Leave No Trace Says Stop Geotagging, for Pete’s Sake

The trail ethics group adds new digital guidance to its framework for responsible recreation.


Adventure Journal doesn’t have a big Instagram presence, and we generally don’t tag locations, for the fairly obvious reason that some of the best places on earth are already overrun and overcrowded with nature lovers. We also think it’s better to inspire than to take people by the hand and lead them to a spot. The joy of discovery is a key element of adventure.

In 2016, in Adventure Journal 02, I wrote a piece called “Leave No (Digital) Trace? Oversharing Is Damaging Our Wild Public Lands—It’s Time to Rethink How and What We Post.” In that story, I said:

Today, most outdoor enthusiasts know and live by Leave No Trace guidelines, and thanks in part to LNT it’s still possible to disappear into wild lands and find solitude. The successes of both clean climbing and LNT are evidence that education can change behavior, that we will act individually to collectively protect experiences and places we know to be special and fragile. And with that in mind, I am arguing that it’s time to add two more guidelines to our outdoor code, either informally or, even better, as codified additions to the Leave No Trace framework:

• Only identify locations posted to social media in general terms. Don’t be too specific, and keep secret spots secret.

• Don’t post or share GPS coordinates of backcountry destinations. Ask those who do to remove them.

Adventure Journal’s has not been the only voice calling for less digital exploitation of public spaces, and thank goodness, because Leave No Trace, whether affected by outside sentiment or driven by internal recognition of the need for a new code, has just announced “new social media guidance.”

LNT wrote:

When posting to social media, consider the following:

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.

Be mindful of what your images portray – give some thought to what your images may encourage others to do. Images that demonstrate good Leave No Trace practices and stewardship are always in style.

Give back to places you love – invest your own sweat equity into the outdoor spaces and places you care about. Learn about volunteer stewardship opportunities and get involved in the protection of our shared lands.

Encourage and inspire Leave No Trace in social media posts – given the millions of social media users in the world, think of the incredible potential that social media has to educate outdoor enthusiasts – first timers to seasoned adventurers – about enjoying our wild lands responsibly.

Fantastic! This is excellent news, to see a major outdoor group urging ethical behavior in the digital realm. I’m also excited to see LNT go further than I recommended. It’s important that we question the ethos of our time, that we try to anticipate unintended consequence, and that we—image—act with restraint. Kudos to Leave Not Trace for taking these steps.

“Leave No Trace isn’t black or white, right or wrong,” the group writes. “It’s a framework for making good decisions about enjoying the outdoors responsibly, regardless of how one chooses to do so. If outdoor enthusiasts stop and think about the potential impacts and associated consequences of a particular action, it can go a long way towards ensuring protection of our shared outdoor spaces. To that end, we encourage outdoor enthusiasts to stop and think about their actions and the potential consequences of posting pictures, GPS data, detailed maps, etc. to social media. Furthermore, we urge people to think about both the protection and sustainability of the resource and the visitors who come after them.

Photo by Sean DuBois on Unsplash

 

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 13 comments
  • Jeff Fujita
    Reply

    I’m a full-timing traveler in a trailer and have begun this practice lately on FB and IG; e.g., southern Utah or mention of a National Monument or National Forest – maybe that’s even too much. I have to laugh at folks who get indignant when their request for specific information on a location is politely denied; part of the fun of adventure is finding it for yourself. But in the end, we are all part of the problem directly or indirectly – it’s a matter of holding off the inevitable for as long as possible.

  • G.G.S.
    Reply

    In posting at all is encouraging people to go to designated and in many cases close places like National Parks. It’s natural want to share places and experiences. I’ve seen sharing used to call out people for leaving graffiti as an example of how sharing be used to educate people about what not to do as well as more positive how to LNT ideas.

    I laugh at “secret spots”. Secrets out already or most people still wouldn’t not go because of other barriers such as distance,$,time,equipment etc. It’s great in an age of sharing every last detail to leave a lot of room for some mystery as well as the romance of adventure and self discovery.

  • robert
    Reply

    awesome article. over the decades i have visited a cave that native americans lived in for generations. each time i return, it is exactly as i left it and exactly as i found it so many years ago. I can’t imagine anyone stumbling on this sanctuary since it’s so rugged and remote. the idea of geo tagging this location seems almost criminal to me.

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      GPS coordinates or it doesn’t exist. Hahahahahahah.

      It doesn’t exist.

  • gringo
    Reply

    Agree 100% Steve.

  • Chrris
    Reply

    hopefully another benefit of people not geo-tagging locations is we’ll see a little more variety in the photos. i’m tired of seeing a million identical photos of horseshoe bend

  • Alex
    Reply

    In my mind this brings up the same tension between access and preservation that the NPS has struggled with for its entire existence. It’s worth acknowledging that refusing to disclose details of a location isn’t exactly inviting people to enjoy the outdoors, particularly people who haven’t traditionally been part of the outdoors community.

