What is a Backhoe Loader?

April 15, 2024
We explain how these versatile machines work.

The backhoe loader has a material-handling bucket at the front and an excavating tool (backhoe) at the rear. Most use two large wheels at the rear of the chassis to power the vehicle, and two smaller wheels at the front to steer. Variations on this basic configuration include powering the front wheels (either hydrostatically or mechanically) and using equal-size wheels front and rear, all powered. A principal advantage of the machine is its ability to be driven moderate distances between job sites, eliminating use of a transport trailer and towing vehicle in some instances. For a look at how versatile the backhoe loader can be, read "Backhoes are Back."

The difference between a backhoe and a backhoe loader is the two implements on the backhoe loader. A backhoe is also called an excavator.  

Most backhoe loaders have a “center-pivot” design, meaning that the backhoe mechanism pivots on the machine centerline. A few models have a “side-shift” design, meaning that the backhoe can move across the rear of the machine to gain a more advantageous digging position, such as excavating next to foundations. Some models also can be equipped with an attachment coupler, more frequently at the front than at the rear, allowing the machine to use various work tools.

Most backhoe loaders use a diesel engine coupled with a multi-speed transmission, which most often is a “power-shuttle” type that uses hydraulically shifted clutches to make both directional and speed-range gear changes. Some models use a power-shift transmission with an “auto-shift” feature that changes speed ranges automatically to match load and speed requirements. In most designs, the transmission drives a planetary-reduction rear axle.

What sizes do backhoe loaders come in?

Backhoe loaders are available in a broad range of sizes, with horsepower ratings that range from around 25 to 150, and with standard backhoe digging depths that range from less than 10 feet to more than 17 feet. With an “extendable dipper stick,” (part of the backhoe digging mechanism), digging depths can exceed 21 feet for some models. Here we offer a look at the top backhoe loaders of 2022.

The backhoe loader has been on construction sites since the mid-1950s, and the technical refinement of these machines across the decades has been substantial. Engines in today’s models are powerful and fuel-efficient, and hydraulic systems have been refined, often with a load-sensing feature that allows powerful, variable-displacement hydraulic pumps to precisely adjust flow and pressure to the application. The operator’s environment also has been significantly refined, with many machines offering electro-hydraulic joystick controllers, climate-controlled cabs, heated/cooled air-suspension seats, and large glass areas and rearview cameras for enhanced visibility.