Stairs On Trails

If it is possible to avoid adding stairs to a trail, strive for that. If you can’t, you didn’t try hard enough, or perhaps there really is no other choice. Many situations could call for stairs, but are they uncalled for? They may be needed as a means to install vital grade reversals on trails that are a little steep, or as a means to push people up in short or long bursts, faster, to reach a certain elevation, or they might be added between a change in direction to make cutting directional changes less likely (i.e. stairs instead of switch backs, perhaps a “step back” or “switch stairs”). Some landscapes and property lines, not to mention the impatience of users,* may not allow the luxury of longer trails to reach the same change in elevation that stairs can provide. There are more examples of where steps could be necessary, but I’ll leave it there for now. In my opinion stairs belong in buildings, and of course trails that are too steep for their own good.

*The impatience of users to get up or down the mountain is a hard one to guesstimate, and can make or break the success of steps or a trail with little to no steps. Some questions might help decide if steps are right on your trails: how fit are the intended users on average, what is the history of the trail or area, are most of the trails in the area steep, is it a reroute, repair, or new trail, how far is the destination or intersection, how front or back country deep is the trail, how easy is it to cut switchbacks or walk off trail to go around gargoyles, how rocky is the landscape- will rock steps fit, can local rocks be used, are wooden steps a better option?

Those questions aside, there has NEVER been a time when I have not heard complaints from hikers while building stairs or overhearing hiker conversation where they lament or hate steps. I have been thanked for sure for putting in steps, but it feels like the majority of people would rather not see steps on trails or perhaps use them. Maybe some of the thank yous were only people being polite. In the end I personally hate steps in nature or at least things that look like steps rather than a scramble or what looks like a scree slope or natural rock jumble of lucky random landings and hand holds where users can traverse to the next section of benching. On the objective side of things, if the trail is over 15% for sustained distances steps or check step water bars might be useful, on the subjective side how the rise, run and character are employed can make a difference in how trail users engage and feel about them.

Trail Steps

Step Dimensions

My subjective perspective starts with a question of how to get away from the house or building look, mainly the monotony of these standards:

  • Typical Building code standards in the US usually fall within these ranges:
    • Rise: 4-7.5 inches, usually ~7, usually not more than 7.75
    • Rise uniformity: usually very if not exactly uniform (ADA), or not much more than 3/8″ variation!
    • Run: 10-12 inches (11 in. minimum ADA)
    • Rise+Run usually 17-18 inches (longer runs for shorter rises)
    • Landings: typically not less than 3 ft long
    • Width: 34-36 inches, usually 36, 44 for emergency exit steps

Admittedly a lack of uniformity, especially in rises, can be a tripping hazard. How do we step away from uniformity in rises and keep them safe(r)? The simple answer is keep rises close, but vary runs and widths. I assume the research is out there on riser differences, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that if the standards or tone is set early, say the bottom or top of a flight that rises will change, then people will not be lulled into a 7-8 inch rhythm. My assumption is that switching from a straight 7, 7, 7… rhythm to 7, 7, 7, 9, 7… etc. is gong to trip people up, but if they know from the outset to be cognizant of variability or the changes are made so visible that it is obvious then tripping will be less likely. Another question I have beyond the mechanics of the 7 inch-ish rhythm, is have we been conditioned to non-variability because that is the standard, or the expectation is that is that steps are a rigid time signature due to the standards we are so familiar with? I don’t know the answer, but I’m intrigued. A simple work around is to have uniform flight sets, say all 8 rises, then change to an all 10 etc.. However, I’m not sure this provides the unorthodox rugged back country rule breaking I’d prefer. Getting away with variability in the front country is harder, especially when the paradigm has been set and ingrained.  

Step Labor

Stairs can be a construction time suck, and for most people walking they are sucky to go up or down being that they demand a lot from our bodies to go up or down. The time suck is in actuality a money suck for those paying for them, and perhaps a profit motive for the builders as time is money. There is also a gatekeeping aspect to steps as it takes a particular set of tools and know how to build (and repair) steps versus cut a benched trail and clean out some drains. Those things make steps an ethical dilemma of sorts. Save people money and reduce profits, or not. Worker injuries are also more likely with step construction as rocks might need rigging, and handling heavy objects and dealing with silica dust and high impact repetitive motions are real concerns. Overall I assume the carbon footprint in calories/inch rise is much higher for steps than a trail alone, especially if splitting rocks. I can’t speak to wooden steps here, but would think it changes depending on the design of those steps. Repairs might be slightly easier depending on the circumstances. Beyond that, steps on trails feel and look less natural than a trail with no stairs (to my eyes anyway), but it’s not like switchbacks are ideal either, especially if walls are needed.

