Why can't I delete this trail?
This page is a quick primer on OSM's policies regarding trails, aimed at getting your trail problem resolved as quickly as possible, with a minimum of frustration, while avoiding common pitfalls. If these are true for you, you're in the right place:
- You're a manager of, or citizen concerned about, a piece of publicly-accessible land
- You're relatively new to editing OpenStreetMap
- There's a trail on OpenStreetMap that you think shouldn't be on it, either to protect the landscape from people, to protect people from the landscape, or both.
If you've been linked here, you've probably identified a trail you think shouldn't be on the map. It probably doesn't appear on official maps of the area. It may be a social trail that appeared without the land manager planning for it. Maybe it was an official trail that has been decommissioned. Or maybe it exists only on the map, without a trace in real life. We'll handle all of those cases in this article.
To deal with this problem trail, you may have left a map note asking for a trail to be deleted. Or, you may have created a new OSM account and gone ahead and deleted it yourself. While outright deletion may seem like the best option, there are better solutions which preseve data while discouraging inappropriate trail access by data users.
What are some reasons for having ALL trails in the database?
For starters, that is what OpenStreetMap is: a database. We try to have everything that exists in reality represented. The better we describe what it is, the more third parties, such as AllTrails, Komoot, Gaia, CalTopo, and others whose maps may have brought you here can work with that information to create appropriate products such as trail maps. The goal is to describe the trail in as much detail as possible if it exists (see the section below on how to tag the trail).
One instance of an appropriate application of complete trail data is for search and rescue (SAR) teams to be able to see all the existing potential trails where an individual needing help might be located.
Additionally, many mappers map trails from aerial imagery. If a trail visible on aerial imagery is deleted, another mapper will likely come along and add the missing trail back, and likely won't know to put private access tagging on it. Instead, tagging a trail with the proper access attributes will provide a lasting record of allowable usages of the trail.
Why am I getting pushback?
As a land manager or local intimately familiar with the area in question, you may be surprised to receive followup questions, skepticism, and other forms of pushback when attempting to delete trails. This is often proportionate to the scale of deletion: removing a single shortcut trail less than 100 feet long might pass unquestioned, but removing a whole network of social trails from a park without explanation will raise some eyebrows. Common points of friction between land managers and the OSM community include:
Lack of transparency
OSM is a collaborative effort, and the community expects to understand who is making changes and why, especially when data is being deleted. Most important is writing a reasonably detailed changeset comment, a few sentences long, explaining how you know the data should be deleted, rather than another alternative. The "Sources" field in the OSM editor is a great place to link to official maps, notices, photographs, etc. to support your edits. A brief description in your OSM profile explaining who you are and any affiliations you have with the land you are editing will go a long way, as well. And please, have patience with community members who have questions about your edits. Questions just mean that the community is trying to better understand what is going on with the map.
OSM is a map of what is, not what ought to be
One of OSM's foundational principles is the "on the ground" rule. In cases where mapping is disputed, the conflict is settled in favor of the actual conditions on the ground. That means that even a dangerous or illegal trail should remain on the OSM map, provided it is recognizable as a trail to the average person looking at it in person. This does not mean we consider such trails to be equivalent to authorized trails. Rather, we have attributes to indicate trails that are dangerous or illegal as such. Apps that use OSM trail data—like AllTrails, Komoot, Gaia GPS, and Caltopo—are expected to make responsible rendering decisions based on these attributes.
Deletion can hinder collaboration
When a trail is plainly visible on-the-ground, in aerial imagery, or is a popular route, deleting it removes an opportunity to communicate with others. Deleting such a trail leaves open the possibility that a future mapper will believe the trail is missing from the map by accident, at which point they will re-map it. By using access and lifecycle tags rather than deletion, you can communicate with future mappers that the trail has been reviewed by someone familiar with the area, and that it is mapped the way it is for good reason.
Ownership of the land does not equal ownership of data about the land
Some land owners or managers have acted as though their authority over the land in question should carry over into OSM, and give them final authority over the map of that land. While the OSM community does appreciate and recognize the expertise of people who are most familiar with an area, it does not consider landowners to be the sole authority over how their land is mapped, and ownership does not override other policies such as the on-the-ground rule.
What should I do instead?
Instead of deleting these trails, it is common practice in OSM to use various tags to describe the trails' features, such as:
- access=* - For describing the legal accessibility of a feature.
- informal=*- Indicates whether the feature was intentionally planned or formally set up.
- trail_visibility=* - Classification scheme for trail visibility and way-finding skill required.
- operator:type=* - Defines the type of operator.
- ownership=*- Indicates what type of organization owns land, facility, etc.
- sac_scale=* - A difficulty rating scheme for hiking trails.
When is deletion the best course of action?
Mappers sometimes add trails that don't exist at all, for various reasons. Trails that are entirely fictional, with no tangible evidence of existence visible to the average person on the ground, in the various satellite imagery available in OSM's editors, or in other documentation, can be deleted.
What will it look like on AllTrails/Komoot/Gaia/Caltopo/OSM?
It's important to understand that OSM is a database, and different map vendors display OSM data differently. The best way to help map vendors make appropriate choices in what's shown on a map is to have accurate tagging, especially the access=* tag. When no-access tagging such as access=private is set, it tells map vendors to de-emphasize or suppress these trails from the map, and it tells turn-by-turn directions applications to avoid routing pedestrians over those trails. Be aware that changes in OSM data are not immediately reflected in most maps -- there is a periodic refresh cycle that can take a considerable amount of time to update.
How long will that take?
The time it takes for OSM-based applications to update their maps varies greatly. Some update almost immediately, and others can take months.
What if I ignore you and just delete the trail anyways? Why should I listen to you?
Trail Mapping Initiatives
- Since 2021 in the United States, there's been a strong push to get land managers more involved in understanding the data that describes their land. A comprehensive summary of these efforts, and resulting decisions, can be found at United States Trail Access Project.