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Gaining Traction
A Comparison Between Tracks and Tires

Gaining Traction

This is your standard set of tracks on a Cat 279D compact track loader. The reason most tracks are shaped in a triangle design is because the drive shaft is usually placed higher up allowing for the top of the triangle to be the power source, while the bottom wheels just roll, often without producing any drive force. An article by Texas Final Drive relates that "by moving the drive sprocket above the ground, the tracks now have one additional place they have to bend. That is going to mean additional wear and tear on the tracks..."

Gaining Traction

This diagram, by Elmer's Manufacturing, highlights the difference in the amount of surface contact between tires and tracks. Also displayed in this illustration is the trait known as "floating," which is the term attributed to the way tracks travel over the landscape. Instead of digging into the ground like tires do, tracks float on the surface, allowing for optimal traction and speed in loose soil conditions.

The wheel is without question one of the oldest inventions in the history of life on this planet. An article published on estimates that the invention of the wheel dates back to 3,500 B.C. and makes note that it is a 100% human-engineered invention, meaning it doesn't exist anywhere in nature.

Tracks, on the other hand, while defiantly a human achievement, are not so ancient. Yet they can provide some much needed attributes that might make them more advantageous than regular tires.

This article will make a comparison between tracks and tires, highlight some new emerging technology and take a closer look at tire treads and their differences. So buckle up your seat belts and lets get rolling.

Let us start with the more avant-garde option of the two. Obviously, as implied by the name, tracks give more traction than tires do. This is because using tracks is going to inherently increase surface-contact area and, as a result, lose traction less often than tires.

Due to this, tracks will work better on jobs that have a lot of loose dirt, sand, mud or wet surface areas because you will have more track touching the ground than four separate tires would. To demonstrate this, a study conducted by Elmer's Manufacturing Ltd., an agricultural equipment manufacturer, showed that a grain cart, carrying 70,000 pounds and traveling over tilled ground, was 50% easier to pull with tracks than wheels.
An article on the Cat website discussing tires verses tracks states, "A track machine is almost always the preferred choice in construction or landscaping applications. Compact track loaders provide more traction, less ground disturbance, better material retention and enhanced lifting capacities."

Conducting grading jobs is a good example of when a tracked machine is superior because the ground disruption produced by tracks is less than the ground disruption created by tires. This is because tracks "float" over the ground as opposed to digging into it for traction.

Another benefit that tracks hold over tires is that the weight of the equipment will be spread more evenly and have a lower center of gravity. This weight distribution equates to a more stable machine that can preform better in sloped areas and challenging terrains. Having that lower center of gravity and more ground contact would be beneficial for a front or back-end loader that is carrying a heavy load and traveling on slanted or rough terrain, limiting the chances that the equipment will tip over.

Gaining Traction

Gaining Traction

Developed by Michelin, the MICHELINA(R) X TWEELA(R) airless radial tire is a 26-inch tire with varying hub designs. It has a 37-mph speed rating at a maximum gross vehicle weight of 2,869 pounds, and fits a range of models including John Deere, Kawasaki, Honda, Kubota and more.

Fuel Consumption and Maintenence
In terms of fuel consumption, research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Nebraska Tractor Test Lab in 2012 found that a Case Steiger 600 QuadTrac carrying 29,000 pounds and traveling in a "moist" field produced 14.21 horsepower-hours per gallon, while a (wheeled) Case Steiger 600, in the same conditions, was only able to output 13.23 hp-hours per gallon. Although, when tested on dry concrete, the wheeled tractor was actually "almost an entire gallon more efficient."

When discussing maintenance, equipment with tracks are going to be more expensive to maintain than wheeled vehicles. In an article found in Rental Management Magazine, Gregg Zupanic, product-marketing manager for John Deere Construction & Forestry, stated that track loaders could be more expensive to buy and cost more for maintenance.

On the same note, an independent study highlighted in the YouTube video, "Heavy Equipment Comparison Tracked vs. Wheeled Skid Steer," Stanley Genadeck, of Genadeck Landscaping, writes, "Tracks cost $4,000 and you get 400 hours out of them. Just the tracks cost you $10 per hour. Tires cost you $1,000 and you get 300 hours out of them. Tires cost you only $3.33 per hour!"

