Why I Will Continue to Geotag Photos

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 principlesTag 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.

geotag photos

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.

 

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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.

Victoria Alicia

10 comments

  1. Great article. This is something Ive been contemplating a lot lately partially spurred by “HNTTLABB” and other leaders of DEI. Thank you for providing an alternative perspective and adding to the discussion!

  2. Thank you for sharing your point of view on this. I completely agree with you. Tagging photos of beautiful destinations are not harmful to nature. People who don’t respect the environment are detrimental to it. One does not hike in flipflops or high heels, throw garbage on the floor, cause damage, etc. I tag photos of my travels because I want people to have an option of a great experience, to find these cities, mountains, or beaches and enjoy it as much as I did. However, I’m not the one responsible for others foolishness and improper gear.

  3. There always have been (and unfortunately probably always will be) people who disrespect rules and guidelines, but let’s not blame social media for this. I always hate to see people leaving trails when there are clear signs asking them not to. While I’m not an expert hiker by any means, at least have enough respect to follow signs telling me where I should or shouldn’t be. Thanks for sharing, I always try to geotag my photos as specifically as I can and will continue to do so!

  4. You mention in this article that you have never seen articles about movies, books, etc causing an increase in visitation to an area. This is completely untrue. A simple google search of any number of films and books will bring at least a whole page of articles. For example: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. There are dozens of articles about how that book caused an increase in PCT hikers. While no one is criticizing her for writing it, they do place a lot of scrutiny on the fact that she wrote about a trail without explicitly endorsing LNT principles, and had numerous scenes in which she broke them herself. You would not tell someone who is a professional dancer to not post about their dancing, if it meant that others couldn’t do it without breaking an ankle. This is the same concept for photographers and content creators. Research shows that the geotagging on INSTAGRAM specifically contributed to influx in visitation in certain places. Instagram does make a difference. Its impact is further reaching and more immediate than films and books. Posting “Olympic National Park” gives a person JUST as much access to a beautiful vista as it would to say “Olympic National Park, second beach, go to the left and there’s a cool rock stack”. Telling a person exactly where to go to get a cool picture does not make them a good steward of the land. It makes them go find that specific place, and leave when they’ve posted it. I completely agree that refusing to share information about an place you were privileged to experience is gate-keeping. But! Adding one more step between someone looking at a picture, and being there, is NOT gate-keeping. A quick google search would pull up an entire list of beautiful places in the general area you geotagged, and they would have full access to explore those places as they wish to or are able. Adding that one extra step means people will do their research about a location because putting it into google maps. The changes caused by geotagging are happening quickly and irreversibly. No one is telling you to gate-keep. They’re just saying to make it SLIGHTLY more broad so that travelers who want to experience that place are able to do so for generations.

    Thank you for your article which definitely calls out privilege and access in a way that a lot of us do not consider. It definitely made me think hard about whether I would geotag or not. However, after reading it, I conclude that I will only geotag vaguely. Again, thanks so much for your time if you have read this comment! I appreciate your work, even if I only half agree.

    1. I highly doubt there is any geotag on IG that says “Olympic National Park, second beach, go to the left and there’s a cool rock stack.” I tag the name of the location/trail & when I can, I create a hiking guide for that location. On the hikes I lead, many people show up (majority who are of color) & tell me that they never thought the land or trails were accesible to them. A lot of 1st time hikers show up & allowing that accessibility to people that have been disenfranchised and not connected to the land is important for me. I will continue to geotag and like I mentioned in the article, I will always pick inclusion over exclusion.

      1. Geotagging the way Instagram allows DOES in fact give exact locations if you allow it. But posting a pretty photo with an exact location is a FAR different thing than leading a hike, writing a guide to that hike, and talking about inclusivity and representation in the outdoors. I am not, and would not, say that that is a bad thing. Geotagging a PHOTO on Instagram with exact location of a cool landmark is irresponsible. Writing a guide to how to get there, including any warnings or rules the visitors should know about (as guides do) is completely responsible and acceptable. LNT principals do not discourage that at all. When people say that they didn’t feel like they had access to a space before, they are not talking about being able to google it. They’re talking about being able to take up space as a minority or marginalized person in that place. It has nothing to do with geotagging. This article just seems very pigeonholed and short-sighted. I am simply calling to attention that we can still absolutely discuss diversity and inclusion without geotagging landmarks to their detriment.

        1. If you think that geotagging has nothing to do with POC taking up space on the outdoors, you are wrong. But I am not going into that because all I needed to say has been said and I honestly have other stuff to. I just led a hike today of more than 30 peeps & told them to make sure to tag the location so they can make gatekeepers like you hella mad. At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do. If you wanna keep on gatekeeping, do you, Sydney.

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