Off-trail observations

I’m curious to hear if anyone has thoughts on posting iNat observations that are clearly off established trails. Even when I have official permission to be off the trail, I wonder if having a marker displayed in a closed area suggests to others that staying on the trail is optional. I don’t feel it is necessary to formally obscure these observations, so lately I’ve been doing my own obscuring. I leave the geoprivacy setting to “open”, adjust the accuracy, and move the pin so that the observation is centered on the nearest trail, but the actual location is within the bounds of my newly created circle. Here is an example:

I’ll probably keep doing this for sensitive sites and long-term monitoring plots, but I’m starting to wonder how worried about displaying my off-trail observations I should be. If I eventually want to share the actual locations with someone, it will still be possible, as I still have the original geotagged photos, but it will be much more of a pain. It also slows down my uploading process.

Any thoughts on this?

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Unless an area is clearly marked as not allowing off-trail activity or if the observed organism is sensitive/rare, I don’t see any need obscure off-trail observations, I don’t think it would encourage much off-trail activity since most people are so keen to stay on marked trails anyway. In the end, I think it comes down to whether the property owner allows off-trail activity and whether the species observed could be put at risk if its location is publicly shown. I study dendromorphometry and often post observations of measured big/tall/old trees, many I leave as open but if it is a very exceptional specimen, I will provide an inaccurate location, but still relatively near the real location, and obscure it as well. I actually leave most off-trail measured trees as open as they’re at less risk in a remote site than if they were along a well-used trail where they may otherwise go unnoticed without a public observation of them.

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it all depends on where you are. If you are in a bog with a boardwalk or some other sensitive habitat, either stay on the trail or if you have a valid reason to be off trail, consider obscuring (i’ve done that when doing an ecological survey of a bog when i went off a popular boardwalk as a state employee). Other than that, unless there are specific rules that prevent going off trail i wouldn’t worry about it. Even then it doesn’t really imply anything - often during bioblitzes, for instance, people get permission to go places they otherwise would not. I will say that if i am on private land with permission from the landowner, i will obscure unless i know they want otherwise (some people want the iNat observations, others do not)

I don’t love the ‘big uncertainty circle, on trail’ thing myself, though in some cases I’ve done it (like on a road when on private land).

Thanks for your thoughts on this! Just to clarify, I’m only ever off the trail if I am working (and have formal permission to be there), and make sure to stay on the trail when I’m just an ordinary hiker. The problem is most of my observations are from when I’m working, so I spend lots of time adjusting my locations.

i don’t think there’s anything inherently bad with going off trail unless there are resource concerns. I Guess in super heavily traveled areas, like the parks around LA, it can get problematic. I don’t usually go off trail when i’m with my wife because she doesn’t enjoy it. If you do go off trail don’t get lost, be safe.

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I do mostly plants, particularly wildflowers, and I’ve been so thoroughly trained/brainwashed to stay on the trail, take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints that I am instinctively horrified when I see pix from mycologists who have picked a mushroom, turned it over, broken it up, all in the middle of the woods somewhere lol. It was explained to me that, since mushrooms are just a manifestation of a large underground web of mycelia, it’s not the same thing at all. I suppose I agree. Anyway, I agree with charlie and jharkness - I think it’s a matter of context. And I avoid going off trail on boardwalks at all - around us what looks like solid ground is likely to be a thin layer of peat/moss and then 20 ft of water :-)

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Also not a fan of the lost data from the purposefully inaccurate pinpoints.

Just like the presence of observations on private land, I don’t assume off trail observations on iNat mean it’s ok for me to go to that location myself. Depends on the rules for each site. Thankfully there aren’t many places in my area where going off trail is forbidden without permits, but there are a few. I otherwise just go wherever I want (obviously with sensitive habitat in mind).


yeah here in Vermont everyone goes off trail all the time for hunting, fishing, just wandering in the woods. Obviously you have to know your way around the woods and don’t go alone or at least tell someone where you went. I go off trail into wetlands a LOT because it’s my job, and while i love it, that can be really tricky or treacherous, so you shouldn’t do that if you aren’t well prepared for it! And with some wetlands too many people doing it can indeed be harmful. When I lived in southern California going off trail was often frowned upon but the trails were all lined with impenetrable brush which i ended up climbing through because i was getting paid to (for vegetation mapping) and in that area unless someone is paying you and you have good reason, you just won’t want to do it .

I can see how my question is not really an issue for some areas! However, in southern California, especially in reserves close to large urban centers, most land managers want to keep people on the trails. This might be a conversation to start with the specific land managers.


not inaccurate, just imprecise or low accuracy.

The center point is intentionally inaccurate, and I assume made imprecise at least by a couple orders of magnitude.


i’m one of those people who might be tempted to wander off trails if i saw lots of interesting things over there, within reason. whether that’s good or bad is another question.

