Leave No Trace in the Digital Era

A sure sign we’ve charged into the 21st century: Leave No Trace has issued digital guidelines for how we can all practice LNT in regards to social media.

Y’all, this is such a messy topic for me.

In the 13 years that I’ve run this site {along with the accompanying social media platforms}, there is a single question I’ve received far more than anything else:

WHERE IS THIS TRAIL?

And honestly, in the past, I’ve been quite open in sharing my trail beta. I’m a staunch believer that the outdoors is for everyone and that educating people can curb the stupidity that we’ve seen ruin some of our beautiful places. I frequently geo-tagged hikes on Instagram in the hopes that others will enjoy the same areas and, as a result, fight passionately to protect Mother Nature in the future.

And, I’ve even doubled down on this sharing of information in posts like this one, encouraging others to avoid elitism in the outdoors. In doing so, I’ve offended some {as evidenced in the comments of that post} while receiving cheers from others, thanking me for helping them discover the Great Outdoors.

I’ve even written posts like this one that detail locations for people to camp. To be sure, I’ve received plenty of hate mail for this post, but I’m trying to be as honest as I can. To date, it’s easily my most popular post and I still receive dozens of emails every week, asking for the “best camping” in various areas of Colorado.

People want to learn how to get outdoors and most want a blueprint for the easiest way to do this. But that’s the thing: there is no direct route. And now, Leave No Trace is confirming what many have been noticing for awhile: social media is causing significant impact on our wild spaces.

PC: Moxie82 Inc.

Moving forward, when I generally tag a post on Instagram with a broad-reaching location {like an entire national park, for example}, it’s not because I’m trying to be elitist or make anyone feel lesser than because they can’t find that beautiful vista. Instead, it’s because I’m trying to do my part in helping our planet avoid over-trammeling. Contrary to what many believe, social media is a digital form of communication that is here to stay and as it continues to evolve, so must our methods of handling the technology and its direct effect on the natural world.

But this also leads me to a bigger question: how do I handle trail stories on my site? How do I act as a thoughtful steward of this planet while still running this website? Do I write up trail adventure stories without including any trail information? Do I encourage readers to practice LNT with every story I share? Can I ensure that anyone that comes across my digital blueprint will leave as minimal of an impact as I’m hoping she does?

These are complex questions that I’m grappling with, and I don’t have the answers to any of them. Do you? That said, I’m really hoping to encourage productive discussion. Social media isn’t going anywhere. Social media and the internet are arguably the best place to study up on trail beta and research prospective adventures. But how do we remain respected sources of content while avoiding contributing to the overuse of fragile ecosystems?

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11 Comments

  • Reply art June 13, 2018 at 6:01 am

    I have always thought that the people who don’t want others to know where a place is are equivalent to those music fans who get ticked off when the band they love becomes popular, but I see the point of this article and agree wholeheartedly that over-trammeling of public spaces is a bad result. I had no idea this was a thing! But as per usual, you’re addressing it head on and I commend you for it. How do you remain a respected source of content without contributing to overuse of a fragile eco-system? That’s a tight rope. I still remember you talking about that run you went on in the desert where an unknowing runner plowed through living earth (I can’t recall the name of the type of soil). And, that such a thing existed was news to me. Please keep informing. Please keep reminding people of the beauty and preciousness. And, I hope you can find a balance which works for you, Heather. Thanks.

  • Reply Amy June 13, 2018 at 8:04 am

    I’m with Art. Couldn’t have said it any better!!

  • Reply Liz June 13, 2018 at 8:37 am

    As a popular blogger with a big audience, I think you do have an obligation to be cautious with your geotags. It would be one thing if you had few followers, but you posting about a location that is already under stress might truly cause more stress to the area due to the size of your audience. I think tagging the whole national park or the general geographic region is the way to go.

  • Reply Claire June 13, 2018 at 9:06 am

    I don’t envy the thin line that outdoor adventure writers have to walk nowadays. On the one hand, you have to be true to your personal philosophies of social equality and democratic access to the outdoors. On the other hand, you have to be a steward of the environment so that these beautiful spaces will be available to future generations.

    I don’t have an answer as to how both can be accomplished at the same time. I do think that increased access to LNT education and funding for national parks, forests, and monuments are steps in the right direction. As a blogger, you might not have a lot of influence over national policy decisions, but continuing to educate people on LNT principles and encouraging people to talk to park rangers before heading out into the wilderness is always a good thing.

    I agree with you that elitism in the outdoor adventure scene is wrong and stupid. However, as we’re heading into possibly a nasty summer fire season in Colorado, being protective isn’t just a matter of keeping the best campsites to ourselves. I would rather not see 500 sq km of forest burned to a crisp because someone thinks that fire bans are merely a suggestion.

