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Skid Steers vs Wheel Loaders: Similarities and Differences

Skid Steers vs Wheel Loaders: Similarities and Differences

A skid steer with a bucket attachment on a worksite

Skid Steers vs Wheel Loaders: Similarities and Differences

Reading time: 6 min

When it comes to loading materials into trailers and trucks, laying pipe or clearing debris, loaders are a popular and reliable solution. Loaders are a type of heavy machinery equipped with a bucket, which is used to scoop materials off the ground.

Two common types of loaders found on construction sites are skid steers and wheel loaders. Both skid steers and wheel loaders feature a bucket on the front of the machine, but there are subtle differences between the two.

Here, we’ll go over some of the key features that set skid steers and wheel loaders apart, plus the advantages of each. 

Understanding the differences between these popular machines will help you choose which type of loader to use on your project to maximize efficiency and performance.

A skid steer with a bucket attachment

What Is A Skid Steer?

At first glance, a skid steer looks like other loaders. Skid steers feature a bucket at the front of the machine that can be used to scoop and transport materials across the job site.

However, the key feature that sets a skid steer apart from other types of loaders is its steering mechanism. Unlike other loaders, skid steers feature differential steering, allowing them to “skid” and turn within their own footprint.

This is enabled by left and right-side wheels that can be operated independently of each other. Inside a skid steer’s operator cab, there is a joystick to the right of the operator’s chair and another joystick to the left of the chair.

To move the skid steer forward, an operator simply presses both the left and right joysticks forward simultaneously. To turn, the operator can tilt just one of the joysticks forward, engaging only one side of the machine’s wheels in a skidding motion.

This novel steering mechanism makes skid steers incredibly maneuverable, allowing them to turn easily in tight, cramped spaces.

A wheel loader with a bucket attachment

What Is A Wheel Loader?

A wheel loader is a type of loader that features articulated steering, like the type of steering found in automobiles. Like other loaders, wheel loaders feature a bucket at the front of the machine, which is typically used to move materials and topsoil around the job site.

To enable their steering mechanism, wheel loaders have an articulated frame. The chassis of a wheel loader is separated into a front and back section, which are connected by a pivot joint. 

Like skid steers, wheel loaders can be used with a variety of attachments meant to expand their capabilities.

Skid Steers vs Wheel Loaders

Physical Differences

The primary difference between skid steers and wheel loaders is the type of steering mechanism utilized in each. 

A skid steer features differential steering, so its wheels are fixed in place. But, the left and right wheels can be operated independently of each other. By contrast, a wheel loader features articulated steering, which is enabled by a pivot point in the machine’s chassis.

Another important distinction between skid steers and wheel loaders is the placement of the bucket’s hydraulic arms. To maintain stability, a skid steer’s bucket arms are positioned along the side of the operator cab and attached to the rear of the machine.

A wheel loader’s bucket arms, on the other hand, are relatively short and do not run along the length of the machine. Rather, they secure to the front of the machine’s chassis.

This difference in the positioning of the bucket arms affects how each machine carries loads. When a skid steer’s bucket is in the raised position, it is nearly overhead. The bucket of a wheel loader, on the other hand, raises out in front of the machine, farther from the operator cab.

Unique Advantages

Due to their subtle design differences, skid steers and wheel loaders possess unique advantages.

The primary advantage of a skid steer is its ability to work in tight, confined spaces. Since it has a minimal turning radius, a skid steer can easily operate in cramped work areas, such as shopping centers and urban environments.

On the other hand, a wheel loader takes up more space but is relatively gentler on sensitive surfaces. Since a wheel loader does not use “skid” steering, it’s less likely to tear up surfaces like grass or pavers.

Furthermore, the tires of a wheel loader do not wear down as quickly as the tires of a skid steer. This makes them easier and less costly to maintain, particularly in the long run.


Both skid steers and wheel loaders can be used with attachments designed to augment their capabilities. Common attachments used on skid steers and loaders include buckets, rakes, augers, hydraulic hammers and breakers.

While most attachments can be used with either skid steers or wheel loaders, certain attachments may work better with skid steers. In particular, attachments that require a high hydraulic flow may work better on skid steers, since skid steers generally have higher hydraulic flow than wheel loaders.

A track loader with a fork attachment

Track Loaders vs Skid Steers and Wheel Loaders

A cousin to skid steers and wheel loaders, compact track loaders combine some of the best features of loaders but utilize tracks instead of wheels and tires.

While skid steers, wheel loaders and compact track loaders all excel at tasks such as material handling, there are certain conditions for which track loaders are better suited. Specifically, track loaders may be a better option than their wheeled counterparts whenever operators are moving on uneven, soft or muddy terrain. 

Since track loaders utilize tracks, and not wheels, they have better “float” and weight distribution, which make them well suited to projects with unfavorable ground conditions.

Choosing the Right Compact Loader

When choosing between skid steers and wheel loaders, it’s important to consider the types of projects you typically handle.

Both skid steers and wheel loaders are highly capable and versatile machines, but wheel loaders are usually more capable than skid steers. 

In fact, many operators have noticed that they can accomplish the same task more quickly with a wheel loader than with a skid steer. Wheel loaders are commonly capable of lifting heavier loads, and cost less to maintain.

However, if you routinely work on projects in cramped environments, such as residential complexes, shopping centers or urban environments, then a skid steer may be a better choice.

Final thoughts

Both skid steers and wheel loaders are capable machines with a wide variety of use cases in the modern construction industry. Skid steers are highly maneuverable, while wheel loaders are highly capable and less costly to maintain.

The EquipmentShare Shop carries OEM and aftermarket parts for skid steers and wheel loaders from some of the industry’s leading manufacturers. Our convenient online shop makes it easy to find and order replacement parts for your loader. Can’t find the part you need? Reach out to our parts experts and get personalized assistance.

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