Despite the suck, when done well steps can sometimes be pleasant look at if they “fit,” but I still beg to differ if they are ever pleasant to walk up or down. Depending on how close the stone or timber is to the build location, and how fast the installers are, it is usually more efficient (and perhaps more pleasant for users) to cut new trail rather than install stairs. To elaborate on the time suck, imagine 3 steps at 7 inches high (actually 4 if you count the base step, and who knows how many step edge gargoyles 2-3 or 6-8?). Three steps at a 7 inch rise each is a 21 inch rise. Depending on the landings or runs, lets assume 12 inches deep each in this case, it’s 3 feet of trail length. It could be as little as 4 hours to set and crush the steps and gargoyles into place if a skilled person could be so lucky as to have the resources close by on a narrow trail, otherwise it could be 1-2 full days of labor. Again, I can’t speak to all wooden step options, but I assume it is a tad faster than stone steps. Regardless, the same 21 inch rise requires about 22 feet of trail at a comfortable 8% grade (21 inch rise = 1.75 ft/0.08 = 21.875 feet run, but the trail is the hypotenuse so it is 21.94 ft, not much different than the run because the angle and distance is small in this instance). That 22 feet of trail could, in most instances, be cut faster than installing those three steps and a base, maybe 1 hour with an excavator, maybe half a day by hand if duff and rock removal is needed, not a full day. Further, cleaning a grade reversal or deberming a trail is easier than resetting a loose step or gargoyle…or replacing the hair you pulled out because people walked around your art project all for naught. It’s not that labor and repair costs should be the deciding factor of trail vs. steps, but certainly worth stepping back and thinking about before going a route that most people seem to not want anyway.

One benefit steps can bring is to serve as a means to keep an unsustainable trail layout open with hardening rather than rerouting it to untouched habitat. Steps could be a temporary or long term solution if no reroutes will likely occur.

Stepping Away From The Paradigm

I can think of no better example of a paradigm than steps on trails, or at least the apparent archetype that I would like to escape, where everything is x inches high, y inches deep, and z inches wide, rigid repetitious standards rather than organic haphazard nature shapes, or rhythms really. One problem with stepping away from uniformity is camouflaging the steps so that it’s hard to tell where the trail is, or where it starts again if it happens to be out of sight.

Ramps and sloped paving with a few landings is a perfectly feasible alternative to the paradigm. Paving is still labor intensive, but less than steps I think. So is no steps at all, imagine that. The rise issue is perhaps the biggest hurdle, or steps are themselves hurdles for many both physically and mentally.

One other problem I have with steps is that I want to see more trails open to bikes and adaptive wheelchairs. Not that steps will stop bikes, but it does raise a number of issues and the likelihood of trail conversions from hiking only to multi-use because people might fall for the sunk cost fallacy, that resources and time went into this or that staircase so we can’t open this trail or reroute past all that work. Sometimes it’s time to just walk away and start over, step forward and rise above the past to land on new ground for more people. That said, one way to dissuade bikes, at least from going up hiking only trails is to add steps, not the best solution, but it can help. Nevertheless, riding down steps is easy and sometimes more fun than trails without built in hucks. Modern suspension makes step rises almost trivial, and e-bikes could certainly climb some steps without a problem. Short 3-5 step flights can be easily scaled by pedal bikes if riders have the skills and run to do it. Consider these issues if a hiking only trail is near mountain biking trails. There’s one argument for changing those rises and sometimes making cumbersome scramble type rises that step away from the standards. Of course the best bet is to make the trails bikes are on so engaging (and long enough) that the hiking only trails are not worth the effort for most.

I may expand this page at a later date because there is more to say about steps, but for now I have these to offer:

  • front-country-to-back-country-steps-14-methods
  • trail-step-calculatorv2
  • US Forest Service Trail structures drawings
  • California State Parks, Trail Steps Chapter 17
  • Best practices (my perspective):
    • Try not to put steps in first.
    • Contrary to this post’s title, try to put steps “in” trails, not “on” them. In other words, try not to let them float above the slope too much- this is especially important if not going up the fall line as when setting steps on a sideslope the outside/downslope gargoyles could require massive stones or a crib wall, so opt for setting them on fall line if you can, or be prepared to dig a whole lot to make them fit in, otherwise it’s wall or big stone time. Walls or crib stairs add to the time/money suck.
    • Pay attention to slope grades as to avoid digging too deep of floating above too high. The ideal hill slope will match the average step slope rise/run, aim for that to minimize digging and floating.
    • In my opinion, if you must do “set on top” over “set behind” steps save set on top for the top step/s as it is easier to repair set behind stair stones than set on top, but ultimately repairs or resetting is practically like starting over.
    • Monitor grades carefully, and consider this when choosing stone rise/over run to match the grade.
    • Remeasure the top step rise goal after each 2-3 stairs as to not under or over shoot the goal.
    • Add some 5, 6, and 7 inch stairs aiming for about a 10 inch max rise because walking up a flight of more than four to five 8 inch rises can be painful for some- up or down. It also takes away the rigid repetitive nature and building or city look.
    • Constant 8 inch rises and constant widths look mechanical and more unnatural than variety. Walking on them is also monotonous drudgery.
    • Shoot for 12 inch or larger landings/runs, but variety is also nice here, of course all this is dependent on where they are being put and for what user group.
    • If someone fell down the stairs, how many feet would they fall before stopping? Somewhat unknown of course, but assuming they fall down the case how long before they stop on their face? Consider some landings for rest intervals, and possible accidents. Falling down 20 stairs could really hurt someone, maybe kill them.
    • More points of contact between each step and gargoyle is more better.
    • If a landing has to be sloped, slope it left or right or forward, not back, as to avoid puddles and ice.
    • Clean the leaves off in winter and spring, because it’s ugly, and sometimes slippery.
  • This is sort of worth a view: the stair event
step calculator
Step and bridge span estimates PDF;
Trail step estimates Excel Document
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