Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

The Smile Path

A smile path around an area of slippery chalk. This is a seasonal example, the main path is only slippery in winter. But now that the smile path is born, many prefer it.

There is some overlap between natural navigation and the art of tracking. If we can tell where people and animals have been and the choices they have made, then we can use that information to shape our own journeys.

Natural navigators need to be sensitive to patterns and shapes in paths and tracks. Every path or track is a story. It is the condensed wisdom of those who went before us.

Many years ago I started to notice a fairly common pattern. In fact it is a different type of path, albeit a small one.

Whenever we are stopped or dissuaded from continuing on an established path, we have two choices: we can turn back the way we came or we can find a way around the problem. We can forge a new route.

If we circumnavigate an obstacle, we will leave marks in the ground and others may choose to follow this. After a few more have copied this diversion, a new path is born. It is normally shaped with a gentle curve, hence the name ‘smile path’.

Smile paths are often temporary or seasonal.

Common reasons for smile paths include:

We avoid wet, muddy or boggy areas. 

We go around new obstacles like fallen trees. 

We get around deliberate obstacles like gates. 

We overtake people on congested paths in cities.

We don’t like things that jut out.

We don’t like walking under things eg, overhanging branches in the country or ladders in cities.

We don’t like walking too close to other people eg. park benches.

We are now avoiding others on paths altogether, because of Covid, and this is creating totally new examples.

Smile paths can be thought of as relatives of desire paths. In some ways smile paths tell the opposite story.

Desire paths reveal the places where the path doesn’t take us where we want to go and we create a new route that does. Smile paths pop up when the path is going the way we want to, but something makes that route impossible or undesirable for some reason.

Desire paths are often shortcuts. Smile paths are normally slightly longer than the main path.

I’m delighted to say that the Royal Institute of Navigation has recently announced the formal naming of this path.

Please do send in any examples, together with their cause if you know it, and with your permission I’ll share on this website. (Or tag @at_RIN or @naturalnav on social media and the Royal Institute of Navigation and I will share good examples.)

A smile path around a fallen tree
A smile path around a gate
People avoid walking under things like trees or ladders…
… and there’s a reason why!
Smile paths can form in busy cities when people take a longer route to overtake
A smile path in the snow
Sometimes nature itself gets in the way. Here a clump of rushes has led to a smile path.
A smile path that formed in Arnhem, Netherlands, since Covid-19. It allows people walking in opposite directions to pass at a safe distance. My thanks to Vera Hin for sharing.
A smile path near Dial Post in Sussex. It was nudged into existence by overhanging plants. My thanks to Nick Mitchell for sending.
A smile path around muddy puddles in a Glasgow city park
Sometimes all it takes is a puddle. My thanks to Linda Moran for sending in this example near Edale, in the Peak District.
My thanks to Steve Davies for this classic gate example near the Cissbury Ring, West Sussex.
Circumnavigating a fallen tree in Bavaria. Credit: Linda Moran
This one in Berkshire didn’t exist before lockdown, when people started avoiding the more restricted path through bushes. Interestingly, it has faded over recent weeks implying less use. With thanks to Peter Gibbs.
Smile paths on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, during a dry period. The paths up there are normally pretty boggy and so the paths have moved progressively up the slope. With thanks to Paul Redding.
Credit: Steve Davies
A ‘textbook’ example in Sussex, caused by a fallen tree.
A smile path on “Schwaebische Alb” in southern Germany, where steep rocks, carved in by a waterfall, carry the ruin of an old castle (“Reussenstein”). With thanks to Monica von Silberschatten and Roland Müller.