Is Your Instagram Destroying the Environment?

That sandstone bluff was a sight for sore eyes. Well, sore legs, at least. We needed a proper, safe place

Maze bivy 2-1

That sandstone bluff was a sight for sore eyes. Well, sore legs, at least. We needed a proper, safe place to bivy for the night, and I was already salivating over the stunning photos I imagined myself snapping from there: the sun setting softly over the sagebrush meadow, our three sleeping bags laid out on the shoulder of the towering formation. Our legs were tired of pushing through the deep sand, carrying heavy packs, and we were ready to call it a day-so morale took a hit when we realized that the entire meadow that lay between our hot, tired feet and the afternoon shade of the bluff was covered in extremely fragile cryptobiotic soil crust.

Our footprints traipsing up to the dreamy bivy site would crush that delicate crust, the vital living ground cover that supports countless parts of the desert ecosystem that we’d come to enjoy. It could take up to 50 years for the desert to restore what we would have annihilated just walking to a rock we could sleep on. For a moment, our hopes of that Instagram-worthy camping spot were dashed. We eventually found a crust-free wash leading up to the bluff and climbed through the junipers growing out of it to avoid stepping on the fragile crust on each side. The bivy was just as incredible as I’d hoped, and we carefully walked back down through the sandy wash the next day.

I didn’t think much more about our “dream bivy that almost didn’t happen” until I saw this Instagram post a few days later:

BoBaumgartner Insta

The striking peak and glowing tent caught my eye, but it was the caption that made me look twice: “…don’t worry, this was higher & further from the lake than it looks…you may only camp in established sites along this trail…this was one of the better ones.” Why did @bobaumgartner feel the need to point out that the tent in his spectacular shot wasn’t actually three feet from the mirror-smooth lake water? Because Leave No Trace ethics say to try to camp in established sites, usually at least 200 feet away from a lake or stream. The idea is to minimize water pollution and lower the visual impact for other people in the area who might also want to enjoy the backcountry scenery.

When I commented on his photo, noting his Leave No Trace ethics, he replied: “I’ve noticed a disturbing trend as well … seems a few people will go to great lengths for a photo op, even if it means setting up a tent in a fragile or dangerous spot…most likely not even camping there, but the problem is that it inspires others to do the same…a major brand even started a hasthtag ‘camp everywhere.’ I just hope people use good judgment when they are camping in the wilderness.”

I thought back to several other stunning photos that had floated into my feed lately, many of them with tents set up in spots I doubted the photographer actually slept. A few of them with people doing illegal or frowned-upon activities like building a fire in the backcountry of a national park or camping right alongside a lake.

We all love finding that lookout point of a lifetime, or that secret tent site where it feels nobody else has been before. Out in the wilderness, we enjoy feeling free-it can be tough to want to “live by the rules.” And now that we’re all uploading our very best trip photos for audiences of dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people on Instagram and other social media, we’re not just thinking about the view over there, or the most enjoyable spot to spend the night. We want The Most Epic Tent Site On Earth for our photo, whether or not it’s an already established, or Leave No Trace, site. But with more and more people venturing out to hike and camp, these delicate, untouched places will quickly be trodden and destroyed if we aren’t careful. It’s up to all of us to protect those photo-worthy spots, and I’m realizing that sometimes even a single footprint makes a difference.

Contributing Editor Hilary Oliver’s work can also be found on The Gription.


Contributing editor Hilary Oliver lives in Denver and blogs at The Gription.
Showing 18 comments
  • Sam

    Great piece! Thanks for the perspective. I feel like more folks should be thinking about their “followers” in terms of future users of that site, instead of those out in pixel-land.

    P.S. The soils link is broken.

  • jim

    the idea of setting up a camp for the sole purpose of taking a picture and sharing it online is very foreign to me. It seems hard to really be in the space and time of a beautiful place when the focus of one’s action is to prepare for an addition to a virtual world/life. Not that I’m against it I just don’t understand making it priority. I don’t even like to bring a camera with me when I’m in the back country. I gave it up long before things went digital. It seemed like too big of a distraction to keep digging it out to “capture a moment.” sigh… it makes me sound like old geezer!

    • mike

      Exactly … not sure I’d be unpacking and setting-up a tent for the sole purpose of a picture.

  • Nate Lusk

    Really happy to see this post on the heels of the Campfire / camping poll – great reminder of the importance for minimal impact during back country travel.
    As for the article’s title, I’d argue that Facebook / Flickr / Instagram aren’t the problem, just the fuel that feeds the fire of an increasingly narcissistic society.

  • Abomb

    I called out one of the National Geographic young explorers about 2 years ago. They had posted photos of themselves camping at the base of Deer Creek Falls in the Grand Canyon, which is off limits to all camping. Or at least they set up the photo pretending it was their campsite just for the photo op, but it sets a bad example.

