Wheeled Skid Steers vs. Compact Track Loaders

These workhorse materials movers remain popular; contractors just need to pick how they want to gain traction in the field

Wheeled Skid Steers vs. Compact Track Loaders

A wheeled skid-steer like this Case model provides fuel and load-carrying efficiency when moving a lot of material.

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Skid-steer or compact track loader? The answer depends on several factors — not the least of which is cost — but at the end of the day, there’s room for both work horses in any stable.

Chris Sleight, managing director of Off-Highway Research, says that skid-steers’ popularity peaked in the mid-2000s, when sales were around 65,000 units per year.

Since then, compact track loaders have taken the lead, and last year the market was about 55,000 to 65,000 units, compared to approximately 30,000 to 35,000 for skid-steers. But that shift has plateaued, and although their popularity has declined, skid-steer loaders remain a sizable part of the construction industry.

“You could also say that this type of machine is more popular than ever,” Sleight says, referring to both skid-steers and CTLs. “Combined sales are getting close to 100,000 units, whereas it was only 65,000 at the last peak, when the wheeled version was the only game in town.”

Let’s compare the two versions of this machine through three lenses: areas in which CTLs excel, areas in which skid-steers have an advantage, and what’s on the horizon for these machines.


At their core, skid-steers and CTLs are the same machine with one main difference: tracks instead of wheels for CTLs. “Track loaders and skid-steers serve many of the same functions on a job site,” says Blane Burroughs, Kubota CE product specialist. “Choosing between tracks and wheels can boil down to the terrain you will be operating in.”

The consensus is that skid-steers work best on solid ground and tracked loaders can work in almost any environment. Due to the low ground pressure and high traction force, contractors often use CTLs on softer terrain such as mud, sand, gravel or turf. 

Not only can CTLs adapt to different terrains, but they are also flexible when it comes to conditions, according to Adam Devins, global product manager for Wacker Neuson. “Operators in general will go toward CTLs because they can operate more days of the year in most places, especially in a landscape setting,” he says.

So if CTLs can work anywhere, where do skid-steer loaders hold an advantage?


Although the skid-steer’s wheeled design means a smaller surface area and more pressure on softer ground, as well as a higher chance of sinking, skid-steers make their case by providing better value on harder surfaces, Devins says. Skid-steers are faster and more agile on asphalt, concrete and hard-packed surfaces. “Speed is going to directly correlate to your efficiency,” Devins says.

Using a skid-steer on repetitive tasks, such as traveling back and forth across a nursery yard to move materials, increases an operator’s productivity and efficiency.

There’s also the subject of price: Skid-steer loaders are generally less expensive than their tracked counterparts, given their relative limitations. Devins says that in addition to the lower initial investment, skid-steers’ wheeled design makes them more efficient from a fuel consumption perspective. Also, the cost of ongoing maintenance with CTLs can be higher because even though both tracks and wheels wear out over time, tracks are more expensive to replace as there are more undercarriage components such as rollers, idlers and sprockets to consider.

Some of this can be operator dependent, Devins says, but these price factors should be considered when making a purchase. “In the right application, there’s a lower operation cost [for skid-steers],” Devins says.


Loaders have been fixtures on job sites for decades, and these machines have stuck around because of their willingness to adapt (see the rise of the CTL as the prime example). But even skid-steers have undergone changes while keeping their wheels.

As technology has improved over the years, manufacturers have advanced the engine and lift capacity, tipping load, hydraulics and other integral components of skid-steers to keep them “from being becoming a thing of the past,” according to Burroughs. “Although the skid-steer market has been in decline over the last couple of years, these machines are still a very popular choice amongst owners and operators.”

Updates over the past decade, as well as changes in the coming years, have been and will be implemented for both skid-steers and CTLs. Devins says some manufacturers have moved away from the original hand-foot controls, which require operators to drive with their hands and control the bucket with their feet. Now, many loaders come with hydraulic or electro-hydraulic controls that are more operator-friendly.

Patrick Baker, Kubota CE product manager, says key areas such as productivity, reliability and technology are priorities for the loaders. Skids-steers can utilize more hydraulically driven attachments than ever, and the machines are also beginning to feature smart attachment capabilities, in addition to options such as rearview and 360-degree cameras for safer operation. Similarly, technological innovations including automation and smart attachments are key areas of focus in the CTL industry. 

Although skid-steers and CTLs are seasoned veterans in the construction industry, they’ve persevered for this long because of manufacturers’ willingness to be flexible on behalf of operators’ and contractors’ needs. “Kubota expects growth in the skid-steer and CTL market over the next several years,” Baker says. 


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