How to Build Outdoor Steps on a Steep Incline

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Things You'll Need

  • Gloves

  • Level

  • Shovel

  • String line

  • Stakes

  • Spray paint

  • Dolley

Incorporating landings into your steep incline will help with the climb.

Attempting to incorporate a steep incline into a cohesive outdoor landscaping plan is challenging to even the most experienced landscaper. Proper drainage is important, and you may need to build a retaining wall to prevent erosion of the hill. If you incorporate terraces along the way, your efforts will pay off in more usable space. If a terrace is not an option, try to zig-zag the path for easier climbing, or wind the path, using long shallow steps with landings, to build breaks into the steep hike up the incline.


Step 1

Outline the area where the path will go with spray paint. Drive a stake at the top and bottom of the site. The stake at the bottom of the hill must be tall enough that a string or tape measure can be strung horizontally between it and the stake at the top of the hill.

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If your bottom stake is too short, do this step in stages. All you want to obtain is the linear distance from the top of the hill to the bottom. If done in stages, also measure the distance from string to ground on the lower stake. Write this down because you will add these distances together.


Step 2

Measure from the top landing to the bottom along the horizontal line to calculate the length of the hillside. Subtract two feet from this measurement. This is the run. Measure the distance from the string to ground. This is the rise.

For example, let's say your staircase has a hillside length of 28 feet and a vertical drop of 15 feet. The run would then be 26 feet and the rise would equal 15 feet.


Step 3

Divide the total rise by up to 8 inches to figure out the number of steps you need. Risers can range from 4 to 8 inches in height. Steep slopes require taller risers and shorter treads. Keep all risers the same height.

Using the example from Step 2, convert the rise, or 15 feet, into inches (15x12= 174 inches) and divide by 8 to get the correct number of steps, in this case 21.75. Round the number up to 22. The tread, or landing of each step is measured by dividing the number of steps into the amount of run. In this example, convert the 26-foot run into inches (26x12= 312) and divide by 22. Each of the 22 steps would have a tread of 14 1/5 inches, which can be rounded to 14 inches. Mark each step on the run with spray paint.


Step 4

Make a rough sketch of the site, including the number of steps and any retaining walls.

Step 5

Notch out each riser location with your shovel, keeping the riser height the same for each step. Take into account the size of your step material when calculating the height.


Step 6

Group steps three or four at a time with walking space in between on really steep inclines. You will need to compress the distance between your steps to accomodate the walking space. Reducing the distance between four steps by six inches, for example, will reduce the distance between steps to 8 inches for the first three steps and give you an additional 18 inches behind the fourth step.

Step 7

Place steps into the notches, using a dolly if necessary to haul. Backfill each step with dirt and sod to prevent erosion.


Zig-zag steps not only make the climb easier, but they cut down on erosion.

Terraces prevent erosion, and add to your usable outdoor area.

Build some curves into your route for a more natural look.


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