Coastal and hydraulic structures, such as revetments, embankments and leveesas well as their underlying soilmay experience piping when exposed to outward pressure gradients. The aim of the present study is twofold: (1) to derive the force-balance equation for soils with a sloping surface exposed to a steady hydraulic gradient (relevant to hydraulic structures) and to seek a criterion for piping, including the friction terms; (2) to study the case of unsteady hydraulic gradient forcing (relevant to coastal structures) by means of a series of experiments. The derived force-balance equation is compared with the available experimental and numerical model data from the literature and extended to soils protected by a filter/armour layer or rip rap. The experiments conducted to study the mechanism of piping under unsteady hydraulic gradients involved two types of loadings; sudden and oscillatory. The results show that although the mechanism of steady and unsteady piping has some similar aspects, the soil is generally more prone to piping in the unsteady hydraulic loading compared to the steady case, attributed to the inertia terms. The hydraulic conductivity of the soil becomes more distinctive for the unsteady piping case. Finally, remarks are made about practical applications.