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.

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?

UPDATE

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!

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





19 Comments

Eric

Eric Jun 26, 2018 19:06

"Sweat Equity"

I love that term! Needless to say, this should be on every hiker's mind. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this matter, Casey. ^Eric

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Blackfish

Blackfish May 15, 2018 11:05

As a hiker, fisherman and hunter, you could not be more correct. I wish social media would have never been invented.

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Annie Henry- Writer for Adventure of the Day Mar 28, 2018 16:03

I am part of the generation that has driven social media popularity. Being as outdoor lover myself, it is surprising I have never thought about the influence of social media when it comes to popularity and crowing of hiking trails and viewing spots. My love for hiking started thanks to my parents. They used to drag me out of bed at the crack of dawn to go on a hike. I was always curious why they made us go so early. "It's to crowded later in the day," they would explain. Since this problem has only gotten worse. You point out a huge factor to this: social media. Its a very clever way at explaining the issue. I'm glad it'll be in the back of my mind during my next hike.

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Mark Doiron Mar 17, 2018 05:03

Pretty much all of this applies to the overlanding community, as well. I'd advise caution on spoofing geotags, though. Someone hiking or driving in The Maze District of Canyonlands, for example, could become hopelessly lost or drive off the approved vehicle route attempting to reach that location he/she trusts.

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Nancy Mar 15, 2018 08:03

Love this and the thoughtfulness that always goes into your posts. I share a lot of nature and wildlife shots on my IG Account @limoninthewild and try to follow some of these very same principles. I also try to educate people about whatever I’m sharing, I’m sure half of them don’t even read the captions, but I feel better about sharing if it’s educational

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Han Mar 13, 2018 22:03

Naming the indigenous cultures affiliated with that area prior to arrival of white oppressors as a bare minimum show of respect, acknowledgement, & representation e.g. “X location, ancestral land of _________...”.

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Raquel Mar 10, 2018 09:03

I have been hiking for many years. But only using social media for about 2. My first few posts of my hikes I did geotag, but quickly realized the harm in doing so. Now I don't even mention the location unless a real friend asks. I also think that posting hiking events that virtually invites any and everyone shouldn't be encouraged or done at all. A recent one posted interested 10 of thousands of people and I believe a couple hundred showed up. That many people on a trail all at once is not what hiking is all about. Hiking is a wonderful way to exercise and connect with nature and therapeutic for many of us. It's not a party on the mountain. That is all. Happy trails.

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terrileigh Mar 5, 2018 16:03

Hey there - I'm a newbie and didn't even think about this until I read your article. I absolutely love the idea of using social media to help instill good behavior instead of bad. I'm looking back at this last weekend's trip photos that I globbed onto FB as soon as I got home. I practiced LNT while on the trails but didn't even think about the (unintended) possible effect of the digital footprint. Thanks and looking forward to the next trip with more awareness!

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wbtravis51t2 Mar 4, 2018 10:03

We do have social media, lack of education an willful ignorance problem. Social media has concentrated hikes into "glamour" location, which put terrible pressure on these trails...trail degradation, trash and switchback cuts. The education these days seems to be I did it this way and you can, too. It is easier to buy a SPOT than learn to use a map and compass. There is a willful ignorance component. Signs at trailhead state max group size 12, I have seen 90. When you try educate these people of these limitations and why...it is you who don't know a damn thing. This is the biggest reason so many modern hikers have died in our SoCal mountains in winter recently.

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NUOY Mar 2, 2018 19:03

I would add a "rule" to reconsider posting pix of illegal hikes - e.g. Goat Canyon Trestle and Mt San Miguel - or at the very least noting in your caption that you really shouldn't have been there! An acquaintance who leads hikes for the Sierra Club took a group to the Goat Canyon Trestle and nearly every member of the group posted pix of themselves on the RR tracks or the trestle itself. When I called the leader on it, he digitally shrugged and replied that he told the group that the area they were about to go was private property and illegal to enter. Not what I'd expect of a Sierra Club leader. :(

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Mark Mar 1, 2018 15:03

Thanks so much for posting about this issue, Casey. People seem to underestimate the cumulative impact that social media can have on fragile outdoor places and the outdoor experience.

I think your suggestions are excellent and it would be wonderful for LNT to incorporate them into their existing principles or make them the basis for an 8th Principle.

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Mark Mar 1, 2018 15:03In reply to: Leave No Trace - California

"We don't have a Social Media problem.
We have a lack of education problem."

Do you think it is possible that maybe we have both?

Educating people on Leave No Trace AND encouraging them to be more mindful about their social media posts are not mutually exclusive.

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Kristin Sabo Mar 1, 2018 11:03In reply to: Leave No Trace - California

As someone who does almost 1000 hrs a year of volunteer service cleaning up after what social media can do to our public spaces as well as educating and stewarding, your antiquated view of the situation is part of the problem. If you hadn't noticed, most of social media doesn't want to be "educated", it wants to be gratified. Little to nothing about social media and the reward system it satisfies leads to rectifying the education problem.

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Scott Turner

Scott Mar 1, 2018 11:03In reply to: Leave No Trace - California

And we have a lack of education problem because more and more people find out about hikes through social media, which happens to be a terrible medium for people to stumble into an “education.”

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Leave No Trace - California Mar 1, 2018 09:03

We don't have a Social Media problem.
We have a lack of education problem.
.
If more people knew the 7 Principles of #LeaveNoTrace Outdoor Ethics and followed them then it wouldn't make a difference if someone posted a picture on a social media site.
Certainly there comes a point where a large number of people visiting the same place at the same time may impact some aspects of the experience. It's hard to revel in the solitude of a backcountry visit when you encounter other people along the trail.
But large groups are not the problem.
I've been in the backcountry with a group of 30 and no one knew we were there. On that same outing we encountered a group of 2 who we knew were coming from MILES away.
The difference was the knowledge of #LeaveNoTrace and putting those 7 simple principles into action.
.
We don't need an 8th Principle because we don't have a Social Media problem.
We have a lack of education problem.

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Casey Schreiner Feb 28, 2018 08:02In reply to: Bertie Cowen

Good point! It's time to update signage to have a bit more emotional impact. I think that would help a lot -- the city of Glendale has a great sense of humor with their signs in the Verdugos, and I think that could go a long way to helping to get the message across, too.

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Bertie Cowen Feb 28, 2018 04:02

Eurgh. It really is bittersweet when a place that's special to you becomes popular. But you're right to identify that this springs from a sense of ownership, which is unjustifiable.

To a certain extent, the genie is out of the bottle and no amount of effort is going to rewind the clock. So I think trying to establish a common etiquette is no bad thing at all. Very much worth using language that appeals to emotion. So rather than having signs saying "Don't step off the trail to take a photograph" it can be far more impactful to say something like "If you step off the trail to take a photograph you damage the landscape".

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Kimmi Feb 27, 2018 18:02

Well written. Great points. Thank you for sharing.

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Tessie Feb 27, 2018 15:02

Beautifully written. It’s up to us to take care of our planet and help out as much as we can.

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