  • Reply Andrea Nagel June 13, 2018 at 10:24 am

    It’s so tough! I also have a blog encouraging people to get out and explore – and I frequently highlight specific trails because my blog is highly localized right now. It’s a tough decision, and one I’m also struggling with. I’m really interested to hear more of your thoughts on the subject moving forward. Keep up the good work! As always, education and knowledge will be key as more people access these wild areas.

  • Reply Heidi Haas June 13, 2018 at 2:46 pm

    I think everyone has had great comments so far. This is a bit of a double edged sword – we want to keep places pristine and limit those who can use them, but we also need people to know of these amazing places so we can have stewards who will fight for them. There are many who respect the outdoors, but unfortunately there are many who do not – and that’s the tough part.

    As a transplant to CO i found this blog through the dispersed camping post, and stayed for many more. While being on the side of “I’d love to know where that is!” for camping, amazing views, and hikes, I think it is important to not make things too easy. I think Heather’s method of providing high level locations or just a taste is a great compromise. In the case of the dispersed camping she gave just a few places to start and it’s up to us to find the many, many more fantastic spots out there – and half the fun is exploring to find those. It’s ok to make people work a bit to find these amazing locations. These blogs do provide great introductions to additional topics and the education Heather and other writers can provide is a huge asset.

    As a photographer we also carry the same burdens. Do we share locations for wildlife or fantastic views? I too will do high level keywording to indicate regions but will not post the geolocations. I also will wait to post anything timely if it seems like it might affect the livelihood of the animals. I also try to educate others if it seems like they are acting inappropriate, or report them if it doesn’t seem safe.

    Social media can be a great thing, but it would be great if everyone could use some restraint when it comes to sharing.

  • Reply Claude June 13, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    Answer: Stop apologizing and catering to everyone. The jerks, and there are many, who want to know the best campgrounds, the best photo sites, the best of this and the best of that (and want to do no research to find it), are likely the people who have a different set of values and responsibilities than you and husband.

    Tell them of the park or area, maybe even how to research it for what floats their boat. After all, you did the research to get there, no one dropped it in your lap, so let them do the same. If they won’t research, they’re not your demographic, you don’t want them!

    Simple, end of story, it’s your blog, it’s your prerogative, you make the rules.

    Many years ago, way before you were born, there was a commercial for a coffee brand on TV (black and white then, no remotes either). The message went something like this:

    ‘You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all the time’. It’s just a rule of life, it concerns every area of our lives. As a public figure, you have to do what is best to cherish the environment you love and insure others do as well. Since you can’t insure anything with your audience at large, don’t put the tools in their hands!

    Whether you like it or not, you are the elite because people look up to you, and you’ve attained that distinction by all your hard work with research, planning, implementation, and discoveries; you shouldn’t just give it away to a worldwide audience. You just don’t know how it will be used!

    Decisions are not that tough, you just need to decide to choose. It shouldn’t be a wrestlefest, a war of conflicting conscience.

  • Reply Mary June 16, 2018 at 8:55 am

    I have a not so popular blog and since I work full time, my destinations are mostly all local. However, I think it’s more Insta and video that has the impact. I’ve worked as a recreation planner for the Forest Service for a long time and there’s tons I could say that won’t fit in this comment box. I’ve seen social media turn a remote canyon into a dangerous place where gangs tag rocks then post video and other gangs come to tag over those tags. So not all users are there to appreciate the area. There is a darker side. As far as blogging, it’s an individual decision. Mine are pretty vague but my friends who blog sometimes include GPS points and tips. I can’t bring myself to do that because I live in what was once sort of secret, now discovered, though mostly from print media, ironically.

  • Reply Lisa June 16, 2018 at 9:50 am

    I think there is a difference between sharing on a blog and geotagging on instagram. A geotag provides instant location information without ANY further reading or research. So for geotagging, I’m all for vague tags. But for a blog post I think it’s a bit different. You can incorporate LNT principles and any important environmental or safety info. Also just the nature of having to search and find the blog then read through the post then whatever follow up info is needed is more work and not the same ease as a specific geotag. A blog can essentially be a modern day trail guide. The user has to do more on their own to land on the page with the information they are looking for, and you as the author have control over the information provided!

  • Reply Rachel @ Better LIVIN June 21, 2018 at 8:18 am

    I can understand the concern with too many people in one place, but at the same time, it’s so important to promote and encourage people to get outdoors. I say keep doing what you’re doing; promoting the outdoors as well as bringing these issues to light.

  • Reply Karen June 24, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Educating people on outdoor ethics is messy and never-ending. Unfortunately some people just aren’t going to get the message no matter what we do. But those of us with “influence,” however you view that, can try to educate and encourage others to stick to Leave No Trace, particularly the young.

    I do think that people are going to be more interested in conservation if they have a real tangible experience of the beauty and wonder of nature. And that does mean more people going to those favorite spots that used to be so quiet. I see where more people getting outside can be a positive thing too.

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