In Which I Am Emphatically Pro-Geotagging

The Great Range, snapped from a viewpoint on Big Slide Mountain, Keene Valley, New York

Warning: soapbox deployed, lengthy diatribe ahead!

I’m a member of a few different paddling interest groups on Facebook.  Kayak Mamas, Women Who Paddle, and Paddling in the Adirondacks.  I love the Paddling in the Adirondacks group for the beautiful pictures the members post, which give me an ADK fix when I’m not able to be in the region.  But lately, the group has been really annoying me.

There’s a subset of members of several of the outdoor groups I follow – Paddling in the Adirondacks being just one of them – who have been clutching their pearls especially tightly of late.  There was already a debate raging in the outdoor community about proper use.  And to a large extent, I’m sympathetic to the pearl-clutchers.  I get as angry as anyone when I see litter, graffiti, or initials carved into trees.  Enjoying an outdoor space in a way that mars it for others, or harms the environment, is selfish and irresponsible.  And as someone who lives in a tourist-heavy region, I understand the frustrations of traffic-clogged roads and out-of-towners behaving cluelessly.  (In D.C., there’s a special scorn reserved for people who stand on the left side of a Metro escalator.)

Kayaks on the beach at Jones Island State Park, Washington

But the pearl-clutching gets overdone in certain areas.  My Paddling in the Adirondacks group has a couple of bugaboos: closeup wildlife shots (don’t post a picture of a loon unless you’re prepared to include in the caption a breathless disclaimer about your long-range zoom lens); people who leave their gear scattered all over the previous night’s campsite (I agree: disgraceful; although I’m not sure it’s always downstaters or out-of-staters, ADK folx); and geotagging.

Mather Gorge, Great Falls Park, McLean, Virginia

So what exactly is geotagging?  Simply put: it’s the practice of including a location on your outdoor social media posts.  (Instagram, Facebook, and I assume other social media outlets – those are the only two I bother with – have location tagging as an option.)  Geotagging has been vilified for a few years now, but the pandemic really threw the debate into sharp relief.  As options for indoor entertainment fell away and more people hit the trails, the rivers, the mountains and the beaches, those who were “here first” (<–LOL, you were not) were incensed at the waves of newcomers, and convinced that the new people are ruining their favorite fresh air sports.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been frustrated by people not social distancing on trails, and not wearing masks in crowded areas – even outdoors; I care enough about you (perfect stranger) to endure the mild discomfort of wearing a mask, and you should do the same for me.  But at the same time, I am on record as saying that I like to see other people on the trails – it makes me happy to see others experiencing joy in the outdoors, and I am disillusioned enough about politicians to believe that they won’t be motivated to protect a wild space unless they see it is being used and loved by their constituents.

Sunrise over Mirror Lake, Lake Placid, New York

So why chime in now?  I’m at my tipping point after one too many annoying social media posts.  Recently, scrolling Facebook, I was stopped in my tracks by a lovely picture of fall foliage over a serene Adirondack lake.  Enjoying the picture, my smile fell away when I read the smug caption: “If you know where this place is, please keep it a secret!”

I don’t know where that place is.  And I guess I never will, since the author – who I will call Smug Paddler – doesn’t want me or any other unwelcome out-of-staters sullying up his secret paddling spot.  (Another group member offered a guess and Smug Paddler, still smug, responded: “Nope – but I might check that spot out, so thanks!”  So, basically, gatekeeping is for other people.)

And that’s my main issue with the no-geotagging movement: it’s a form of gatekeeping and purity testing, and gatekeeping is inherently elitist and exclusionary.  Oh, and more than that?  It’s racist.

Bears Den Overlook, Bluemont, Virginia

At its most basic: the no-geotag gatekeeping movement is nothing more than a bunch of tone-deaf white people, blind to their own privilege, other-ing “urban” hikers and people of color to keep them from enjoying the same recreation opportunities.  It’s keeping the so-called “wrong sort” of hikers out, so that the “right sort” can have the outdoors all to themselves.  It’s the promotion of the idea that certain people are inherently less deserving of fresh air, a beautiful view, or space on the trail.  And that’s just wrong.

Melanin Base Camp says it much more eloquently than I could:

The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.

Most of the articles begin with a white writer reminiscing over a much beloved hot spring, a treasured swimming hole or a rustic hiking trail from childhood that has now been “ruined” by a sudden influx of selfie-taking hikers.

They never stop to consider that their childhood was privileged with outdoor experiences not available to the majority of working-class families in the United States. They never stop to consider that this is a privilege many people in the U.S. would like to experience if given the chance. Their lack of self-awareness is pretty stunning.

(By the way, give Melanin Base Camp a follow.  Their Instagram feed is stunning, inspiring, and inclusive.)  The article, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety, lays out all of the problems – and there are many – with gatekeeping and excluding “urban” hikers (read: Black and brown folx), working class families, and people who are new to the outdoors.  It’s a must-read.

