The purpose of the present study was to evaluate locomotor strategies during development in domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus); we were motivated, in part, by current efforts to improve the design of housing systems for laying hens which aim to reduce injury and over-exertion. Using four strains of laying hens (Lohmann Brown, Lohmann LSL lite, Dekalb White and Hyline Brown) throughout this longitudinal study, we investigated their locomotor style and climbing capacity in relation to the degree (0 to 70°) of incline, age (2 to 36 weeks) and the surface substrate (sandpaper or wire grid). Chicks and adult fowl performed only walking behavior to climb inclines ⩽40° and performed a combination of wing-assisted incline running (WAIR) or aerial ascent on steeper inclines. Fewer birds used their wings to aid their hind limbs when climbing 50° inclines on wire grid surface compared with sandpaper. The steepness of angle achieved during WAIR and the tendency to fly instead of using WAIR increased with increasing age and experience. White-feathered strains performed more wing-associated locomotor behavior compared with brown-feathered strains. A subset of birds was never able to climb incline angles >40° even when using WAIR. Therefore, we suggest that inclines of up to 40° should be provided for hens in three-dimensional housing systems, which are easily negotiated (without wing use) by chicks and adult fowl.