stop geotagging locations

You read the title, you were intrigued, so now you are here. This blog contains a lot of thoughts. However, if you’re in any industry where you post and share outdoor locations on your social media channels, as well as value the environment and our public lands, I encourage you to read this in it’s entirety, and to know that I am not perfect. I have also struggled here, especially when it comes to reconciling how my voice and actions impact people and places around me.

So let’s start here: we are really fortunate. We live in a generation of accessible travel, computers in our hands, and the internet to help us get anywhere and anything we want. It’s great, right? Most of the time. I grew up in a small town in northern California, just 15 minutes away from the north shore of Lake Tahoe, CA. In my (albeit, short) lifetime living in this beautiful place, I have seen the change and impact of social media, tourism, and blatant disregard for nature - and the way it affects my home.

People come to my town and the surrounding areas, trample over plants that make up my backyard, and are homes to many creatures. They leave their bagged dog poop on trails (as if that helps) and don’t chase down the tiny pieces of foil that fly off of their granola bars. Yet, they spend thousands of dollars on gear from places like Patagonia, North Face, Mountain HardWear and the like, all in the name of being “adventurous” and under the guise of caring about the environment. They search instagram for beautiful places to visit that are easy to access, and show up to snag a photo to post for the likes, and move on with their lives within a matter of hours. The habits of this generation are terrifying, and really will lead to a lot of destruction of the places people like me love.

If you ever talk to me about adventure and public lands, you’ll learn very quickly that I don’t love national parks. There is no way, at least from my perspective, that you can let 4 million people into Yosemite National Park annually, and never see a consequence on the land. We already have, and despite the efforts to conserve and rehabilitate areas by closing them off, people ignore and go beyond boundaries because their agenda is more important than preserving these beautiful places for our children and grand children. I firmly believe that we will see many of the most popular national parks closed for rehabilitation at some point in our lifetime. It’s amazing that we have granted access to places like this for people who don’t get to experience it on a day to day basis, but where is the education? The actual effort that stands at trailheads and tells people why this stuff matters? Why don’t we (people like me who are frustrated) put our money where our mouth is, and do something?

While in Banff National Park this past week for work, we visited Peyto Lake, Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake. All of these places are wildly accessible, gorgeous, and over-touristed. They have over 700,000 tags collectively (just under their lake names, alone - this excludes geotags) and are featured in photos that brands share regularly. Ever seen the iconic “hammock overlooking Moraine lake” shot? Yeah - that’s off trail, goes against Leave No Trace, and is just plain disrespectful. These lakes are some of the most stunning views I have ever seen, but because of instagram, they are being destroyed. When we arrived to Moraine Lake at 9 am (in offseason, no less) we were turned around and told we had to take a shuttle for parking. Our shuttle driver told us that in the last 3 years, they have seen more tourists annually than they had previously in 5 years combined. WHAT? In his announcement/little speech as we drove up, he said “don’t worry, I’ll direct everyone to the best places for your instagram photo!” I literally felt my stomach churn at this - this culture that I have perpetuated. Gulp.

“But, Ruthanne, how can you blame a social media platform for the deterioration of a place?!”

At some point, there was a person who posted the first ever photo of Moraine Lake on instagram, right? As the platform grew, so did the number of posts about that place. When Instagram rolled out the ability to tag locations in posts, we were granted the option to click said locations and view all photos ever posted there. This is the beginning of the problem. As I sat atop the rockpile overlooking Moraine Lake, I cried. I wept. I shed tears for this land that was sacred to the country I was in. The people groups who discovered it and held it in high regard. I cried over the fact that we have become so absorbed in social media, that we disregard the well being of beautiful places for our own vanity. It’s just gross. That brands (I have been one) post exact locations in hopes that other potential clients will see your photo and hire you there - but for what? Is my business really more important than keeping a place I love and treasure slightly more protected?

There are people out there who crave the feeling of adventure, because they don’t have it in their day to day lives (who also might not understand what preservation looks like due to lack of education), and that’s fine. There are also people out there who are obsessed with likes + follows and it dramatically affects their self esteem, self worth, and mood. This is a bummer to me, personally. Lastly, there are people out there who just love seeing epic places, and are grateful for the opportunity to view places that previously were kept secret from the world, or not quite as accessible. This one is how we all should be - grateful and humbled at the experience, not so wrapped up in the photographs we’re taking to ignore common practice for conservation and preservation.

