rambling, hiking and walking on footpaths and trails

We went for a walk with the neighbo(u)rs, and we saw this sign.


The sign reads "Permissive Footpath avoiding Golf Course", and all the adults in our group (2 English, 1 Spanish, 1 American) found the sign amusing. Jokes about what kinds of permissive activities we might find on the path (or that we might find the path doing) resulted, as well as a conversation about what the sign meant and whether it could have been phrased better.

You can tell from this that we're not seasoned country walkers, we're just lockdown people finding new ways to get some exercise. The term permissive footpath is a term of art in the British land-use bureaucracy, and such signs can be found on many paths. It differs from a public footpath in that the land is privately owned. The landowner is permitting people to walk on their path. This explanation of the term offers other expressions like permitted footpath and concessionary footpath, but these seem to be much less common, and we would not have been able to joke as much about them. (For those puzzled by our amusement: permissive usually means 'characteri{s/z}ed by great freedom of behavio(u)r', which can include 'sexually liberated'.)

So, permissive footpath is not something you'd see in AmE, but that's because there's a lot different about leisurely country walks in the two countries. And this is why this post has taken a couple of weeks to write...

walking verbs

Let's start by mentioning (it has come up on the blog before) that to hike is usually considered an Americanism, in the sense that it's widespread and "standard" in American English, but it's only ever been a dialect word in the UK. The OED cites an 1825 dictionary of west-of-England dialects as one of its earliest sources for it.

While it's been coming back to the UK, all of its senses were more common in AmE first, for example the noun use as in go for a hike and the more figurative use in hike up a price. Some of the figurative uses seem more common in BrE corpora now, though. You can see the change in this Google ngram for price hike, where the red line indicates the phrase in AmE books and the blue in BrE. It looks like the kind of pattern you'd see with parents and slang...they start using the word when the kids are already moving on to a new one, then carry on using it at a higher rate than those who made it up.


In BrE, those who hike as a regular pastime are often referred to as ramblers, but it's far more common to talk about walking than rambling. (Rambling and Rambler tend to be used in the names of walking clubs, such as the Essex Area Ramblers, who are responsible for the website that taught me about permissive paths.) Of course, English-speakers everywhere use the verb to walk. But for me (at least) what's different is that I have a town/country divide in my AmE: If I'm walking around town for leisure, I'm going for a walk. If I go out of town to walk (on less even terrain, taking more care with my footwear and supplies), I'm going hiking.  Or maybe it's better characteri{s/z}ed as: if I'm on a paved path/road or the beach, I'm on a walk, and if I'm on less even terrain (fields, woods, mountains, deserts), I'm on a hike.

footpaths/trails/ways

In its broadest use, any way that's made for walking is a path or a footpath, but the word footpath is much more common in BrE than in AmE. A footpath can be urban or rural, but is usually distinguished from the (BrE) pavement/(AmE) sidewalk by being narrower, unpaved, or not running parallel to the road. For instance, a marked "public footpath" in my mother-in-law's suburb is a paved path between houses that let people take a shortcut to the (BrE) railway station, but the "permissive footpath" above is a (AmE in this use) dirt path through a wooded area.

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Path and pathway are a normal things to call places where people can walk in either country. The GloWBE corpus has a bit more path in AmE than BrE, but I'm not going to to through and find out how many of them refer to the PATH (Port Authority-Trans Hudson) trains in New York. Pathway is about the same in both.


For places to hike, trail is more common in AmE. This is again difficult to do a corpus chart for, because there are lots of other uses of trail (what a snail leaves, a trail of clues, etc.).  (It originally referred to things that trailed behind, like the train of a dress or coat.) But if we look at which words occur before trail in the two countries, we can see a real tendency for trails to be walking places. Many of these relate to names of famous places to hike, such as the Appalachian Trail

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In AmE I'd use trail as a common noun to talk generally about hiking paths. I've just asked the English spouse whether he'd use trail to refer to some of the English ones we know, and he says "No, that's American. That's why we don't understand trail mix.  According to the OED, this sense of trail is:

A path or track worn by the passage of persons travelling in a wild or uninhabited region; a beaten track, a rude path. (Chiefly U.S. and Canadian; also New Zealand and Australian.)


