Scotland’s natural and historic environment provides many opportunities for outdoor activity and attracts millions of visitors a year.

Key messages

Scotland's natural environment provides a fantastic backdrop for a wide range of outdoor recreation activities, ranging from dog walking and visiting parks to mountain biking, hillwalking, golfing and water sports. 

Benefits of visiting the outdoors

There are many benefits that can be gained from visiting the outdoors. These include:

  • Improving our health and well-being: Walking is recognised as the most cost-effective means of improving physical health. Enjoying the outdoors and participating in challenging activities can also contribute to good mental health and well-being.
  • Increasing our understanding of the natural world: Participation in outdoor recreation and activities, such as volunteering, provides opportunities for people to learn more about the natural world and to care for a resource that is valuable to the whole community. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and Cairngorms National Park and Forestry and Land Scotland are some of the environmental organisations which offer a range of volunteering opportunities. Volunteer Scotland can help people find outdoor volunteering opportunities in their area.


YouTube: National Park Volunteers - we thank you!

  • Increasing our understanding of our cultural heritage: Visits to the outdoors can help provide a sense of place and cultural identity, ensuring we can confidently pass these assets to the next generation.


    Exploring the Heart of Neolithic Orkney © Crown Copyright Historic Environment Scotland


  • It contributes to our economy: In 2012, outdoor recreation visits generated around £2.6 billion of expenditure.

    NatureScot conduct regular research measuring participation in outdoor recreation.

    Visit Scotland have a range of research resources on outdoor recreation sectors, including:


  • It promotes social inclusion - Well-planned and managed recreation facilities with links to public transport can offer opportunities for everyone.


Settings for outdoor recreation in Scotland

  • Urban green spaces - Well-designed and managed green spaces make settlements more pleasant places to live, provide space for wildlife and can encourage healthy, active lifestyles by giving people an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors close to home. Improvements in the provision and promotion of paths (especially paths close to home), is likely to play a key role in increasing recreation in urban areas in the future.


  • National Parks - Scotland’s two National Parks, the Cairngorms (established in 2003) and Loch Lomond and The Trossachs (established in 2002) offer visitors and local communities a wide variety of opportunities to enjoy our natural and cultural heritage. These include visits for sightseeing, walking, cycling, mountain biking, camping, kayaking, horse riding and visits to historic and cultural properties and sites.
  • National forest estate and other public land - The National Forest Estate in Scotland is the largest single public land resource held by the Scottish Government, comprising over 650,000 hectares and more than 9% of Scotland’s landmass.
  • Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (NNRs): Scotland's Natural Nature Reserves cover less than 1.5% of Scotland, and contain some of the very best of the country’s nature and wildlife, including habitats and species of national and international significance.
  • National Walking and Cycling Network: The National Walking and Cycling Network is an ambitious project which will expand and improve Scotland’s network of paths, trails and canal paths.


YouTube: The National Walking & Cycling network animation - NatureScot


There is currently 6,000km of paths offering active travel and recreational opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. By 2035, this extensive network of routes and connections will extend to 8,000km.


Scotland performs - National indicator

The Scottish Government National Indicator Performance shows progress against all the Scottish Government’s National Indicators, including ‘Visits to the outdoors’ and ‘Access to green and blue space’.

Source: Scottish Recreation Survey (ScRS), Scottish Household Survey (SHS)

Greenspaces for leisure and recreation

You can use this free interactive digital map to find accessible recreational and leisure greenspace anywhere in Britain – parks, public gardens, playing fields, sports areas, play spaces, allotments and community gardens.

© Copyright Ordnance Survey 2020

Core Paths Scotland

Around 21,000km of existing paths have been recorded as core paths across Scotland, these vary from tracks, paths, roadside footways to sections of minor road, but many paths are no more than isolated fragments and often include minor roads.

Access Core Paths data published by The Improvement Service, on the Scottish Spatial Data Infrastructure metadata portal.

National Cycle Network - Scotland

OS data © Crown Copyright and database right 2018 

There are approximately 2,371 miles (3,815km) of National Cycle Network routes in Scotland, including 644 miles of traffic-free routes which use a mix of railway path, canal towpath, forest road, shared-use path, segregated cycle lanes and re-determined rural footways. 41% of the Scottish population now lives within a third of a mile of a National Cycle Network route.

Find your route on the Sustrans National Cycle Network

Scotland's Great Trails

29 different routes provide over 1,900 miles of well managed paths from the Borders to the Highlands.

