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From Wheels to Treads – The Crucial Role of Rubber Tracks in Skid Steer Applications

  • Written by Luis
The Crucial Role of Rubber Tracks in Skid Steer Applications

Skid steers, also known as skid steer loaders, are among the smallest pieces of heavy equipment. Some can even fit through doorways like the mini skid steer — stand-on/walk-behind variety.

Kubota SVL 95-2 Track loader with rubber tracks

Skid steers can turn at a zero-degree angle thanks to independent transmissions on their left and right wheels. The wheels point straight ahead and don’t turn. When a skid steer turns, one side speed up more than the other, causing the wheels to drag — or skid — across the ground.

Heavy-duty mechanic stands beside a Ditch Witch SK755 mini skid steer

Their size, maneuverability, and wide array of available attachments, make skid steers adaptable to different tasks, like demolition, digging, landscaping, loading, material handling, etc.

The original concept was on wheels. Later, a tracked variation improved traction and maneuverability on rocky and rough terrains. Tracked versions are what we know as compact track loaders.

Let’s focus on the latter equipment model and dive into the importance of understanding the lifespan of rubber tracks. Knowing tracks useful life helps you maintain your machine’s performance and efficiency, plan timely replacements, protect the equipment’s undercarriage, and prevent accidents and unplanned downtimes.

SVL 75-2 showing the mobility of a skid steer

Understanding Skid Steers and Rubber Tracks

What is the difference between OTT tracks and compact track loaders? What are radial and vertical lift configurations? What would be the best attachment for the intended job?

Let us help you know the answers to those questions and the capabilities of skid steers so you get the most out of your purchase.

What is a skid steer, and what are its uses?

As mentioned, they are one of the most common and versatile pieces of heavy equipment due to their ability to fit into tight environments, high-precision maneuverability, and different attachments available.

Skid steers come in various sizes, ranging from 1,500 to 16,000 lb. Most land somewhere around 9,000 lb. The size variant directly relates to the frame’s size plus the weight, power, and capacity.

Most of them lift between 1,200 and 2,700 lb, and their buckets have a capacity of about 0.4 cubic yards. The largest machines can hold 2.75 cubic yards and have a ROC of 4,200 lb. The ROC, or rated operating capacity, is a critical metric that tells how much the machine can lift without tipping.

Small models are excellent for tight spaces where high maneuverability is a must, like interior demolitions and landscaping jobs. Plus, they are easy to transport. 

Medium size offers more power and capacity while still relatively small and light, and are great for digging areas where larger machines like backhoes wouldn’t fit.

The biggest models suit heavy-duty applications in open spaces like large-scale demolitions, excavations, and road buildings.

Besides buckets, these machines can use many attachments to tackle more tasks. Here’s a list of jobs depending on the attachment:

Attachment What is it for
Forks Lift and transport pallets, materials, and other heavy loads.
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 Clean debris, dirt, and snow from parking lots and sidewalks.
Trencher Dig narrow trenches for utilities like cables and pipes.
Snow Blower Remove snow from roads, driveways, and other surfaces.
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.

Another categorizing feature is the way skid steers lift their booms. There are two mechanisms, radial and vertical — you might see an “R” or “V” in the model number — Both perform the same tasks but have different levels of efficiency.

The vertical mechanism lifts the bucket straight up in a vertical path, keeping the load closer for more stability.

In contrast, the radial mechanism lifts the bucket in a curved path, where the bucket has the longest reach mid-way and gets back as the bucket gets to the highest point — at mid-way, the load isn’t close to the machine limiting the machine’s stability.

Kubota SVL 95-2 Skid Steer showing off the dual pivot point lift path

ASV Skid Steer showing off the single pivot point lift path

Roles of rubber tracks in a skid steer

Skid steer tracks provide advantages over tires when working on challenging terrain, muddy conditions, or slippery surfaces.

First, tracks will reduce the center of gravity, increasing the machine’s balance and thus the breakout force, boosting production.

Greater balance provides more stability to tracked versions, especially during lifting and carrying heavy loads. Stability contributes to safer and more controlled operations, reducing the risk of tipping over — particularly useful when operating radial-lift models.

The larger contact area of rubber tracks with the ground provides two more benefits over tires: flotation and traction. 

Rubber tracks spread the machine’s weight over a larger area for flotation on soft ground where wheels will sink. The rubber’s flexibility and large footprint enhance traction by conforming to the ground’s contours, ensuring continuous contact and more gripping points.

Differentiating skid steer tracks and compact track loader

OTT tracks (over-the-tire tracks) let you switch between wheels and tracks on a skid steer within 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your expertise.

OTT tracks come in rubber, steel, and composite material. Rubber tracks are ideal for working on loose terrain for maximum flotation or to minimize disturbance on surfaces like turf. Plus, they reduce vibration and noise levels for a smooth ride. 

Steel tracks suit jobs in extreme conditions such as rocky terrains, muddy grounds, and icy or abrasive surfaces. You’ll see some steel tracks out there, but they are rarely.

