Trends in recreational walking trail usage in Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic: Implications for practice

How to cite this study

Power, D., Lambe, B. and Murphy, N. 2023. Trends in recreational walking trail usage in Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic: Implications for practice. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism 41(2023), 100477.


This study analyzed changes in visitation on 33 of Ireland’s recreational walking trails between January 2019 and December 2020 using data from infrared sensors and Google Community Mobility Report (GCMR) data. A strong correlation was found between GCMR data and infrared sensors. There was a 6% overall increase in recreational trail usage in Ireland in 2020 compared to 2019.


This study is relevant to those interested in using multiple data sources to quantify trail use. The results also suggest that there may be a sustained increase in trail use after the COVID-19 pandemic, even in the winter months. 

Using openly available datasets like Google Community Mobility Reports can help improve the reliability of other data collection methods such as on-site trail counters. However, Google Community Mobility Reports stopped updating in mid-October 2022, meaning the data will become a historical resource. Some trail sensors and aggregated mobility data like GCMR are unable to distinguish between mountain bikes and pedestrians, potentially overestimating the number of pedestrians using the trails.


This study is located at sites across Ireland.

Trail Type

This study analyzes 33 multipurpose trails across Ireland. Trails included in the analysis had various terrain including mountainous, coastal, forest, and road, ranging from 8 km to 130 km.


The purpose of this study was to analyze trail usage on 33 trails before and during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as evaluate the relationship between infrared trail counts and Google Community Mobility Reports to assess the feasibility of using both data sources to improve the accuracy of trail counts. This study was co-funded by the Waterford Institute of Technology and Get Ireland Walking.


  • Average total foot traffic increased by 6% in 2020 compared to 2019 visitation levels, according to the infrared sensors. However, average foot traffic increased for only 26 of the 33 trails. The remaining 7 had a decrease in 2020 compared to 2019, but the largest decreases were found on trails that are usually used by thousands of domestic and international tourists.  
  • When removing popular tourist trails (Cliffs of Moher and Burren Way), total average foot traffic increased by 17% on all trails between 2019 and 2020.
  • Though all trails decreased in average trail usage after the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic in late March 2020, in April 2020 average foot count on trails within 2 km of urban areas was 102% higher than on trails located farther away from urban areas. This indicates that trails within 2 km of an urban area were used more frequently during times of governmental movement restrictions than trails beyond 2 km. 
  • There was a notable and positive association between the trends of the GCMR data and the foot traffic data. Both datasets show a sharp decline in trail use in March 2020, an increase that peaks in August 2020, and fluctuations following the lockdowns in the last four months of 2020.
  • Google Trends show that the search term “walking” sharply increased during March 2020 after the pandemic was declared and then also in August, potentially revealing an increase in public interest as warm weather increased. 
  • In December 2020, average foot traffic on trails within 2 km of urban areas was 22% higher than in December 2019. This increase in trail usage may be reflecting changes in losses of gyms during certain phases of the lockdown, causing more individuals to use trails outside in urban areas.


Trail counts from infrared sensors were collected from three agencies for more than 50 recreational walking trails and calibrated according to the type of trail (linear or looped). After screening for anomalies or missing data, foot traffic count data for 33 sites in 2019 and 2020 from two state-level agencies were included in the final analysis. GPS coordinates for each counter location were input into ArcGIS Online, and the distance between the location of a sensor and the nearest border of an urban area were calculated and then categorized as either within or outside 2 km. This distance was chosen due to the initial COVID-19 mandate that required the Irish population to remain within 2 km of their home for about 6 weeks. Statistical analysis was conducted, using Wilcoxon signed-rank tests and Spearman’s correlation tests to determine the statistical significance of the difference between monthly foot traffic counts and the change in the baseline for GCMR data. 

GCMR uses aggregated anonymized sets of data from Google for users who have their location history setting turned on.  The proportion of Google users who have their location settings turned on is unknown. Areas defined by Google as “parks” were used; Google defines “parks” as public gardens, castles, national forests, campgrounds, or observation decks. The baseline value for the analysis was the median mobility value from the period January 3, 2020, to February 6, 2020. The topic of “walking” was analyzed in Google Trends (which provides data on the relative popularity of search terms or topics) in the COVID-19 period. 


Added to library on November 27, 2023