What are we doing?

Access rights and responsibilities

Providing and protecting recreation space

  • Scottish planning policy encourages local authorities to prepare ‘open space strategies’ to guide future provision within their areas, in particular through the planning system.
  • Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework 3 (NPF3) includes the National Walking and Cycling Network as a national development to support recreation, tourism and active travel.
  • The Central Scotland Green Network is being developed to enhance landscapes, wildlife and recreational opportunities in central Scotland.
  • Every access authority in Scotland has a core paths plan.
  • Future development of mountain biking in Scotland is being guided by the National Strategic Framework for the sustainable development of mountain biking in Scotland.
  • A programme of Green Infrastructure projects will deliver improvements to the quality, accessibility and quantity of green infrastructure in Scotland’s towns and cities.
  • The Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund supports opportunities to conserve, protect and support the nature and culture of the Highlands and Islands.
  • The Scottish Historic Environment Policy sets out Scottish ministers’ policies on issues including access to historic sites and the important recreational opportunities afforded through volunteering.

Developing good practice and managing recreation sustainably

  • Recreation can inadvertently damage the environment, and in very popular destinations visitor management may be needed to protect it.
  • The Scottish Outdoor Access Code provides information on everyone’s access rights and responsibilities in Scotland’s outdoors. Access rights in Scotland apply to most land and inland water. A series of good-practice guides offers guidance on responsible behaviour.

Scottish Outdoor Access Code

YouTube: Respect Your Park - responsible camping

YouTube: Camp fires and cooking in the Cairngorms National Park

Improving access to the countryside

  • The Fieldfare Trust’s Phototrails website allows users to look at a series of photos of countryside routes and read descriptions of path features, enabling visitors with disabilities to forward plan their visits.
  • The path grading system for Scotland helps path managers to simply, consistently and accurately describe paths to walkers, cyclists and riders, assisting path users to select a route that suits their needs.
  • Forestry and Land Scotland have published Forests for people - A strategy for access, recreation and tourism, following a major review and improvement works on accessibility to the National Forest Estate for people with a disability.


This page was added on 23 Oct 2020

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Pages we suggest

Useful contacts

Central Scotland Green Network - A national development within the National Planning Framework which aims to make ‘a significant contribution to Scotland's sustainable economic development’. It’s aim is to change the face of Central Scotland by restoring and improving the rural and urban landscape of the area.

Cycling Scotland - Working with others, to help create and deliver opportunities and an environment so anyone anywhere in Scotland can cycle easily and safely.

Green Action Trust - The Green Action Trust is the trusted delivery partner focussed on environmental and regeneration outcomes for Scotland. They work with others across Scotland to turn ideas into tangible change, to build more sustainable communities and a greener country. They plan, collaborate and deliver positive action across the country to achieve Scotland’s climate change ambitions, and are specifically responsible for the delivery of the Central Scotland Green Network Plan.

Greenspace Scotland - A social enterprise, working with a wide range of national and local partners to improve the quality of life of people living and working in urban Scotland through the planning, development and sustainable management of greenspaces as a key part of the green infrastructure of our towns and cities.

Local authorities and National Park Authorities (Cairngorms National Park Authority; Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park) - Have a key role in promoting outdoor recreation opportunities in their areas and are responsible for preparing the core path plan networks in their areas. Core paths enable and encourage members of the public to exercise their rights of access.

NatureScot - Has a responsibility for promoting understanding of the opportunities for outdoor recreation, including promotion of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Outdoor Recreation Network - Exchanging and sharing information to develop best policy and practice in recreation in the outdoors, across the UK and Ireland. They encompass all of the outdoors, from urban greenspace in towns and cities to remote, countryside and wilderness spaces across the British Isles.

Paths for all - A Scottish charity and a partnership of 28 national organisations, championing everyday walking as the way to  a happier, healthier Scotland.

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves - A number of organisations manage National Nature Reserves in Scotland. These include NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Woodland Trust and South Lanarkshire Council.

Scottish Land and Estates - Represents landowners across Scotland, demonstrating good land ownership and management, and promoting better communication and mutual understanding between land managers and those who use the countryside recreationally.

Sustrans - Scotland - Works closely with communities, the Scottish Government, local authorities and other partners to ensure that the people of Scotland have access to a network of safe walking and cycling routes; making Scotland a healthy, happy place to live, work and play, and a sustainable and beautiful tourist destination.

The Scottish Government - The government will seek to increase accessibility, education and awareness.