.

In contrast, besides tension adjustment, tracks need a thorough cleaning, especially if working in a terrain accumulating in the undercarriage.

Prices for new tires can range from a few hundred dollars per tire to over a thousand dollars. Still, their prices are typically lower than premium rubber tracks which we highly recommend as a cost-effective alternative if a compact track loader is the machine you need.

Over-the-tire tracks may take between 15 to 30 minutes to install, and although not as efficient as a dedicated tracked undercarriage still offer floatation and enhanced traction for wheeled versions. OTT tracks add versatility to skid steers, making it a two-in-one machine.

Fuel efficiency is another interesting factor when comparing skid steers and compact track loaders. Skid steers are typically more fuel-efficient than track loaders due to their smaller engines and because their wheels produce less friction than tracks.

Conclusion

As a rule of thumb, skid steers shine in speed for hard, flat terrains with a smooth surface, and their maneuverability is ideal for tight spaces or crowded job sites. Compact track loaders excel in traction, stability, and flotation when working on slippery, sloped, and uneven terrains.

Consider your specific needs and what you learned from this article to choose the right loader.

For more information about replacing tracks on the excavator, contact Fortis HD