Unlocking the outdoors

By Elyssa Campbell-Barr & Suzanne Rodrigues

The great outdoors is vital to our national wellbeing. Convenient, safe paths and green spaces help keep us healthy, both physically and mentally. They let us go about our daily lives in the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective way. They connect us with nature, support wildlife, and can reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. No wonder 83% of people think our path network is a national asset and should be protected*.

Anyone can go for a walk – there’s no entry fee, training or special equipment required. So you might think our paths and green spaces are about as equitable as any asset can be. But look again.

In the previous issue of Walk (winter, p16) we reported on research, commissioned by the Ramblers and conducted by the New Economics Foundation in 2023, and a similar study by Ramblers Scotland, highlighting huge inequalities in people’s access to public paths. Among the startling findings were that:

• areas with fewest public paths have the worst health outcomes (indicated by heart attack prevalence)

• residents of the most affluent areas of England and Wales have 80% more local paths than those in the most deprived communities

• the most white-dominated areas have 144% more local paths than the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods

• people in the healthiest 10% of Scottish communities have nine times more local core paths than the least healthy communities.

unlocking the outdoors

Problems with paths

We also collaborated with YouGov* to find out about people’s use of paths. A quarter of survey respondents told us physical barriers prevent them travelling on paths, rising to 35% of those aged over 55.

Among people with physical and sensory disabilities (almost a fifth of the population), more than half (56%) said they face physical barriers when trying to use paths. These barriers include paths being blocked, whether on purpose (barbed wire, fly-tipping), by acts of nature (fallen trees, flooding) or through lack of maintenance (overgrown brambles, rotten footbridges). Manufactured physical barriers – stiles, steps and so on – are often a problem, too. Less obvious barriers, such as the path surface, or lack of seating or toilets, impact people with health conditions and hidden disabilities.

It’s not only disabled people who experience difficulties. From parents with pushchairs, to dog walkers, to people with medical needs, many respondents told us about path problems that prevent them from going for a walk – including:


‘My gastrointestinal condition makes it difficult to go for walks where I don't have access to bathroom facilities’

‘I have a large dog who is unable to climb over stiles’

‘I have difficulties walking on uneven surfaces’

‘I usually have my son in the pram and paths don't tend to be accessible’

‘I have bad knees, so struggle uphill and downhill’

‘If older or disabled friends want to walk with me, it’s impossible, with gates, kissing gates and brambles’

‘I can't walk far before needing to sit down because of osteoarthritis, so having more seats/benches would help me’

‘There’s no easy way to find out if paths are wheelchair accessible beforehand’


Our paths ought to be a gateway to the outdoors for as many people as possible, at all stages of life. When people can’t use paths, the impact is felt not only in an individual’s wellbeing, but also in an increased burden on our health services. We need to open the way for everyone to enjoy the outdoors without obstruction. And we need government support to do it.

So, as the general election approaches, we’re calling on the next UK government to introduce new legislation that radically improves access to nature across England. Stark inequalities exist between the most and least deprived communities when it comes to opportunities to go walking. We need a long-term strategy, backed up with new legislation and ambitious but achievable targets, to ensure everyone can access walkable green spaces.


The campaign for change

James MacColl, Ramblers head of policy, advocacy and campaigns, says: ‘With a Westminster election due in the coming year, it’s time for all parties to explain to the public how they will ensure everyone in England, no matter who they are or what their circumstances, can get outdoors and connect with nature in their daily lives.

‘It’s easy to think everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, but look deeper and you find lots of barriers. As well as physical barriers, in some cases it’s a problem of proximity. There simply aren’t enough places to walk that are close to home or accessible by public transport.’

Our own research findings, and freedom of information requests by the BBC (see p9), highlight the issue of poor-quality paths. When local authorities and landowners don’t meet their legal obligations to keep paths maintained for walkers – often because they lack funding and resources – routes can become unusable.

James continues: ‘We’re calling for a bill that unlocks the outdoors for everyone by creating new opportunities for people to connect with nature, protecting and improving existing access, and putting in place a long-term strategy to support public access for future generations.

‘Promisingly, the Labour Party has already committed to publishing an “access to nature” white paper (which is a precursor to new legislation), should it win the election. Getting the detail right will be critical in unleashing the potential of our path network.’

