Digging Power: Who Wins the Battle of Trackhoe vs. Backhoe?

Matt at Centex Excavation
Author: MattPublished: March 1, 2023 Updated: December 3, 2023 • Filed Under: Equipment and Machinery

When it comes to heavy equipment machines, two of the most popular choices are trackhoes and backhoes. Trackhoes, also known as excavators, offer stability and maneuverability on rough terrain with their long arm and rotating bucket. Backhoes have a shorter arm with a bucket that can only move up and down and side-to-side.

Both have their advantages regarding construction, excavation, or demolition projects—so which one is better?

That depends. We’re going to tackle the trackhoe vs. backhoe debate head-on!

ComparisonBackhoe LoaderTrackhoe (Excavator)
MobilityEquipped with four wheels for easy maneuverabilityFitted with tracks for stability and maneuverability in rough terrain
ReachShorter arm with limited reachLonger arm with greater reach and power
SizeLighter and more compact, suitable for smaller projectsLarger and more robust, ideal for heavy-duty projects
CostGenerally less expensive compared to trackhoesTypically higher cost due to larger size and capabilities
Digging DepthLimited digging depthCapable of digging deeper holes due to longer arm and greater reach
Material HandlingCan handle material with front loader attachment and dozer bladeAlso capable of moving materials, especially with appropriate attachments
Demolition CapabilitiesCan handle demolition with attachmentsCan demolish walls and structures
VersatilityVersatile for a variety of construction projectsVersatile for various excavation and construction tasks

What is a backhoe loader, and how does it work?

Backhoe doing Demolition
Backhoe doing a demolition job.

For starters, a backhoe is a heavy-duty construction vehicle with a small bucket mounted on the end of an arm. That arm is powered by hydraulics. The arm can move both up and down and side to side. It also has four wheels for mobility. These wheels make it ideal for easy maneuvering in places with tight access points or rough terrain.

This piece of construction equipment is ideal for digging, loading, and carrying away debris. It can also be used to attach other tools, such as hammers or forks, for more specialized jobs.

Whether you’re working on forestry projects, large-scale projects, or using the digging arm to lay pipe at the job site, a backhoe loader with a digging bucket attached is great for just about any digging application.

What is a trackhoe, and how does it work?

Trackhoe Operating on a Beach
Trackhoe operating on a beach.

Just like a backhoe loader, a trackhoe is a heavy-duty construction vehicle with a bucket mounted on the end of an arm. However, this piece of equipment has tracks instead of wheels for stability and easy maneuverability in rough terrain.

They often weigh between 8 and 25 tons, with arm lengths that range from 8 to 11 feet. The tracks also provide more traction than tires, allowing them to move large amounts of dirt quickly and easily.

The trackhoe is ideal for digging trenches, moving large amounts of soil, and reaching tight spaces or hard-to-reach spots. It’s a pretty versatile excavation machine, but you’ll probably want to use them on your most heavy-duty projects as they’re a bit bigger than wheeled excavators. Not only that, from our experience, they’re much more expensive to rent or buy. Our company purchased a track hoe because we tackle some massive loading jobs regularly.

Differences between the two machines

On the surface, these machines seem like they’re fairly similar – and they are – but there are a few key differences. The most obvious difference is the tracks vs. wheels: a trackhoe offers more stability and traction, whereas a backhoe has four wheels for easier maneuverability in tight access points.

A backhoe is also lighter than a trackhoe, which makes it better suited for smaller projects with limited space. On the other hand, the longer arm of the trackhoe gives it more reach and power, making it ideal for tougher jobs.

It’s also important to note that a backhoe loader is less expensive than a trackhoe, which makes it a great option for smaller construction companies that are working on tighter budgets.

Sure, they might perform different tasks and different jobs, but there are also some similarities between backhoe loaders and trackhoes.

Similarities between the two machines

These machines are similar enough that they can often complete tasks that the other can. Both are versatile machines that can be used to dig, carry debris, and move soil. They are also both powered hydraulically and ideal for a variety of construction projects.