    I made a point of commenting on the blog on, and within 24 hours I noticed the original post was modified so the photo was removed. My comment, which was awaiting moderation before posting, was never shown on the site. Some of those nat ggeo explorers are all phoney and just try to hard to create a certain image.

    Thanks for posting this article and highlighting the problems associated with the extent people will go for a good photo to make a buck or collect a few more followers on Instagram.

  • Steve Hill

    One part narcissism, one part marketing. Obviously the person taking the photo is primarily responsible, but what about the companies that are sponsoring them or paying them for promotions? Patagonia does it, the North Face does it, Columbia does it. It’s not their fault, but they can influence good behavior.

  • Jack M.

    Instagram and excessive photos certainly help to significantly diminish the sacredness of our wild places. See the excellent book, The Abstract Wild by Jack Turner for more.

  • Mark K

    Outdoor-enthusiasts sure do love to prove they enjoy the outdoors better than everyone else don’t they? Whether it’s because they have a cooler campsite/photo than you, follow the rules better than you, or because they don’t waste time “taking photos” and live in the moment better than you. I’m sure the “outdoor industry” and “advertising” is behind it! Or maybe that’s just the type of people we are? How about a Poll on that, AJ?

    • Mike S.

      Is this only outdoor enthusiast? Competitiveness is not uncommon in our society. Are you trying to one up the other posts with your post? 😉
      I think the conversation is a good one and I appreciate the forum even if it is a bit competitive and at times greener-than-thou.

      • Mark K

        You caught me haha.

        I would say that outdoor-enthusiasts due tend towards the one-up-manship more so then most…

  • Malolm Daly

    Another hidden danger of posting photos of unique places is the geo-tagging that happens in many of today’s cell phones and P&S cameras. If you’re going to post up a photo of a unique, fragile or archeological scene, especially one that is hidden, be sure to turn off your geo location features. Untold destruction has happened to fragile archeological sites because geotagged photos were posted up on Facebook and Instagram.

  • Bob D

    Good stuff. And educational to boot. The uninitiated might be tempted to scrape the cryptoboitic crust from the rock, just to make things smooth.

  • Alex Dash

    Excellent piece, thank you. Unfortunately, the trend you highlight is old. Humans have been telling stories and inspiring dangerous exploits for as long as we’ve been able to vocalize – from The Odyssey to Instagram.

    Fortunately, these same storytelling methods – text, pictures and photos, and now videos – can inspire good action, too. A responsible hiker could post a photo of a tent several hundred feet removed from a pristine lake. And the view might just be better from there.

  • Hobart Flect

    ok, continuing down this ridiculous line of thinking to its obvious destination; we’ll all stay cloistered in our minimalist abodes while specially trained and equipped teams of “photo-adventurers” go out and experience the outside world for us. they’ll go places and take pictures while living on a low-residue diet and never leaving any footprints anywhere because all pictures will be taken from roadways. they will go everywhere by foot instead of using petroleum powered vehicles of any kind and we’ll all feel better because the earth will be untrodden, unspoiled and pristine for generations of photo-adventure observers to come: sounds exciting eh? is the entire planet about to become the next iteration of the “delta smelt” story? why is it that enviro-lunacy always has to be taken to the fringes of imbecility? face it, there will always be ignorant people who do stupid things in all locales, however rather than sit around and freak out about it, let’s try instead to simply do the right thing as often as possible, enjoy our surroundings and try to leave the great outdoors as close to the way we found it as possible. over and out…

    • steve casimiro

      Or, we could raise the issue, get people thinking about it, and maybe see some change.

  • some chick

    THANK YOU for such a well-written string of thoughts…reflecting the way I often feel.

    Maybe I’ll start a series of photo adventure updates, absent of photos, titled with perhaps soon to be trending hashtags such as…#ididntbringmycamera or #nophotoproof to incite preservation of the purity of the moment, and the values behind the adventure. Ultimately that might also have a positive impact on the environment.

  • Rocky

    I was surprised when you gave the benefit of the doubt to these posters saying you don’t believe they even camped there. That’s crazy to me to set up a tent for an Instagram shot. The book is still out for me on if the use of pictures in social media from the outdoors is a good thing or not.

  • LarkSkates

    This is a good, thought provoking article. I have several friends who are obsessed with Instagram, and yes, I could easily imagine them setting up a tent just to get a great Instagram shot. They spend hours looking at and following others with spectacular photos, and get inspired to take spectacular photos of their own. Seems harmless enough, but this article points out how it can be potentially harmful even if unintential. Awareness is always a good thing.

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