A beginner’s guide to rights of way and access law

Can you tell a bridleway from a BOAT? Do you know what that pink patch on your map means? And is it really impossible to commit trespass in Scotland? Find out all of this and more with our handy guide.

A man walking towards a gate

What is a right of way?

Whether a stony track, a grassy field- crossing or an alley between houses, a right of way is a path that anyone has the legal right to use on foot – and sometimes using other modes of transport.

There are four types of right of way in England and Wales: 

  • Public footpaths are just for use by pedestrians, although you can have a ‘natural accompaniment’. This 19th-century legal term describes anything a person might usually walk with: a dog, pram or suitcase, for example.
  • Public bridleways, or bridle paths, may be used by people on horseback or leading horses, and (since 1968) by cyclists, as well as walkers. Cyclists must give way to pedestrians and horse riders. 
  • Restricted byways have similar rules to bridleways, but you can also take a horse and carriage along them. 
  • Byways open to all traffic (BOATs) are paths accessible to cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles, but generally used like a bridleway or restricted byway.

Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are allowed on any right of way. Bear in mind, however, that sometimes the surface may not be wheel-friendly, and that stiles or kissing gates could make access difficult.

All these rights of way are part of the Queen’s highway in law. They have the same legal protections as trunk roads and your local high street.

Are there other types of path? 

While out walking, you may also use: 

  • Permissive paths, which a landowner has given the public permission to use. These are not rights of way, and many are closed for one day a year to prevent them legally becoming such through continuous use.
  • Towpaths alongside canals and rivers. Some are rights of way, but walkers are often welcome even on those that aren’t. Most are permissive paths managed by the Canal & River Trust.
  • Cycle tracks – these designated routes for cyclists and other non-motorised transport are sometimes also shared with pedestrians.
A signpost showing three paths, beside a fence and stile

What are my rights as a walker on a public right of way?

By law in England and Wales, you are allowed to:

  • Pass and repass along the way.
  • Stop for a short break to rest, have refreshments or enjoy the view.
  • Take photographs.

Does Scotland have rights of way? 

Access law in Scotland is far more progressive than in England and Wales. Walkers enjoy rights of access to most land and inland water, thanks to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Ramblers Scotland staff and volunteers campaigned for years to secure these world-leading access rights.

Ramblers (and cyclists, horse riders and canoeists) can cross or spend time on most land and inland water throughout Scotland, provided they do so responsibly. There’s guidance on responsible access in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which has three main principles: 

  • Respect the interests of other people.  
  • Care for the environment. 
  • Take responsibility for your own actions.

Such broad access means rights of way are less relevant in Scotland. They’re still useful where access rights don’t apply though, such as farmyards or urban alleys.

Sounds great. Are there any downsides to this approach?

Scottish rights of way have different legal protection to those in England and Wales, and sadly many have been lost over the years to building development, farming or overgrowth. Without the same protection, paths are also less likely to be mapped than in England and Wales. Even many core paths and other popular routes don’t appear on Ordnance Survey (OS) maps. 

When the Land Reform Act was introduced, Scottish authorities had to designate a network of core paths to give the public ‘reasonable access’. There are around 21,000km/13,050 miles of these (generally the most well-used paths), but this is only around a quarter of Scotland’s path network.

To address this issue, Ramblers Scotland is developing the most comprehensive digital map of Scottish paths ever. The Scottish Paths Map shows tens of thousands of miles of paths, including many missing from OS maps. More than 200 volunteers are expanding and refining the map data, which will be free for people to download.

Is there anywhere in England or Wales that I’m free to roam in the same way?

Generally, you can’t roam freely in the countryside in England or Wales; you must stick to public rights of way (of which there are 225,000km/140,0000 miles to explore). There are, however, areas of open access land, including most mountain, moor, heath, down and common land and large parts of our national parks. Some woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission and National Nature Reserves managed by Natural England also have open access, and the England Coast Path project is adding further access along the English coastline. Open access land is marked on OS maps with a yellow wash. You can also walk anywhere in the coastal margin, shown with a magenta wash.

A Thames Path waymarker on a post with two people walking behind

What can I do on open access land?

Open access land in England and Wales is designated for recreation on foot. You can walk, run, climb, bird watch and picnic (just take your rubbish home). You may also walk a dog, although you must keep it on a short lead near livestock, and canine access may be restricted between 1 March and 31 July.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW Act) prohibits activities that could damage the land. This means no horse riding or cycling, camping or lighting fires, water sports, shooting, foraging or flower-picking, metal detecting, organised games or commercial activities.

