The Difference Between an Excavator & a Backhoe

Updated February 21, 2017

Earth-moving equipment comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations. Determining which piece of equipment is best suited for a particular job is based on many factors, including the job specifications and the accessibility of the job site. Larger excavators are designed to move large amounts of earth, while backhoes are more versatile, easier to get to a site and serve multiple purposes.


Built for larger excavations jobs, caterpillar tread, skid steer excavators can complete a job faster than their smaller backhoe cousins. Even though small excavators are similar in size to large backhoes, the heavy-duty chassis, longer bucket arm and central turret positioned over traditional tank tread drive systems of the excavator make it more useful for larger jobs. The machine's low centre of gravity makes it a perfect choice for road and bridge construction, and digging foundations for multistory commercial buildings.


Backhoes are generally smaller than excavators, and as such are more versatile. Backhoes are present on most mid to large size farms. They are owned by general contractors and selected as the tool of choice for digging residential building foundations and then back filling the property after the foundations are poured. Backhoes have hydraulic stabilisation arms which lower on either side of the cab. Because the vehicles are lighter than excavators and have a higher centre of gravity, these arms balance the machinery, enabling it to remove earth when the bucket is extended into a deep hole.

Trailering Equipment

Backhoes are built on a traditional farm tractor chassis. Large tractor tires are at the rear of the vehicle, and smaller drive wheels support the front of the machine. Consequently, backhoes can be driven to a job site down standard roads and back farm roads. Backhoes have a top speed of 30 to 40 MPH so that they can move from one location to another with ease. This is one of the reasons for their popularity. Excavators, and even the rental mini-excavators from the Bobcat machinery company, are skid steer vehicles, built onto a chassis which more closely resembles a military tank. While this design makes the equipment extremely stable, excavators must be trailered from one job site to another.

Dual Functionality Backhoe

The backhoe has an excavating bucket on one end of the vehicle, and the other end features a traditional bucket scoop/plough. As a result, the backhoe can be used to pull earth out of the ground and then used to level the earth when the job is complete. The driver's cab features two complete set of controls. The driver seat swivels so that the equipment operator faces the excavation bucket, or the plough.

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About the Author

Since 2003, Timothy Burns' writing has appeared in magazines, management and leadership papers. He has contributed to nationally published books and he leads the Word Weavers of West Michigan writers' group. Burns wrote "Forged in the Fire" in 2004, and has published numerous articles online. As a trained conference speaker, Burns speaks nationally on the art, science and inspiration of freelance writing.