Mapping Trails Across the Country

The OpenStreetMap US Trails Stewardship Initiative is a collaboration of government, volunteer, and private sector stakeholders working to address issues in trail mapping, outdoor recreation, and public land management.

by American Trails Staff

As hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts in the United States (US) have come to rely on mobile applications to navigate our public lands, visitors can be led to dangerous or environmentally sensitive areas when these apps include unofficial and unmaintained trails. Many navigation applications pull this trail data from multiple sources and rely heavily on OpenStreetMap (OSM) data.

OSM is an open database of geospatial information. For park trails to render in the desired way, they must be accurately tagged so that renderers can decide which trails to show or not show, and which trails to emphasize or de-emphasize. This OSM presentation, Mapping a Path to Digital Democracy, gives a brief example of how data is presented using OSM tags. 

Marking trails a certain way in OSM should not be seen as an alternative to physically marking trail access rules on the ground.

Why mapping is needed

On September 22, 2021, Keri Nelson, a backcountry coordinator for the National Park Service (NPS) presented a "Mappy Hour" presentation titled "Trails in OpenStreetMap". The presentation described the damages that have resulted from visitors hiking through backcountry areas and sensitive sites outside of designated hiking trails. Backcountry enthusiasts have used maps and apps sourced from OSM data to find and navigate trails in National Parks and public lands not designated as part of the park's managed trail system and not listed on official maps.

1. Closed/unmarked trails rendering the same as or more strongly than official/managed trails. On several OSM-based maps and/or hiking apps, examples were cited in which closed, illegal, or non-existing trails were rendered the same as, or more prominently than the marked trail system managed by the NPS. This created an expectation amongst park visitors that these trails were of a similar access and character to other trails in the park.

Non-official trails in Canyonlands National Park 

2. Trails marked in locations where there is no trail. In some cases, trails were marked in locations where there was no trail physically on the ground. In the photo below, a route terminates at a steep canyon wall; a mapper had marked a trail up the canyon wall face where no trail exists.

Trail marked along a steep scramble where no trail exists

3. Social trails mapped to posted dangerous areas or off-limits sensitive sites with illegal access. Of particular concern to the NPS are that hikers have created "social trails" to sensitive sites and mapped these on OSM. This has encouraged other hikers to follow these trails, causing damage to the important locations.

Hikers illegally accessing sensitive sites via "social" trails

Regulating traffic is one of the main Land Manager's methods to ensure the safety of visitors, environment protection, or owner's privacy. In reality, this task can only be achieved in full coordination with all involved parties. In an ideal case, 1) Land Managers ensure appropriate physical marking of trails and provide information about access restrictions. This in turn serves as information for 2) OSM members for correct tagging of the digital paths. These data are then used by 3) App developers to inform app users about the accessibility of certain areas or provide routing that avoids restricted trails. Land managers can afterward evaluate visitors' behavior and adjust the restrictive marking and devices, which triggers another round of this cyclic process.

The Trails Stewardship Initiative

OSM's US Trails Stewardship Initiative is a collaboration of government, volunteer, and private sector stakeholders working to address issues in trail mapping, outdoor recreation, and public land management. The Initiative aims to:

  • Improve EQUITABLE ACCESS to trails for all citizens
  • Increase SAFETY for outdoor enthusiasts on public lands
  • Promote RESPONSIBLE RECREATION for the protection of our natural environment and out of respect for tribal and private lands

The Trails Stewardship Initiative is a project of OSM US focused on improving OSM trail data quality in support of responsible recreation. Pilot campaigns have shown the need to improve trail mapping workflows. OpenTrailMap is a prototype tool built to help mappers easily visualize and validate trail data. In the future, OpenTrailMap could close the loop between mappers and trail managers, allowing users to view, edit, download, and comment on OSM trail data.

The popularity of outdoor navigation apps has overwhelmed agency-produced maps showing authorized trails. Because many of the most popular outdoor apps use OSM data to inform their maps, OSM US, a national nonprofit organization, formed the Trails Working Group in December 2021 to address the environmental and safety issues by improving the data detail associated with trails, such as public access and trail ownership. Over the past year, the OSM US Trails Working Group has successfully:  

  • Convened stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of challenges and needs;  
  • Created data schema (also known as tagging for OSM users) and rendering guidelines for land managers, app developers, and OSM community members;  
  • Piloted the data schema in varied trail systems in Washington state to see how the data schema affects the rendering of trails on public maps. View results in this article. 

Members of the working group include representatives from the OSM US volunteer mapping community; land management agencies including the NPS, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Geological Survey; and companies that develop navigational apps, including AllTrails and Gaia GPS.  

Pilot objectives

The next phase of the collaboration was a pilot project to thoroughly map tags in test areas to see how this affects the rendering of trails.

Three different spaces in Washington were selected: one in a national park, one in a wilderness area, and one incorporating urban areas and parks. These areas were chosen because there are many different trail systems and types of trails that could call for varied rendering styles. Working group participants were familiar with these spaces from differing perspectives (as mappers, land managers, and recreationists). Their local knowledge in assessing the outcomes of the tagging in such a nuanced and diverse area could provide input on how the schema was working.

Before and after images of how trails are rendered on various platforms will be taken, also capturing the data added to OSM. The idea is to see what the results would be of a complete mapping campaign in an area in how the trails appear and are rendered. Some navigational app companies already have rendering rules in place that we feel will immediately improve the maps when trails are fully tagged. 

Utah mapping campaign

To address how applications use and visualize OSM trail data, the Trails Stewardship Initiative is bringing together volunteer mappers, land managers, and app developers to improve trail data in OSM across the state of Utah. Through these efforts, navigation apps will be able to better display OSM trail data, improve equitable access to the outdoors, and trail users’ ability to engage in responsible recreation and protect our natural world.

Utah is just the start of this journey. The Trail Stewardship Initiative will improve and maintain trail data across the United States. Through collaboration with key stakeholders, we’re building:

  • A THRIVING NATIONAL NETWORK of digital trail stewards to maintain open trail data in the US
  • Effective TOOLS AND RESOURCES that enable land managers, agencies, community advocates, and OSM contributors to work together on trail safety, equitable access, and responsible recreation
  • A stable and collaborative PARTNER COLLECTIVE of private sector companies, government agencies, and engaged citizens to ensure the long-term impact of the Initiative

The next phase of the Trails Stewardship Initiative will feature a second pilot that expands to include additional geographic areas and stakeholder groups, and planning for the launch of a National Trail Mapping Campaign. We would love to involve more local land managers, indigenous perspectives, outdoor clubs, local mappers and trail-goers as this project moves forward.

Learn more in this Advancing Trails Webinar

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