Excavator vs. Backhoe: Which Is Best for You?

Deciding whether a backhoe or excavator is right for your next project is essential. While these machines are similar, they each have unique advantages and limitations that can affect your efficiency and outcomes. Both types of equipment offer excellent earthmoving capabilities. That said, the excavator delivers greater power for large-scale projects, while the backhoe delivers optimal maneuverability and versatility for smaller-scale jobs.

What Is an Excavator?

An excavator is a versatile and powerful digging machine. This equipment comes in wheeled and tracked variations and can perform various jobs with attachments such as:

  • Chassis
  • Digging bucket
  • Dipper
  • Boom
  • Brush-cutting attachment
  • Mulcher
  • Hydraulic breaker
  • Concrete cutter or buster
  • Plate compactor

An excavator pushes material like dirt, soil, sand, mud and gravel away from itself. It can work on various types of job sites, such as paved surfaces and rough terrain, depending on whether it has wheels or tracks.

What Is a Backhoe?

A backhoe consists of a tractor base with a front loader attachment and a jointed arm with a digging bucket on the back. You can fit a backhoe with various attachments. including:

  • Hammer
  • Drill
  • Ripper
  • Rake
  • Breaker
  • Auger
  • Grapple
  • Broom
  • Coupler
  • Pallet fork
  • Snowplow
  • Thumb
  • Cold planer
  • Fork
  • Compactor

The backhoe’s name is based on how it operates. Rather than pushing material forward like an excavator, it pulls soil, dirt, gravel, sand or mud toward itself. Similar to the excavator, a backhoe can operate on various terrains, like paved surfaces and soil.

What Is the Difference Between a Backhoe and an Excavator?

Before choosing a machine for your company or your next project, consider how backhoes and excavators differ:

Digging and Depth Reach

Excavators have greater digging and depth reach. This power increases efficiency by enabling them to handle heavier, larger loads than backhoes. An excavator also has a slightly farther rotational reach than a backhoe. A backhoe’s arm can rotate up to approximately 200 degrees, but you can rotate an excavator’s arm and chassis in a full circle.

Mobility and Maneuverability

Backhoes offer enhanced mobility and maneuverability when it comes to seat rotation and transportation. A backhoe’s seat swivels 360 degrees so the operator can clearly see the side they need to use during operation, and it’s easy to drive on work sites. A backhoe can reach up to 25 miles per hour when you drive it, making it easy to transport it between multiple work sites and transport numerous loads across a work site.

Excavators offer enhanced visibility and maneuverability when it comes to their slewing radius and spoil-dumping capabilities. An operator sits higher while using an excavator, giving them better visibility of attachments such as the bucket. Additionally, an excavator offers 360-degree digging rotation, enabling them to rotate 360 degrees while their wheels and tracks remain stationary. With an excavator, you can essentially dig and dump material in any position around the equipment.


Some tasks are only possible with a backhoe, and others are only with an excavator. However, backhoes offer slightly greater versatility than excavators because they can use more types of attachments.

Excavator vs. Backhoe: Which Is the Best Choice?

When comparing a backhoe versus an excavator, the following factors can help you make the best decision:

Excavator vs. Backhoe: Which Is the Best Choice?


You need specific machinery for certain applications, so it’s essential to consider your projects and which type of equipment works best for them. A backhoe typically works best for the following applications:

  • Digging trenches
  • Drilling holes
  • Landscaping tasks such as digging fence post holes and water features
  • Small-scale earthmoving
  • Job site cleanup
  • Plowing
  • Leveling

An excavator is the ideal choice for the following project types:

  • Forestry projects requiring brush-cutting attachments
  • Demolition
  • Underground excavation
  • Debris removal
  • Large-scale earthmoving
  • Mining

Project Size

An excavator is typically your best option if you often work on expansive construction sites or perform significant demolition or mining work. However, a backhoe is better if you primarily complete smaller projects such as digging ditches or residential basements. Renting is an excellent option for either type of machine if you take on a large- or small-scale job that differs from your typical project size.

If your job site is too small for a medium- or large-sized backhoe or excavator, consider using a mini excavator. Mini excavators are compact enough to fit where other machines can’t.

Job Site Mobility Requirements

You must also consider your job site’s mobility requirements before choosing a machine. A backhoe can help you move around your work area easily and maneuver in tighter spaces, but an excavator offers a greater reach. A backhoe is ideal if you need to perform tasks in several different areas across your worksite because you can drive it from one spot to another quickly.

Budget Considerations

Using the right machine for each project is essential regardless of budget, and equipment costs can vary based on the size and model you choose. When considering your budget, it’s important to remember that you can choose to purchase or rent equipment.

If you need an excavator or backhoe for a project but the purchasing cost is too much, you can save money by renting one only for the days you need it. However, purchasing is the best option if you plan to use a machine frequently. One company may purchase a backhoe for long-term use and rent an excavator for occasional projects, and another company may do the opposite.

Excavator and Backhoe Safety

While backhoes and excavators differ in various ways, they are similar when it comes to safety. Practicing responsible equipment operation prevents accidents and injuries, so you should always follow strict safety recommendations to keep yourself and others safe, regardless of whether you are using an excavator or backhoe.

These are some examples of safety tips and techniques to keep in mind:

  • Thorough operator training
  • Pre- and post-use inspections and regular maintenance
  • Lowering and locking arms and attachments after each use
  • Seat belt utilization
  • Proper load balancing and stabilization to prevent tipping and rollovers
  • Worksite and traffic safety
  • Safe digging practices such as checking for underground pipelines and utilities to prevent damage
  • Adequate lighting and visibility
Trust H.O. Penn Machinery With Your Equipment Needs

Trust H.O. Penn Machinery With Your Equipment Needs

H.O. Penn carries a wide selection of Cat® construction equipment for sale, including high-performance excavators and backhoes. We also offer excavator rentals and backhoe rentals, enabling you to use the perfect machine for each unique project you take on while saving money.

Our experts can evaluate your application, needs and project specifications to help you choose the ideal type of equipment for each job. Contact us to learn more about our available inventory and how our machines can help you increase efficiency and productivity.

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