Skid Steers vs. Compact Track Loaders: Which versatile machine is right for you?

Much ink has been spilled detailing the pros and cons of skid steers and compact track loaders over the years.

But if arguments over the differences have you tied up in knots, Trevor Chase, product and application specialist at Caterpillar, wants you to know something: Both types of machine dig, grade, move materials, run attachments and load trucks. “Either can be used in any application, and our customers are constantly finding new applications and new ways to use them,” he says.

In other words, it’s not so much which machine has the best specs. It’s how you use it and which machine will make you the most profit. Chase says you can’t go wrong either way. It’s just a matter of making allowances for the relative strengths and weaknesses of each machine.

Chase gives an example from his previous career as a landscape contractor. He started out with a less expensive skid steer, but after a year he realized he could have bought a CTL for what he was paying to repair sunken sod caused by the skid steer’s rubber tires.

The market tells tales

One telling statistic in the marketplace is how the percentages of each machine sold have changed. As little as five years ago, 60 percent of sales went to skid steers and 40 percent to CTLs, says Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager for skid steers and CTLs at Deere. Today the numbers have flipped, with CTLs at 60 percent and skid steers at 40 percent, he says.

Landscapers have long sung the praises of CTLs and their turf-friendly low ground pressure. So the big jump in sales for CTLs may likely be due to their increased adoption by contractors engaged in construction applications.

“Customers are clearly starting to understand some of the value they get when they spend $15,000 or $20,000 more for a CTL,” says Zupancic. “They are heavier, and they can push off better because of that weight, and they can lift more.” With two long tracks on the ground, they offer more traction, which can be used for more efficient dozing.

The weight, the width of the undercarriage and the track length also help stabilize a CTL, says Chase, particularly on slopes. They deliver a smoother ride, it’s more comfortable for the operator, and you get better material retention in the bucket.

That stability has brought CTLs to the attention of nontraditional users, such as paving contractors, Chase says. “You might be sweeping up millings, running a broom attachment or a cold-planning attachment. Doing that in a CTL, you’re going to get a more stable feeling than with a rubber tire machine.”

Then there are the CTLs’ turf-friendliness and all-weather capabilities. “They pretty much guarantee that you can operate in any conditions, like muddy jobsites, and skid steer loaders can’t do that,” says Zupancic. “With a CTL, you can go to the jobsite after a rain, and you still have a chance of being able to run on that day.”

Skid steer benefits

While CTLs may be the first choice of landscapers and the darlings of the construction world these days, that’s not to say you should just ignore the many merits of a skid steer loader.

First, they are less expensive, by as much as $15,000 to $20,000. And they cost less to maintain. A set of four new tires might set you back $1,500 to $2,000, compared to around $4,000 for a new set of tracks. This can be especially important in harsh applications like recycling, scrap yards and demolition where the lives of tracks and tires are shorter than average.

With tires you also have an interesting variety of options, says Zupancic, including solid tires, foam-filled tires and run-flat’s like Michelin’s Tweel. And with a CTL, you will eventually have undercarriage maintenance to contend with, which adds to the owning and operating costs.

You can also move a lot faster in a skid steer. Top travel speeds hit close to 12 mph. CTLs at best top out at around 9 mph. And skid steers counter-rotate much easier, giving you better maneuverability in tight spaces. In other words, if you’re in a hurry or on a crowded site, the skid steer is your run-and-gun choice.

With a ground pressure of 35 to 45 pounds per square inch, skid steers can actually give you some compaction if that’s needed. And all that weight is transferred to the ground on four tire contact patches that aren’t much bigger than 4-by-5 inches or so. This can be better for pushing snow, although CTLs are also capable snow machines.

Skid steers have a higher ground clearance, generally, which makes them easier to get on a trailer with a steep ramp. And being lighter, they’re easier to transport.

“While CTLs have become the machine of choice, skid steers are still a good option for anybody,” says Chase. It can be an owner-operator purchasing his first machine or a company purchasing its 10th machine, they still have a place.

Weight balance

A typical skid steer with an empty bucket will have about 70 percent of its weight in the rear and 30 percent up front. Load the bucket and that quickly evens out to 50/50, so both sets of wheels have the same traction or downforce. The heavy rear end gives skid steers that easier counter-rotation as well, says Zupancic, since the front tires tend to skim across the surface when the bucket is unloaded. But the heavy rear end also limits how steep a slope you can tackle.

CTLs come closer to a 50/50 weight balance, which helps with stability on slopes. And with their long length of track on the ground, travel and ride aren’t as affected by a full bucket as it is with a skid steer. The CTL’s long track footprint also enables it to carry heavier loads, although with some skid steers, you can get counter-weight packages that will allow them to carry heavier loads.

Vertical vs radial lift

Both machine types come in radial and vertical lift versions.

Radial lift loader designs offer greater bucket breakout and lift-arm forces and have more mid-height reach, enabling them to excel at grading and dirt work, says Lee Padgett, Takeuchi-U.S. product manager. Vertical lift machines have higher rated operating capacities, more dump height reach and greater hinge pin height, making them better suited for load-and-carry operations, he says.

As the bucket rises from the ground in a radial lift machine, it swings in a slight arc because of simple geometry of the boom on its pivot point, says Zupancic. So the bucket moves away from you in the middle of its lifting range and becomes slightly less stable. While you can’t get quite as close to a truck for loading applications, when the bucket is resting on the ground it is closer to the operator in the cab. This improves visibility and gives you more leverage when prying up rocks, stumps or concrete slabs.

Vertical lift, on the other hand, has an upper and lower link on the boom that enables the bucket to rise in a straight line. Its more stable, generally reaches higher and lets you get closer to the truck and dump more in the middle of the truck bed. That being said, today, 70 to 80 percent of skid steers and CTLs are ordered with vertical lift, says Zupancic. And typically, all the big machines are ordered with vertical lift booms. “What drives that is customers want to have assurance that they can load trucks efficiently,” he says.

The height difference between the two designs is not a lot, about a foot or so. If you want the height of a vertical lift machine but are constrained by budget, you can always build a small ramp for your CTL or skid steer to load from.

Hydraulic power

“We see new attachments come on the market every year, and we invest a huge amount of resources developing our own OEM work tools,” says Chase. “A lot of those new attachments tend to be the high horsepower tools like cold planers, mulchers, brush cutters – doing things that equipment could never do before. The high horsepower attachments are in particularly high demand in the land management business, forestry, railroad right of way, power line access and pioneering through virgin land,” he says.

Some customers are cost conscious and not sure if they want to step up to a higher flow or pressure, says Chase. “They have to do what makes financial sense at the time, but sometimes they end up coming back a year later saying, ‘Yeah, we should have done that,’” he says. “They realize they could be more profitable if they take a big leap and go to the largest machine with the matched attachment. It makes them more versatile and more profitable.”

“The thought we put into auxiliary hydraulic systems is a primary driver of how we design machines,” adds Chase. “That’s probably the biggest thing customers miss, not matching the work tool to the task and the machine.”

CTLs, as a general rule, offer high horsepower options, says Padgett, which allows for more powerful auxiliary hydraulics.