How to plan a walking route with OS Maps 2023

If you’ve just searched for how to plan a walking route on Google maps,

You’re using the wrong mapping tool!

Google Maps is great if you want to find a supermarket, desperately need a loaf of sourdough bread, or fancy booking a holiday cottage.

But Google Maps is really pants for planning walking routes.


Because, although Google Maps can get you to your location, and help you find a loo. It doesn’t show you the type of information you need when you are actually on your walk.

What sort of information?

The sort of information you get on a good paper map.

(Yes, that is a Clanger. She comes on lots of walks with me!)

Copyright Fi Darby Freelance

Finding your way outside is a lot about knowing what to expect. If you don’t know where the hills, footpaths and bridges are, how can you plan a walking route that’s going to work? And how can you know that you are where you think you are?

That makes sense.

I know. You can do all of this route planning with a paper map (navigation is a great skill to learn) but OS Maps can be really helpful. Some people say its the best walking route planner out there. If you’re used to working with Ordnance Survey paper maps, you’ll love it. If you’re new to planning walking routes online, you’ll soon pick things up.

What about all those map symbols though?

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Don’t panic!!

The map symbols won’t take as long to learn as you think, and you don’t need to understand all of them to plan a walk. If you do get stuck, OS Maps has the map legend (list of symbols) right there for you. You find in in the top right hand menu on both the web and mobile versions.

Remember to choose the legend for the right map and map scale scale (see below), lots of symbols are the same between different scale maps but there are a few important differences.

Where can I use OS Maps?

We’re looking at how to plan a walking route in the UK today but rather excitingly the new 2022 version of OS Maps also allows you to plan routes in Australia or New Zealand. The map above shows Ben Lomond my first mountain summit outside the UK.

Distraction warning!

Don’t expect the same level of map detail from the Australia and New Zealand maps as you do from the UK ones. If you’ve ever travelled, you’ll know how lucky we are to have such excellent mapping data available here in the UK.

Update September 2022: You can now also use OS Maps to do your adventure research for trips to the USA! 

2023 update: You can now use OS Maps to navigate your way around Northern Ireland. Don’t expect exactly the same map symbols you’re used to on Ordnance Survey’s British maps but you will be able to zoom into a 1:25,000 scale, which is perfect for walkers. Take a look at the Mourne Mountains if you want to sample a few contour lines. Then see if you can spot the map symbol for a stile.

Very useful with all those walls.

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

If you look hard enough, you might also find a few creature comforts on your Northern Ireland OS Map. Super handy if you’re travelling around would be the laundry, showers and filling stations. And if you want to scuba dive or canoe, well they have symbols for that too.

How to plan a walking route to follow on OS Maps

2023 update: The OS Maps snap-to-path tool is now available with detailed mapping across Great Britain (that doesn’t include Northern Ireland). If you’ve used it before, there are some changes. If it’s new to you, give it a go, it can be really useful when you’re plotting routes. How to use snap-to-path in OS Maps.

1. Open up the web version of OS Maps

OS Maps comes in a mobile and a web version. Whilst it is possible to plan walking routes on the mobile version, I rarely do. It’s far easier to do this on a bigger screen at home, where planning your next adventure provides a good opportunity to get excited about it.

Just as a note here. I always advocate taking a paper map with you as a backup should your phone fail. Mobiles don’t like rain and cold weather so it’s best to be prepared, you never know when you might need to make that emergency call!

2. Sign into your OS Maps account

If you’re wondering if you can get OS Maps for free, the answer is yes. You can use OS Maps without an account but you won’t be able to access some of the extra features, or the Premium Mapping (which you need to plan decent walking routes). A year’s premium subscription to OS Maps gives you access to downloadable and printable maps across the UK, Australia, New Zealand and now the USA. It currently costs £28.99 (September 2022).

If you buy a new paper OS Explorer map of an area, it will have a code that will give you free access to that area’s premium mapping on OS Maps. If you want to try this type of route planning, this might be a good option to start with.

3. Type your start point into the search bar

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Be careful with this bit. OS Maps isn’t quite as clever at reading your mind as Google Maps so it’s worth checking you’re not heading for Aberdeen Close in Cornwall instead of Aberdeen the city in Scotland.

The new 2022 version of OS Maps does a fancy zoom into your chosen location. This might make things a bit slower than you’re used but it also makes it easier to spot the type of errors above. 