What are landowners’ responsibilities?

Most rights of way in England and Wales cross land belonging to a landowner. We often imagine a farmer, aristocrat or charitable body such as the National Trust – but utility and water companies, councils, the Ministry of Defence, Network Rail, churches, schools and universities, corporations and the Crown Estate are also major landowners.

No matter whose land it is, if there’s a right of way across it, the landowner must:

  • Keep the path clear of obstructions (eg overgrown vegetation, locked gates and broken stiles). 
  • Remake the path after ploughing or cropping.
  • Provide and maintain structures for access (eg gates or stiles).

In addition, they shouldn’t:

  • Keep a lone adult bull, or other dangerous animal, in a field with a path through it.
  • Install stiles or gates without permission from the highway authority.
  • Plough a field-edge path.
  • Put up misleading or off-putting signs.
  • Attempt to discourage walkers from using public paths.

A "no entry" sign with barbed wire

Do landowners in Scotland have the same responsibilities?

In Scotland, the Land Reform Act requires landowners and managers to:

  • Respect access rights in managing land and water (eg not hindering or deterring people, and taking access into account when planning management tasks).
  • Act reasonably when asking people to avoid land management operations (eg keeping their precautions to the minimum area and duration required for people’s safety).
  • Work with the local authority and other bodies to help integrate access and land management (eg show people are welcome and manage access positively).

What is trespassing?

Someone who strays from a right of way in England or Wales, or uses it other than for passing and repassing, is committing trespass against the landowner. Cyclists and horse riders commit trespass if they use footpaths without permission.

North of the border, there are places where Scotland’s broad access rights don’t apply, such as airfields and school grounds. But as long as a rambler in these places is acting responsibly and doesn‘t cause damage, they are not committing an offence.

In fact, throughout most of England, Wales and Scotland trespass is a civil matter, not a criminal offence. If someone walks off a footpath it’s not generally a problem unless they are on Ministry of Defence or railway land or cause damage. Signs saying ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ are, therefore, largely meaningless.

What if I come across an obstruction while walking?

An obstruction is anything that interferes with your right to access or travel along a path. This could be barbed wire across it, a heap of manure dumped on it, crops grown over it, or a locked gate blocking it. Or, as one rights of way manager found, a giant cuddly toy!

If you come across an obstruction on a right of way in England or Wales, the law permits you to move or remove as much as is necessary to continue your journey. Alternatively, go around the obstruction if you can do so easily without entering the neighbour’s land. Return to the public path as soon as you can.

Under the Highways Act 1980, it’s illegal to block a right of way in England or Wales, so always report obstructions to the relevant highway authority (usually the county council or unitary authority). Take photos, note the date and time, and record the location accurately to help them tackle the problem.

In Scotland, local authorities and National Park authorities have a duty to remove obstructions. You should report any blocked paths, locked gates and intimidatory signage to the local access officer.

Overgrown brambles and branches are not normally treated as obstructions but as a path maintenance issue. Again, contact the highway authority or access officer to report them.

What other responsibilities do highway authorities have?

In England and Wales, the highway authority must erect and maintain signposts wherever rights of way leave a ‘metalled road’ (ie one with a hard, smooth surface). They must also provide waymarking where it would otherwise be difficult to follow the route.

Highway authorities can create, divert or extinguish public paths and have a duty to maintain and update the definitive map of paths in their area. In Scotland, access authorities have a duty and powers to remove obstructions and create a core paths plan.

What if a path isn’t shown as a right of way on the map?

In England and Wales, a path can be claimed as a right of way either because it has been used uninterrupted by the public for more than 20 years, or because of historical evidence a public path exists (sometimes both!).

In 2020, as part of our Don’t Lose Your Way campaign, Ramblers volunteers and the general public found over 49,000 miles of paths that have potentially been missed off definitive maps. We have been prioritising these paths and developing resources and guidance to support volunteers to get the most important ones back on the map.

The recent announcement that the UK government intends to repeal the 2026 date for recording these paths in England is a fantastic victory for walkers (the deadline is already set to be scrapped in Wales). Without an arbitrary deadline, we can ensure more of these vital paths are legally protected for generations of walkers to come.

Want to know more?

Check out our pages on Rights of Way and Scottish access law.