How to build outdoor steps on a steep incline

Updated February 21, 2017

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 zigzag 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.

Outline the the path's site 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. If your bottom stake is too short, do this step in stages. 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.

Measure from the top landing to the bottom along the horizontal line to calculate the length of the hillside. Subtract 60 cm (2 feet) from this measurement. This is the run. Measure the distance from the string to ground. This is the rise. For example, a hillside length of 8.5 m (28 feet) and a vertical drop of 4.5 m (15 feet). The run would then be 8 m (26 feet) and the rise would equal 4.5 m (15 feet).

Divide the total rise by 20 cm (8 inches) toget the number of steps you need. Risers can range from 10 cm to 20 cm (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 4.5 m (15 feet), into centimetres (450 cm) and divide by 20 to get the correct number of steps, in this case 22.5. Round the number up to 23. 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 8 m (26 feet) run into centimetres (800 cm) and divide by 23. Each of the 23 steps would have a tread of 34.8 cm (14 inches), which can be rounded to 35 cm. Mark each step on the run with spray paint.

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

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.

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 15 cm (6 inches), for example, will reduce the distance between steps to 20 cm (8 inches) for the first three steps and give you an additional 45 cm (18 inches) behind the fourth step.

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


Zigzag 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.

Things You'll Need

  • Gloves
  • Level
  • Shovel
  • String line
  • Stakes
  • Spray paint
  • Dolley
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About the Author

Becky Lower began writing professionally in 2004. Her work has appeared in "elan" magazine, a northern Virginia publication, "Good Old Days" magazine, the "BGSU Alumni" magazine and on the website Lower has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and English from Bowling Green State University.