How to Leave No Trace in the Social Media Age

I hope this post will encourage others to speak out about LNT and help spread the word so that the landscapes, wildlife, and nature that we enjoy now will be around for generations.

Immersing myself in the outdoors is how I love to spend my free time because it helps me unwind from the daily grind. I love hiking through the forest to an amazing vista or along a creek that leads to a beautiful waterfall. I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Getting outside to experience nature is becoming more and more popular, I believe, in large part because of social media. People are posting their amazing images to different social media outlets and these images are inspiring people to get out and see the world with their own eyes. It is awesome that so many people are now getting off the couch and seeing the images that have been on the background of their computer desktops, but the huge increase of people exploring nature has come at a heavy price. The people who have come to see its beauty are slowly destroying the places that we all love. 

How do we encourage people to get out and enjoy nature but also protect the environment from the influx of people that have come to experience it? I believe the first big step is educating people about the Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. I grew up in a very outdoorsy family and was in Boy Scouts. From a very early age I was not only taught LNT, but I practiced the principles so often with my family and scout troop that they become a part of my routine. I know everyone comes from different walks of life and some people have never heard of LNT, which is why it is very important for people to be educated about how they can both enjoy and preserve the landscape and wildlife. Even though I have been practicing LNT for decades, I still review the seven principles every now and then to make sure I’m still following them and that my actions are not damaging the environments I love to visit. According to lnt.org the seven LNT principles are as follow:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

lnt.org goes into more detail about the meaning of each principle and following these seven simple principles will help you not only enjoy your trip but also make sure that future generations will also be able to visit these amazing locations. 

As more and more people get outside and social media continues to grow, LNT has had to adapt to the new digital age. LNT has come up with some new guidelines to consider before posting an image to social media and some of them are very controversial. The four new guidelines are as follow:

  1. Tag Thoughtfully 
  2. Be Mindful of What Your Images Portray
  3. Give Back to the Places You Love
  4. Encourage and Inspire LNT in Social Media Posts 

Tag Thoughtfully 

This is undoubtedly the most controversial guideline on this list because it encourages people NOT to geotag the exact location of where the picture was taken but use a general location if you decide to geotag instead. It states, “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations. Instead, tag a general location such as a state or region, if any at all. While tagging can seem innocent, it can also lead to significant impacts to particular places.” I 100% agree with this statement. Near the beginning of this year, I stopped geotagging the exact spot where I took my image. Instead, I would tag “Shenandoah National Park,” “George Washington National Forest,” “Blue Ridge Parkway,” “Virginia,” etc. The reason why I started to do this was because I began to notice places that I loved either being trashed or destroyed or the environment being trampled to death by an increase in visitors. I also go one step further than the LNT guideline suggested. If the location in my image was taken in a fragile environment, I will not even geotag a general area. This was a hard decision for me to make because, like most people, I want my images to inspire people to get outside and explore. I love sharing my adventures with people, and I hope my images will show people the pure beauty of landscapes and nature, but this can also be a double-edged sword because certain places have become so popular the beauty of the landscape everyone has come to see is being destroyed. If you geotag a specific location, most people will only go to that location, but if you geotag a general area it will still encourage people to get outside and explore, but it will help spread people out so one small area isn't overrun.  

There are many examples of areas being overrun due to images on social media inspiring people to visit that exact spot. Half Dome in Yosemite National Park now requires a permit to hike to the summit because so many people have made the amazing trek up to the summit that the rock is being smoothed out from the amount of foot traffic. Angels Landing in Zion National Park is also considering requiring a permit for visitors to hike to the summit for the same reason. Panther Creek Falls in the Columbia River Gorge has been absolutely destroyed by the amount of people that have visited that location. The fragile ferns and moss which made that location so amazing and inspiring to visit have been trampled to death, so now most of its beauty is gone, replaced with large dirt patches. Horseshoe Bend has been so popular they are now building an observation deck to keep people away from the cliff’s edge to help stop the erosion caused by people wanting to take a picture of their feet hanging over the edge. More locally for me, Falling Spring Falls in Virginia now has No Trespassing signs to protect the environment. This spot has become so popular over the last 5 years and so many people were hiking to the bottom of this amazing waterfall, they were destroying the moss and plants. Yes, I want my pictures to encourage people to visit and see these amazing locations with their own eyes, but at the same time I want to make sure that I am also protecting the environment of these locations.  