Personally, I feel that when we geotag photos on instagram it gives allllll these people who aren’t actually invested in the place, the ability to go there, too. I’m not saying that geotagging is the sole problem, or that we should keep places from the internet because of the 50% of people who just don’t give a crap - but I am saying, if we left some mystery to the discovery, the people who really value seeing the place will do the research to get there. And, maybe the people who care less, would learn to care more and put more effort into protecting the sites they visit.

When I got married last year, I picked a spot that wasn’t super popular beyond my community, and I never shared the name in context to my wedding, with the world. I probably received about 30-40 messages within the few months following my elopement, asking me where I got married. And my answer was always vague, because I was not about to share a spot that is special to me with people who don’t value it like I do. One of my dear friends eloped on a very popular ridge in the Pacific Northwest 5 years ago, and when her elopement went viral, the place saw some serious impact. I’m not even going to name this spot, because if you have even once googled “adventure elopement” you’ve seen their photos.

A few people told me that not sharing the location of my elopement was selfish, and the world doesn’t belong to me. True, true, I don’t think it does. But, I do think that keeping a place undiscovered and slightly less accessible to people who just don’t care about it’s health, is totally valid. Don’t you think? I think that our generation has the knowledge and duty to do this, as well. Who is going to if we don’t?

Recently, I have seen so many brands, photographers, creatives and influencers tag exact locations in my hometown and it just makes me sad. It bums me out, especially because a lot of these people value the place where we live. Instead of geotagging a general area, they tag the exact spot - many of which have flown under the radar and I would love if they continued to do so, because from personal experience: most tourists don’t consider the fact that these places are some people’s home.

I have been the person to tag, go off trail, not chase down my piece of foil from a wrapper, and I was ignorant to the footprint I was leaving. I was oblivious to the importance of my actions, and the ability I had to help preserve some place special. I have been that person, and I’d like to own that right here. But, I am making efforts to change the way I do business, use social media, and take care of the places I visit. Even if it’s not my trash, I am pledging to take what I can out with me, because being able to come back to these places and experience them without blemish is important to me.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do, what can anyone do, to stop the trend of disregarding nature for a photo, just to “look adventurous” in places that EVERYONE can walk up to. What can I do, to encourage people to consider the lasting effects of going off trail, littering (even unintentionally, there are plenty of people who could be more conscious of ensuring they leave NOTHING), and geotagging currently unknown or less-well-known places in their photos. I’m opening my mouth (something I often regret) to say, YOU DO MATTER, your footprint matters, and you can lead by example.

SO. I am calling our community out and asking YOU to consider reevaluating the way that you enjoy popular landmarks, national parks, and public lands. To reconsider the way that you share these moments, and give you ideas for alternatives that are better for our world.

…and consider reminding people who venture off that it's damaging to the environment. If you are in the backcountry, try to stick to the most worn down trail. I know people create side trails and some are less-worn than others (but just as legitimate), so just do your research and be mindful of where you’re going.

…and maybe a little more. I will be taking recycled grocery bags with me everywhere from here on out to collect trash that I see along the way, on all adventures. If we all did this, imagine how much cleaner the places we visit would be?!

There are places, like Moraine Lake that everyone already knows about already - but there are others, that I see tagged, and wish people wouldn't. I always say, if people want to see it bad enough, they'll dig for it. But, if you can help it, leave the geotag off and instead hashtag the general area, if you must. Examples of this are “Tahoe National Forest” instead of “exact location”.

…with where you choose to go. Visit the less popular, more "underrated" places, and put your phone away to enjoy them. Find somewhere new, that lets you feel at peace and alone…there is something seriously magical about that.

…who also value conservation. My friend Sam over at S Photography has started donating a portion of all elopements and sessions to conservation organizations and I am doing the same. Many other adventure photographers are very active in pursuing the preservation and funding of organizations that protect places we all love to enjoy. If you are a vendor or company who believes in sustainable living, consider putting money towards non-profits and organizations dedicated to the cause. And, if you’d rather donate your time, is a great place to start.

Alright, that’s all for now, folks. Thanks for reading this. Please share it, comment, and let me know what you think!

Happy Adventuring,

Ruthanne Z.