For every picture-perfect tent shot on Instagram, there is an entire gallery of images you should see — but rarely do. When we share a photo on social media, we can’t monitor who it reaches, and a lack of knowledge (or worse yet, a blatant disregard for the rules), can ruin some of our favorite campsites, trails and parks. From garbage to human waste, I’ve dealt with all kinds of foul things when setting up camp, and it only seems to be getting worse.
Platforms like Instagram are directly linked to this problem, but they can be just as effective in educating people and encouraging them to behave more responsibly outside. I was thrilled to see Leave No Trace (LNT) recently share a set of social media guidelines, concerning both geotags and the message a photo can send. As lovers of the outdoors who sleep in the dirt in the digital age, it’s important to keep this discussion going — and understand how we can better preserve the places we cherish.
I made my first trip to Bears Ears National Monument in May, and I loved the towering rock formations just as much as the sense of solitude I felt there. However, I was bummed to see a number of fire rings all over the primitive camping sites, along with dirty toilet paper and plastic trash. There are numerous signs stating that you’re not allowed to have fires anywhere in Valley of the Gods, and this information is posted online as well.
So, what can we do? If you see something, SPEAK UP. And this goes beyond approaching fellow campers and politely explaining fire restrictions. When we see illegal fire/camp/drone shots on social media (and I found a handful of campfire shots from this particular section of Bears Ears), it’s important to say something there as well. Send someone a DM or leave a comment, and if it’s an especially flagrant violation, alert local authorities. Parks have busted people in the past after being tipped off about social media posts, and I fully support that. I don’t like that we have to go out of our way to rat (and call) people out, but I also don’t want my favorite places being destroyed.
And it’s not just about others. What you do is equally important, and while location tagging your campsite may seem harmless, it can cause a lot more damage than you might think. Even if you only have 300 followers, a geotag still shows up for everyone, and if you also use hashtags and a large account shares your photo, it can potentially reach millions of people. And one of those people might go ahead and burn a fire somewhere they’re not supposed to — after seeing your camp shot online. It may sound far fetched, but it’s not.
From hot springs to lakes, I’ve seen far too many spots blown up on Instagram and subsequently trashed by careless individuals, so these days I rarely include any sort of exact location information when I post. I will often tag a state, and occasionally a national park, but that’s it. While Instagram is a great place to connect and inspire others, if you really want to protect a place, you must consider the implications of what you share. Think before you post, and there is also something to be said for finding your own adventure. I don’t plan most of my trips based on Instagram geotags; rather, I look at maps, I ask friends/locals/rangers what they’d recommend, or I just (gasp!) stumble across these places while rolling down dirt roads.
When camping at an incredible primitive spot at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument last month, my friend and I enjoyed a few sunset brews and set up our tents. We debated having a fire, but decided it was too much work, as we were exhausted from a long day in the car. Before tucking in to our sleeping bags, I cut my big toe on something next to my camp chair, and the following day I noticed gashes all over the bottom of my tent. Unbeknownst to me, in the dim evening light, I had set my beloved Tufly tent on top of a sea of broken glass. And it was then that we noticed the poorly constructed fire ring near our tents, which was overflowing with ash, charcoal and all kinds of trash.
The ring was probably 6 feet across, and the previous campers appeared to have extinguished their fire with rocks and dirt — and probably not enough water. I removed about two large dozen rocks and put them next to the “NO VEHICLES” sign at our campsite, and then got to work picking up inside of the fire pit, which was full of dozens of nails, more glass, shotgun shells, batteries and dirty baby wipes. We ended up packing out one large garbage bag of trash, and I shared the photos above on social media. While I received quite a few messages of support, I wondered: For all the trash we see (and gripe about), how often are we actually picking it up?
I first visited White Sands National Monument when I was 12, and this May I finally made it back. Though you cannot camp on the dunes, if you obtain a backcountry permit from the ranger station, you can pitch a tent right next to them in one of ten primitive sites. The designated camping areas are on flat patches of land and clearly marked with numbered posts, so it’s pretty hard to miss. Fires are not allowed, and not only is there signage at every campsite and the trailhead, but it’s written on the wilderness permit you sign in front of an NPS ranger.
I spent four nights camping in the monument, and I was very disappointed to find food scraps, dirty toilet paper and a burnt log at my campsite. I brought the log back to the ranger station and packed out the trash left from the previous campers, and while I realize that this is something most of us would do, there are still plenty of individuals who wouldn’t make the effort. Just because you didn’t leave litter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up, and if you care about a place and want to see it thrive, taking action is far more effective than talking about it.
Just a few days after I left White Sands National Monument, LNT released their social media guidelines, and I found the remark that we should be “mindful of what [our] images portray” to be especially relevant. I’ve seen quite a few shots from White Sands of tents either on the dunes or Photoshopped in, and while they are stunning, it’s putting the wrong message out there. Some argue that staging tent shots and not “really” camping there is OK, but it’s actually just as bad, because you have no idea who you might encourage to recreate your photo or experience. I’d like to challenge some of the bigger accounts, whether they’re personal, community or brand pages, to understand the damage staged shots can cause — and to stop sharing anything that could give someone the wrong impression.
I wish I could leave my favorite campsites and trails and trust that others will treat these places with the same level of respect as me, but it only takes a few individuals to ruin a spot for years. We can do a lot more than we might think to clean up our wild lands — and motivate others to follow suit. If you agree with me, please share this post and take action, whether it’s picking up trash or speaking up against something you see on social media. You CAN make a difference.
Elisabeth Brentano has been sleeping in the dirt with Big Agnes for a handful of years now. She’s a writer and photographer who lives out of her Jeep in the wild west, searching for the perfect cup of coffee and dreamy landscapes. See more of Elisabeth.