    “Here’s this awesome view that I think is worth sharing with the whole world!”
    “Beautiful! Where is it? I’d love to see it myself.”
    “Can’t tell you that’s secret wouldn’t want you and others like you to ruin it by going there.”

    What a lame attitude. Of course those who are “in the know” already know where horseshoe bend (for example) is and don’t care whether you geotag it or not. But for those just getting into this and interested in exploring, it’s a pretty exclusionary stance. I’m all for making access difficult in the interest of preservation (not every place needs to have a paved road leading to it, for example) but I don’t think that principle should be applied to prevent the sharing of *information*. If we’re going to ban geotagging in the interest of keeping people away from popular spots, what about the helpful info on summitpost or Colin Fletcher’s evocative accounts of the Grand Canyon? Aren’t they equally guilty?

  • Hiking Diva
    Reply

    I thought we were supposed to inspire others to explore instead of going to the same damn places all the time. I don’t post specifics of petroglyphs or other particularly fragile spots. Stupid to hoard these special places – I have a pile of off the beaten path spots saved from locals in another part of the country to explore. Perhaps if people knew of a variety of places, they would spread themselves out.

    I think your idea is incredibly selfish and sad.

  • rick
    Reply

    The usual hypocritical article telling you not to share the location but if you were to go there then you better buy this gear and you better travel this way and you better stay in these lodges along the way, they don’t get kickbacks or revenue from a high and mighty location so by all means keep that a secret and leave no trace

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      We’ve never said you should buy anything or go anywhere. We share what we’ve found and after that it’s up to you.

  • Tait
    Reply

    Steve, I guess I’m missing the presumed link between publicity and damage? As Alex said above, there is always a risk of “loving a place to death” that has been a hallmark of NPS history. And I’m not immersed in Instagram culture, but I’d bet some of the kickback is due to the disgust over crass use of wild places for self-aggrandizement, and posting as a proxy for experiencing. These things make the argument seem self-explanatory.

    But, I’d like to hear more more of a case on why the best way to protect a place is to keep it hidden. It seems odd that a publication that reports so often on groups helping people get outside, who rely on public awareness and support to protect beloved places, would argue that bringing attention to those places through social media posts would be destructive. There might be some refinements to make that would better suit the goals of conservation rather than spreading a curtain around our national treasures and instituting an oath of secrecy.

    (No vitriol here. I love what you guys do and have been a regular reader since about the beginner. Just found this a curious proposal.)

    • Steve Casimiro
      Reply

      Tait—we don’t put stories from the print version of AJ online, so you’d have to pick up a copy of AJ02 to read all the examples we’ve highlighted (and why), but there are many cases where there’s a direct link between social media popularity and a sudden crush of users, from a bridge on private property in Oregon to an island in Thailand, both of which are now closed to visitors. You really don’t have to look far.

      Also, I don’t think we have ever said that the best way to protect a place is to keep it hidden. Nobody is suggesting a curtain. What I am saying is that social media has tremendous power to amplify the popularity of a place, practically overnight, and with that power comes responsibility to think about the consequences of your location tags. Posting a picture but not identifying a specific location isn’t hiding it, it’s simply not taking people by the hand and pointing them there.

      FWIW, I approach sharing location information on a spectrum. Some places are still special and fragile and as yet untouched, so I keep them to myself or only my most trusted friends. There are places I would take someone but not point them toward. There are places that I would tell friends about, but not write about. There are places I would write about generally (North Cascades, etc.) but not ID a specific lake or campsite or viewpoint. And then there are places that are already internet famous—even these, I generally don’t tag a particular spot.

      Media like AJ have long had an outsized role and thus outsized responsibility in stewarding our shared lands, both by what we write and what we don’t. Many publications—and we all know them—are shameless about sharing supposedly secret spots. Throughout my career, and since launching AJ, I have always tried to err on the side of less, of giving fewer specifics. That doesn’t get us off the hook—we do still write about places. But we are aware of the impact publishing information can have and I would argue that we’re at least trying to publish responsibly.

      The big different between now and 20 years ago, when I was working with Nat Geo Adventure, is that everyone with a social media account is a publisher. The kinds of discussions we used to have in house about whether to cover Secret Spot X are now the kinds of discussions and considerations everyone with an Instagram account should be having.

      Okay, Friday afternoon. Brain dead. Words choppy. Point made. Inarticulateness rising. Time to start the weekend with a long ride.

  • Gnarlydog
    Reply

    I realized a long time ago that a pristine place that I have come across by chance (off trail) was only that because it was off the beaten path, so to speak. And to let others enjoy that “discovery” I certainly left it anonymous even if I photographed it and shared my images. That was even before digital was invented and I have maintained that policy since.
    I feel sick to see the self absorbed Instacrappers boosting their egos with selfies posted from places where they don’t belong, geotagging. Tag Paris, London and The Bronx, but leave the stix alone: they are no place for the mindless ignorant crowds.

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