Tracked vs. Wheeled Skid Steers: How Do They Compare?

When weighing skid steer tracks vs. tires, let the job conditions guide your decision.

Skid steer loaders, sometimes called Bobcats after one brand of skid steer, are the Swiss Army knives of construction machines. With the right size skid steer and the right attachment, you can perform just about any materials handling, loading, grading or digging job in just about any environment.

When renting a skid steer, aside from choosing a size and any attachments, you’ll need to decide whether you’re better off with tracks vs. wheels. (A tracked skid steer is also called a compact track loader or track steer.) The decision will come down to the surface and terrain you’ll be working on.

Read on for a skid steer comparison to help you choose.

Wheeled skid steers

Wheeled skid steers were the only type of skid steer available until track steers were invented to overcome some of their limitations. They have their advantages as well as some disadvantages.

Advantages

  • Wheeled skid steers work well on level surfaces, such as hard-packed dirt, asphalt or concrete. They move much faster on these surfaces than tracked skid steers and can therefore cover more ground in less time.
     
  • Wheeled skid steers are typically better on landscaped surfaces, which tracked skid steers can rip up.
     
  • They are less expensive to purchase and maintain than track steers.

Disadvantages

  • The weight of a wheeled skid steer is distributed among only four contact points (the tires), which means it can sink into muddy surfaces. On a rough surface, a tire could pop.
     
  • Tires wear out faster than tracks.

Cost and maintenance of tires

Tires are generally cheaper than tracks. Basic, air-filled tires cost around $100 each, while heavy-duty versions range from $150-$200 each. Solid rubber tires can cost $800 and up. A set of tires will last anywhere from 600 hours to 1,000 hours, depending on jobsite conditions.

Preventive maintenance for tires includes proper inflation, regular inspection for cracks or loose debris and removal of excess counterweights from the skid steer (when not needed) to reduce stress on the tires. Replacing worn tires is not hard, but a good equipment company will do that for you.

Tracked skid steers

Tracked skid steers have broader weight distribution through two wide tracks. Pros and cons of skid steer tracks vs tires include:

Advantages

  • Their broader weight distribution and lower weight transfer to the ground make them ideal for wet, muddy or snowy ground, loose gravel and loose sand. Instead of sinking into soft surfaces, tracked skid steers “float” over them.
     
  • The extra ground contact and lower center of gravity holds them steadier on slopes. “It’s like operating a tank,” said Scott Hill, an inside sales representative for United Rentals. “Tracked skid steers can go dang near anywhere.”
     
  • Tracked skid steers offer a smoother ride compared with wheeled skid steers. They also provide more breakout and lifting force on soft surfaces, and they won’t compact the ground.

Disadvantages

  • Think twice before using a track steer on concrete or asphalt. “It can tear up that type of surface because the track is really aggressive,” said Hill.
     
  • Tracked skid steers require more maintenance and cleaning than wheeled skid steers, a consideration if you’re buying instead of renting. They also cost more.
     
  • Tracks are more complicated to replace than tires.

Cost and maintenance of tracks

New tracks generally cost about 30% more than tires, but you won't need to replace them as often. How long do rubber tracks last on a skid steer? In the neighborhood of 1,200 to 1,600 hours, depending on worksite conditions. Steel tracks, known for their durability, last even longer.

To maintain tracks, clean out and inspect the tracks every 10 worksite hours, making sure the track tension falls within recommended guidelines. Reduce wear and tear on hard surfaces by spreading small amounts of sand or dirt for the skid steer to “slide” over.

Steel tracks vs. rubber tracks

Most tracked skid steers come with either rubber or steel tracks, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

Use rubber tracks for:

  • Worksites with noise restrictions: Excellent sound-dampening makes rubber tracks for skid steers a perfect fit for work in residential areas.
     
  • Soft surfaces: Rubber tracks are less likely to tear up grass, dirt and soft ground.
     
  • Flat surfaces: They provide excellent traction on flat, abrasive surfaces such as asphalt and concrete.
     
  • Smoother handling: Rubber tracks allow for smoother handling and faster operation.
     
  • Cost savings: Rubber tracks are cheaper than steel tracks.

Use steel tracks for:

  • Rugged surfaces: Excellent durability and thread life make steel tracks ideal for use on off-road terrains or demolition sites. They are designed to release dirt and mud easily.
     
  • Traction: Steel tracks provide superior grip in wet or slippery conditions.

Can you put tracks on a wheeled skid steer?

If you're struggling with the tracks vs wheels question, consider another option: You can add over-the-tire skid steer tracks to each wheel of the skid steer, making the machine useful on both smooth and rugged surfaces.

When deciding between a tracked vs wheeled skid steer, remember that neither machine is better than the other. It’s a question of matching the machine to the job. A good rental equipment provider can guide you in choosing the right skid steer or compact track loader for your needs.

Visit our online marketplace to view our selection of skid steers and track loaders.

Marianne Wait is an editor and writer who creates content for Fortune 500 brands.

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