I don’t have a problem with an intentionally inaccurate center point depending on the situation. If it is a rare species or near the edge of its range, yes I would have a problem with an inaccurate center point as the data would lose importance for range mapping, but for sharing information other than the geographical occurrence of an organism well within its range shouldn’t represent a problem. What is wrong with providing an intentionally inaccurate center point for an exceptionally sized white pine when there are thousands of less-remarkable white pines in close proximity to the chosen, inaccurate, location? In such a situation, there is no chance of corrupting range-mapping data, but it provides at least some level of protection to the specimen in question.

To emphasize the importance of protecting important trees/forest stands, one has to look no further than the trampling of native understory vegetation in the coast redwood forests by people trying to track down exceptionally-sized specimens, or the intentional destruction of individual trees, such as when various large trees in NYC parks were girdled and killed or when the Webster Sycamore in West Virginia was set on fire, though neither of these can be attributed to iNaturalist observations, it is a very real danger that publicly displayed locations bring about.

I would personally rather use the obscuration tools that are available and share the permissions as needed rather than spend time manually fiddling with locations.

If you do manually change the location, please say so in the observation description. There may be cascading unintended effects, e.g. see Obscuring rectangle on obs with large accuracy circles may not encompass true location


i’d be absolutely shocked if people were using iNat to access large-sized common tree species to the point it does more harm than good. But if you want to hide the location for whatever reason, you can just obscure it. If you’re on a trail 100-200 feet away, whatever, but if it’s a huge circle, it really isn’t the best practice. Please at least make sure you make the circle sufficiently large.

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In my case, I only want my observations to be a little bit obscured (at most a few hundred meters), and I definitely want them to show up in the correct part of the reserves where I work. Maybe I should be changing this to a feature request to do obscuring at a smaller scale than the default?


hmm. I mean i get what i am saying…and like i said i have done this before especially in the past when the obscurng had some major loopholes, but it is problematic, in short a lot of the maps and visualizations don’t make the uncertainty circle obvious and often it’s hard to filter it out, so it messes with some fine scale uses of the data. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but i don’t think in most cases i’d do that just because of the off trail issue. Or in the least i’d also obscure them so it’s more obvious? I don’t know. I’m not a hardliner about it, but it is a bummer that people are doing it on such a widespread basis now.

I am happy to see the OP being so respectful of the space. It may seem like off trail activity is not an issue in many areas but it really is. With the human population getting so large we can easily trample things and not notice. The detailed location information can go to the land manager, who has already granted the OP permission to leave the trail so I assume they will be getting the information too.

I see no reason why obscuring it a bit would interfere with iNaturalist users use of the data. In my mind the land manager/land owner is the only one who really needs the detailed location information. If someone wishes to do research and needs the detailed location they should be getting permission from the landowner prior to the research anyway so they will have the detailed info from the land owner. If someone is doing a larger scale study than a few hundred metres is not going to be a issue. I wish everyone would stay on the trails. In my area there is massive destruction of the natural areas from trails getting wider and wider and from trampling of the understory. As an ecologist working in the same area for 15 years I’ve seen damage (and ecologically this is a short time period). And sure it may not be super rare things but it is still a loss. Areas that were previously full of trilliums and spring ephemerals are now just barren trampled ground. It’s depressing. Introduction of invasive species also a concern… But in reality iNaturalist records is likely a very low concern to cause people to leave the trails. People go off trail for all kinds of reasons. Most could not care less about any damage they are causing. But alas I am starting to rant…
Really unless there is a research reason (or it is YOUR property) people should stay on trails. I greatly appreciate when someone cares enough to think about NOT encouraging off trail use. I think obscuring a bit is great.

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Disclaimer: the post below is not directed specifically at @brendavr but at a much much broader conversation, so please don’t take it as directed towards you.

i am continually and increasingly feeling bothered by the idea that ‘only the land manager needs’… access to spatial biodiversity data for non-collection-risk species. And for context i’ve worked as a land manager or more frequently as the person taking the data that land managers use. Land managers are awesome but frequently overworked and buried in immediate tasks like literal putting out fires, fixing fences, saving injured park visitors, etc etc. The bottom line is, over most of non-colonial human history, being a part of and fully understanding ecosystems was a right, a privilege, and a responsibility for ALL humans. One could argue that obscuring the data a little bit doesn’t matter, and maybe that is true. But i fundamentally think the reasoning behind it is flawed and actually harmful. That isn’t to attack anyone saying this stuff… it’s the predominant storyline behind conservation right now. But here’s the thing, and i know i’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating.

We. Are Losing. It’s a not too hidden secret in conservation that we are losing. We win battles, we do not win wars. The problem is, every victory is temporary and every defeat is permanent, or in the least takes thousands of years to repair itself. We don’t have thousands of years. The current ‘let the experts do it all’ mentality is toxic and rotting our relationship from the core. And i say this as someone who has worked inside that system for almost 20 years. Most of the system is crucial - data collecting, monitoring, andvocacy, and attempts at restoration. But this other part, that we have to hide data and hide nature from people… i firmly believe that is a huge part of WHY we are losing. And don’t kid yourself. We are losing badly. For every case where someone steps on too many flowers, over the hill there’s a 1000 acre development that ruined the habitat for ALL species there for the next 10,000 years.

