In the years following Christopher McCandless fatal trek to Alaska, there have been books, movies, documentaries and yes, Instagram posts, about his journey. Once Jon Krakauer published “Into the Wild”, the best-selling book describing this young man’s trek, outdoor enthusiasts began to take trips to the bus where McCandless’ body was found. Some have gone to check out the writings he etched on the walls of the bus, to see if Alaska is just how Jon Krakauer evokes in his book, and others have gone for mere curiosity. But all who subsequently ventured out were able to because they learned about it from a specific source. In the years after the book was published in 1996, there was such an increase in hikers near the Denali area that some proposed taking the bus out completely to diminish the location’s attraction. Indeed, there have been far too many hikers that have been injured or died because they were inspired by McCandless’ story. But I’ve never heard of anyone requesting Krakauer’s book to be banned for increasing traffic to the area and causing additional deaths.
What has lately endured the criticism (and condescension) for creating unsafe and unethical outdoor situations has been Instagram and, more specifically, geotagging photos. In the last few months and weeks I’ve seen a nuanced discussion on both ends of the spectrum. There are individuals who consider that not geotagging will limit unsafe situations for new hikers and prevent degradation and harm to a location. Others have pointed out that not geotagging is elitist and promoting exclusionary practices.
I will continue to geotag photos.
What sparked this debate recently was the updated Leave No Trace organization’s social media principles: 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.
I wonder how people would react if we told travel writers to: “write thoughtfully – avoid writing (or talking) about specific locations. Instead, write about a general location such as a state or region, if any at all. While writing can seem innocent, it can also lead to significant impacts to particular places.” Would we have a yearly “Best Travel Writing” book if we asked writers to cease discussing the beauty and experiences of the specific places they travel to? Should we ask Jon Krakauer never again to write a book about a hike because he will most likely sell millions of copies and increase traffic to that location? Are we soon going to ask writers to stop publishing hiking guides about a location too?
I have not seen any articles about films, documentaries, marketing or published books and their impact on wild places. But I have seen many posts correlating social media and geotagging to an increase in visitors to national parks, rescues and harm to the environment. There is, for example, the recent op-ed “Chasing ‘likes’ on Instagram, hikers break limbs — and need rescuing” published by the L.A. Times. In a recent Outside Online article, the writer indicates that: “The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team reports that its missions have increased by 38 percent over the last five years—something they attribute to people sharing photos and videos of their dangerous activities online.” How does the Sheriff’s Department attribute this increase? Through surveys? Interviews? Other form of data? The article never says how.
It’s interesting that people view social media as the just-opened gate to the outdoors, as if society never ventured outdoors before Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram. As if people didn’t begin to head outdoors after reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Terry Tempest Williams or countless other authors that focus on nature. Jon Krakauer’s books, including the best-selling book about climbing Everest, have been translated into 30 other languages and are most likely the inspiration for many first hikes. No one seems to judge him for selling millions of copies of “Into The Wild” (I have my own copy at home) and making the 3-day hike near Denali popular. But they sure do put the responsibility on travel writers and content makers to limit the information on photos they share on social media.
I’m fully aware that it’s important to use the tools we have to uphold ethical traveling and hiking practices. But the premise to refrain from geotagging is fallible. It’s full of “right” intentions but produces wrong effects.
As someone who writes about traveling, the outdoors and recently started to lead hikes through Latinas Who Hike, I will not refrain from geotagging. What I do know that I am responsible for, as someone who uses social media and invites individuals on hikes with me, is to show others how to respect the land. I will never try to become a gatekeeper or prohibit others from venturing to the places I visit. The whole premise of this website is to get more people outdoors. The idea that I, as someone who has already enjoyed a location, should refrain from posting about it so individuals won’t enter this space is completely exclusionary.
Yes, there are individuals that (un)knowingly put their lives at risk. For the first hike I led, I wondered many times if it was a correct decision to venture out into a location where many people had died in the last few years. Would I be putting people’s lives at risk? Would I regret picking this location? But as I researched about the deaths, most of them were because they had deviated from the trail. Another individual tried to go hiking with sandals on and fell to their death. I have written about gear basics and mentioned in posts never to deviate from a path. Before the hike, I messaged the attendees and mentioned the deaths, and why something as basic as appropriate shoes can make for a life or death situation. If I invite people out on hikes with me, it’s important that they know basic hiking guidelines.
New hikers may be unaware of guidelines the first time they go on a trail by themselves. But heading to the outdoors with lack of information has happened even before the era of social media. I’ve walked by carved trees with initials of lovers that were made years ago, before Instagram became a thing. There is not one trail that I go to where I don’t see garbage. But scapegoating social media users as the source for this lack of respect is incorrect. What needs to end is exclusion, and what needs to continue is outdoor education and accessibility to the outdoors. There are basic guidelines that are posted in the beginning of trail markings, such as not deviating from a trail or never to leave trash. But many new outdoor enthusiasts may not know there are parameters on where to set up camp or how far someone needs to do their bodily necessities from running water. Education, information and access to the outdoors is vital. Exclusion is not.
Any individual deliberately disrespecting a location should be held accountable for their actions, whether they use social media or not. In 2016, a group of bloggers were banned for five years from U.S. national parks after leaving the boardwalk by Yellowstone’s Old Faithful and approaching the Grand Prismatic Spring. They were also jailed and fined. This was most likely because they posted their illegal acts for their hundreds of thousands of followers to see. There is no doubt for me that individuals that use social media and other tools in a damaging manner should face consequences.
If you are in the following predicament:
“I want to post a photo about X hike/location but I don’t want to tell anyone where it is because”:
A) It’s very special to me and I don’t want to share it.
B) I simply don’t want to tell people where it is.
C) I was at a location I did not have authorization to be in.
D) It could be extremely dangerous for viewers to venture there.
then my suggestion is NOT to post at all.
This is when doing it for the likes becomes problematic. The land and trails people visit is not for them to keep. Individuals that do this are being gatekeepers, permitting access only for themselves and not anyone else. And why would you want to prohibit others from enjoying what you have already enjoyed? I understand the concept of keeping a place to yourself, but then there is simply no need to post a picture of it.
Social media is not the lone culprit for the outdoors’ woes. It cannot be the sole cause for hikers getting into unsafe situations, vandalism and increased degradation to a location. It’s not the only medium urging people to get outdoors or the only reason why new hikers venture out on the trail.
While “Into the Wild” spurred many treks to Alaska, I would never ask Jon Krakauer not to write any more books. I also wouldn’t ask someone with access to social media to stop from posting a photo and its location. I will continue to use social media as a tool, geotag locations and create hiking meetups. The mediums we use to disseminate information reflect how we act in the real world. I believe we can be responsible travelers, trail users and social media users.
Most of all, we are inherently passerby on the land we are on. I don’t keep a mountain, put it in my phone and take it with me like it belongs to me. The land is there for all of us, not just some of us.