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traversing a slope with an excavator

steveeee | Posted in General Questions on

i have about a 20-30% grade on my land and need to get across the slope to dig some septic test pits. i rented a tiny excavator and was traversing a very shallow slope, about 20% and managed to roll the thing on its side. fortunately i jumped off ok and got the thing upright, but the tip over damaged the engine and i’m probably going to get charged for that

i am going to rent an 8000 lb machine for my next attempt and looking for advice how to traverse a slope. at this point i’m thing a series of up and down movements with the bucket down hill to act as an anti tip device. but is there a better option? i see nothing on youtube


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  1. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #1

    If you haven't found any YouTube videos it's because you're not using the right search terms. Try searching for "excavator fail."

    Seriously, what you're asking about is dangerous. It's an advanced skill. Imagine someone asking, "I've never driven a car before. How do I do a controlled skid around a curve?"

  2. steveeee | | #2

    i know i tipped it over, i'm asking for constructive advice on how to traverse a slope.

  3. maine_tyler | | #3

    I can't really tell if this is satire.

    You want to walk it with pressure on the bucket.
    But it takes practice and sometimes coordination, using hand controls and feet controls at the same time in some situations.
    Or you carve yourself a bench.
    Or you get some serious rigging as a taught-line uphill (not recommended).
    Or you hire someone with an insured machine and experience.

  4. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #4

    If you keep the boom uphill of you it keeps your center of gravity further uphill and makes it less likely you'll roll downhill. If you keep the boom downhill you can use it almost like a walking stick to support yourself. Knowing which is better depends upon the conditions.

  5. SierraWayfarer | | #5

    No way to go round-about and travel on relatively level ground until you are directly above or below the pit and then go straight up or down the hill to the pit in a safe manner is there?

    Is there a roll cage and seat belt? You got a hard hat?

  6. onslow | | #6


    Aside from the dangers of trying to move heavy equipment down a slope, have you considered how sloped land will affect your septic design and costs. If you are having a hard time getting down to where the (I hope) level ground is, imagine trying to swing in a septic tank or the materials needed for a leach field. If the leach field area is also sloping or adjacent to a strong slope then you will need to be careful about having proper soil tests done to avoid field effluent from racing away to daylight down slope. Most states have upped the requirements for septic effluent management. Be sure of requirements before fixating on one location.

    My initial contact for septic work wanted to place my field on an area with a roughly 12% slope because it would put the field below my basement floor level. Turns out that would have required terracing the field distribution and cost a huge amount. Engaged a new engineer who managed to design a far superior set up where the grade was only 1' drop per 100'. Far less costly as well.

    I have seen large elevation differences between house and septic done, but I would suggest trying to find a placement that entails less elevation drop. If that is not possible, then next order would be to cut the access slope down by creating what would essentially be a long ramp form. Best to make access for yourself and everyone else safer.

  7. rocket190 | | #7

    My family business is excavation. I also have my Master Plumber license which allows me to install septic systems, so I do have a fair bit of knowledge to offer here.

    1. If you caused any type of internal engine damage to an excavator (even a small one) I would expect the damages to exceed $5,000 and could easily exceed $10,000. On our bigger machines replacing an engine exceeds $40,000. Replacing ROPS and side panels is not a cheap matter either.

    Given this, is it really worth it to do this by yourself? Digging some test holes for a skilled operator would likely be a minimum service charge as it takes less than 10 minutes each to excavate and backfill a typical pit.

    A skilled operator may also look at your scenario and say, “What you are asking for is too dangerous.” A 30 deg slope is no laughing matter, even for the most skilled operators. Many operations will give a no cost estimate, so I would recommend that.

    Some areas allow hand auger soil samples to be used for system design. This would be much safer. Can you use these? Also, you should have a certified soil tester onsite when doing any pits for them to assess your lot and get proper soil classifications. You’re going to need this to obtain zoning/permitting approval. You may be able to use stepped seepage beds with lightweight synthetic aggregate, but this should be confirmed.

    If you decide to forge ahead, I recommend digging a shelf so that the tracks of the machine are sitting as close to level as possible. This is the only way to get the machine stable.

    1. user-2310254 | | #10

      I recently had a septic test and design completed for $450. Like the OP's lot, my site is very steep. Of course, in CZ3A you don't have to dig down all that much. Test holes are usually dug with a shovel.

  8. maine_tyler | | #8

    'A skilled operator may also look at your scenario and say, “What you are asking for is too dangerous.”'
    Good point. Experience isn't just knowing how to do the tricks, it's knowing how to avoid needing to do them, or knowing when they're not worth the squeeze (risk). To think of the many things I've got caught up in thinking about how to do, and then with experience realized they're not worth doing in that way at all. And still.

    If one insists on pushing their own limits on an ex, the key is to go real slow and feel out the limit/balance of the machine. No sudden movements, even and especially with the tracks.
    You might also consider trying to do a descending/ascending traverse. In other words, make the effective cross-slope less by traveling obliquely to the slope.

  9. steveeee | | #9

    thanks for all the helpful replies. i asked the health department inspector if i could use a 2 man auger and he said no, he needs several 2 1/2 x 3 x 5' deep pits digging to check the soil at different depth.

    i was thinking about it all last night and i figures that digging a level road or shelf as i go across the slope is the way to go. i also have a 5/8" tree rigging line i could set up as as a backup but not sure that's a great idea or even necessary so long as i keep the excavator on somewhat level tracks and pads.

    the part that would worry me is turning 90 degrees to go from traversing (on my newly built level path) to up and down. for that i'll need to cut a larger flat turning pad.

    as for getting someone else to do it for me, i called every one in the phone book and on google search and no one interested in a small job like digging 10 holes. plus i want the experience so i can dig the footings when i get all the permits taken care of.

    now i know the risks, i'll take my time, think about every move, plan ahead and i'm sure i'll be fine.

    ok, and as to septic systems on a slope, every lot in my area has one, the entire development is on a 20-30% slope, the health department guy knows what he's doing as he has done hundreds of approvals in my area. he'll tell me where to put it and what kind of system to use.


  10. walta100 | | #11

    You got lucky and escaped with your life once.

    Jumping off and not landing under the equipment is almost a miracle.

    After you get the repair bill whatever a skilled operator charges you will feel like a bargain at any price.

    Please learn from your mistake and do not win the Darwin award.


  11. steveeee | | #12

    actually the rental co. mechanic said he gets more callouts for the little one tipping over than all the other bigger machines. fortunately the thing is built to jump off of

  12. Uiloco | | #13

    I've been in a similar situation on my property with a steep grade. The key is always to keep the heavier part of the excavator uphill and the arm and bucket downhill. This positioning helps maintain stability and prevent tipping. Smooth, steady movements are crucial, especially on slopes. Avoid any sudden turns or jerky operations.

    I experience that renting repeatedly can be a hassle and expensive in the long run. That's why I decided to buy a used excavator from I chose a 2017 Bobcat E35i, which cost me $25,700. Considering the amount of work I needed to do, it was a good investment. This model has worked great for me, even on challenging terrains. If you're considering using an excavator frequently, you should explore the used market. There are some great deals out there.

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