The US has a National Trails System, established in 1968, which includes Scenic Trails and Historic Trails, all of which have Trail in their name. (See the link for the list.)  England and Wales now also have something called National Trails, but that was only founded in 2005, and does look like a case of UK government borrowing an American idea with its language. Most of the "long-distance footpaths" included in the National Trails are named Way: the Cotswold Way, the Pennine Way, the South Downs Way. Some are called Path, e.g. Thames Path, Hadrian's Wall Path. None are called trails.

Scotland has Scotland's Great Trails, formerly known as Long Distance Routes. The rebranding seems to have happened sometime in the past 10 years. Unlike England's National Trails, some are actually named trail, and those names seem to pre-date the national rebranding, raising the question of whether this sense of trail is longer-standing in Scotland.

It's not uncommon to find commonalities between Scotland or Ireland and the US—not necessarily because of more recent Scottish/Irish immigration to the US than English immigration. The similarities can be there if the meaning was formerly widespread in English English, but then went out of fashion in England. However, the OED only has examples of this sense of trail since 1807, which makes it more likely that it might have started in the US and been fed back to the UK. Hard to know without much more work than I can put into this!

Related posts

I've written some other posts that cover related concepts to these ones. If you have comments about those terms, please comment at those posts, where it will be much more useful to their readers.


33 comments

  1. My own sense of BrE is that 'hike' is not uncommon in its literal sense, but usually means a pretty long or challenging walk. So it sounds odd to me when US friends describe a walk on the Downs as a hike, though it would strike me as quite natural to describe going up a Lake District fell or Scottish mountain. Not at all scientific, though.

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    1. I agree - if a Brit told me of a long and strenuous walk, I might say 'that was quite a hike!' - a long and tedious walk would be referred to a 'quite a trek'.

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    2. Agree with the Brit commenters here. On a spare day at conference in Seattle a few years ago, I took a ferry out to Bainbridge Island, where 'hiking trails' were signposted with those stick and rucksack icons. I looked at my unsuitable footwear (trainers) and thought I could always turn back if the going got rough. However the 'hike' turned out to be a gentle 0.75 mile woodland walk, with barely a slope, ending up behind a row of suburban gardens.

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    3. Its the same in Australia - We also only use hike for a very difficult walk. A walk up a steep mountain would be a hike while we would rarely use the term for a leisurely easy walk through the countryside.

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  2. I remember coming across "Permissive footpath" for the first time, probably not long after I moved to Guildford about 25 years ago. I'd never come across is on country walks before. And as I grew up in the sixties with its talk of the permissive society, it amused me, too.

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  3. Your younger readers may not know about the "permissive society", or the awful warnings about "permissiveness" in the 60s. I associate the concept particularly with Mary Whitehouse, who protested about any allusion to sexual activity in the broadcast media. The objection was to society "permitting" things that ought to be forbidden.

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  4. I would agree with Michael. If I'm wearing boots and carrying a rucksack it's a hike, otherwise a walk.

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  5. Does anyone know when the phrase 'permissive footpath' first appeared? I used to go hiking on/at weekends when I was at the Univ of Sussex from 1978 to 1981, but I don't remember seeing such signs back then. Then I left the UK in 1983.

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  6. When in England it sounded to this US person as "poooblick foootpawth"

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    1. That's interesting, since "pooblick" (i.e. with the vowel of "put") would suggest you were in the North of England, while "pawth" (which I presume indicates the vowel of "FATH-er") would suggest the South.

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  7. I’m surprised to hear that New Zealand has trails; I would call that sort of thing a track or walking track, especially in proper nouns like the Heaphy Track or Milford Track. Such tracks are used for tramping or hiking, while shorter ones that don’t need special equipment would be for walking. I’m not aware of a distinction like a permissive footpath, though a lot of walks and tracks cross farmland, and might have signs closing the track or asking trampers to take extra care during lambing. (Such tracks might be in the wop-wops, the back of beyond, or the middle of nowhere.)

    Meanwhile, a footpath in NZ is the same thing as a sidewalk or pavement.

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    1. I am also surprised that the OED said trail was used in New Zealand. Track or bushwalk feels more familiar. Generally you tramp on a track.

