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Does Social Media Impact the Trails We Love?

Posted by Erika Haugen-Goodman at Sep 29, 2015 02:05 PM |
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Social media can be a powerful tool for sharing ideas, inspiration and information, but does it have the potential to negatively impact Washington's trails and wilderness areas?

As hikers, we love to share the incredible trails we’ve hiked and the amazing sights we see along the way. We snap photos and share them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and it feels good to show off the product of your day on trail. Whether it’s an emerald alpine lake, or the summit of a snow-capped mountain, we take pride in the positive reinforcement that comes from sharing fun photos of the places we love to visit.

But do these photos have the potential to negatively impact trails we all love to hike?

Kicking off a conversation worth having

Seattle-based adventure photographer Scott Rinckenberger recently jump-started this crucial conversation among his fellow photographers and his (not insignificant) following on Instagram by posing the question to his followers on Instagram:

Scott Rinckenberger

Scott's followers replied with a range of thoughtful opinions.

One viewpoint expressed over and over again in the thread was that of inclusion, a feeling that everyone should be able to visit public lands. Some answers focused on the long-term damage caused to fragile areas when hikers flock in larger numbers, spurred by the sharing of these locations on social media. Commenters also voiced concerns about educating new hikers who might be visiting trails without a solid grounding in trail etiquette or Leave No Trace practices.

Scott weighed in on his blog after he posed the question to his Instagram audience, and outlined a nuanced view of his own. His entire blog is worth a read, but here's a sample:

Our amazing public lands are one of the greatest gifts we have as humans. They should be enjoyed by everyone who has the inspiration and energy to visit. As someone who has been fortunate to travel widely in beautiful places, I understand the transformative power it can have for an individual and the potential it has to create a better world for all. I feel strongly compelled to share the stories and the images that come from stepping into the great outdoors. Furthermore, it has been widely established that the only places that are protected are those places that have a voice. Photos, stories and conservation efforts from users of the outdoors are imperative in maintaining and expanding their protection.

But, with [these] gifts that are offered by the wild places, there also comes great responsibility. From the parking lot and outhouse to the campsites and summits, there is no excuse to leave any mark or item if it can be in any way avoided. If my work inspires a visit, than let the Leave No Trace Guidelines dictate the manner in which the visit is conducted.

WTA's take: inspire, empower, educate

There is no doubt that Washington has some of the best hiking trails in the nation, and perhaps the world. But as more people are hiking and sharing photos from their camps and adventuressome of those trails have become threatened with overuse. Some trails are built to handle more boots than others, but some fragile, alpine spots are showing the pressures of so much attention.

So, how can everyone who wants to enjoy Washington's trails do so without loving them to death?
There are no easy answers. More people hiking means more people speaking up for trails, and trail funding and that's a good thing. It also means that the hiking community needs to hold ourselves to a higher standard of responsibility.

WTA is dedicated to helping inspire and connect people to our amazing public trails while also educating hikers on how to enjoy the outdoors in a way where our collective impact on these wild spaces is kept to a minimum. With your help, we can ensure that our trails will be here for future generations to enjoy.

Here are a few ways to preserve the trails we love to hike:
  • Positive-impact hikes. Learn about and Practice Leave No Trace principles, and go beyond zero-impact to leave trails better than you found them, every single time.
  • Share responsibly. Your posts matter. If you hike, you are an ambassador for trails. If you share fragile locations on social media, consider using a broader location description to avoid promoting a single destination. Get five tips for responsible social sharing of your trail adventures.
  • Mix up your hiking destinations. You can lessen the impact on popular trails by seeking out less publicized trails. Research and discover the joys of hiking on the thousands of existing trails around the state.
  • Write a trip report when you hike to let others know about conditions. Make a note if you see a trail or area suffering from irresponsible use.

What do you think?

Do you have a tip for responsible social sharing? Do you have ideas about how sharing photos on social media can be used to educate or positively influence trails at risk? Share your thoughts below, on our social channels or on Scott's blog.


Social Media affecting trails.

There is no doubt that social media such as WTA has brought about more hikers on the trails. I have about 300 followers who live in Washington who follow my you tube channel and respond to my trip reports on WTA. They tell me they hike many of the hikes I show case on you tube and WTA. I do believe public lands should be open to all. So with that in mind I will make a pledge to add things to my videos and WTA reports about what I find wrong and right on the trails I hike as well how we can all make a difference in preserving the best hiking trails in the world.

Posted by:

Mike on Sep 29, 2015 06:13 PM

It Probably Does

I suspect that trip reports with enticing photographs that get posted here tend to bring significantly more visitors to said trail in the following days than would have otherwise gone. I'm guilty of this also of course, because I want to make the best use of my hiking time. A couple of examples:

1. I saw several reports from Yellow Aster Butte, headed there Tuesday last week. There were over 50 cars parked at the trailhead. I encountered dozens of hikers on the way up. The lake basin below the butte had 4-6 groups set up to camp. The butte had 3 other groups on top when I arrived.