One of the main arguments I have heard why I should continue to geotag specific locations is people will do their research and find the location anyways. To that I say, “I hope they do.” I found the location by doing my own research, and I have no doubt if I found it, other people will also. I don’t want to keep that area all to myself; I want other people to experience the beauty of any given location. I have found the more effort I have to put into finding a new location to explore, the more connected I become with that location. If people have to put in a lot of effort to find a location then 1) it will help keep the foot traffic down, which will help preserve the environment, 2) people that put effort into finding the location will usually be a lot more respectful of the environment, and 3) if they are lucky, while they were researching this location, they also found two or three other places to explore, which will also help spread people out. 

Be Mindful of What Your Images Portray

The second LNT guideline for social media is, I think, just as important as the first: Be Mindful of What Your Images Portray. As social media has become a part of our everyday life, some trends have become very popular. Almost all of us want our images to inspire people, but we want to make sure it doesn’t encourage them to break the law or destroy the landscape. If a location has a rope/barrier, which includes No Trespassing signs, please stay on the proper side of the barrier, even if it’s blocking access to the best viewpoint. All barriers are there for a reason; some are for your safety, some are to let the environment recover and regrow, and some are there for both. One example of a popular image on social media is one of capturing the view from your campsite. This trend has become popular for good reasons; it allows viewers to imagine themselves camping in that location. But make sure you are following the LNT principles when choosing a campsite. One thing I was taught and has stuck with me is that “great camp sites are found, not made.” If you are camping outside of a campground, first make sure you can camp at that location. Second, make sure you are on a durable surface. Third, make sure you are at least 200’ away from any bodies of water (lakes, rivers and streams). One of the most popular images on social media is camping right next to a lake. Yes, these images can be very inspirational, which is the problem because it will and has led to more and more people copying that idea. They think it is ok to camp along the shore because they have seen other people do it at that exact location or another location. I have also heard the argument, “I didn’t really camp there; I just sent up my tent, and other camping gear (which sometimes include a campfire) to take the image, so it’s OK.” I would say NO, it’s not OK because your image portrays this beautiful campsite with this outstanding view and the intention to inspire people. The reason why you are not actually camping at that location is because you know you cannot and should not camp there, but you are not disclosing that to your viewers. Guess what, your image will work but your image is also doing harm to the environment because other people will actually camp at that or similar locations. There are plenty of ways to inspire people to camp through your images without breaking LNT principles.

Give Back to the Places You Love

Guideline three reminds us all not to just visit these amazing places but to also give back to help make sure they are around for a long time.  You can give back in a number of ways, but I have found one of the most rewarding is to volunteer your time. Most parks will have information on their website about how you can volunteer and get involved.

Encourage and Inspire LNT in Social Media Posts 

I had to take a hard look at my own work and ask myself if I follow LNT and if I encourage other people to follow LNT. One of the main reasons why I decided to write this post is to help educate people on LNT.  I strongly believe education will help tremendously. So many people are new to the outdoors and have never heard of LNT and may not know their actions may be hurting the environment they have come to enjoy and love. 

I hope this post will encourage others to speak out about LNT and help spread the word so that the landscapes, wildlife, and nature that we enjoy will be around for generations. For more information on LNT visit lnt.org. It is a great site full of amazing resources!

Published: September 12, 2018

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Brandon DeweyExplorer

Richmond

I am a Father, Photographer, Adventurer, and World Explorer (26 countries and counting). I'm from the Bay Area but I'm currently living outside of Richmond, Virginia.