Excavator Buyer’s Guide | Tracked vs Wheeled Excavators

Is a tracked excavator your obvious choice, or should you consider purchasing a wheeled excavator? We’ve compiled this excavator buyer’s guide to help you compare tracked vs. wheeled excavators and determine which model represents a better investment for you. Warning: you may be surprised.

Wheeled excavators are used much more extensively in Europe than in the U.S. One reason is that most work done in Europe takes place in urbanized settings, whereas projects here in the States often require clearing land and digging.

What’s so great about tracked excavators?

They are typically a contractor’s go-to machine when you need that high-powered digging capability. It’s really their primary purpose, although they can also be used with a crusher, shear or hammer for quarry work or demolition.

Tracked excavators sit lower than models with wheels. That lower center of gravity, along with the added weight of the undercarriage and the bigger footprint provided by the tracks give the machine greater stability.

What’s so great about wheeled excavators?

Superior versatility. With a quick coupler and the right attachment, your excavator is instantly transformed. It becomes a hard-working digging and demo tool, or you can take on tasks such as moving concrete barriers, mowing or cleaning ditches from the roadway, cutting asphalt or removing trees.

Contractors working in urban environments often automatically choose a backhoe for tasks like these, but a wheeled excavator is actually the better choice, thanks to:

  • a shorter, wider footprint.
  • longer reach.
  • more power.
  • greater digging and lifting capacity.

Because they have a smaller footprint, wheeled excavators can maneuver in places where other heavy equipment can’t go and operate in areas where tracks are impractical. They can travel on hard surfaces a tracked excavator would damage severely, which is why they’re so popular for European and American urban environments where equipment has to travel over the road or on paved parking areas, building slabs, etc.

Wheeled models can’t dig as deeply because they sit higher off the ground. That higher center of gravity could become an issue on steeply sloped terrain. It also reduces stability for digging, but when you use the outriggers and keep the dozer blade on the ground, stability tends to be about the same as with a tracked excavator. The dozer blade is also an excellent tool for backfill and clean-up tasks.

Wheeled excavators can zip along as fast as 22 miles per hour, but tracked excavators creep along between 4 and 6 mph. And since you can’t drive them over paved roadways without causing significant damage, you have to use a heavy duty tractor and trailer to transport them between jobsites or even around jobsites that have paved areas. The ability to move around faster can make a wheeled machine considerably more productive.

Wheeled excavators may cost more initially, but they bring a lower cost of ownership. That’s because wheels and brakes cost less and last longer than crawler undercarriages, and they’re faster and easier to replace.

Many contractors have always believed that when it comes to tracked vs wheeled excavators, tracks were the only answer. Before you purchase your next machine, though, you may want to rethink that. If your jobs only require digging and clearing in unpaved areas, tracks probably are your best choice. But if you’re just starting out or you don’t have the budget for a fleet of specialized machines and your work is more diverse, wheeled excavators offer greater versatility in a single machine.