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Comprehensive Guide to Skid Steer Loaders: Sizes, Lift Types, Control Types, and More

Written by: Mike Reese

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Time to read 4 min

Skid steer loaders are essential machines for various industries, including construction, agriculture, and industrial plants. They are known for their versatility, compact size, and maneuverability. This comprehensive guide will help you understand the different sizes, lift types, control types, and other factors to consider when choosing the right skid steer loader for your project. 

Skid Steer Loaders: An Overview

A skid steer loader is a small yet powerful piece of heavy equipment, equipped with two hydraulic lifting arms on each side. Skid steers are available in wheeled and tracked models, also known as track loaders. These machines can accommodate a wide range of attachments, making them incredibly versatile and suitable for various tasks, including digging, grading, leveling, demolition, brush clearing, and snow removal. 

Choosing the Right Skid Steer Loader: Factors to Consider

1. Skid Steer Size and Width

The size and width of the skid steer loader you choose should be determined by the nature of your job and the available working space. Here are the three main types of skid steers based on their size:

  • Small-Frame Skid Steers: With a rated operating capacity (ROC) of around 700 pounds, these machines are suitable for landscaping, minor interior demolition, and tasks in tight spaces. They can fit through standard walkthrough gates and are popular for homeowner projects.
  • Medium-Frame Skid Steers: With an ROC of 1,300 to 1,900 pounds and an operating weight of 5,000 to 6,000 pounds, these skid steers are the most common and versatile, suitable for a wide range of tasks.
  • Large-Frame Skid Steers: With a larger bucket, more horsepower, and higher lift capacities, these machines are ideal for moving substantial amounts of material, grading, excavating large sites, and road building.

2. Lift Type: Radial vs. Vertical

Depending on the lifting requirements of your project, you may need to choose between a radial lift skid steer or a vertical lift skid steer:

  • Radial Lift Skid Steers: Ideal for tasks that involve pushing, digging, or moving materials around without significant lifting requirements. They may not be able to dump material into a dump truck.
  • Vertical Lift Skid Steers: Better suited for projects that require lifting materials to higher heights, providing more reach at full lift height. If you need to lift materials to eye level or above, consider a vertical lift skid steer.

3. Terrain Considerations: Wheeled vs. Tracked

The choice between wheeled and tracked skid steer loaders depends on the terrain and surface conditions of your project:

  • Wheeled Skid Steers: Suitable for level, hard surfaces like asphalt, concrete, or hard-packed dirt, as well as landscaped areas. They travel quickly and are less likely to damage the ground.
  • Tracked Skid Steers: Ideal for rough, uneven, or muddy surfaces, providing broader weight distribution and better stability on slopes. They can traverse loose gravel, sand, or snow without compacting the ground. However, they require more maintenance and are more expensive than wheeled skid steers.

4. Control Types: Standard vs. Joystick

Operators may prefer different control systems for skid steers:

  • Standard Controls: Traditional skid steers use hand levers and foot pedals for operation.
  • Joystick Controls: More modern skid steers may have joystick controls, which rely on wrist and hand movements for operation.

5. Attachment Compatibility

The right attachment can greatly expand a skid steer's capabilities. However, not all attachments are compatible with every skid steer. The compatibility depends on factors such as horsepower, rated operating capacity (ROC), and hydraulic system type. Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Small Skid Steers (Less than 50 hp): Typically have a standard hydraulic system and can support common attachments like blades, breakers, buckets, forks, and grapples.
  • Medium Skid Steers (50 to 70 hp): Can support attachments that require more horsepower, such as augers and saws, in addition to those compatible with small skid steers.
  • Large Skid Steers (More than 70 hp): Capable of powering heavy-duty attachments like cold planers, snow blowers, trenchers, rock saws, mulchers, and chipper/shredders.

A high-flow hydraulic system provides more flow to the attachment, allowing you to complete tasks faster. These systems typically experience less downtime since they don't usually operate at full capacity.

6. Safety Features

When selecting a skid steer loader, it's important to consider the safety features offered by different models. Some key safety features to look for include:

  • ROPS (Rollover Protective Structure): This is a crucial safety feature that protects the operator in the event of a rollover.
  • FOPS (Falling Object Protective Structure): Designed to safeguard the operator from falling debris or materials.
  • Backup alarms and cameras: These features provide increased visibility and awareness when operating the skid steer in reverse.
  • Anti-theft systems: These can help protect your investment by deterring theft or unauthorized use.

7. Maintenance and Support

Ease of maintenance and the availability of support services should also be considered when choosing a skid steer loader. Some factors to keep in mind include:

  • Accessibility to key components: This can make routine maintenance tasks, such as fluid and filter changes, easier and faster to complete.
  • Dealer and manufacturer support: It's important to have access to knowledgeable support services for troubleshooting, maintenance, and parts.
  • Warranty coverage: A good warranty can provide peace of mind and protect your investment in case of defects or issues with the machine.

8. Operator Comfort and Ergonomics

The comfort and ergonomics of a skid steer loader can significantly impact operator productivity and job satisfaction. When evaluating skid steer loaders, consider the following:

  • Seat comfort and adjustability: A comfortable, adjustable seat can help reduce operator fatigue during long work hours.
  • Climate control options: Enclosed cabs with heating and air conditioning can make the operator's work environment more comfortable in various weather conditions.
  • Noise levels: Quieter machines can reduce operator fatigue and contribute to a more pleasant work environment.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, selecting the right skid steer loader involves considering a variety of factors, including size, lift type, terrain, control type, attachment compatibility, safety features, maintenance and support, and operator comfort. By taking these factors into account, you can make an informed decision and choose the skid steer loader that best meets your needs and requirements. Remember to consult with a reputable equipment provider who can provide valuable guidance and help you make the best choice for your specific project.