10 Common Forklift Types, Classifications and Uses

There are 10 types of forklifts, including warehouse, side loader, counterbalance, telehandler, heavy-duty, rough terrain, pallet jack, walkie stacker, order picker and reach trucks. Each type of forklift provides an essential function for various material handling tasks.

Forklifts are one of the most versatile vehicles for builders, warehouse workers and more. When you need to move heavy loads, forklifts can safely lift objects that humans cannot, making them indispensable on any job site. With such a wide selection of styles and models available, it can be difficult to select the best forklift for your specific needs. This extensive guide covers the 10 different types of forklifts, their benefits, reliable forklift brands and the seven forklift classifications so you can find the right one for your next project.

Table of Contents

1. Warehouse Forklift


The warehouse forklift is the most recognizable type of lift truck. It resembles a golf cart with twin forks extending from the front. You’ll most often use this forklift in a facility with many items in inventory, as it’s great for loading and unloading pallets and transporting items to and from delivery vehicles.

Some of the most popular warehouse forklift models include the Hyster 36-38T, Komatsu 20 BX50 Hyster and the Toyota 3-Wheel Electric Forklift. Most industrial forklifts can lift 5,000 pounds of weight, but some heavy-duty models can elevate up to 25,000 pounds. Warehouse forklifts have a few subtypes, including side loaders and counterbalance forklifts.

Key Feature: Trucks have a loading capacity of 1-5 tons.

Uses: Best for raising and transporting items over short distances.

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2. Side Loader


A subtype of the warehouse forklift, side loaders are usually found in steel service centers and manufacturing facilities with heavy, long and bulky items such as pipes and lumber.

The operator stands in a sideways compartment while a side loader unloads objects. Due to its sideways operation, side loader forklifts can easily drive up alongside racks and load and unload without having to turn. This makes them suitable for navigating narrow aisles and handling long loads like timber and pipes.

Toyota, Raymond, Yale and Hyundai are some of the top brand manufacturers of side loaders.

Key Feature: Sideways compartment that moves in the direction of the load.

Uses: Lifting heavy, bulky and long items in tight spaces.

3. Counterbalance Forklift


The counterbalance forklift is a popular lift that features forks in the front and a weight in the back to counterbalance the weight of the load. Counterbalance forklifts have no extending arms, giving them the ability to move directly to the load.

There are a few different types of counterbalance forklifts. The 3-wheel variant is ideal for situations requiring the operator to turn and maneuver in circles, while a stand-up counterbalance forklift allows operators to easily hop on and off between loads. Popular manufacturers include Mitsubishi, Toyota and Crown.

Key Feature: Back-mounted weight that helps balance heavy loads.

Uses: Situations where tight 360-degree maneuvering is necessary.

4. Telehandler


Also known as a telescopic forklift or a reach forklift, the telehandler is a combination of a crane and forklift with a boom and extendable arm. The twin forks attached to the arm are used to move pallets off the ground. A standard telehandler is capable of lifting 5,500 lbs of materials up to 19 feet in the air and is great for reaching into tight spaces and odd angles.

Because of their growing popularity, manufacturers like JCB, Genie, Bobcat, Haulotte and Caterpillar produce a variety of high-quality telehandlers. Models like the JLG 1644 are adept at larger capacity jobs, while other models can lift loads up to 55 feet high.

Key Feature: Extendable arm attachment and articulating boom.

Uses: Lifting loads off the ground to higher elevations.

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5. Heavy-Duty Forklift


The heavy-duty forklift — also called a large-capacity forklift — combines the functionalities of a warehouse forklift with a telehandler. While it can’t reach difficult angles the way a telehandler can, it can lift heavier loads much higher off the ground than a warehouse forklift. Smaller heavy-duty forklift starts with a 30,000-lb maximum lift, but you can find heavy-duty forklifts with a 100,000-lb maximum lift if such power is necessary.

There are 20 popular heavy-duty forklift manufacturers on the market. Big names include NACCO Industries and Mitsubishi, and some of the popular models boast an impressive capacity of 36,000 lbs.

Key Feature: Hydraulic levers combine a balance of reach and power.

Uses: Transporting heavy loads for industrial applications.