Let’s look beyond the tracks and look at their mechanical shovels. They both have a bucket, or scoop, at the end of their arm. The backhoe’s is slightly smaller and can only move up and down and side to side, while the trackhoe’s is larger than the backhoe arm and has 360-degree rotation capabilities.

It’s also worth mentioning that both machines are designed with operator safety in mind. These pieces of heavy equipment are fitted with safety features such as guard rails, rollover protection systems, and cab enclosures.

Tips for using these machines.

If you have a big project coming up or are looking to rent or buy one of these heavy equipment machines, it’s important to be aware of a few tips before you begin.

Consider the type of terrain where the machine will be operated.

One of the biggest considerations is the type of terrain where the machine will be operated. For example, a trackhoe is better suited for rough or uneven terrain because it has tracks instead of wheels. However, backhoe loaders might be more manageable on flat ground.

Determine what kind of digging bucket will be needed for the job.

There are so many types of buckets. Whether you need to dig trenches, maybe snow removal, or just do heavy digging for a foundation, the type of bucket you need will be determined by the job at hand.

A backhoe’s arm is much shorter and not as powerful as a trackhoe, but it could get the job done if the job isn’t too big. We find that backhoes are great for residential jobs, but if we have a commercial project, we’ll bring in the trackhoe. If it’s a really small job that doesn’t require a powerful machine, we’ll even use our mini excavator.

Compare fuel efficiency and maintenance costs.

We never use more of a machine than is necessary because the bigger the machine, the more expensive it is to operate. Everything from fuel to maintenance is more expensive with trackhoes than with backhoe loaders.

If you have a smaller job that can be done by either mini excavators or a backhoe, then go that route. They’re much cheaper to operate than a trackhoe. But if the job is huge, save time and money and go with a trackhoe.

Consider operator comfort and safety features.

This is a big one that is often overlooked, but it’s important to consider. Operator comfort and safety features are essential for any machine that will be used in a workspace.

Backhoes and trackhoes both come with rollover protection systems and guard rails, as well as cab enclosures for the operator’s comfort.

Have you ever sat in a mini excavator for eight hours on a job site? It’s terrible. The longest I’ve spent is 14 hours in a mini excavator, and I wished I had brought the front loader as the task would’ve been done in half of the time.

FAQs for Trackhoes and Backhoes

There’s so much information about these machines we decided to put together a quick FAQ to ensure you know everything you can about these construction goliaths.

Which machine is better for digging deep holes?

How deep do you need to dig? Sure, they both have a digging bucket, but the backhoe arm is shorter than the trackhoe digging arm. So if you need to dig more than a few feet, then you’ll want to opt for the trackhoe.

Which machine is better for moving materials?

Both are great at moving materials; however, with a backhoe loader, you’ll have the front loader attachment and dozer blade if necessary for demolition projects and material handling. The trackhoe, on the other hand, is better suited for excavating and digging.

Can either machine be used for demolition work?

Absolutely! The digger bucket is great at breaking up concrete, as well as the dozer blade attachment for backhoes. Both machines are capable of demolishing walls and other structures with ease. We typically use our backhoes for handling building materials on work sites and our trackhoes for demo work.

Backhoe vs. Excavator final verdict.

We wish it were as easy as declaring one machine better than the other, but it really depends on the job. If you’re looking to rent or buy a heavy equipment machine, consider the type of terrain where it will be used, if you need attachments for demolition work, and determine which one has more power and is more cost-effective. It’s also important to factor in operator experience with the machine.

In the end, both trackhoes and backhoes have their pros and cons. It’s just up to you to decide which one fits your needs best.

About the Author

Matt Avatar


Excavation Expert

Matt is a highly experienced heavy equipment operator with over two decades of experience in the construction industry. His expertise covers a wide range of machinery and project types, and he is known for his focus on safety, efficiency, and problem-solving. Matt's commitment to delivering high-quality work within deadlines and budgets has made him highly respected at Centex Excavation and the excavation industry.

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