In fact, there’s no proof that geotagging social media posts has any effect on overuse of outdoor spaces.  As a like-minded soul helpfully posted in the comments to the obnoxious Facebook post that put me over the edge, the REI blog’s article “Is Photography Ruining the Outdoors?” debunked that notion pretty heartily.  (Using data collected by the Adirondack Council, in a bit of poetic justice for Smug Paddler.)  There’s no evidence supporting that photography (yes, including selfies) and social media sharing are responsible for overuse or improper use of public lands.

The only persuasive argument I’ve seen made against geotagging relates to safety concerns: it’s not wise to broadcast your location to the entire internet, especially when you’re in the backwoods.  I agree.  If we’re friends on social, you’ll notice I don’t geotag all of my posts.  There are certain posts I never tag with a location: my kids’ school and summer camps, for instance.  I do geotag my hikes and paddles, but I don’t post the pictures – or tag the locations – until I’m already back home (or at least in the car, on my way home).  If I’ve posted a picture of an outdoor adventure and tagged the location – especially if it’s wilderness – I’ve already left.  That practice, and keeping my Instagram account private (meaning I have to approve anyone who wants to follow me) is how I address those appropriate concerns about safety, and I’m comfortable with the personal decisions I’ve made in that respect.

Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, Luray, Virginia

There are plenty of ways to address overuse and improper use of public lands.  The good and smart folx at Melanin Base Camp suggest several.  More funding for the National Park Service, for instance, and more funding in general for education and outreach.  (Don’t like the way new outdoor adventurers are using public lands?  Educate – politely and respectfully – don’t gatekeep or hector people.  Those of us who choose to eat plant-based can explain how you inspire people to make better choices for the planet, without being a total @$$hole about it.)

While we’re funding NPS, maybe politicians can stop using government shutdowns as a political football, so that parks don’t end up unstaffed and abused.  Those images of Joshua trees cut down and overflowing trash cans at Yosemite were awful.  Keeping people of color out of public lands isn’t going to fix that problem, though.  You know what would?  Responsible government.

Other solutions: education, outreach, permit requirements, promoting alternatives (like state, regional, and local parks, or national forests and recreation areas that don’t get as much attention as the legacy parks).  Working with stakeholders.  Including indigenous groups and First Nations communities, and respecting their cultural and spiritual connections to these places.  (The myth of wildness, which Melanin Base Camp also eloquently debunks, is extremely harmful.  Public lands have not been “wild” for millennia.  They’ve been cultivated and stewarded by indigenous communities and that history deserves recognition.)

Widewater State Park, Widewater, Virginia

Golly.  Can you tell I have some feelings about this?  Clearly that Facebook post touched a nerve.  But honestly?  I’m sick and tired of exclusionary tactics and elitism in the outdoor community.  Of course we should be responsible.  But what gives Smug Paddler the right to declare anyone unwelcome on a public lake?  People protect what they love; that’s well-known.  Doesn’t it serve everyone – and the public lands we claim to care about – if more people love the outdoors and want to protect it from the ravages of climate change?

So I’ll keep geotagging my posts and sharing my outdoor adventure finds.  And if someone finds a new favorite hiking or paddling spot because of me, I’ll be pleased – not incensed.

Where do you fall on the geotagging debate?  Debate welcome, but respectful comments only, please.

4 thoughts on “In Which I Am Emphatically Pro-Geotagging

  1. I tend to use a more broad geotag. The name of the national forest or closest city. Anytime anyone has ever asked me where a great trail was, I immediately DM them location & any other important things to know (parking, trail conditions). I think it’s important to share knowledge, but I also don’t feel the need to identify the specific trailhead via Instagram. If I were still blogging about hiking, I’d include all the relevant and important info. Otherwise I leave it to someone to ask the question & I’ll happily engage. Lots of rambling here. Not opposed to geotagging, but I’ll continue to use a broader tag.

    • I think that’s a great approach! My main issue is people who smugly keep hiking/paddling/trail running/etc. locations secret to keep folx out because they think they are some kind of self-appointed arbiter of who gets to be an outdoor adventure person. That’s clearly not you! I like the approach of tagging the nearest city or national forest and providing more specific information if asked. What I typically do is tag the park/lake/mountain, but not necessarily the specific trail (unless there is no option or it’s a really iconic trail – like if I ever make it to Glacier I will totally tag the Highline Trail). But I think the main thing is not excluding people. You definitely don’t do that! 🙂

  2. I believe the rule should be that if you don’t want to share a location, you don’t get to brag about it either. If you want it to be secret, don’t talk about it or instagram it. Not bragging about having a secret seems like basic politeness for all kinds of secrets.

    • That’s a great rule, and I think it makes total sense. Keep your favorite spaces a secret by all means, but don’t taunt others. Basic politeness has been lost in so many situations…

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