One neat characteristic of tracks is their maneuverability on the jobsite. Equipment with tracks eliminate the need for a turn radius because, as stated in an article found on, "[Machines with tracks] can swing in a circle without forward or backward motion by braking one track and accelerating the other. Machines with tracks can also shuffle side to side which is impossible for those mounted on wheels."

One of the latest additions to the technology involving tires is the use of non-pneumatic tires. Also known as airless tires, these are tires that are not supported by air pressure, and instead, support the machine and distribute pressure through the use of specialized spokes. The main advantage of having these is that they can never go flat. Michelin's "Tweel," first revealed back in 2005, is a good example of a non-pneumatic tire.

A traction comparison between tracks and tires is going to be lopsided battle. However, based on my research, there are at least two distinct times when tires are going to give you better traction than tracks.

Gaining Traction

One option that encompasses both attributes of tracks and tires are "over the tire tracks," or OTT tracks. To attach them to a skid steer, simply drive over them and connect them just like snow chains. They come in both metal and rubber options, with varying tread patterns. Pictured is the OTT Diamond by McLaren Industries, which range in price from $2,200 - $3,699 depending on size.

Gaining Traction

This 9.5"x 8" turf tire is manufactured by Carlisle and distributed by R&R Products for $54.95 apiece. The manufacturer's website states that the best application for this tire is on the front swivel casters of larger, zero-turn ride-on mowers that are used for applications such as golf course maintenance.

An article found on Dominion Equipment Parts' website comparing tires to tracks, states the following: "In some conditions, tires actually can offer better traction; for example, in snow, the increased down pressure that tires provide can provide greater forward power by penetrating underneath the snow to reach a surface with firmer traction."

Although tracks are a good choice for grading projects due to their minimal ground disturbances (as stated above), tires are actually better at ground compaction because they have a higher pound per square inch in very specific areas. Tracks are going to distribute the machine's weigh across a much larger area, which is great for stability, but not so great if you want to compact a subbase.

One last advantage that tires have over tracks is their speed. In a 1998 study, which looked at the difference between tracks and tires for a new U.S. army combat vehicle, conducted by Paul Hornback, a general engineer for the federal government, he found that, "Wheeled vehicles inherently attain faster road speeds..." The reason is simple, it takes a lot more energy for the machine to turn those large tracks than it does for it to turn the smaller, lighter wheels.

In Conclusion
To sum everything up, both tires and tracks are going to present advantages and disadvantages. You are generally going to want tracks if the majority of your work is done in loose soil, steep terrain or mud. A normal set of four tires is going to perform better on concrete, grassy areas, and snow as well as reduce fuel consumption.

Based on independent research, a general cost comparison between tracks and tires can be estimated at about $350 for a set of pneumatic tires, $700 for non-pneumatic and anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for the over the tire track option, depending on the retailer.

At the end of the day, choosing between tracks or tires for your equipment is a personal choice. Maybe one is better than the other for your fleet; deciding that is going to take a little self-reflection on the type of work you generally do and how often that work is being conducted.

Gaining Traction

Left: This tire has wide, deep lungs to provide off-road traction and evenly distribute wear.
Middle: This is the type of tire designed for hard surfaces, like concrete, and grass. Because it does not have large deep treads, it won't tear up grass, but at the same time will have less traction in other terrains.
Right: The Camso MPT 753 is the newest addition to their tire line. It features non-directional tire treads and actually deflects debris by utilizing an "Impact Guard Sidewall" design.

Tire Treads
One of the most critically important details of a tire is its tread. Tread can affect a tire's performance, traction, speed, how much the tire disrupts the ground, tire life and the overall capabilities of the tire. If you are working in a predominately sod covered area and don't want to tear the grass, you are going to want a tire that is almost bald with nearly no tread. On the other hand, in locations where there is dirt, mud or loose soil, tires without tread aren't going to get you anywhere. Presented in this section is a closer examination on a range of different tire treads by Camso. Visit for more options.

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, October 2018.

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November 13, 2019, 8:14 pm PDT

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