2. Saw some nice reports from Lake Ingalls. Decided to head up there last Saturday expecting a bit of a crowd, but actually it was mobbed. There were at least 200 cars at the trailhead, lining both sides of the road for about a half mile. I encountered dozens of groups of people on the way up and had to step off the trail to let people by so many times it was starting to impact my schedule. One guy was carrying a sleeping baby. Headlight Basin must have had 2-3 dozen tents set up. It was like an NP campground.

I'm not exactly sure when things changed, but having trouble finding parking was unheard of when I moved here 17 years ago. Back then I would be surprised to find other people on the same trail and it was that way for many years. It's certainly a lot more crowded now than even 10 years ago, maybe even 5.

* just for fun - also back then there were no parking passes required, you could day hike to the top of Glacier Peak via the White Chuck River Trail, Enchantments permits were easy to get, and there was a campground at the Longmire entrance to Rainier

Posted by:

jasonracey on Sep 29, 2015 07:24 PM

Social Media affecting trails:

I think people need to take a moment and reflect before they write a trail report and share it to the masses.

Social Media has been advantageous to generate trail awareness and to remind us all to practice good trail etiquette; however, I do agree with the statement that social media is causing some of our precious wilderness areas to be "loved to death."

All of us deserve to enjoy the wilderness and beautiful hiking destinations , but please stop and think about it before posting that favorite hike report on social media. Maybe just share your pictures with a few good hiking buddies. I mean as fellow hikers and wishful pioneers, isn't it fun to still "self seek and explore?"

Posted by:

Hoot on Sep 30, 2015 09:00 AM

MapleLeaf on Does Social Media Impact the Trails We Love?

I agree that we may be "loving our trails to death," however, the trails that get the most impact are also the most popular with the easiest access and they would still be impacted regardless of sharing images. Take Mount Si, for instance. I've never hiked it simply because I know it's so incredibly busy and I try to avoid the crowds. Taking short cuts and creating social trails are a problem well as hiking in big groups, hiking with unleashed dogs and stomping over meadows.

I do think that everyone has a right to explore the trails but education in Leave No Trace is key to minimizing the impact. That said, I think there should be an all-out effort to educate hikers by having information tables at key access points - I saw rangers doing this at Mount Baker this summer. We have to continue to educate and remind people about their impacts - it should be an ongoing effort (volunteering will
be key to this).

Posted by:

MapleLeaf on Sep 30, 2015 10:28 AM

MapleLeaf on Does Social Media Impact the Trails We Love?

Besides sharing on social media, local magazines (Seattle Met), blogs and news stations are constantly broadcasting where to hike and this is contributing to crowds as well. One more photo on someone's Facebook page or Instagram isn't
going to make a difference at this point, therefore, it's more important than ever to get the word out about minimizing impact.

Posted by:

MapleLeaf on Sep 30, 2015 10:36 AM

Great Points

Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. There are some great points to think about.

Trip reports can serve as a way to educate hikers in a way that we haven’t seen a lot of on social media so far. For example, a lot of Instagram posts focus on the photo only, where as trip reports really help shine a light on the trail itself (not just the destination) -- conditions, challenges, lessons learned, etc.

Bringing awareness to those issues is something that would be great to see more of on social media in addition to on the trip reports here on the site.

-Erik Haugen-Goodman (WTA staffer)

Posted by:

Erika Haugen-Goodman on Sep 30, 2015 01:10 PM

My vote... It definitely does and it can be somewhat heartbreaking.

I'm sure so many others feel the same way that I do... you grew up immersed in nature and it truly is your retreat after a long week. You understand polite and LNT trail use and you feel passionately that being out in nature is a privilege, not a right.
However, each trail I go on these days I see a larger number of people who don't act this way than those that you feel an instant bond to because you know that they are on your side. I think that a huge reason behind this surge is due to social media and this new mind-set that "adventure" is a status symbol. By going out and taking a cool photo in front of an alpine lake or what have you, people are proving some weird point to others and themselves. I have been trying to educate others that I encounter both on the trail and on social media about LNT ethics and how to use trails in a way that makes them more enjoyable for everyone, but I feel like people just don’t care. Case and point, I always ask people as politely as possible to not feed Gray Jays (camp robbers) and even explain all the reason why not to and more often than not they just look at me like “yeah, ok, whatever” and turn around and do it anyhow. It makes it tough to want to keep up the good fight. Love that people are doing more to bring attention to this and hopefully plant some good seeds!!

Posted by:

Holly Anderson on Sep 30, 2015 03:28 PM

Overcrowded trails

I agree with hollylama. I grew up hiking and camping around the NW way before Microsoft, Amazon and the hiking hordes. I do post regular trip reports, but I don't hike the big view, bada** climbs either. I don't mind sharing the trails with courteous, considerate hikers, but it seems like so many hikers think the rules don't apply to them, and yes, it seems like so many of them are the young yoga pants wearing crowd out for selfies at the top of the peak or next to a beautiful lake, leaving a trail of trash and dog poo bags behind. Poor Blanca! Losing so many of the old trails to no maintenance or closed roads doesn't help either. More people, less space, more impact. Even if all hikers practiced LNT, there will still be impact on a popular trail.

