My outdoor stairway has been very slippery this winter. I've regularly removed most of the snow and ice, but the last thin (and almost invisible) layer of ice covering the stone steps has been difficult to remove, making it at times dangerous for some of my guests...

I've been wondering what would be best to avoid my guests slipping on this thin layer of ice: sand (gravel), salt or sawdust. I haven't used sand because I considered it unpleasant to bring in "dirt" with the shoes, and I'm not so fond of using salt because I think it might not be so pleasant for my cat (but that might not be correct?), and sawdust is something I never even considered, before reading about it in the newspaper the other day. It said sawdust is efficient, and durable, but is it "dirty"?

Does anyone have a rational (and convincing) reason for why one single of these alternatives should be chosen before the others?

2 Answers 2


Sand - small granular particles of insoluble stone. It is a mechanical means to keep your grip as it is hard, and cannot be compressed under your weight. It pits the less hard surface of the ice giving traction. It is useful under all temperature extremes. Avoid fine beach sand in favour of large grain sharp sand.

Salt - small granular particles of soluble calcium chloride or potassium chloride. It is a partly mechanical means and chemical means to keep your grip as it remains hard until it dissolves. After it dissolves, it melts the ice so that it can flow away to leave the surface wet but not icy. It is useful until the temperature falls below —3°C (28°F) when even salt water begins to freeze. The concentration of the salt is a factor. The more concentrated the salt the lower the temperature it is effective until you reach —15°C where it becomes ineffective no matter the concentration. It's too cold to dissolve the ice and it sits on top of the ice layer. Salt is corrosive and can cause some staining which will wash away with fresh/rain water. It will become problematic with adjacent lawn or gardens.

Wood chips - small salt-treated chips of wood from saw cuttings or milling. Coarse flakes provide some mechanical means of traction. As it is crushed in use, it becomes slightly less efficient over time. It is good for traction down to —30°C (—22°F) The biggest benefit is that it is organic and will degrade naturally into mulch. Magnesium chloride is coated on the chips to increase the effectiveness of the stuff. It is more costly than plain salt but it covers a greater area for a longer time in colder temperatures.

Other things to consider are good old Kitty Litter (like sand), Ashes which are also biodegradable, and neither is so corrosive as salt or treated wood chips.

None of the above I would consider "dirty" but I think that all would qualify as messy to clean up.

I hope this helps with your decision which to use.

  • Thanks Stan. I actually tried using fine sand once, for a Christmas party, fearing that guests might slip on the transparent layer of thin ice. But the sand didn't sink into the ice and made it just as slippery, the foot 'rolling' on the sand on top of the ice. If I had had more coarse sand (gravel) it might have worked, but I haven't tried that. I have previously tried salt, with success, but I didn't have it at hand for this occasion, and I didn't know of sawdust/wood chips. So I actually laid a thin red carpet on my staircase (used previously in my wedding!), and that worked fine! Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 6:06
  • I think I will try the magnesium chloride coated wood chips. Sounds like something that could work. Winter is almost over now (in Oslo), but I'll try it for next winter. Does anybody have actual experience sprinkling wood chips on their outdoor concrete staircase? Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 6:13
  • I have used a combination of salt (of the kind used in the kitchen) and fine sand (of the kind used in bird cages) to get the area around the front door usable by the old lady next door. If you have bath salt around that will work as well, or better, as it is bigger and gives grip by itself. OP asked for one alternative but I say it worked very well with two readily available ones.
    – Willeke
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 9:00
  • A hose should be able to wash the salt away, so I wouldn't call that messy to clean up, unless the temperature is below freezing. If it's below freezing, the hose water might freeze and create more ice, but there wouldn't be much of a point in removing the salt in the first place.
    – John Locke
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 16:37

If it's just a problem for you* or for a specific guest or two, I recommend Yak Trax (yaktrax.com, or REI, or Amazon) - they're like traction-slippers you can add to any shoe.

In winter, I normally have a pair clipped to my bag, so I can add them if I encounter an icy patch. Mine are neon orange so I can find them easily, but they also are in black and other colors if you need to look more professional. I got mine over 10 years ago, and they're still great!

*I assume you use your stairs more than anyone else?

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