How to Operate a Backhoe, Like a Pro

Once you learn the basic backhoe controls, you'll be digging, trenching, loading, and riding like a pro.

JCB 5CX Backhoe LoaderKnowing how to operate a backhoe means you can lay pipes, install posts, demolish, landscape, and grade surfaces with ease. We’re sure that you have a lot of digging to do, so this guide is going to quickly show you how to use a backhoe fast and easily – in plain language, without all of the technical jargon. The basic principles of operating a backhoe are the same in every work environment, so no matter if you are in the farm or in the city, we at MyLittleSalesman have invaluable step-by-step instructions and safety tips to provide that can have you mastering backhoe controls in no time.

Backhoe Controls

Here’s a quick rundown on standard backhoe controls. Note that every backhoe can be a little different but with this basic knowledge, you will have a good overall grasp. Take a look at the following picture of backhoe controls and then reference the following steps.

Backhoe Loader Control Levers
  • Left Arm Control – This hand lever controls the boom (the first section of the backhoe’s rear arm that is closest to your cab).
    • Pull the lever towards you to lift the boom up into the air.
    • Push the lever away from you to lower the boom towards the ground.
    • Move the lever left and right to swing the boom side to side.
  • Right Arm Control – The other hand lever controls the stick (the second portion of the backhoe’s rear arm that attaches to the bucket) and the bucket itself.
    • Pull the lever towards you to bring the stick and bucket towards your cab.
    • Push the lever away to move the stick and bucket away from your cab.
    • Move the lever to the left to "curl" (pull) the bucket towards you (for digging).
    • Move the lever to the right to move the bucket the opposite direction (for dumping).
  • Stabilizer Backhoe Controls – In between the left and right arm controls are two smaller controls for the stabilizers.
    • The left lever controls the left backhoe stabilizer.
    • The right lever controls the right backhoe stabilizer.
    • Each stabilizer can be moved independently for operating a backhoe on uneven terrain.
Other backhoe controls:
  • Throttle Control – This knob adjusts the RPMs of the engine throttle.
    • Smaller jobs require less RPMs.
    • Backhoe attachments often require different RPMs.
  • Boom Unlock – This unlocking mechanism keeps the boom arm in place until you are ready to begin digging, and it is usually a floor pedal.

How to Operate a Backhoe’s Ignition

  1. Climb the steps and grab the entrance handle, turning all the way around as you enter the cab.
  2. Close the door.
  3. Buckle your seatbelt.
  4. Give the ignition a quarter turn.
  5. Step on the foot control (certain models only) after you hear a beep.
  6. Disengage the parking brake.
  7. Turn the ignition the rest of the way.

JCB 3CX-14 Backhoe Loader Interior

How to Operate a Backhoe When Digging

  1. Park in an area with enough rear and side clearance.
    • Angle your backhoe slightly to the left or right so that you can see past the stick and boom while digging.
  2. Lower the stabilizers until the rear wheels are suspended.
    • Make sure you are in neutral to keep from tipping over.
  3. Lower the front bucket all the way down until the front wheels are suspended.
  4. Pull the left arm control towards you until the boom reaches its maximum height, then step on the unlocking mechanism (typically a pedal on the bottom right) while pulling the left arm control towards you at the same time.
    • This step unlocks the boom.
  5. Push the boom down by pushing the left arm control away from you. Push the stick out by pushing the right arm control away from you.
    • Moving both the stick and the boom at exactly the same time gives you a maximum reach.
  6. Move the right arm control to the left to curl the bucket towards you.
    • Hold the lever left until you feel the backhoe hit something solid (meaning the bucket is full).
  7. Bring the boom up by pulling the right arm towards you.
  8. Move the left arm control to the left or right to swing the boom and full bucket to a dumping spot.
  9. Move the right arm control to the right to dump the bucket.
  10. Use the left arm control to move the boom back over the trench, then repeat steps 5 through 10 as necessary.

Caterpillar Backhoe Cab Interior and Controls

How to Operate a Backhoe When Backfilling

When you are done trenching (to lay pipes, for example), you can fill the hole back up:
  1. Push the material back into the hole with the front loader bucket.
  2. Drive over the filled-in hole with your wheels to pack the material nice and tight.
  3. Smooth over the area by driving in reverse with your front bucket down at a proper angle.

Backhoe Safety Tips for Operating a Backhoe

Injuries and death can be prevented. You probably already know that when operating any piece of heavy equipment, comes great responsibility, as injuries and fatality incidents can occur when operating improperly. Take a few moments to read over Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) official backhoe safety manual, which provides some of the following facts and guidelines.
  • Traveling too fast over sloped ground can rock the backhoe and cause it to tip.
  • When the front bucket is full, try to keep it as low to the ground as you safely can. This greatly reduces the chance of tipping over when operating a backhoe.
  • Check all fluid levels before operating a backhoe (this will keep your hydraulic system from getting leaks and wearing out quickly)
  • Always make sure you know exactly where all of the utility lines are before operating a backhoe.
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About Kyler Richman
Kyler is a reporter and staff writer at My Little Salesman.
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