It’s Time for Digital Leave No Trace Principles

You’ve no doubt seen the sentiment in headlines dozens of times: Instagram is killing a trail; Social media is ruining the outdoor experience; Parks are being loved to death. Anecdotal evidence is likely reinforcing that for you. You’ve been hiking a trail for years, then suddenly you see someone post about it online and now you can’t find parking at the trailhead and now there are all these — ugh — young people on the trail taking selfies with their phones at the same spot all day and now the whole thing is ruined.

Yes, social media is a relatively new thing for the outdoors. And yes, visitation is up at parks all across the country. And yes, you can certainly trace a chunk of those crowds back to some sort of promotion online — by individuals and tourism boards.

This is an issue I have personally been dealing with since I started Modern Hiker in the ancient days of 2006. One of the very first comments I ever received on a hiking post was someone complaining that simply writing about a trail on the internet was going to ‘destroy’ a place that was ‘theirs.’

There’s obviously a bit to unpack there. Neither the trail nor the public land is theirs, or mine, or any one person’s. And while at the time I wrote about that trail there were probably only a dozen or so people reading this site, it would be disingenuous for me to pretend that Modern Hiker isn’t partially responsible for more people showing up on the trails. 

NPS photo by Neal Herbert

A backlash has already started to bubble up — with a group of concerned hikers even petitioning the Leave No Trace Foundation to add an eighth item concerning the impact of social media to their established seven principles. I think the group’s intentions are good and their initial aim is simply to start a much-needed conversation, but unfortunately those who have heard about this proposal too often leap to charges of outdoor elitism and get instantly defensive. This is possibly because it’s easy to view the Leave No Trace principles and this addition as a list of “don’ts” instead of an encouragement of “do”s — and there is a subtle but distinct psychological difference between the two.

But by focusing on the negatives of this situation, we can often miss the positive: There’s a huge and ever-growing number of people who want to recreate in our public lands — a potentially untapped (or under-mobilized) economic, social, and political force that could have the ability to pressure agencies and governments for more parks and (more importantly) badly needed funding for already existing parks.

I didn’t grow up hiking and discovered it on my own as an adult — and I can tell you from personal experience that sneering at a beginner who doesn’t know any better is a sure-fire way to make that person resentful and potentially even disdainful of the rules — and certainly not an effective way of teaching newcomers the responsible way to recreate outdoors.

Leaving aside the genuine bad apples, here are three easy ways you can start employing the principles of Digital Leave No Trace on your next hike to help inspire others on social media:

Use Conscientious Tagging

No, not the kind done on rock faces and boulders in National Parks — I’m talking about geotagging.

This is one of the easiest ways to be more mindful of your social media presence, and one I’ve been doing on the Modern Hiker Instagram feed for a while now. When you’re posting a photo from your last hike or climb, don’t tag the specific location — which can often be laughably wrong anyway — and instead just tag a more general location or none at all. 

The point here is not to hide places from people — just to obscure them a bit from the photo-skimmers. Although I no longer geotag specific trails, I’ll always write a bit about the trail and usually even share its name AND a link to a write-up. If you keep reading, you’ll find out where the photo is. You’ll also read about why the place is special and maybe even learn about an issue threatening or affecting the region, too. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and all that.

Still doesn’t stop people from asking “where’s this?” in the comments, though.

Be Mindful of What You’re Showing

In 2017, Southern California came out of a long drought with an average-level of precipitation. But because we hadn’t had decent rain in 5 years, the following wildflower blooms were a spellbinding spectacle that drew thousands of people onto the trails. Unfortunately, that also meant for every lovely photo of folks laying out in fields of California poppies, we also saw countless plants trampled and fields cut by social trails by everyone looking for that “unique” shot.

When you’re choosing which images to share with the world, think about whether or not you might be encouraging some bad behavior (even unintentionally). We’d rather not encourage people to set up a camp or campfire where they’re not allowed, feed animals, or step on floating logs right next to a sign that specifically tells you not to do that. As the incredible account You Did Not Sleep There shows us, even such posts that are dripping with sarcasm can often fly over folks’ heads.


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A post shared by luisa 🙂 (@youdidnotsleepthere)

Set a Good Example

There’s a reason there are now photo-taking chokepoints on some of those popular trails: everybody and their mother has the same photo you were going to take there. So why not try taking a different photo instead? Maybe one that includes a caption about how nice it is to be somewhere quiet, or one that shows some of the litter you picked up along the way? If you’re willing to accept that social media can promote bad behavior, how about also accepting that it can encourage good behavior, too?

Groups like Trash Free Earth are a great, real world example of how effective this can be — and every time I post something about doing a bit of trail work or picking up some trash on my hike, I’m truly inspired by all the people who send me photos of them doing the same. Now imagine that impact multiplied by everyone posting trail photos, and you see how this could become a really big deal.


Volunteers from Trash Free Earth hike down after clearing 30 pounds of trash from the Wisdom Tree

Volunteers from Trash Free Earth removing cairns

What do you think? Is there anything else we can do to help minimize impact or inspire better behavior with our posts on social media?


As of June 8th, 2018, the Leave No Trace Foundation posted this about social media:

When posting to social media, consider the following:

Tag thoughtfully – avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location such as a state or region, if any at all. While tagging can seem innocent, it can also lead to significant impacts to particular places.

Be mindful of what your images portray – give some thought to what your images may encourage others to do. Images that demonstrate good Leave No Trace practices and stewardship are always in style.

Give back to places you love – invest your own sweat equity into the outdoor spaces and places you care about. Learn about volunteer stewardship opportunities and get involved in the protection of our shared lands.

Encourage and inspire Leave No Trace in social media posts – given the millions of social media users in the world, think of the incredible potential that social media has to educate outdoor enthusiasts – first timers to seasoned adventurers – about enjoying our wild lands responsibly.

Looks pretty good to us!

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