This polarizing discussion is not new, yet I am constantly at odds with myself on what side of the argument I’m on. And rather than trying to balance my position somewhere in the middle, today I picked a side.
Is Instagram ruining the outdoors? My answer is… No.
Until recent years, the outdoors have always been an exclusive club. It may not seem like it because it’s free and accessible by every person, but it really is. Unless you were raised in a family who spent their weekends hiking or camping, odds are you will never end up in the outdoors. But something has changed. And it’s quite obvious to anyone who’s hiked on a trail recently. I’m talking about the influx of people hiking that, excuse my passing of judgement, simply look like they’ve never hiked before a day in their lives. You know, that couple walking through the forest with designer clothes on, fancy shoes, and their hair done up to the 9s. Or the group of friends on the trail carrying water bottles in their one hand, with a bluetooth speaker in their other, blasting music for the world to hear. This is post is not meant to slight these people at all, the more people recreating outside the better. I’m here to point out that a barrier to entry has been taken down. And it was Instagram that took it down, with a battering ram.
Scroll through your Instagram, right now, do it. I guarantee you passed by a photo of a person, looking off into the distance at a miraculous landscape. And above that picture is a Geotag, no? These are the only two things that people need now-a-days to change-up their lives. No longer do people see those fantastical images found in Nat Geo and say to themselves, “Man, I wish I could see something like that one day.” Because now they can. All they need to do is click that Geotag, get directions, hop in a car, and go!
Famous lookout points and vistas above like Dead Horse Point (UT), Lake Louise (CA), Delicate Arch (UT), Artists Bluff (NH), Trolltunga (NOR), and Horseshoe Bend (AZ) are just a few of the place that have seen an influx of foot traffic over the years due to Instagram. It’s quite amusing to watch people lug a bunch of props like tents, fancy blankets, and full meals up to the top of a mountain, or lookout, just to create a scene for a picture. Don’t get me wrong, the shots usually look incredible, just highly unrealistic. Whatever their reasons may be: likes, followers, or just to capture a photo, more and more people are hitting the trails to see these amazing landscapes for themselves. People that may have never walked on a dirt trail their entire life are now walking miles to reach something. Or maybe they’ve never left their home state, but now, with the internet, realize some of these incredible vistas are only a short drive or flight away.
This influx obviously comes at a cost. Many of us have seen a degradation in the trails we use, whether it be in trash or traces left by hikers. View points are rarely enjoyed in solitude, but rather elbow to elbow with another person trying to get the same picture as you. National parks and state parks have begun to increase fees to keep up with the amount of people now entering the parks each year. A small price to pay to enjoy these incredible places, but to some, I can understand the frustration that comes along with paying $30+ to enter a park. Not to mention once you get in, be stuck in line like you’re at Disney World. The sentiment against lines gets even worse when those lines start backing up on difficult hikes like Angels Landing in Zion National Park (pictured above). Speaking of Zion, the park was recommending people not show up this past Memorial Day weekend because of the expected overcrowding! Link to the Article Can you imagine that? Years ago, before social media, National Parks were struggling to attract tourism away from theme parks and major cities. Now they’re turning people away?
“It’s hopping fences, going into closed areas, feeding wildlife, picking flowers, camping illegally, swimming in protected waters, and bringing our pets into protected backcountry. It can be hard for some to understand how just one person doing these things could possibly be a big deal. The problem is, it’s not just one person – it’s hundreds of people influencing thousands of people up to millions of people.” 2015 The Outbound Article
You’d think this is even more and more evidence why Instagram is ruining the outdoors, but I still disagree. These days, we have more and more college degrees. More and more possessions. Connected to millions of people online. Infinite information just a click away. But like the late Edward Abbey said, “Don’t let college get in the way of your education.” These wild places teach us so much more than could ever be learned in a classroom or online. I won’t pretend that every single person gets the same thing from what the outdoors and mountains can offer, but everyone gets something. Nature gives us the opportunity to learn about ourselves in ways you never thought possible. That time we can disconnect from the hurried pace of city life and work pressures, and just wander into the quietness found in the wilderness.
Would I much rather have a summit all to myself to enjoy? Yes, who wouldn’t. And would I like to see people trying to create their own photos, rather than trying to recreate one they saw on their Instagram? Most definitely. But every person you pass on the trail, or have to elbow in order to get your picture, is going to become a better in some way by being outside and not on their couch watching Netflix. So what if they re-create that same image of Horseshoe Bend that has been captured so many times before? It’s yet another opportunity for them to become a better photographer and storyteller. When they return home to their friends and families with stories and pictures of something they saw or did, it spreads the wonder and excitement for the outdoors. Because I remember what it felt like to be immersed in the mountains for the first time on the side of Mount Washington, and I want every single person to feel that, at least once in their life. That feeling will stay with you, even if you never step foot onto another trail ever again.
Quote by Photographer Stephen Matera: “The point here is to get out and do some exploring of your own. Find some places and keep them to yourself. It’s not about capturing the same shot you saw on Instagram, but to find your own special spot and make your own images.” 2017 Outside Online Article
Is Instagram ruining these magical places? No. Is Instagram allowing more and more people to realize how close they are to some incredible places? Yes. So the next time you scoff at that guy walking up the trail in a leather jacket, jewelry on, and fancy shoes, just remember that we all started somewhere. And their journey has just begun.