Spaced poplar (Populus spp.) trees are used widely in New Zealand for soil conservation on erodible pastoral hill country. Their root distribution in this environment, and factors that affect it, are poorly understood. Robust recommendations on effective tree spacing depend on knowledge of root systems. This study determined the effect of tree density, position between trees, and soil depth (0–90 cm) on root number, root diameter distribution, root area ratio (RAR), and cross sectional area per root for young trees on slopes. Data were collected for lateral roots using trenches. Greater than 80% of roots were < 5 mm diameter and root attributes were highest in shallow soil. Trees at 770 stems per hectare (sph) had 3–12 times more roots and 3–9 times greater RAR than those at densities of ≤ 237 sph, representative of most tree-pasture systems. Mean cross sectional area per root was similar across densities. Positions close to trees had twice as many roots (46 vs. 23/m2) and RAR (109 vs. 52 mm2/m2) as positions midway between trees. The study provided quantitative understanding of variation in root distribution with tree density and information useful for supporting and strengthening recommendations on densities for effective erosion control.