Difference between highway:path and highway:footway for hiking trails

I’ve been collecting a lot of GPS logs for hikes I’ve done in the SE region of Queensland Australia, and I’m interested in updating/refining the data on OSM for the walks I’ve done.

However I’m not totally sure how I should tag them. Can someone firm up for me the difference between a ‘footway’ and a ‘path’? The OSM/wiki page on Hiking trails says to use footway for trails in an ‘urban environment’. Does this mean concreted paths? Council-built mangrove boardwalks? As opposed to National Park hiking paths maintained by a government body? Like, typical dirt tracks?

I understand this difference might not be exceptionally clear cut, but I just want to make sure before I go retagging a bunch of back-country trails that are (I presume) inappropriately marked using the ‘urban’ version highway:footway.


As you noted, this has not been clear. The JOSM presets have made it a bit clearer to me.

footway is normally used for a sidewalk or dirt trail where bicycles are disallowed
path is used for everything else: paved / dirt where bicycles may also exist, specified by ‘bicycle=designated’ , ‘foot=designated’ tags.

‘track’ is most frequently used for 4-wheeled, single-vehicle width roads.

Here in Germany highway=track are designated agricultural or forest roads (closed for normal traffic, open for pedestrians, bicycle and commercial vehicles).

Footways are footpaths that are planned and maintained by a city government.

Paths are footpaths that are neither planned nor maintained.

All footways are also paths: path is a broader category of ways that also includes, for example, cycleways and bridleways.
If a path is dedicated for pedestrian traffic, then you can use the more specific category “footway”.

No information about width, surface, urbanity, etc., can reliably be extracted from the choice of either path or footway. The tags were not originally defined to have any of those meanings, and there is no really consistent usage that would allow inferring that information. If you want to represent any knowledge of that kind, you should add additional tags instead of relying on the relatively fuzzy definition of highway values like “footway”.

This comes up often. Good post by Tordanik. A little history and information which will hopefully provide some insight:

In countries like the UK, specifically in England and Wales but not so much in Scotland, paths have different legal statuses. This is often true in other places of course. Originally in OSM highway=footway was used to represent public footpaths, a legally protected public right of way. But it was also used for canal towpaths, urban paths with no legal right of way and various other things. It was a workhorse tag.

A problem presents itself, however, if you want to do the traditional kind of Ordnance Survey-style map with different rendering styles for public rights of way. Technically speaking the Ordnance Survey include a note on their maps saying that the indication of a legal right of way on their maps should not be taken as proof of a right of way. But nearly always these renderings do indeed show a public footpath or other public right of way and as such are very useful for walking in the countryside.

To allow for this, and for routing, various tags were invented. access=yes/no/permissive and foot=yes along with every other imaginable *=yes/no/permissive for vehicles and animals etc. The trouble is that this doesn’t nearly provide for the complexities of the UK public rights of way, or other countries rights of way for that matter. Also these tags began to be used more as routing hints and notes on the de facto state of access and accessibility rather than as guidelines on legality of access.

So some UK mappers, including myself, began using highway=path for all those little paths that have no legal status plus the various access keys to provide routing hints and so forth.

Then a new tag was developed - designation. Some people aren’t keen on this at all but I like it a lot. It’s simple - one tag, one value and all the legal access rights become clear. Then the access keys are free to be what they have been mainly used for anyway: notes on accessibility and therefore routing hints.

However highway=path is now essentially defunct, because you can use highway=footway or highway=cycleway with an appropriate designation tag if it’s a legal right of way and various access keys, such as bicycle= or foot=permissive to record the de facto accessibility.

But the world is not going to end if you use highway=path. It’s just a rather semantically void tag.

I’ve been pondering a similar question, again for the UK. But what I am trying to determine is how to differentiate between a footpath that is an extension of the pavement (sidewalk) but does not run parallel to the road and a footpath that is merely a right of way across a field.

To be more specific I have come across a new estate where all the roads are cul-de-sacs (dead ends) which are linked by paved footpaths. Outside of this area there is a network of public footpaths which are unpaved tracks across or around fields. While both are footpaths they are obviously quite different and I would push a pram along one but not the other.

Is there any difference in the required tagging?


surface=unpaved / dirt / grass / gravel / …

Yep, what cartinus has said and remember to tag the public rights of way with the appropriate designation.