4. Choose your map scale

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Open the hidden menu (bottom right), under Map Types, select Premium Topo. You have a choice then to switch to Aerial View and between different map scales.

Don’t panic!!

Lots of people do panic about map scales but they’re simple once you understand them. Just as with a paper map, a 1:25,000 map scale gives you the right amount of detail to plan a walk but won’t show an enormous area.

On OS Maps I usually opt for Auto Zoom here, which switches from one scale to the other as I zoom in and out. If you’re not used to the different map symbols on each scale, you might like to choose Lock 1:25K.

5. Start plotting your route in OS Maps

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Under the top right menu select Routes then Create Route.  (or click ‘Create Route‘ on the top white menu bar). We’re learning how to plan walks on OS Maps here so choose Walk/Hike (you can decide to run later if you like). Click on your starting point, then your next waypoint to start plotting your route.

One thing OS Maps can’t do yet is make sure you stay on the right type of route for your transport. For example, the yellow coloured land you often see in a National Park is open access land. You’re allowed to walk anywhere on it but you can only cycle or ride a horse on bridleways.

On land that isn’t access land (coloured white) you need to stick to footpaths and bridleways if you want to walk off the roads or lanes. Access is a bit complicated, and there are different access regulations in Scotland but there is plenty of access in the UK. We are very lucky compared to some countries.

6. Using the OS Maps route plotting tool bar

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Whilst you’re plotting your route, you can move the map around by clicking and dragging.

Don’t be surprised if you accidentally put in unexpected waypoints when you first start, the Undo Tool and the Remove Tool will deal easily enough with those.

The Style Tool allows you to change the size, colour and transparency of your route line (particularly useful if you don’t want to hide the map features underneath).

On the Premium Topo maps the Snap Tool will snap your route to suggested helpful paths if you are planning a walking route in one of our fifteen beautiful National Parks.

You can turn snapping off by clicking the Snap Tool if you want to but I would only recommend doing so if you know an area well. Incidentally, the new version of OS Maps also allows you to use the Snap Tool outside National Parks but only if you’re using a Standard Map.

Detailed instructions on how to use snap to path in OS Maps 2023

7. Tips to create a great OS Maps walking route

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Great walks usually result from great route planning so it’s important to bear a few things in mind while you’re planning your walking route. Nobody wants to end up on an unexpected route march. Luckily OS Maps has taken a lot of the hard work out of this (but you’re still going to have to do the walking yourself). I recommend thinking about.

How long you want to walk for. As you plot your OS Maps walking route you’ll see the walk distance and duration in the left hand menu. This route has made the duration calculation based on a walking rate of 4 km per hour. This is an accepted average but you can change it by going to My Preferences then Speed Calculation.

How much you want to walk uphill. The views from the top of a hill can be rewarding but it’s important to remember that an uphill walk will take longer than a flat one. Look out for the brown contour lines on your map. If they are close together, they show a steep hill. Helpfully, OS Maps shows your elevation profile as you plot (just click the arrow next to Elevation). Even better than that, it adjusts the duration calculation to account for the hills.

What sort of terrain you want to walk on. This is a tricky one because, although the green lines on a 1:25,000 scale map show public rights of way, these aren’t always actual paths. Look out for dotted lines showing tracks, and use the Aerial View in the Map Types menu (bottom left) to spot obvious routes.

How wet you want your feet to get. As a general rule avoid crossing open land that has lots of blue (water) markers. If your route crosses rivers and streams, you’ll want to look out for footbridges (FB) or fords (Ford) to make sure you can cross safely. Be aware that rivers rise fast after wet weather. Fords can quickly become submerged but so can some bridges.

Whether or not you want to fall over a cliff. Sticking to footpaths should help you avoid this but it also pays to avoid areas with vertical cliffs or scree slopes. That’s where your Map Legend comes in (top right menu). If you don’t understand a map symbol, look it up. That way you can avoid any unpleasant mistakes.

8. Adding waypoint information in OS Maps

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If someone’s told you about something interesting or important to look out for, you might want to add that information to one of the waypoints along your walking route. Just click on the waypoint, and you’ll see the Description Box pop up. You can also add additional waypoints along your route, all you need to do is click on the line.

9. Using overlays for route planning in OS Maps

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You can plan a walking route without using the Map Overlays in OS Maps but they do add an interesting level of additional information. The Greenspace Overlay is brilliant for urban walks, have a look at your local area to see if there are any green spaces you haven’t yet explored. On the map above you can see the Hackney Marshes Nature Reserve highlighted in transparent green.

