Protecting Wilderness in the Social Media Age

I recently wrote about Washington state legends Bob and Ira Spring and Harvey Manning, who collaborated on the guidebooks that introduced thousands of Washingtonians to trail systems in the 1960s. Ira Spring was a fierce advocate for trails and wilderness accessibility, believing that people, once introduced to nature’s wonders, would transform into conservationists. Manning was more cynical, a champion for wilderness “deeps,” as opposed to Spring’s “shallows,” and he believed that large swaths of wilderness should remain inaccessible except to the most intrepid explorers.

The debate, which followed them to their graves, sounded oddly familiar, like one that I’d heard in interviews with Instagram-famous explorers, among friends, and on trail forums. How do we make wilderness—and information about it—accessible to the masses without compromising that which makes the wilderness great in the first place? The Springs and Manning’s first trail guide, 100 Hikes in Western Washington, was wildly popular. The trails featured exploded in popularity, and the increased traffic placed a heavy burden on the ecosystems through which they traveled. For a little perspective, that book sold 300,000 copies.

There are a lot of ways to use the internet as an outdoor lover. You can, of course, post Instagrams of your favorite spots. You can brag on Facebook about your accomplishments. You can post lengthy accounts of your adventures on climbing forums, trail websites, or on a blog. Your internet habits might make you unpopular among your friends and really popular among strangers, your posts might drift into the black hole of internet archives, you might get 100 likes or just one, from your mom. But there’s more than just your social standing to be considered before you go live.

One of my favorite Instagram accounts is that of Brianna Madia, a van-dwelling, desert-loving, two-dog-owning living inspiration. Her brand of free-spirited living works for a lot of other people, too—90,800, to be exact. She posted a gorgeous shot of one of her dogs in a canyon in June with a caption addressing the question “Why don’t you geotag?” that stuck with me:

It’s a question I get a lot (along with, of course, “where is this”.) Even though I could talk for hours about how excruciatingly aware I am of the impact social media has on wild spaces, and the litany of reasons why I don’t participate in that aspect of it… I will abbreviate it to this: Do some research. Go buy a guidebook. Learn how to read topo maps. Chat with that crusty old local at the gas station. Set the mileage on your odometer. Go turn down a couple dozen wrong dirt roads in the dark of night. Argue with your significant other over a map or some directions texted to you from an old friend. Trudge a couple 12 or 13 mile approaches in the dead of a desert day. Take an exit because it looks like it goes somewhere interesting. Turn down damn near every dirt road you see until you find that perfect hammock spot or that secluded river bank or that breathtaking overlook. There are still wild places. There are still places that aren’t advertised on TV commercials or on gigantic “Thank You For Visiting” billboards. There are still places without hoards of people and paved roads and gift shops and visitor centers and shuttle buses and marked trails. There are quiet, sacred places where the act of exploration is still a requirement…places that were never supposed to be “easy” to find. With all due respect…I intend to keep them that way.

Awesome, right? Though most of us don’t have multiple thousands of followers liable to pack up and head to our favorite, under-the-radar canyon as soon as we list coordinates, Madia’s sentiment about exploration in general gets at something important.

The internet has expanded and transformed wilderness shallows, with just a single Instagram image reaching a far greater audience than the Springs and Manning ever could. And it isn’t just Instagram. Websites like The Outbound and Hipcamp thrive on sharing information about awesome places in the outdoors, and plenty of stories published by outdoor magazines (including my own) share tips on where to go and how to get there. It’s not all bad, either (or maybe I’m just a guilty party). I’ve definitely decided where to spend my Saturday with a few clicks on Friday night, and it’s awesome that there’s so much information out there.

But good stewardship of public lands is bigger than just LNT, now. It’s on us—those of us who get 15 likes and those of us who get 15,000—to be conscientious about how and where we share information on the web about wild places. Avoid geotagging, location-based hashtags, and anything else that might contribute to a place going viral on social media. Keep specific, detailed trip reports to forums and blogs, where they can be of use to those who know where to go (beyond Instagram) to find reliable information. As Madia said, do at least some of your research off-line. Make an effort to keep your feet off the most well-trodden paths.

We love to tag along on people’s lives and adventures via the Internet, but with ever more people—from dirtbags to professional mountaineers—having a platform through which the world can reach them almost daily, I worry we’re losing our collective imagination. “Van life” doesn’t look a certain way. I don’t need the same Rumpl blanket or floppy felt hat as that cool guy on the Internet to live my best life. I also don’t need to be hitting the same places, or following in his footsteps in any way at all. The best part of wilderness is the way that it surprises you, the joy of coming across something you didn’t expect to find. So be creative, open-minded, and okay with an adventure that won’t always be picture perfect.

Photo by Davidd.

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