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). 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.

Trail Steps

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, and perhaps they also feel and look less natural than a trail with no stairs. However, when done well they can be pleasant look at sometimes if they “fit”, but I still beg to differ if they are ever pleasant to walk up. 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. Imagine 3 steps at 7 inches high (actually 4 if you count the base step, and who knows how many 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 (that’s a pun), 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. That 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 using Pythagoras theorem it’s the square root of 21.875^2+1.75^2 which 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. 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.

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

  • front-country-to-back-country-steps-13-methods
  • trail-step-calculations
  • Best practices:
    • 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.
    • In my opinion, if you must do “set on top” over “set behind” steps save it 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.
    • 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.
    • 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


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