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    2. That was my feeling too

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  8. I'm surprised to hear you say that hike has "only ever been a dialect word in the UK". At least one place I have definitely come across the word is in a children's book called "The Ragtail Patrol", about Girl Guides, published in 1948. I don't have a copy to hand, but I clearly remember the line "We're going for a hike, not an amble". There is also the Enid Blyton book "Five on a Hike Together" (1951), although that encompasses a few days, not just a single walk in the country. But in neither place did the word strike me (Australian child of the 1970s) as unusual, which suggests it may have been a relatively common term in mid-20th-century British children's books.

    Here in Australia, we would say "bushwalk". And I would tend to say "path", or maybe "track" rather then "footpath" or "trail" if I'm talking about an unpaved path through the bush - to me, "footpath" difinitely implies urban placement. But then I'm not a bushwalker, so can't really be relied upon for correct terminology.

    We do talk about the Kokoda Track, or Kokoda Trail, a key location for Australian soldiers in New Guinea during the Second World War. There is an article at https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/the-kokoda-track-or-trail looking at the arguments as to which term is preferred, including an examination of recorded usage in the day.

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  9. Like Michael Morris (and being British), I think that "a hike" means something more adventurous than "a walk". However, I always say I'm walking, even when "hiking" might be justified. I became much fonder of the word "hike" after reading the excellent "Sheep Take a Hike" by Nancy Shaw and Margot Apple.

    For me, "rambling" does have connotations of organised walking groups, and suggests a gentle enjoyment of the countryside rather than an attempt to see how many muddy kilometres can be covered in a day. It feels a little old-fashioned. (But that's an outsider's view - I've never set out to go rambling.)

    Permissive paths are relatively recent, and their point is that the permission can be rescinded by the landowner, whereas the more common rights of way (which are also usually on privately-owned land) give a statutory right of access. (In Scotland, permissive paths aren't generally needed, as walkers have much stronger rights of access in general.) Rights of way are either footpaths or bridleways; the latter can be used by horse riders, as you'd expect, and also by cyclists.

    I only encountered "Scotland's Great Trails" recently, and it seemed a slightly embarrassing and grandiose bit of labeling. But then, they are absolutely superb.

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  10. Hike sounds like hard work. I prefer to walk. Here people may go hiking, but they probably don't hike. It has already been mentioned, but in New Zealand they go tramping in the forest. I would guess it has a Scottish origin.

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  11. The OED entry is from 1914, so it can't be taken as a guide to current usage, particularly in the colonies. It seems to me that the sense you quote (9a) is an easy semantic shift from 8a, "The track or other indication, as scent, left by a person or animal, esp. as followed by a huntsman or hound, or by any pursuer." The citations for this sense include false trail in Hamlet and stale trail in 1887 (fairly close to the date of publication).

    There are places in NYC where the sidewalk has a small metal sign embedded in it saying "Property of So-and-so. Revocable permission to cross." This is clearly the same idea; it usually appears where the building is supported on columns and there is open space beneath it.

    Private land in the U.S. is basically "No Trespassing" except where marked otherwise, but this is somewhat offset by the 40% of the land area that is public land (either federal or state owned), which is in general open for all recreational purposes (hiking, hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, etc.) that do not interfere with its other purposes. Alaska in the North and Nevada in the West are about 95% public land, whereas 18 states are less than 10%. However, much of it is leased for such purposes as grazing, forestry, oil and gas drilling, and mining for coal and minerals; in the West it's common for a landowner to have a small piece of private land and a large lease of adjacent public land. In addition, the foreshore, the area between high and low tide mark, is public property in the U.S., England, and Scotland, but not in Shetland (at least according to the Shetlanders, who hold that Norse law is preserved in this respect).

    Hike is the Northern variant of Southern hitch 'pull with a jerk'. I can hitch up my pants (trousers) or hitch my belt; is that still current across the Pond?

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  12. BrE (Scot). I hear the word “trail” used to refer to short pieces of video/film used to advertise a film or tv programme (sorry, still can’t say “show”). However, I would be more likely to use “trailer” in this context. Having followed the link above to the post on “walking sticks”, at least one response talks about “trekking”. Incidentally, following one of the other links (I think back to 2013), David Crosbie used the term “herd immunity” rather whimsically.

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  13. It looks like in 'path and pathway' that 'to to through' is a typo.

