Am I ruining the great outdoors?

After reading Outside magazine’s article “Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors?” I started thinking about the effects tagging my hiking photos with a specific location may do to the wild, natural areas I love so dearly. With the recent surge in social media use, and subsequent surge in inexperienced hikers attempting to traverse extremely difficult trails, this a hot topic in the outdoor world. It’s also a serious one. As more and more tourists and residents alike flock to Colorado’s iconic fourteeners, deaths on these mountains have drastically increased in the last year alone. In 2017, five hikers died on Capitol Peak within a two-month span. Several of these hikers had watched YouTube videos and seen photos on social media of hikers who’d safely traversed the peak’s notorious knife edge, only to realize they were not anywhere near experienced enough to do the same.

Inexperienced hikers pose threats to more than just themselves. Oftentimes, these same hikers are ones who don’t know, or choose to not follow, the rules governing our public lands. The “leave no trace” adage popular among outdoor enthusiasts is more than just a proverb. It’s an important reminder to pack everything out — food waste, animal waste, human waste — and leave land off trails completely undisturbed. Unfortunately, inexperienced hikers may not be privy to what “leave no trace” truly means. They may also simply choose to ignore parts of it to satisfy their own immediate whims. This is especially true of those who are willing to treat their lives and safety so callously on dangerous trails — if a class four route doesn’t phase them, why would littering or venturing off trail?

Deaths on dangerous trails aren’t the only indication that there is a torrent of inexperienced hikers visiting our public lands. In 2017, Rocky Mountain National Park saw it’s second-highest number of annual visits with over 4 million people — a number that has nearly doubled in the past decade. Visits to state and local parks in Colorado continue to increase annually as well — Colorado state parks attract over 12 million visitors every year.

I can attest to more and more inexperienced hikers and tourists visiting Colorado’s parks and trails. I’ve witnessed people who were picnicking at parks hop over enclosed areas and traverse off-limit restoration areas. I’ve watched these same people litter and fill the park with noise pollution from their boomboxes and car stereos, disrupting habitats in more ways than one. I’ve seen hikers on exposed, long trails without water or other provisions; in sandals; and with off-leash dogs in areas where pets must be leashed. I’ve also seen anywhere from three to five bags of dog poop sitting a mere half-mile from a trailhead’s trashcan.

Ignorance is not innocence, and people who venture outdoors have a responsibility to know the rules of the land. With the ease of access to social media and the internet, learning these rules takes little effort. Park websites clearly state rules and regulations on homepages, and parks often list them again at trailheads.

I have no respect or sympathy for those who “didn’t know,” but Outside’s Instagram article now has me wondering if using social media to promote public lands makes me no better than the people who disregard the lands’ rules and regulations. As someone who hikes every weekend and moved to Colorado because of her love for the outdoors, it’s a difficult feeling to untangle. I was first made aware of many of the trails I’ve now hiked thanks in part to social media, as well as other online resources. I also believe the outdoors should be accessible to as many people as possible.

I’ve yet to decide if I will continue to tag specific locations in my hiking photos or opt instead to use more general ones. I do know that I would like to continue sharing photos of my adventures online since many of my friends and family members live far away and keep in touch via social media. I also know that as someone who frequently uses our public lands and does not wish to see them harmed or restricted, I must continue to confront my thoughts on this issue and contemplate the role I play — potentially a larger one than I know — in keeping our public lands wild, undisturbed and pristine for future generations.

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