Tires vs. Tracks: Which Type of Loader is Best for You?

WheelSkidSteerWhen it comes to landscaping, the acquisition of a quality compact loader can be one of the smartest investments you’ll make. If chosen strategically, a quality skid-steer, all-wheel steer or compact track loader will become more than just an auxiliary piece of equipment. If you commit to effective utilization, loaders can provide a high return on your investment because they’re designed to tackle most of the projects you will ever perform — from loading dirt, to lifting pavers, to installing irrigation, to rolling sod.

Today’s loaders are more powerful and productive than ever before, and a growing number of attachments are making them more versatile. So, how do you know which type of loader is right for your operation? Industry experts say the answer lies in making a thorough assessment of your applications.

“Once you know the kind of work you’ll be performing, there are some important considerations that should be factored into a decision whether to purchase a skid-steer loader or a compact track loader. They should include an evaluation of ground conditions, climate elements and your total cost of ownership. Depending on the size of your company, you may have multiple applications occurring in different conditions, which may actually dictate having both types of loaders in your fleet,” says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist with Bobcat Company.

Look on the surface

The first step in assessing skid-steer loaders and tracked loaders starts at ground level. “If the landscaper knows that they’re operating on paved surfaces such as streets, sidewalks, parking lots, driveways or a hard surfaced yard, it only makes sense to buy a skid-steer loader. Tires work well on these improved surfaces, and a skid-steer loader offers a lower initial investment,” Fitzgerald says.

Some manufacturers also provide loaders with all-wheel steering capabilities. An all-wheel steer loader offers more turf-friendly performance due to a design that allows all four wheels to roll through a turn, reducing the risk of turf damage or leaving marks on pavement.

Rubber tracks are ideal when working on established lawns where ground surface sensitivity is particularly important as turf replacement is costly and time-consuming. Unlike skid-steer loaders, compact track loaders have a tracked undercarriage that provides a lower ground pressure and improved flotation and traction. Tracks distribute the machine’s weight across a larger area, minimizing ground disturbance.

More ground-to-surface contact optimizes the machine’s power and performance on rough terrain and soft, sandy surfaces. It also enables operators to easily push loads in these conditions without getting stuck. Compact track loaders are also ideal for fine grading applications, Fitzgerald says. Tracks are a definite plus when performing irrigation installation or hardscaping upgrades due to their low 4 to 5 psi ground pressure. This means less concern about parting with profit to perform repair work after the job’s done.

Collaborate with the climate

In addition to soft, sandy conditions, landscapers often work in climates with wet and muddy conditions. For this reason, compact track loaders in many parts of North America have allowed some customers to extend their working seasons to generate days — and even weeks — of extra income. After it rains, landscapers with compact track loaders are some of the first contractors back on a jobsite due to the low ground pressure and traction provided by track loaders. By getting back to work sooner, Fitzgerald says they’re able to complete jobs faster, thus maximizing their profitability.

Calculate ownership costs

While it’s true that skid-steer loaders typically have a lower initial purchase price compared to the same size track loader, it’s mostly due to the fact that the tires and wheels on a skid-steer loader cost less than rubber tracks and their associated undercarriage parts.

CrawlerSkidSteerFor example, Fitzgerald says, a set of skid-steer tires costs between $600 and $1,000 and their useful life ranges from 600 to 800 hours. With proper operation of the loader, rubber tracks should last about twice as long as tires. Rubber tracks cost $3,000 to $4,500 per set and last approximately 1,200 to 1,600 hours.

In addition to tires and tracks, there is yet another option that could provide a landscaping solution. Most manufacturers offer over-the-tire steel tracks as an accessory for skid-steer loaders to help owners increase their utilization of the machine when ground conditions are less than ideal. This style track setup costs around $2,500 to $4,000 for the most commonly used size of machines. However, overall ownership costs for all of these types of loaders should also include a calculation of productivity and machine utilization along with maintenance costs, Fitzgerald says.

As a landscaper, matching the right loader to your operation starts from the ground up. Knowing the work you will perform, having a good understanding of the ground and weather conditions each type of loader will succeed in, and calculating your overall machine costs will make your decision easier. Armed with right information, you can determine which technology will meet all your landscaping needs — or whether you need both.

Don’t get sidetracked

Depending on the type of loader you select, there are options and accessories to consider that can maximize uptime and increase utilization. On skid-steer and all-wheel steer loaders, most manufacturers offer a variety of tires to match ground conditions. Tires can range from general use to severe-duty types, with narrow to wider flotation sizes, and bar lug to turf-type treads. Poly fill tires are also available to minimize flats on the jobsite.

Compact track loader owners have a choice of wide or narrow tracks to match ground conditions and different tread patterns on the tracks to suit individual needs. Owners can also choose undercarriages that are either rigid mounted or others that are designed with a suspension system to increase operator comfort.

To further enhance comfort on the job, operators can benefit from features like cab enclosures, heat and air conditioning systems, and radios.