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a compact track loader and skid steer with bucket attachments
a compact track loader and skid steer with bucket attachments
Skid Steer vs Compact Track Loader: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Right Equipment for Your Project
8 minute read
Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
April 13, 2023

Skid Steer vs Compact Track Loader: A Comprehensive Guide to Choosing the Right Equipment for Your Project

While skid steer loaders (SSLs) and compact track loaders (CTLs) are essentially just different variations of the same machine, they each have their specific use cases. This has less to do with the tasks they're used for and more to do with the environments they work best in, maneuverability, cost of ownership or rental, and other small features.

The main difference between the two machines is that skid steers have wheels while compact track loaders have tracks. Although a minor tweak, it completely changes the terrains they work best in, how they turn and operate, upkeep costs, and environmental impact.

While SSLs used to dominate the market, according to reports, CTLs now make up over 70% of the yearly sales between the two. We will dive into why this is the case below as much of the reason has to do with the enhanced capabilities of compact track loaders.

Overview of Skid Steers

As one of the most popular pieces of equipment in construction, you're going to see a skid steer on almost every project. Skid steers have a history of innovation and impact which is why so many brands manufacture them. As mentioned above, the popularity of the wheeled models may be slowing but they still have their place because of their specs and features.

Features and Characteristics of Skid Steers

Skid steers are small, compact earthmoving machines with hydraulic arms and incredible attachment versatility. They have three size ranges: small-frame, medium-frame, and large-frame, each with its own designated spec range.

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The primary features and characteristics of SSLs are their compact size and ability to help with every kind of project. Two other features that make skid steers great are their high flow capability, which improves attachment performance, as well as the option to have a radial or vertical lift. It's typically the skid steers with higher lift capacity that have vertical lift performance.

Typical Applications

Because of their wheels, skid steers perform better on hard surfaces like asphalt, concrete, cement, and compact dirt. This makes them great for demolition, roadwork, scrap jobs, and other construction projects. They can also be used for several other jobs including land clearing, grading, farming, landscaping, trenching, and snow removal projects depending on the terrain.

Bobcat skid steer with a bucket attachment
Bobcat S300 skid steer with a bucket attachment

They can also be used in the replacement of forklifts at times due to their ability to handle and transport materials, depending on the attachment.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The advantages of skid steers are quite clear: they're small, compact pieces of equipment that can be useful on any type of project with the right attachments. However, there are some extra advantages they have:

  • Skid steers have zero-radius turning capabilities, allowing them to turn in tight spaces with zero difficulties. This is great for residential and indoor projects, construction sites with limited space, and jobs that require lots of quick turning like loading and unloading materials.

  • SSLs can move pretty quickly, topping out around 12 mph, allowing you to transport materials much more quickly and efficiently.

  • Because skid steers are lighter than CTLs, they're more fuel efficient and easier to haul than the tracked models.

  • They have a higher ground pressure than compact track loaders, about 35 to 45 pounds per square inch (psi), which gives them some compacting capabilities if needed. This makes them better for some jobs like pushing snow because they'll have better traction on that kind of surface.

  • Wheels are cheaper to maintain and replace than tracks which gives them a lower ownership cost.

Benefits of Skid Steer Rental

The primary benefit of a skid steer rental is that the contractor is not responsible for the repairs and maintenance of the machine and many equipment rental companies have a field tech that can come to the job site and solve the problem. However, this does not remove the responsibility to treat the equipment with as much care as possible in order to reduce the chance of downtime.

Skid steer with a material handling attachment

Another benefit is that it reduces the responsibility of owning all the attachments. The versatility of attachments skid steers can have is incredible but owning all of the different variations is not financially responsible for many contractors.

The last benefit is that while popular on almost every job site, skid steers are often not the most utilized piece of equipment. Sometimes they can sit on-site for days on end without being used. You can reduce this by only renting them for short periods of time when you know you're going to get the maximum value out of them.

Overview of Compact Track Loaders

Having grown in popularity and use over the last few years, compact track loaders have specific use cases, mostly based on environment and terrain. As such, many brands have expanded their product lines to include this vital piece of equipment.

Features and Characteristics of Compact Track Loaders

The main differentiating feature of compact track loaders is their tracks and ability to lift more than skid steers. Still around the same size as skid steers, they're built for outdoor projects with more space because they're not as maneuverable as skid steers as they don't have zero-radius turning capabilities.

Typical Applications

Similar to skid steer loaders, compact track loaders can be used for all types of jobs including demolition, land clearing, forestry, backfilling, paving, pushing materials, dozing, and more. The primary difference between when to use a skid steer or a compact track loader is the type of terrain they'll be operating on.

