The most basic type of mobile crane consists of a steel truss or telescopic boom mounted on a mobile platform, which may be rail, wheeled (including "truck" carriers) or caterpillar tracks. The boom is hinged at the bottom, and can be raised and lowered by cables or by hydraulic cylinders. A hook is suspended from the top of the boom by wire rope and sheaves. The wire ropes are operated by whatever prime movers the designers have available, operating through a variety of transmissions. Steam engines, electric motors and internal combustion engines (IC) have all been used. Older cranes' transmissions tended to be clutches. This was later modified when using IC engines to match the steam engines "max torque at zero speed" characteristic by the addition of a hydrokinetic element culminating in controlled torque converters. The operational advantages of this arrangement can now be achieved by electronic control of hydrostatic drives, which for size and other considerations is becoming standard. Some examples of this type of crane can be converted to a demolition crane by adding a demolition ball, or to an earthmover by adding a clamshell bucket or a dragline and scoop, although design details can limit their effectiveness.

To increase the horizontal reach of the hoist, the boom may be extended by adding a jib to the top. The jib can be fixed or, in more complex cranes, luffing (that is, able to be raised and lowered).

Telescopic crane

A telescopic crane has a boom that consists of a number of tubes fitted one inside the other. A hydraulic or other powered mechanism extends or retracts the tubes to increase or decrease the total length of the boom. These types of booms are often used for short term construction projects, rescue jobs, lifting boats in and out of the water, etc. The relative compactness of telescopic booms make them adaptable for many mobile applications.