The National Cycle Network overlay (white numbers inside red squares) shows the routes and numbers for the UK’s network of signed walking, wheeling and cycling routes. If you’re walking with family, or want a simple route to follow, these could be really useful. For example, National Cycling Route 28 shown on the map gives you a safe route across the A38 (somewhere you definitely wouldn’t want to walk).

The National Park Pathways overlay shows the routes that the Snap Tool would use if you have it selected. If you prefer creating your own OS Maps walking routes, this might be useful. It’s certainly interesting.

10. Saving your OS Maps walking route

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Once you’re happy with your new walking route, all you need to do is click the Save button down in the bottom left-hand corner of the Route Menu.

Add a sensible Route name to help you find it in the future. You can add a Route description now or later once you’ve finished your walk. The Technical Difficulty slider will be different for everyone so think of your own ability before choosing. If you want your route to be available for the public to try, you can click Everyone but I don’t usually do this until I’ve walked a route myself.

Update 2023: One thing you might like to do before you start your walk is use the OS Maps app to visualise all the ups and downs of your route. All you need to do is click on the 3D button, and all those contour lines will form into the shape of the hills and valleys. Below you can see the mountains and plateaus of my winter trip on the West Highland Railway over Rannoch Moor.

Copyright Ordnance Survey 2023

11. Walking your new route using OS Maps

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Once you’ve saved your route, you can find it again in the Routes Menu (right hand side) under My Routes. At this point you can export a file for your external GPX device (if you have one), edit your route using Modify Route, visualise your route with an exciting 3D Fly Through, or Share it with friends.

Just a note here if. As a woman I don’t really worry about being outdoors, and I do often walk alone, I tend not to share walk plans online before I set off. I do however, give my route to one trusted person so that someone knows where to find me if I don’t show up on time.

It’s time to go for a walk!

To do this you need to make sure the OS Maps app is downloaded onto your mobile device. You can get OS Maps for Android or OS Maps for Apple.

Once you’ve signed into the OS Maps app on your mobile device, you’ll find your saved route under Menu – My routes and maps – Routes. Click on it, then on the small arrow at the bottom right of the screen. This will give you a few options, you’ll have seen some before on the web version.

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Download map. It makes sense to do this as you don’t know whether or not you will have access to online information as you walk (my experience suggests probably not). You can always delete the map from your phone once you’ve finished your walk.

Start route. This is the exciting part. You can now follow your OS Maps walking route on your phone as you walk. Having said that, if you’re heading into open countryside, it’s important to have a paper map with you as backup. This can be printed from OS Maps if you like.

Update 2023: Printing a map from OS Maps used to be a touch clunky but it is now easier to check before you print with the more immediate preview.

Remember that your phone could also be your main source of help in an emergency. Keep plenty of battery available, and keep it warm and dry.

Update 2023: Another new addition to OS Maps I think is really helpful to newer walkers is the addition of direction arrows to your walking route. See the white arrows on the purple line below? Now you never need to worry about which direction to turn next.

Copyright OS Maps 2023
Copyright Fi Darby Freelance 2022

So now you’re an expert when it comes to plotting a walking route on OS Maps. Well not quite but all you need is a bit of practice.

And some hours out walking!

That’s right! Any walking route is only as good as the testing process you’ve put it through. So it’s time to put on those walking boots, shove your waterproofs into your rucksack, and get yourself out into that lovely fresh air.

It doesn’t matter where you walk.

In fact, I suggest plotting your first walking route on OS Maps in an area you know well. That way it won’t matter if things go a bit wrong.

But they won’t! You’ve got this covered!


5 fun ways to use your route-planning app

Get in touch today for expert route research and planning

It could rightly be said that, as an outdoor writer living in Devon, Fi is ideally situated. With two National Parks, the South West Coast Path, and amazing adventure opportunities on her doorstep, she has plenty to offer her growing portfolio of outdoor clients.

By adding walking routes to your hospitality business website you’ll be offering that added level of encouragement prospective clients need. Not only that, walking routes are often searched for online, and most of us walkers enjoy a hearty meal and a comfy bed at the end of the day.

Get in touch today to find out how Fi’s outdoor writing can give your online publication the boost it needs.

Adventures by Train

Walking or cycling routes from train stations




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