Kubota compact track loader
Kubota compact track loader

Compact track loaders are more popular in wet, muddy conditions because they provide better traction and flotation than skid steers. That's why CTLs are more popular in the mid-west and northern regions while skid steers are typically more popular in the drier regions of the south.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Compact track loaders make up the areas that skid steers lack, namely traction, power, and stability. Here are some of the advantages of a CTL:

  • Rated at 35% of the tipping load, whereas skid steers are 50%, CTLs are generally more stable when lifting than skid steers.

  • Tracked skid steers have more maximum lifting capacity and horsepower than skid steers. This higher horsepower allows them to use more powerful, heavier attachments.

  • The ground pressure of these machines is only 4 to 6 psi, giving them the ability to drive over those wet, muddy, sand terrains.

  • The tracks and the way they are built in terms of weight distribution from the undercarriage give them better stability on slopes.

  • CTLs are more stable than skid steers which mean less material loss when moving.

Some disadvantages of CTLs are:

  • They don't turn as easily as skid steers do so they're not as good in tight areas. It's best advised to use three-point turns when operating them as well as it will decrease the wear on the tracks.

  • They require more maintenance and upkeep and tracks are more expensive to replace than wheels.

Benefits of Compact Track Loader Rental

Similar to skid steers, you aren't responsible for the maintenance of the equipment when renting. Also, not every environment needs a compact track loader as they're very dependent on the job. 

If you're not getting full utilization from the equipment you own, it might be a better idea to rent one instead.

Comparing Skid Steers and Compact Track Loaders

Now that we've talked about each in detail, let's compare them head to head from traction to maneuverability to attachments.

Traction and Ground Pressure

As mentioned above, the average psi for skid steers is 30 to 35 while for track loaders it's 4 to 6. This gives compact track loaders better traction for wet, muddy environments and skid steers better capabilities on hard, finished surfaces.

Maneuverability and Stability

From a maneuverability and stability standpoint, it really depends on the terrain and requirements of the job. SSLs are more maneuverable because of their zero-turn radius, making them excellent choices for tight, confined spaces and indoor projects. CTLs, on the other hand, require three-point turns unless you're looking to significantly damage the tracks of the machine.

ASV Compact Track Loader working on a muddy site
ASV vertical lift compact track loader

From a stability standpoint, because of the way the weight is distributed on tracked skid steers, they're better equipped to handle slopes and grades than wheeled skid steers.

Performance in Different Ground Conditions

Because of their hard tires, skid steers are great for concrete and asphalt surfaces, or jobs with hard, compacted, dry dirt. These harder surfaces are much more damaging to compact track loaders and can accelerate wear and tear. CTLs are also not designed for rocky terrains as they can cut the tracks. Wheeled models must also be cautious of these areas because sharp objects can puncture tires.

It's important to be cautious of using skid steers on grassy terrain because they can tear up and ruin the soil whereas CTLs can leave track marks on harder surfaces.

Attachment Versatility

For attachments, both compact track loaders and skid steers will be able to use ones with the same functionality. The only thing to be cautious of is that since CTLs can lift slightly heavier loads, there may be a few attachments that don't transfer between the two. However, most manufacturers make attachments that can be used across all the different brands and models.

Some attachments are also dependent on whether the machine has high-flow or standard-flow hydraulic capabilities. It's important to know what type of hydraulic system your machine has before getting an attachment.

Operating Costs and Maintenance

As a guiding star, skid steers typically have less upfront costs and are cheaper to maintain than their tracked sibling. This is because wheels are cheaper to replace than tracks and, since they're lighter, they don't use as much fuel.

As for servicing and maintenance, they typically cost around the same as they must be checked for hydraulics and engine issues as frequently as possible. It's also incredibly important for compact track loader owners to resist the urge to make the tracks too tight. Over-tightening will create more undercarriage issues in the long run and actually affect traction. A little looseness in the tracks is a good thing.

Choosing the Right Equipment for Your Project

Now that we've gone over everything, it's time to figure out which machine you should be looking to purchase or rent for your business.

Factors to Consider

As mentioned, the terrain of the project is probably the most important factor. If you're working on a hard surface, go with a skid steer. If working on mud or dirt, a compact track loader is a better option.

Horsepower, lift capacity, and space limitations may also be a factor, so make sure to refer to our compact track loader and skid steer spec guides if needed.

Renting the right equipment is important and we've got you covered at DOZR. Check out our marketplace for compact track loader or skid steer loader rental rates and find the right size for your next job.

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Wheeled Skid Steer image
1,300 lbs - 3,450 lbs
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Soil Compaction Pad Foot image
48 inches - 84 inches
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Kevin Forestell headshot
Kevin Forestell
Kevin Forestell is CEO of DOZR and one of the co-founders. Kevin first got started as an entrepreneur when he founded Forestell Landscaping right after graduating from University. His love and passion for the industry and desire to help solve an equipment problem that contractors faced every day is what brought the founding team to start DOZR. Kevin is proud of the level of efficiency brought to the industry through DOZR and hopes that DOZR will help change the standard way equipment is rented.
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