It is undeniable that we live in a world where social media holds strong sway over much of the population. The teasing phrase “If there aren’t photos, did it even happen?” has a ring of truth to it for many people who regularly use social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and now Tik Tok. With the massive uptick in social media usage, it begs the question, “How does this social trend impact the way people are spending time outdoors?”
Like any other tool or technology, social media can be a force for good or have the opposite effect. Leave No Trace invites outdoor enthusiasts to pause and consider the potential impacts of posting detailed pictures, GPS data, and maps of natural spaces on social media. There is no right or wrong way to “Leave No Trace,” it is simply a call to mindfulness so we can collectively enjoy nature responsibly. When we take a minute to consider the protection and sustainability of an area, we are already making a positive impact.
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Think Before You Geotag
Imagine you’re out on a beautiful backpacking trip. The trails are empty except for your small group, there isn’t a piece of litter to be found, and the views are breathtaking. Understandably, you may feel compelled to share your experience with others! However, the way you share your outdoor travels on social media is now more critical than ever, and geotagging especially can have detrimental effects on the land.
Geotagging adds your GPS-location metadata to a piece of content you share on social media. In this way, people can easily find the location of the fantastic new restaurant you posted about last week! However, posting your exact location is not always appropriate when it comes to unique places in nature. Geotagging has become one of the leading causes of overtourism in natural spaces worldwide.
In already popular destination sites such as Horseshoe Bend and Kaaterskill Falls, impacts of overtourism have had substantial adverse effects due to the lack of infrastructure and resources needed to accommodate the number of visitors. In recent years, the number of annual tourists to Horseshoe Bend has risen from 4,000 to 2.2 million. Much of this boom is due to the social media “hype” associated with these destinations.
An explosion of tourism potentially means more individuals crowding the trails, more chance of rubbish left behind, and an overall higher impact on the environment. While this rule holds true for popular sites such as national parks, it is even more true for locations that may not have any infrastructure whatsoever to handle high levels of foot traffic.
An additional unforeseen downside to geotagging is that once the information is out there (i.e., the exact location you photographed), it becomes difficult to control who can access that data. As technology advances, so do the methods of poachers and traffickers. Though there currently is not much evidence of “cyber poaching,” researchers agree that posting photos of wildlife with an accompanying geotag is a potential danger to animal populations.
When in doubt on your next camping excursion, “Take only photos, leave only footprints.” Depending on where you are, consider the impact of additional travelers that may see your geotag.
Be Mindful of What Images You Portray
In a world where the highlights of everyone’s lives are right at your fingertips, there is an underlying pressure to post only the “best” moments online for your community to see. Although there is nothing wrong with taking a selfie with a beautiful sunrise backdrop, searching for the “best” shot has led people to precarious and even damaging situations when out in nature.
Leave No Trace encourages people to be mindful of what images they portray when they’re experiencing the great outdoors. Consider how the photos you post will influence other people to behave in similar environments.
A great example of how social media posting can harm the environment is the California Super Bloom, a remarkable blanketing bloom of wildflowers that happens in the spring, depending on weather conditions from the previous year. This natural phenomenon draws crowds by the thousands from all across the region, all clamoring to get a sight at the stunning orange hills of California poppies and other native wildflowers.
Unfortunately, year in and year out, a great many of these flowers get trampled by the very people traveling to see them. Flowers are walked on, sat on, crushed, and flattened, almost always due to someone trying to get the “perfect photo.” When enough individuals post photos of themselves sitting in a bed of delicate wildflowers, it tells other people that it is ok to do the same. A snowball effect is created, and when combined with inappropriate geotagging, vulnerable natural places become the focal point of social media-driven stampedes.
Instead of posting photos that may cause others to interact with nature in damaging ways, Leave No Trace encourages outdoor enthusiasts to share photos that instill a sense of respect and stewardship for nature. Instead of climbing across a bed of newly bloomed flowers, take a photo of yourself on the trail with the flowers in the distance. Instead of picking up a wild animal for “the gram,” take a picture from a safe distance that does not disturb or distress the animal. Making decisions such as these normalizes a healthy respect for the outdoors and encourages others to behave similarly.
Encourage and Inspire Leave No Trace in Social Media Posts
Although social media has the potential to lead to harmful environmental practices, it is also a powerful platform for positive change. With millions of people worldwide frequently visiting popular social media sites, think of the incredible potential social media has to educate new generations of outdoor enthusiasts!
Leave No Trace encourages nature lovers to share their knowledge of land stewardship in their social media posts. Share a photo of you and your friends doing a trash clean up, or include appropriate fire safety tips in the caption of your next camping trip post. It does not take a small group of people doing it perfectly to make a difference. It takes many people making small mindful changes to truly impact a better tomorrow.
Give Back To The Places You Love
It doesn’t take massive changes in your lifestyle to make a positive difference. There are many simple ways you can give back to the places you love! Organizing small community clean-up events or finding a local volunteer organization are great places to start your own nature stewardship.
The next time you find yourself on a hike, bring along a bag for any litter you may find along your journey. Even removing a small amount of trash from the environment goes a long way, especially when your proactivity encourages others to do the same!
Depending on where you live, a great way to get involved with your community while helping your local nature is to find grass-root organizations that coordinate nature clean-ups and other environmentally positive events. Not only is it beneficial for the planet, it’s also an incredible opportunity to meet like-minded individuals! Like a ripple in a pond, a small positive action goes a long way, and you never know who you will influence to participate in the betterment of our earth!
Shaming Is Not the Answer
Everyone on earth experiences life a little bit differently. The same holds true for the way individuals enjoy the outdoors! Each outdoor experience is personal and unique. When it comes to Leave No Trace principles, the answer is never to online shame or bully people into adhering to LNT’s guidelines. Shaming, bullying, and pressuring individuals to change the way they interact with nature is unsupported by the organization and discouraged. Instead, Leave No Trace encourages nature enthusiasts to share their knowledge of outdoor stewardship through meaningful conversations held with empathy and understanding.
We’re all in this together. By compassionately educating others, we can help build a world abundant in respect for nature!