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  • Writer's pictureKeegan Eddie

Trenching 101: How to Safely Dig a Trench with a Mini Excavator

M1T Digging a Trench
M1T Digging a Trench

Equipped with the right attachments, a mini excavator is a perfect partner for any small to medium-sized trenching job. Follow along and we’ll walk you through the basics to safely and effectively dig a stable trench.

Step 1: Planning your Trench

Get a Locate:

Before any digging can take place you MUST have a locate done by a certified professional to identify any buried utilities that could pose a hazard to your dig. In most municipalities, this is offered as a free service. Consult the municipality and schedule a locate to be completed before you plan to start breaking ground. In most places, this process can be completed entirely online. Depending on where your job is situated, there may be a waiting list for the locate so you’ll want to be proactive about this so your scheduling is not thrown off. In some higher volume areas, an expedited locate may be available at an additional cost.

Technicians Performing A Locate
Technicians Performing A Locate

It is important to note that contact with a buried utility can be extremely dangerous and costly. This applies to power and water lines in addition to network utilities, whose larger trunk lines often carry a large electrical charge.

In Ontario, you can use this site to request a locate:

Mark Located Hazards Clearly:

If your locate turns up any buried utilities they will be highlighted with marking paint by the locate technician. If there is rain in the forecast or you aren’t going to be starting the job imminently, you should use a second method of marking for redundancy. A string line is a good option, florescent tape can be used as well for increased visibility. This ensures you don’t lose track of hazards between the locate and breaking ground.

In addition to physically marking the area, typically your locate will also include a diagram of the area with the utilities marked out with measurements and points of reference.

Marking Paint
Marking Paint

Assess the Terrain and Plan Your Route Accordingly

Check for any obstacles such as trees, rocks, or structures that could interfere with your trench. The most direct route may not always end up being the fastest. Large trees for example will have extensive root systems and it is best to steer clear of them if possible. Similarly, choosing a path through a steep area is inadvisable if there is a flatter route available.

Rocky Terrain
Rocky Terrain

Determine Trench Dimensions

Trench Width: Depending on what is going in the trench, your width requirements will vary. Once you know your desired width you will want to select a digging bucket that is as close to this width as possible so you are not unnecessarily moving excess material.


A trenching bucket is a toothed narrow bucket specifically made to dig trenches. The narrow width reduces the amount of material that needs to be removed. Depending on your application you may also want a smooth-edged bucket to create a consistent level surface across the bottom of the trench. Some trenching buckets feature removable teeth which will allow for a single bucket to both dig the trench before removing the teeth and smoothing the bottom. Depending on your application, this second step may not be required.

Hydraulic Thumb

A thumb can be quite useful when it comes to removing larger rocks and debris you may come across during your dig.

Trenching Bucket
Trenching Bucket

Step 2: Setup

Inspect your Excavator:

Check your fluid levels and attachment connections before you begin digging.

Positioning your Excavator:

Ensure you are starting on stable ground and that the surrounding areas are cleared of any debris or obstacles that may interfere with your machine once you start moving.

Step 3: The Dig

Start Slow

Ensure you are on the marked path and stay aware of the location of any utilities or other hazards. Spacial awareness is key to a safe dig. Consistently checking your surroundings as you progress is essential to safe operation.

Placing Removed Material

Do not place the removed material directly beside the edge of the trenched area. Doing so will negatively affect the structural integrity of the trench wall which could ultimately lead to a collapse. Place material at least several feet from the edge of the trench.

Banking the Trench

If you are digging a trench that someone needs to enter it is essential that you bank the walls of the trench or properly shore them to mitigate the chance of a collapse. For irrigation trenches and all others which will not be refilled, banking is a necessity to prevent caving in. Trenches are inherently dangerous and should always be treated as such.

Banked Trench
Banked Trench

Filling the Trench

When trenching it is always best to backfill the trench as you progress. Depending on what you are laying in the trench you may be adding gravel below and onto your utility. Once a section of trench has been completed you can fill it with the removed material. Avoid putting rocks or large pieces of debris that could damage your utility too close to the bottom.

Digging the entire length of the trench before filling is inadvisable and should be avoided whenever possible. If you must, ensure the trench walls are adequately banked to help mitigate cave-ins. Dry areas are less likely to cave than wet ones so make sure you pay attention to the weather forecast.


If your trench caves in be exceedingly cautious when approaching as the surrounding area will most likely be unstable.

When in doubt, just get out. Your life is more valuable than the trench you are digging. Trust your instincts and never dig alone. It is not worth it.

Finishing Up

Stabilize: As previously discussed the best way to trench is to fill it as you progress. If for any reason you need to leave a section of unfilled trench make sure you stabilize the walls either by banking, shoring, or both.

Trench Shoring
Trench Shoring

Secure your Site: Do not leave an open trench unmarked as it represents a hazard to people and wildlife. Mark your trench and take necessary precautions to prevent anything from entering the trench.


Digging a trench with a Mini Excavator is a straightforward task when working with the correct equipment and taking all the necessary precautions and preparations.

Remember to consult your local rules and regulations before digging and always get a locate.

Finally, never enter a trench until it is adequately banked and/or shored.

For high-quality mini excavator attachments that make trenching safer and easier, check out our wide selection of attachments at

All the best,


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