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  14. Although "permissive footpath" is a new phrase to me, it goes back to the nineteenth century. It's found from 1846 in England, and the phrase also appears in an 1882 court case in Pennsylvania.

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  15. AFAIK "hitchhiking" is the usual name for hitchhiking throughout the Anglosphere; some BrE probably hyphenate it. Dunno about relative frequency of "hitching" with out the "hike".

    In Ireland:
    * The most common form of rural walking/hiking is called "hillwalking". Lowland off-road public rights-of-way are scarce. The right-to-roam lobby is much weaker than the private-property/farmers' lobby.
    * A sidewalk/pavement is simply called a "footpath" (as are other types of footpath).
    * The most common word in proper names of marked trails is "Way" [e.g. "Dingle Way, Wicklow Way"]

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  16. Lynne refers in the piece to "...a dirt path through a wooded area..."
    I don't know if this is an AmE v BrE difference or not, but that use of the word 'dirt' sounds odd to my Southern English ears.
    To me, 'dirt' can only refer to out-of-place substances whose presence makes something 'dirty'.
    Soft ground isn't made of 'dirt' - it's made of 'soil' (or, if wet, 'mud')... but I can't refer to a *'soil path'.
    In fact, strangely, my ideolect seems to lack any term for what Lynne calls a 'dirt path', other than 'unpaved'... which is rather unsatisfactory, as it says what it isn't, rather than what it is!
    My father, who grew up in Millom in the North-West of England, did have such a term, however, and a rather evocative one: to him, an unpaved track was 'a mucky lonnin'.

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    1. Dirt path sounds OK to my English ears, but I do read a lot of stuff written in the US.

      This brought to mind "dirt track racing". motor racing on an unsurfaced course, which Wikipedia says started in America but came to the UK. I have memories of watching it on Saturday afternoon sports programmes like Grandstand back in the sixties.

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    2. Yes, dirt path does sound very American, and I noticed it when I read the post. I think "unpaved footpath" is good.

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    3. In my family's local woodland, the paths (some public, others not) are known as "rides" even when they are not bridleways - there is at least one bridleway, up which you may ride a horse; this is not permitted on the public footpaths.

      For me, hiking conjures up keen youth with rucksacks and shorts and socks! Probably organised, and certainly not a solitary activity. And one trails round after someone if one is not keen to be there - a child trails round after its mother in the shops!

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    4. Yes, I was so intent on not using 'footpath' or 'trail' in defining the things that I lost track of what the modifying word was doing. Will mark it. Thanks.

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  17. One thing that has become quite popular in many American cities and towns are "greenways", which can be paved, gravel, or dirt. They are specifically built for recreational walking, jogging, biking, etc.

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  19. We have a village war over a permissive footpath, and my understanding of it is this: It's available to the public at the will of the landowner, and that can be withdrawn at any time. The reason for the local war is that many people believe that the landowner wants to divert people onto the permissive path, let the public footpath go unused (it's closer to their house and annoys them), and then ask to have it closed because it's not used. At which point, they could withdraw their permission to use the path they've been diverting people onto.

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  20. This was an interesting post. As someone involved in recording footpaths and bridleways in England and Wales (E&W) (the law is different in Scotland and Northern Ireland) I noted several points.
    (1) Public footpaths often run across privately-owned land in E&W. The word 'public' here indicates that it is a public right of footpath (i.e. to pass and repass on foot). In E&W law, the term 'footpath' refers to the right not to the physical track.
    (2) A permissive footpath (which I hadn't associated with the 'permissive society' before, but will be sure to make a joke out of it now) relates to the fact that the landowner can withdraw his permission to use the route (a noted in Ellen Hawley's comment) - it is a permission (hence 'permissive') rather than a right.
    (3) The strip by the side of a carriageway that is (mainly) for walkers (i.e. the (UK) pavement or (US) sidewalk) is never a 'footpath'. Instead it is a 'footway', although the public seem to use the two interchangeably.
    (4) We have regional and temporal variations - look for Foot Roads and Bridle Roads on old maps and in some parts of the country.

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  21. Thank you! Having lived in Cumbria for a while (as a language assistant), and now meddling with so many American friends, I am often at a loss as to which term is really the British one.
    Plus I also have many Nordic friends -- who speak American English...!
    Thank you also for the comments, everybody!

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)