Skid steers with OTT tracks offer the advantages of compact track loaders but are less effective since CTLs have dedicated track undercarriages.

Compact track loaders utilize a positive drive system in their undercarriage to power and propel the machine. The positive drive system consists of sprockets and rollers, which engage with the track links, providing maximum traction without slippage — which is more likely to occur between an OTT track and the skid steer tires.

The Lifespan of Rubber Tracks on a Skid Steer

According to one of their product brochures, companies like Bobcat offer warranties within a limit of 3,000 operating hours for tracks like the E80 model. But depending on quality, maintenance, and operating conditions, rubber tracks can last 500 to 2,000 hours. 

High-quality tracks made from robust materials have a longer lifespan than cheaper, less durable options.

Despite their quality, the terrain and operating conditions greatly impact the wear and tear of rubber tracks. The operator’s skill is essential to extend the useful life of tracks. Avoiding sudden movements, harsh maneuvers, and exceeding the machine’s payload help reduce wear.

Regular maintenance, like proper cleaning and track tension, is key to extending the lifespan of rubber tracks. 

Also, timely replacement of damaged components helps extend the longevity of tracks. For example, a worn-out track roller can cause abnormal movement, de-tracking, or excessive friction leading to premature and uneven wear.

How to Identify Bad Skid Steer Tracks

When inspecting your rubber tracks for signs of wear, some easy to spot are low height or missing lugs. Refer to your tracks’ specifications for unsafe tread depth checking values.

Shallow rubber tracks tread depth fails to ensure sufficient traction and performance, especially on difficult terrain.

Next, look for exterior track damage, like cuts, tears, and exposed cords. Do the same for the track lug’s top.

When track tears or cuts are not spotted promptly, they worsen over time, damaging adjacent track sections.

Check for wear on the lugs and missing drive links on steel tracks.

The absence of a drive link disrupts the even distribution of tension across the steel tracks, leading to uneven wear and potentially affecting the track’s alignment.

Besides visual inspections, observe any unusual noises or vibrations while operating the equipment. Unusual sounds or vibrations indicate problems with the track tension (insufficient or excessive tension), rollers, or other undercarriage components.

Worn-out rubber track

How to Maintain Skid Steer Tracks

Replace a single track on a skid steer widely varies from $300 to $9000 depending on the equipment size and the track’s quality and model. So let’s see how to maintain such a costly investment.

Regular inspections, thorough cleaning, and proper operating techniques are the primary measures to maintain rubber tracks in good condition to extend their lifespan.

Inspecting the rubber track’s underside allows operators to detect any stress marks, wear, or abnormalities — tread depth, cuts, and misalignment — early on.

Remember, don’t limit yourself to a visual inspection. Mind any unusual noises and excessive vibrations.

Use air guns and pressure washers to clean the tracks, especially when working on muddy terrains and during the winter.

Avoid overloading and operating equipment on rocky or highly rough terrains whenever possible. Don’t brake aggressively, limit excessive speed, and turn in a controlled manner — choose a suitable surface to minimize track twisting and potential damage.

Store the equipment — if possible — in a dry and covered area when parking, at shift end, or during the off-season. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, cold weather, and moisture damage rubber compound in several ways, impacting traction, flexibility, and shape.

Lastly, there’s supposed to be a slack of 1 or 2 inches regarding the track’s tension. Some people tend to add excessive tension to their tracks, making the undercarriage ripen the tracks by pulling them apart. Check the rubber track specifications for more information.

Heavy-duty mechanic adjusts the tension of a rubber track on a Kubota SVL 75-2 CTL

How Often to Replace Skid Steer Tracks

In addition to clear signs of wear and tear like cuts and missing lugs, other indications that you need to replace your rubber tracks ASAP are reduced performance, excessive track stretching, and the number of hours they have been in service.

Worn-out tracks will cause excessive slippage due to the shallow tread depth.

Over time, rubber tracks may experience elongation, leading to uneven tension and alignment problems. If adjustments cannot restore proper tension, replace the tracks.

Finally, consider the age of the rubber tracks and the number of operating hours. Older tracks are more susceptible to wear.

Suppose you want to extend the replacement period for your next set of rubber tracks. Besides the recommended practices mentioned in this article, the first step is getting premium high-quality rubber tracks.  

Worn out rubber track side by side to show excessive wearFinal thoughts

A proper maintenance schedule allows rubber tracks to deliver their main advantages: balance, flotation, and traction.

Maintenance includes regular inspections, thorough cleaning, good operating practices, sheltered storage, and servicing, like proper tension adjustment — leaving 1 or 2 inches of slack.

Consider getting premium tracks over cheap options. High-quality rubber tracks are a worthy investment in the long run.

If you are changing rubber tracks for the first time and wanna be sure about the rubber track size and tread patterns you need for your tracked skid steer, or compact track loader, check the compatibility from this list of the most popular tracks and machine models.

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