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Telehandlers vs Forklifts: What's the Difference?

Telehandlers vs Forklifts: What's the Difference?

The fork attachment of a telehandler raised in the air

Telehandlers vs Forklifts: What's the Difference?

Reading time: 6 min

Forklifts and telehandlers are specialized machines that are used for raising and lowering loads to and from high areas. While forklifts are compact and used primarily inside warehouses and storage facilities, telehandlers are much more versatile.

If you’re considering renting or purchasing a forklift or telehandler, then there are a few things you should consider. First, it’s important to understand the function of each machine and how they differ.

A forklift operator moving pallets of materials

What is a Forklift?

A forklift is a type of specialized machine used to lift and move heavy loads across short distances. Forklifts have a pair of forks that raise up and down, allowing them to lift materials such as pallets and boxes vertically. They are most commonly used indoors in warehouses, storage facilities and factories.


Compact, lightweight, affordable to maintain, easy to operate, easy to maneuver in tight spaces.


Not very versatile, cannot tolerate very large loads, don’t drive across uneven terrain, limited to very controlled environments, cannot reach over obstacles.

Telehandler on a worksite

What is a Telehandler?

A telehandler, sometimes called a telescopic handler, is a heavy equipment machine designed for lifting and moving heavy loads across great distances. Unlike forklifts, a telehandler has a telescopic boom arm that extends forward and upward, allowing it to reach higher heights and over obstacles.  They are commonly used in construction, agriculture and other applications where loads need to be transported over challenging terrain.


Can lift very heavy loads, versatile and work with a number of attachments, can be driven long distances, handles challenging terrain with ease, can reach over obstacles.


Larger vehicles, not very maneuverable in indoor settings, harder to maintain, louder, more emissions, heavier with larger tires.

Differences Between Telehandlers and Forklifts

At first glance, forklifts and telehandlers share a lot in common. Both machines are used for transporting materials, can be fitted with forks and excel at raising and lowering loads vertically. However, there are some key differences between the machines that make them suited to different applications.

Design Differences

For starters, forklifts and telehandlers have very different designs. A forklift is a compact and stout machine with a vertical lifting mechanism in front. This lifting mechanism can only move up and down vertically, it cannot extend outward.

By contrast, a telehandler features a telescopic boom arm mounted atop a low-set, heavy duty body. Unlike the forks of a forklift, which can only be moved up and down, a telehandler’s boom arm is telescopic, meaning it can be extended outward.

This fundamental difference allows telehandlers to be used for a wider variety of applications. Also, telehandlers can be fitted with novel attachments such as ice blades, augers and work platforms, further enhancing their capabilities.

Size and Weight Capacity

Telehandlers tend to be much larger and more stable than forklifts. They are heavier machines with larger tires and are typically used in outdoor applications.

Though not as compact as forklifts, telehandlers are capable of handling heavier loads and lifting them higher. They are also capable of transporting loads across greater distances and uneven, challenging driving surfaces.

Choosing the Right Lift for Your Needs

When it comes to choosing between a telehandler and forklift, there are a number of important factors to consider. While both machines are used for lifting, they have distinct differences that make them better suited for different types of tasks.

When to consider a forklift:
  • High maneuverability. Forklifts excel in tight, cramped spaces where maneuverability is a requirement, such as in warehouses and factories.
  • Indoor environment. Forklifts are lighter than telehandlers and are usually fitted with smooth tires. This makes them easier on the work environment, especially for indoor applications.
  • Highly regular tasks. Forklifts are quieter and easier to operate than telehandlers, so they’re a good option if you just need a lifting machine for highly regular tasks, such as moving pallets around a warehouse.
When to consider a telehandler:
  • High load capacity. Telehandlers are better suited to transporting very heavy loads and have higher weight limits than forklifts.
  • Rough terrain. Forklifts are designed for indoor use on flat, smooth surfaces, whereas telehandlers can be fitted with tires for any type of terrain.
  • Height capacity. Telehandlers generally are capable of lifting loads to greater heights than forklifts, making them ideal for construction or outdoor applications.

Common Attachments for Telehandlers and Forklifts

Whether you choose to use a forklift or a telehandler, attachments are available that can augment your machine’s capabilities.

Here are some of the common attachments used with forklifts and telehandlers. Plus, this is how they can enhance the capabilities of your machine.

Common Forklift Attachments
  1. Side Shifters allow you to move the forks on your forklift from side to side, making it easier to align the forks with the load. This is helpful in applications where precision is necessary.
  2. Fork Positioners allow the forklift operator to adjust the distance between the forks to handle different-sized loads. This improves efficiency.
  3. Carton Clamps allow the forklift to handle loads that are bulky and non-uniform in shape.
  4. Bale Clamps are used to handle cylindrical objects such as bales of paper, cotton or hay.
  5. Drum Handlers are used to lift and transport drums and are commonly used in the chemical and food processing industries.
Common Telehandler Attachments
  1. Pallet Forks are the most common attachment for telehandlers. They are used to lift and transport materials on pallets.
  2. Buckets are used for transporting loose materials such as gravel, sand or dirt. They are used in construction, landscaping and agriculture.
  3. Grapple Buckets are used for handling irregularly shaped objects such as logs or rocks. They have a grabber that opens and closes to secure the load.
  4. Working Platforms are used to lift workers to high elevation for maintenance or construction taks.
  5. Snow Blades are used to clear snow from roads, parking lots and other surfaces. They are used in cold weather conditions.
Forklift operator removing a pallet from a shelf

Forklift Certification

OSHA guidelines stipulate that forklift operators are trained by their employer on the proper operation of forklifts prior to using one in the workplace. Operators must receive formal training from their employer in the workplace that covers OSHA’s guidelines for the safe operation of forklifts. Forklift certification training will teach you how to operate a forklift in the work environment while minimizing the risk of accidents and collisions.

Topics covered in a forklift certification program include:

  • Introduction to forklifts and their uses
  • Types of forklifts and their components
  • Hazard identification and risk assessment
  • Operating controls and instrumentation
  • Starting, moving, steering and stopping the forklift
  • Visibility and safe operating conditions
  • Forklift capacity and stability
  • Load handling and maneuvering
  • Refueling and recharging procedures
  • Maintenance and pre-operation inspections
  • Pedestrian safety and communication
  • Operating limitations and surface conditions
  • Workplace-specific hazards and safety procedures
  • OSHA regulations and standards related to forklift operation
  • Evaluation and testing of the operator’s knowledge and skills
  • Certification and recertification requirements

As a matter of federal and state law, all forklift operators must receive proper training and certification from their employer before operating a forklift in the workplace.

Choosing the right machine for your needs depends on many factors, including the type of work you’re doing, the environment you’re working in and the weight you’re carrying. EquipmentShare’s rental process makes it easy to get the equipment you need quickly. 

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