Posted by:

Muledeer on Sep 30, 2015 07:42 PM

MapleLeaf on Does Social Media Impact the Trails We Love?

I also grew up in the Pacific Northwest and remember seeing less people on the trails. I also don't like the influx of the "yoga pant wearing selfie crowd" as Muledeer so poetically described. It's especially frustrating when you come across people that don't respect nature or care about trail etiquette. But the crowds aren't going away. The only foreseeable solutions are to limit access to trails with high traffic and/or educate in LTN (multiple ways to do this). And, hopefully the hiking "hoards" can be tapped into for WTA trail preservation, funding and lobbying efforts.

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,
where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."
- John Muir, The Yosemite (1912)

Posted by:

MapleLeaf on Oct 01, 2015 08:01 AM

Generation 'Z' and Nature

There is no doubt that social media has not only increased trail use in the PNW but has also ‘changed’ its use; the motivation behind being in the outdoors has shifted and this is worrying for the future of our wilderness areas.

Within the past few years I have noticed a distinct shift in ‘trail clientele’. Large packs of teenagers and 20 somethings 12+ strong, they play loud music from smartphones, wear sneakers and scoff at people with large packs – after all who needs a first aid kit in the backcountry. I have thought long and objectively about this change and have concluded that their motivation is not the admiration and exploration of the natural world but in achieving a “goal” so that one can then publicize their achievements on social media characterized by the classic “selfie” on the summit of – “i’m here and you’re not”

At first this seems harmless self indulgence, after all isn’t it good that these young people are outside instead of staring at LCD’s in situ?; perhaps, but only if it’s for the right reasons. I’m a big believer that one must be intimately and emotionally connected to something to provoke a change in behavior. For example being mesmerized by the glacial landscape of the North Cascades could lead to a career change, exploration of volunteering opportunities or just simply living a more sustainable life, swimming against the current; rejecting the status-quo.

Therefore if this new generation powered by social media is simply hiking to a location for bragging rights or to keep up with their peers from a social perspective then it’s both a tragedy and a grim proposition for the natural world. A relationship with any dynamic system is a two-way affair and taking without giving back is simply not sustainable.

Organizations like WTA should partner with local schools to actively evangelize young people to volunteer, collect litter and become stewards of the environment. In the end it comes down to harnessing the ‘social pressure effect’ of social media to force change – from boastful pictures of “summit selfies” to those of “garbage collected”.

Posted by:

ricola on Oct 01, 2015 09:37 PM

A few thoughts

The old adage is, you only protect what you love. The only way people fall in love with nature is by experiencing it first hand; sharing our experiences shared in any manner inspire others to join in as well. I understand that the crowding is less than ideal and that fragile areas need protecting, but again, people don't protect what they don't love.

An additional thought to go with the LNT principles is this: I don't remember the last time I left a trail with at least a few additional pieces of trash I had collected along the way. When I've had the pleasure of a full run in solitude, I'm simply happy to have done it; but when I've passed and been passed by several others (of ALL experience levels) enjoying the trails, I can't help but wonder, 'how am I the first person seeing this and doing something about it.' Let's all try our best to go one step beyond leaving no trace and leave the area better than how we found it!

Posted by:

nicplemel on Oct 06, 2015 05:24 PM

Mixed Feelings

I have lived and hiked here for 35 years and do feel dismayed by the huge increase in day-hiking especially at some particularly scenic trails and locations. On the one hand, it is just wonderful to see so many young people, including foreign born, who have taken up hiking, especially day hiking in a big way. I hope it's not just to do what everyone else is doing (as seen on social media!), but also it's to come to know and appreciate natural beauty, the diversity of plants and animals, and the feeling of being in the wilderness. If this is happening, in spite of the problems and all the crowding and overflowing trailhead parking, then I'm all for it. I hope the foreign born take their experiences back to their home country and advocate for preservation of wild lands. On the other hand, I'm choosing my hikes differently now, looking for those less scenic places, where I can experience nature with fewer fellow travelers, and I miss the freedom and solitude of the old days

Posted by:

BethS on Oct 10, 2015 04:40 PM

It is a conundrum

On one hand we want to see people out enjoying the wilderness and appreciation our efforts to preserve it. Yet I don't particularly like crowds so I do two things. I hike on trails that are not popular and I hike on alternatives to trails. It isn't to difficult to find a game trail, or a fisherman's trail around a lake to a secluded spot. Sometimes we find a bushwhack up to a ridge with a view or a climbers approach to a route few people use. Some friends and I have researched the area we hike in and found historical sites I doubt are ever visited by others. We would never post or otherwise make these places known to anyone out side our group. And of course, as mentioned in the latest issue of Trails, Winter is a beautiful time to be up high in the wilderness and never see another sole.

Posted by:

Jim Morrison on Nov 14, 2015 09:26 AM