Mapping Britain's paths in OpenStreetMap

Public footpath near Charlton Kings Common, Gloucestershire

Public footpath near Charlton Kings Common, Gloucestershire

Britain's brilliant paths

Britain has thousands of miles of public footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways. This wonderful network of paths lets people explore the countryside, exercise, or just take shortcuts through towns, cities and villages.

By paths, I mean public rights of way which have developed through many years of regular use. These paths enjoy many of the same protections as roads. Everyone has the right to walk on these paths. On bridleways, you can cycle or ride a horse too.

Sometimes it's misleading to refer to these rights of way as paths, because many are just rights of way, i.e. a right to walk to pass along a particular route. Often there is no visible path or track on the land, but nevertheless "path" is still commonly used.

Just how many of these paths are there?

A lot. In England alone there are at least 117,000 miles (188,000 km)! In my adoptive home of Gloucestershire, there are 3,509 miles (5,647 km) of public rights of way. That's more than the entire road network (excluding trunk roads and motorways) in Gloucestershire, which stands at 3,200 miles.

Sometimes it's hard to really grasp and understand such long distances. Natural England is currently working on England Coast Path, a 2,700 mile public path around all of England's coast. Once completed, this path, hailed by the National Trust as "the most significant rights of way project for a generation", will become the longest national trail in Britain, and the world's longest continuous coastal path.

The path network in Gloucestershire alone is around 30% longer than the entire coastline of England—and that's particularly striking when you consider that several of the already open sections of England Coast Path follow rivers and estuaries miles inland.

Why are these paths so important?

These paths developed over many years when walking was the main (or only) form of transport for many people. Many of us now live increasingly sedentary lifestyles, with serious consequences for our health. There's overwhelming evidence that walking is a good form of exercise, with many benefits.

It's about more than just exercise too. It's about rediscovering simple pleasures by connecting with your local area and community, admiring the scenery and spotting wildlife.

Public footpath on Selsley Common, near Stroud, Gloucestershire

Public footpath on Selsley Common (part of the Cotswold Way national trail), near Stroud, Gloucestershire


Many of these footpaths, bridleways and byways aren't properly mapped, even on Ordnance Survey maps.

In England and Wales, local authorities are responsible for producing a "definitive map" with details of all public rights of way in their areas. Through my experience in Gloucestershire I've realised that although legally definitive, the definitive map often doesn't match what's on the ground. Many of the rights of way shown are in slightly different places on the ground. Often, only a handful of points are used to represent paths, removing curves and bends.

If rights of way can't be found, they won't be used. If they aren't used, they may well get overgrown and eventually disappear. We have a responsibility to help maintain this fantastic resource for now and generations to come.

Mapping rights of way in OpenStreetMap

As an open mapping project, OpenStreetMap is the perfect place to map public rights of way.

I use the Android version of OsmAnd, an OpenStreetMap-based map app, for finding public footpaths to survey.

I've ended up with a way of mapping public rights of way which suits me, but it isn't the easiest to set up. You might find it easier to use Nick Whitelegg's Map the Paths site to find rights of way which aren't on OpenStreetMap.

Here's a summary of how I map:

  1. I downloaded all public rights of way in Gloucestershire from Rowmaps. I split the huge KML file into several smaller GPX files, each containing only one type of right of way (footpaths in one file, bridleways in another, ...).
  2. I copied the GPX files to OsmAnd's tracks directory on my phone, and configured OsmAnd to display them.
  3. Now I can clearly see all public rights of way near me, colour-coded. Zooming in lets me see which ones aren't on OpenStreetMap, so I target my surveying and editing appropriately.

Some more details

Getting council right of way data

If your council has released its public right of way data, it's probably on Rowmaps—check and download the KML data.

Split the data and convert it to GPX

OsmAnd doesn't support KML files, so you need to convert the files to GPX. It's a good idea to split the files into multiple smaller ones too, particularly if your phone isn't very powerful.

You can use my Perl script,, to split the KML files from Rowmaps into smaller files, which you can then convert to GPX using GPS Visualizer or other tools.

I recommend adding colours to your GPX files. See instructions in the embedded documentation for

Copy the GPX files to your phone

There are several ways to do this: either directly from your computer (with your phone connected via USB), or using a cloud hosting service such as Dropbox.

Make sure you put the files in OsmAnd's tracks directory. If you're using an SD card, the full path will be Android/data/

Display the GPX files in OsmAnd

Select "My Places" from the main menu, and then select the "Tracks" tab. Tap the three dots button next to the track you want to show, and select "Show on map".

If everything goes according to plan, you should end up with lots of additional lines shown on your map:

OsmAnd showing GPX data representing public rights of way

OsmAnd showing GPX data representing public rights of way

As you can see, in this area around the village of Apperley, Gloucestershire, there are still plenty of rights of way to add to the map.

This screenshot also shows how useful colour-coding is. Public footpaths are shown in purple, and bridleways are shown in red.

Start surveying!

Start simple. Find a short, preferably completely straight unmapped path near you. Ideally the path should cross flat, open land and should have no buildings alongside it. This will help you get an accurate GPS trace.

Here's the first path I added to OpenStreetMap:

    footpath marker on Queenwood Grove

Public footpath marker on Queenwood Grove for the first path I added to OpenStreetMap

    footpath between Queenwood Grove and Mill Lane

Public footpath between Queenwood Grove and Mill Lane

    footpath between Queenwood Grove and Mill Lane

Another view of the path, taken on a different day

It's a short (about 100 metres) path running between two lanes on the edge of Prestbury on the outskirts of Cheltenham. This path appears on out of copyright Ordnance Survey maps from over 100 years ago:

Old Ordnance Survey map of the Prestbury area, 1888-1913

Ordnance Survey Six Inch map (1888-1913) showing the public footpath I added to OpenStreetMap (image courtesy of National Library of Scotland)

Even adding short paths like this greatly improves the map. It reduces unpleasant and potentially dangerous walking along roads, and can help provide better routes.

What would the people who surveyed this path so long ago think about the state of mapping today? In those days it would have been unthinkable that we could carry detailed maps for the entire world in our pocket, and quickly pinpoint our location almost anywhere on earth's surface to within 5 metres.

Once you start building confidence, you can tackle more complex paths. Walking the same path multiple times is good, and often it's helpful to map "spine" paths first, and then map the "spurs" or paths going off them.

Adding paths to OpenStreetMap

Remember to set the designation tag for your paths.

An important point...

You might be tempted to somehow import council public right of way data into OpenStreetMap directly. Even if the license allowed this (maybe it does, but I'm no lawyer), this is a bad idea, for several reasons:

Ground surveys are essential. That shouldn't fill you with dread. So many interesting places are just waiting to be discovered, and it's a great opportunity to improve your fitness, health and happiness, as well as to help others! Join in!

Path near Prescott, Gloucestershire

Public footpath near Prescott, Gloucestershire