Creating a stairway by cutting steps into a dirt slope can be a great landscaping tool. In addition, outdoor stairways make walking up hills easier and safer. With a few simple tools and a bit of preparation, you can create such a walkway in as little as an afternoon.

stair in nature garden
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How to Cut Steps Into a Dirt Slope

Preliminary Calculations for Your Stairway

Before beginning your stairway, you'll need to calculate the total height of the slope. Use a tape measure to determine the distance from the bottom of the hill to the top of the hill. Be sure the tape measure is laying flat on the ground when you take your measurements.

Next, decide how many steps you'd like to have. A standard step in the United States is 7 ¾ inches tall. Divide the height of your slope by 7 ¾ inches (or however many inches tall you've decided to make the rise of your steps). If, for instance, your slope is 77.5 inches tall and you plan to build steps of 7 ¾ inches, you will need 10 steps.

In addition, you'll need to calculate the width of each step to ensure you have adequate materials. In the United States, a standard stair is 11 inches wide. This gives most people plenty of room to rest their foot as they walk up the stairs. If you'll be abiding by this standard, you'll have to cut at least 11 inches horizontally at each step point in your slope.

Mark Your Path

To help guide you as you build your stairway, insert posts into the ground on either side of the path you plan to build at both the bottom and the top. Tie a string around each lower post and run them up the hill. There, attach the strings to the upper set of posts. This outline of your stairway will serve as a guide when you begin to dig out your stairs.

Stair Material Options

You have a variety of choices when it comes to the materials for your stairs. Your decision will depend on material cost, the aesthetic you prefer and your climate. If you live in an area that deals with harsh winters, you might consider avoiding stone steps, which can be slippery.

You can use large, flat stones or wooden planks for your steps. It's helpful to have some sort of tread like these rather than just bare earth. You may also use wood as a retaining wall to prevent erosion of your dirt steps. For instance, large retaining boards or vertical barriers against the rise of your steps may prolong the life of your stairway.

How to Dig Your Steps

Use your measuring tape to mark out the stairs you plan to dig and insert posts or boards at the edges of your stairway's outline. Always begin shoveling at the bottom of the hill. When you dig, shovel into the earth horizontally at the base of your slope so that you form a flat surface. You may first need to remove grass, weeds or loose topsoil. You'll want to dig deep enough that the soil is packed down and firm. Use a level as you go to ensure that each step is flat.

As you progress up the hill, dig approximate step shapes into the soil. You can finesse them later. If you're using retaining wall pieces along the rise of each step, add them as you go to prevent erosion or crumbling of your steps. Add tread materials last and then remove all posts and markers.