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6. Rough Terrain Forklift


Also known as a straight mast forklift, the rough terrain forklift is designed specifically for outdoor job sites with uneven surfaces. These trucks have sturdy pneumatic tires that are oversized and threaded, giving them better balance and stability to safely transport materials on rocky ground. You likely won’t need one if you do most of your work indoors, but rough-terrain forklifts are a must for outdoor applications and construction sites.

Popular models include the JCB 950 and CASE 588H with four-wheel drive options. Another major perk of rough terrain forklifts is that they can lift heavier loads — most models have a capacity of 6,000 lbs or 8,000 lbs.

Key Feature: Sturdy design with oversized tires and a reinforced cage cab.

Uses: Outdoor jobs with uneven, rocky ground.

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7. Pallet Jack


Pallet jacks are specialized in nature. Also known as pump trucks, these pallet lifts aren’t capable of lifting large loads due to their small size. In exchange for power, pallet jacks have a small footprint, allowing them to fit into the tightest spaces and lift small loads in tight quarters. While you sacrifice power and maneuverability, a pallet jack’s acquisition and renting costs are much lower.

Popular pallet jack models include the Mighty Lift 20 x 36 Inch Pallet Truck and Vestil Electric Pallet Truck. Buyers or renters can choose between manual pallet jacks and electric pallet jacks.

Key Feature: Compact size, powered manually or occasionally with a battery.

Uses: Maneuvering small loads — like pallets — in tight spaces and over short distances.

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8. Walkie Stacker


Walkie stackers are unique in appearance and specific in utility. Unlike other forklifts, these types of material-handling vehicles don’t have cabs. Instead, the operator walks behind the stacker and steers it by using an attached handle. These units lack power, maneuverability and speed but are ideal for situations where you need a taller pallet jack. The walkie stacker reaches much higher off the ground than traditional pallet jacks.

Current walkie stacker forklift manufacturers include Hyster, Jungheinrich and Toyota. Toyota’s 6BWC20 is ideal for 4,000-lb loads, while Jungheinrich’s EMC 110 is suited for narrow aisles. Key

Feature: Unique design requires the operator to walk behind the truck.

Uses: Maneuvering pallets to greater heights than is possible with a pallet jack.

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9. Order Picker


An order picker is a subtype of the walkie stacker operators use to pick and deliver materials from storage. Reaching up to 32 feet, these machines are designed to lift operators up to warehouse racks and carry individual units. They excel in customer order warehouses and storage facilities since they can pick individual units without having to bring down full pallets. Their versatile design means they can handle items of various sizes, from auto parts to furniture.

Key Feature: Open operator window and no pallet handling.

Uses: Piece-picking units and warehouse inventory applications.

10. Reach Fork Truck


The reach forklift is a warehouse truck used mainly for indoor work. Its key ability is to extend its forks beyond the compartment and reach into warehouse racks in a way that standard forklifts cannot. It also features an open compartment that allows the operator to have greater visibility.

While excellent for indoor use, reach trucks are not suitable for outdoor work due to their minimal undercarriage clearance. UniCarriers, Clark Materials and Yale manufacture some of the most high-quality reach forklifts.

Key Feature: Stabilizing legs and forward-extending forks.

Uses: Quick and precise pallet picking in indoor environments.

Forklift Classifications

While there are 10 different types of forklifts, they are also organized by classification — of which there are seven. The forklift classes are outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to describe their fuel option and use. Operators must be aware of the necessary forklift safety practices for each classification and be certified on each class of forklift to operate it.

The different forklift classifications are as follows.

Class I – Electric Motor Ride Truck

Class I forklifts are powered by batteries and designed specifically for indoor use where air quality may be a concern.

Examples of electric motor ride trucks may include warehouse and counterbalance forklifts.

Fuel Type: Battery

Use: Indoor settings such as warehouses

Class II – Electric Motor Narrow Aisle Truck

Class II forklifts are classified for their ability to fit and maneuver within tight spaces such as the aisles in a warehouse. These are also powered by rechargeable batteries and are intended for inside use only.

Some examples of electric motor narrow aisle trucks may include side loaders, order pickers, walkie stackers and reach fork truck forklifts.

