It’s a hot topic these days. Social Media Is Ruining Hiking the headlines scream. “Please don’t geotag this place” the Instagram comments beg, “this hike is a locals secret.” But have they really thought this through, the impact and justification of their words?
Absolutely, social media has played a role in bringing more people outside to enjoy the great outdoors, but that is an excellent thing to be praised and leveraged, not vilified. Hiking is good for your physical and mental health, it’s light on the wallet, it helps build community, and personal experience with the outdoors like hiking is key to the preservation of the natural environment that is rapidly degrading. This is not just my humble opinion, but rather evidenced by countless peer-reviewed studies and reports and movements.
The issue that most people use to support their opinions against geotagging is the environmental impact so that is what I want to address mainly in this post. There is so much evidence it’s hard to ignore yet somehow so many people are overlooking the fact that having a connection to nature is the key to feeling a sense of responsibility to protect it. As Wright and Matthews say in their 2015 report Building a Culture of Conservation: Research Findings and Research Priorities on Connecting People to Nature in Parks, “In an increasingly urbanized environment, parks provide a touchstone to the natural world; they are important spaces for developing social capital and for building a culture of conservation among citizens…Interacting with nature increases place attachment and willingness to engage in environmental behaviours.”
“So just post the photo without a geotag”, the critics then say. “It will inspire people to explore”, they think. The problem is that connection with nature begins with knowledge. It is what sparks the interest into action. So while your pretty unnamed mountain may increase one’s general interest in the outdoors, it will not be the catalyst to get someone out the door on a hike. A geotag on that mountain? Boom! That person now has a starting point for their experience. In a world full of concrete jungles dependent on non-renewable energy, housing people obsessed with instant gratification, we need more people understanding their connectedness to and reliance on the earth thriving in its natural state now more than ever. For most, it takes a geotag to get them there. Knowledge is one of the top three barriers stopping people from visiting parks so don’t take that away. As evidenced in the study above, it is not the general interest in hiking that is lacking, but rather specific, accessible knowledge such as geotags and other trail info shared on social media.
Most critics of social media have their heart in the right place, thinking and claiming that promoting a specific place degrades the environment. There is no question that more feet trampling the earth degrades the environment, but the solution seems to me to divert attention from popular trails to lesser-known trails (by…ahem…you got it! geotagging!), and to limit the number of people allowed to access popular trails on any given day; not limiting the number or types of people who can learn about hikes by eliminating an excellent educational resource: social media. Someone new to hiking who found out about a trail via social media yesterday is just as deserving to hike Joffre Lakes as someone who discovered it through word of mouth and has been hiking there since before it got popular. Any thinking to the contrary is simply elitist.
Of course not everyone uses social media for good, but in this digital age full of short attention spans and increased visual learning, the possibilities abound. Instead of trying to shut down the most wide-spread, accessible resource, how about we instead work on shifting the focus to improved use. There are many amazing organizations that spread important information about environmental impact, safety, and preparedness, but let’s be honest, they’re not the sexy accounts that make the average Joe stop scrolling through his feed to read what’s below the image. So let’s encourage people who post beautiful photos to include helpful and important information instead of tearing them down for providing an invaluable service.
It is no one’s place to tell others where they can and can’t hike and how they have to learn about it. I wish more people would take the time to understand issues before starting or contributing to a movement with a really harmful impact. To these people I urge you to have more respect for people trying to do their best. No one is perfect, few people purposefully act irresponsibly, and next to no one responds well to condescending attitudes. There is no planet B. We are all in this together, folks, so let’s get together on the right side of things, shall we?