Land access is largely a devolved area of responsibility for Wales and Scotland, so we’re also pressing the Welsh and Scottish governments for fair funding and improved walking infrastructure. Ramblers Cymru, for example, is calling on the Welsh government to spend the equivalent of at least 10% of its active travel budget on path improvements, maintenance and public information. Path quality is a huge concern in Wales, where an estimated 50% of public paths are in poor condition.

*YouGov survey conducted online between 9 and 17 March 2023. Total sample 4,824 GB adults aged 18+ (1,745 English adults, 1,061 Welsh adults, 1,018 Scottish adults and 1,000 respondents with physical and sensory disabilities).


How we're opening the way

The Ramblers is committed to breaking down barriers that prevent people getting outdoors. For almost 90 years, we’ve helped walkers enjoy access to vast swathes of countryside – and made sure laws are in place to keep it that way. Week in, week out, volunteers and staff are working hard to make more paths accessible to more people in more places.

Herefordshire Trail_team


Improving paths

The Ramblers has 180 path-maintenance teams across Britain, including the working party pictured above from Herefordshire Ramblers, who work with the local council to improve footpaths throughout the county.

Tavistock_Wheeled Access Group


Removing barriers

Tavistock Ramblers worked with Devon County Council and South West Water to remove gates, cover tree roots and build a ramp to make the Tavistock Canal footpath more accessible to wheelchairs, mobility scooters and buggies.

Paths to wellbeing_working with schoolchildren


Inspiring communities

From 2021 to 2023, Ramblers Cymru’s Paths to Wellbeing project saw our staff and volunteers connecting with many of the most deprived communities in Wales to help people enjoy the health and wellbeing benefits of walking. We worked with all 22 Welsh local authorities (LAs), and numerous partner organisations, to create accessible routes, improve walking infrastructure, boost people’s outdoor skills and support wildlife. Over 1,600 volunteers – including retirement communities, business workers and children (like those pictured above, from Miri Meithrin’s holiday club, Denbighshire) – got involved. Several LAs have already committed to continuing this valuable work.

Out There Award 2023


Sharing skills

Ramblers Scotland’s Out There Award kick-starts young people’s journey into the outdoors. It offers basic skills training (participants in Moffat are pictured above) and an introduction to group walking, along with Ramblers membership and essential equipment. The scheme breaks down cultural and financial barriers to help people aged 18-26 from diverse backgrounds enjoy the many benefits of getting into the countryside.

Path Accessibility Fund_Romsey


Funding improvements

The Ramblers’ Path Accessibility Fund is helping us make walking routes more accessible, thanks to a generous legacy left to us in memory of a walker who struggled with stiles. The fund helped members of Romsey Ramblers (above) work with Hampshire County Council to replace ramshackle stiles with modern gates, creating circular, stile-free walks in Michelmersh.

Scottish paths_Corpach Woods


Mapping routes

More than 400 Ramblers volunteers throughout Scotland are helping create the most comprehensive map ever compiled of the nation’s walking routes. Since 2021, they’ve added more than 2,800 paths to the map, giving Scotland’s walkers an additional 2,400km/1,500 miles of routes to explore (including the woodland walk at Corpach pictured above). See ramblers.org.uk/scottishpathsmap

 Wellbeing Walks-Waltham


Getting people walking

Ramblers Wellbeing Walks help people take the first step towards better health and wellbeing in a friendly and supportive way. Hundreds of accessible Wellbeing Walks take place across England each week (such as this one in Waltham Forest, London, above), all free and starting at just ten minutes long. See ramblers.org.uk/wellbeing-walks



Saving lost ways

In 2020, with the help of thousands of supporters, we found more than 49,000 miles of paths across England and Wales that are missing from definitive maps. If not recorded, these routes could be blocked or built over, and lost forever. More than 900 volunteers are now helping us research and record these lost paths, so future generations can enjoy routes (such as the canalside path in Timperley, Greater Manchester, above).

Your Ramblers membership and ongoing support help us to continue and expand this vital work.

Problems on public paths

Problems on public paths

We’re committed to removing barriers to help everyone get out walking. Learn how to deal with any problems you encounter on your walk.

What are paths worth and who's missing out?

What are paths worth and who's missing out?

Our path network is a national treasure. It’s our gateway to the outdoors. Spreading out from towns, cities and villages, Britain’s paths connect us to one another, to nature and have a huge impact on our health and wellbeing.