No tags, please, we’re hiking: is Instagram so bad for the great outdoors?

Before we hike Mount Storm King, my wife, Kelsey, is met with a simple request: please don’t geotag your photos.

Kelsey learned about the trail from a work friend, who posted images on Instagram after reaching the summit alongside several hiking influencers. It’s the hiking influencers we’re warned not to upset, as best practice for them requires posting their photographs or videos with no geographic specificity, just a tag saying “Washington state”.

The idea, we are told, is environmentally motivated. “Viral hikes” can lead to trail overcrowding and disruptions in small towns. For example, the picture-worthy Rattlesnake Ledge trail in North Bend, just outside Seattle, now receives more than quadruple the number of annual visitors expected than originally estimated when the trail was constructed about 20 years ago, leading the Washington Trail Association to undertake a major renovation earlier this year.

The vast majority of Washington’s hiking foot traffic clogs the trails closest to Seattle, sometimes resulting in annex parking, overflowing dumpsters, and slow maneuvering around summits and overlooks.

While perhaps well intentioned, the “no tagging” rule bothers me right away. Since moving to Tacoma last summer, Kelsey and I have hiked nearly every weekend. We’ve covered most of the popular trails around Seattle and have started driving farther out to more remote areas for variety.

When my wife and I frequent more popular trails, we leave before dawn to beat the crowds, and usually have ample space of our own as we make the climb. On the way down, it’s another story, but I have never minded the influx of traffic going up as we descend. It’s nice to see so many people enjoying the outdoors, though part of me does feel the selfish urge for privacy and isolation, that privileged dream of being alone in the great unknown.

The geotagging no-no appears to stem from outdated and poorly understood social media guidelines by organizations like Leave No Trace, which once encouraged the idea of “tagging thoughtfully” in 2018.

Updated in September 2020, Leave No Trace’s new guidelines insists they are not anti-geotagging and discourage bullying or shaming those newly discovering nature. Regardless, I imagine it’s difficult to hold a status of exclusivity if a space not only becomes accessible to everyone, but also well-traveled. After Kelsey is asked not to tag our trip, my first thoughts veer toward entitlement, wealth and sponsorship dollars.

If nature isn’t supposed to be for everyone, who gets to decide who it’s for?

The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains from the Hidden Hills trail in Chino Hills, southern California, to the east of LA.
The snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains from the Hidden Hills trail in Chino Hills, southern California, to the east of LA. Photograph: Watchara Phomicinda/AP

Located in the north central region of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Mount Storm King is an easily accessible trail nestled in a national park, but driving there takes some time and knowhow. From our rented home in Tacoma, it’s nearly a two-hour trek, mostly down state highways and backroads. We pass by neon-lit casinos, gas stations, and small diners. For Friday and Saturday, we rent an Airbnb in nearby Sequim so that our dog, Lucy, won’t be home alone for too long.

As is our custom, Kelsey and I aim to reach the trailhead early. We’re one of a handful of cars in a mostly empty parking lot next to a ranger station. A few other hikers are wandering about, but I am surprised by how serene it is given the earlier warning we were given.

A couple weeks before our trip, over Zoom, the Washington Trail Association’s chief impact officer, Jaime Loucky, tells me, “A bedrock piece of the work the WTA does is about making the outdoors a place for everyone. It’s a public space and it needs to be welcoming and inclusive.”

In his mind, the influencer economy can be spun into a positive light. “You could see it as a challenge, but you could also see it as an opportunity. We’ve found there are a lot of different ways people get information about where to go outside and how to go outside.”

The WTA prides itself on being one of the most comprehensive places to find that information. According to Loucky, the WTA knows well that certain trails are popular and Instagrammable, but that’s not the problem. The population in the region has long been growing, but access to nature isn’t being developed at the same rate.

The WTA offers extensive information on trail conditions without a paywall in hopes that giving more people the tools to enjoy nature will result in more investment from volunteers, politicians and corporations. Sustainable hiking requires systemic change focused on equality and environmental protection, as well as education related to stewardship – not a reduction in people. They work diligently to maintain and conserve trails, introduce more people to the joys of hiking, hire young people interested in the outdoors, and focus on sustainability.

Loucky tells me that the uptick in people on the trails since the pandemic began has allowed the WTA to advocate for more state and federal funding. In the association’s vision, equitable and sustainable hiking will require more eco-friendly infrastructure, more trails, better access to affordable gear, and educating a younger generation of hikers. “We’re seeing space to build new approaches to trail stewardship, climate action, and economic development. Linking those three is one of the paths we have to creating a more sustainable trail system and making Washington state a more climate resilient state.”

Our final ascent of Mount Storm King requires traversing a series of permanent ropes, which are tied to roots and tree trunks and cover steep sections of scree. I slide on a pair of winter gloves to protect my hands. At the first rope, we wait for a man to descend. When he reaches us, he informs us no one else is at the top but it is pretty windy and cold. Once we arrive, the view is spectacular. Overlooking the deep blue lake, half our peripheral view is of verdant mountain peaks, the other half out to the Puget Sound and Canada.

I can’t help myself: I dig my iPhone from my coat pocket to snap a series of images and a quick video. Once I reach Kelsey, we take a series of selfies together, our faces flush from the cold, unflinching gusts of wind.

As we make the long trek back down, we collide with large groups making their way to the top. We step aside for another young couple and one of them jokes, “Is there enough service to post to Instagram from up there?” It’s around 10.30am now, late enough in the day that the trail is bustling. The trail etiquette of how to pass one another while going in different directions feels perennially inconsistent. Sometimes we move out of the way and wave people by, others do the same for us. When we return to the ranger station, the parking lot is packed. Groups eat sandwiches and drink beer from coolers spilling out of open trunks. Given my talk with Loucky, I absentmindedly wonder how this area could accommodate public transportation, adequate recycling and compost, and more people.

Later in the day, once the sun has warmed, Kelsey and I take our dog to the patio of a bar in downtown Sequim. Snow-covered mountains jut across the sky in the background. Over a beer, a couple of older locals strike up a conversation with us and ask about where we’ve been hiking that morning. Once they hear Mount Storm King, they immediately recommend Pyramid Peak, insisting the view from the other side of Lake Crescent is superior.

By the time they are preparing to leave, Kelsey has written down half a dozen new hikes that are not on our list. I can’t help but laugh, because so far, our Washington experience has been learning that there’s always a better hike, a higher peak, a prettier view, somewhere else. We say goodbye to the couple, grateful for their recommendations.

There’s too much ground for any casual weekend hiker to cover in under a decade. I can’t imagine keeping it all to myself.

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