Fuel Type: Battery

Use: Moving inventory in narrow or tight spaces

Class III – Electric Motor Hand Truck

Class III forklifts are another type of battery-operated truck. Instead of having a cabin or controls to drive the forklift, this class allows the operator to manually move the truck and then use the controls to raise and lower the forks.

An example of an electric motor hand truck includes a powered pallet jack.

Fuel Type: Battery

Use: Quickly unloading delivery trucks across short distances

Class IV – Internal Combustion Engine With Cushion Tires

Class IV forklifts are similar to class I, but the main difference is the fuel type and tires. Since these forklifts are operated by gas or diesel, they emit fumes into the environment, making them unfit for indoor settings with little ventilation. Cushion tires are only intended for smooth surfaces, so while they may be suitable for some outside projects, they are not suitable for rough terrain.

Examples of internal combustion engines with cushion tires may include warehouse and counterbalance lifts that require fuel rather than charging.

Fuel Type: Gas or diesel

Use: Low-clearance situations

Class V – Internal Combustion Engine Trucks With Pneumatic Tires

Class V forklifts are similar to class IV lifts but are classified differently due to their tires. Thanks to the pneumatic tires, these trucks offer superior shock absorption that’s fit for uneven terrains.

Examples of internal combustion engine trucks with pneumatic tires may include warehouse, counterbalance and heavy-duty forklifts.

Fuel Type: Gas or diesel

Use: Indoor and outdoor with rough surfaces

Class VI – Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Tractors

Class VI forklifts aren’t for lifting loads so much as towing them. They can pull massive loads — up to 55,000 pounds. These types of trucks can be found in both indoor and outdoor settings, such as warehouses and airports.

An example of an electric and internal combustion engine tractor is called a tugger.

Fuel Type: Battery, gas or diesel

Use: Hauling or towing loads

Class VII – Rough Terrain Forklift Truck

Class VII lifts are classified for their use on rough, uneven surfaces such as gravel and dirt paths. These lifts are only intended for outdoor use and have specialized tires and counterweights to ensure the load stays stable while being transported across various terrains.

Examples of rough terrain forklift trucks may include telehandlers and rough terrain forklifts.

Fuel Type: Gas or diesel

Use: Construction sites, uneven ground, high-elevation lifting

Forklift Sizes

Forklifts range in size and dimensions depending on their function. Although they are versatile machines, you’ll need the right size for the job.

Standard forklifts generally measure between 4 and 7 feet wide and from 8 to 10 feet long. Outdoor or rough terrain forklifts can be greater than 10 feet in length, while narrow aisle forklifts like walkie stackers and side loaders can measure less than 5 feet. However, if you are using a forklift in a warehouse setting, it’s important to consider the aisle width. Standard counterbalance forklifts require aisles of approximately 13 feet wide to effectively turn, navigate and move pallets.

Another measurement to consider is height. Most standard forklifts can reach heights between 10 and 15 feet, but special forklifts like the telehandler can lift as high as 55 feet, depending on the telehandler size you select.

Elements of a Forklift


While size plays an important role, a forklift’s design and its various parts allow it to carry an impressive amount of weight. The key elements a forklift to consider include its lift capacity, load center and stability. Forklifts have varying abilities in each category that must be taken into account when choosing one.

  • Lift capacity: The amount of weight a forklift can carry safely while remaining stable
  • Load center: The distance from the forks to the load’s center of gravity; varies depending on the load weight, lift angle and tilt angle
  • Stability triangle: The area under the forklift that maintains the center of gravity and prevents the vehicle from tipping over

How To Choose A Forklift

When choosing a forklift that best fits your project, you’ll need to consider the following criteria to make sure your selected equipment performs efficiently and safely:

  1. Determine the capacity. How much weight do you need to lift?
  2. Calculate the job site’s stability. Can the ground sustain the forklift?
  3. Measure the space’s height. Can your forklift pass through the designated openings?
  4. Select the correct fuel type. What setting are you working in? Do you need battery power or gas?
  5. Analyze the terrain. Is the surface smooth, uneven or rough?

Forklift types vary in several aspects, from their fuel type and tire composition to their lift capacity and height, and it’s important to consider these factors when selecting a model.



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