Priorities are important, and yes there are absolutely areas where people should not go off trail. One needs to truly, humbly, and carefully educate themselves before doing… well, anything outside. But they can’t do that without data, information, even the conversation.

While there is a definite argument for us reducing our population over time, the idea ‘the human population is too large’ is also hugely problematic. In my mind, that’s at worst a symptom and at best, attached to some other very problematic issues. What is too large is the footprint of whatever you want to call the predominant global socioeconomic culture - colonial corporate feudalism, or whatever. I don’t have a good word for it really. But please remember that on many if not most landscapes, cultures have coexisted with and been a part of the ecology for millenia. While going off trail. If all 20 million people in LA (or heck even 1 percent of them) sat down to listen to some Chumash elders (or other local nations too), learned about these ancient management techniques, and found a little patch of land to heal (ideally something that already needs ‘restoration’… then we’ stop losing. We’d start slowly gaining ground again.

definitely not true in a lot of cases. I have had to basically throw away thousands of plant species occurrences because it was pre GIS and we don’t know the location precisely enoguh to use them because different ecosystem types need to be monitored and assessed differently.

yeah and go peek over the hill. yeah that one you never peek over. Go see the massive golf course and the roaring abyss of the suburbs (yes it actually makes an audable sound). Look at the factory farms, the expanses of untended land with invasive plants coating them, the brownfields with toxic soils And ask yourself, how many people who did that were told not to go off trail or be a part of their environment. How many of them just didn’t give a **** about the land and people who used to be there because they never learned to listen and look? And if you think place doesn’t matter, then i don’t even know what to say. Place matters the most. If you don’t know where things are on the land, you don’t know the story of the land at all.

how many deer do you have on your land? Any predators? are there now earthworms? how has the management regime changed since 1491?

and why do you think that is? Maybe because they get a lecture (not from you, but from whoever) the few times they go outside that they can’t touch anything, can’t explore, can’t be a part of the landscape. It’s a little bit of ‘wilderness’ in a postage stamp and they can’t touch it even to heal it. So what do they care? It’s just the ‘environment’. There’s no difference between the trillium and a muddy pit in the trail but that’s because no one showed them that they are part of what is going on with both.

please don’t unless there’s a specific resource issue. And please know that most of these places ARE your land. Your town, state, provincial and national parks ARE your land. Once the politicians see you realize that, management will change, fast.


I wish I could like this post more than once Charlie.

This attitude really bothers me sometimes too. The world where a city kid doesn’t have somewhere they can go and run around in the woods and catch salamanders and build forts is a really dystopian one to me. I was lucky enough to spend time outside from a very young age, was hooked on birding by 7 years old and have never looked back. I know plenty of birders and other naturalists who grew up in the city, never really went outside and had no idea what existed around them. The second they went out in the forest with someone to point things out, they were hooked and have often changed their whole life around as a result. How many other people have this personality and are missing out because their life takes place exclusively inside shopping malls and offices?

And it’s not just naturalists - it’s hikers and campers and geocachers and mountain bikers and photographers and hunters and fishermen and rock-climbers and all those people who feel deep spiritual connections to nature and make weird posts I don’t understand.

These people are why the places we do have exist! And if they don’t have places to go and be a kid, I don’t think these people would care. I don’t think the world where everyone is expected to stay on the trails everywhere is one that would have much support for environmental protection laws and for tax-dollars going to land conservation.

Of course there are negative effects from people going off-trail, and of course there are places where these effects are bad enough to restrict it. But we have to look at the big picture where we are losing things constantly from development and invasive species and poor forestry and agricultural practices. And this is the context where we definitely don’t want people to feel excluded from their public land.

Part of the problem is that signs saying stuff like “stay on the trail” or “sensitive area” or “home to endangered species” are so over-used. For a non-knowledgeable person, there is almost no distinction between some of the most important sites in Ontario (Ojibway Prairie, Backus Woods, Dorcas Bay) and their local conservation area with a few dozen hectares of 70-year old sugar maple forest. Why? Because even the less-important places have signs talking about all the rare and endangered species present (which is true using the technical but not the colloquial definitions of rare and endangered) and tell people to stay on the trail to avoid trampling sensitive habitat. And I’ve NEVER seen a sign saying “Please stay on the trail in this area through sensitive habitat. Elsewhere on our property you are welcome to explore to your heart’s content.” I don’t think there is a single piece of public property in Ontario where the impacts from kids building forts and whatnot is accepted, let alone encouraged.

All that said, this is a little off-topic from the original post, There certainly are situations where staying on-trail is very important, and it is certainly appropriate to not allow easy access to those coordinates. I agree with @bouteloua that it’s probably better to use the obscuring function than to place an inaccurate point.