With sweat pouring off every inch of your body, you finally reach the sign for the waterfall. It’s been hours, but just a little further, over this boulder and… you catch up to the line of people waiting to take their photo under the cascading water. You pull out your camera, shuffle closer, avoiding the garbage on the ground. And you wait your turn.
This is becoming a very common experience for many outdoor lovers. Both experienced and inexperienced flock to popular spots, taking photos or videos. Many are doing it for the ‘gram, and others just want to capture that special moment.
This has lead to many places being ‘overrun’ with people visiting in large numbers.
A local waterfall near my hometown, Brisbane, has even had deaths related to people taking ‘selfies’ on the edge of the shear 100 meter drop. Signs and fences are in place as well as the threat of heavy fines for anyone caught in the area.
But the photos continue and so do the crowds they bring.
With social media, specifically Instagram, more and more people now have access to these awesome places with geo-tagged or detailed descriptions.
But when is it enough? And are we destroying nature with social media?
THE EIGHTH LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLE
If you haven't heard of the seven established leave no trace principles, here they are:
Plan ahead and prepare
Travel and camp on durable ground
Dispose of waste properly
Leave what you find
Minimize the effects of fire
Respect wildlife and animals
Be considerate of others
Without going into too much detail, they are pretty self explanatory. By the end of the day, ‘leaving no trace’ means leaving no trace! No one should know you were there. Unavoidable damage should be managed. And nothing is taken from the wilderness.
So with an influx of Instagramers and nature lovers, many of these spots are suffering.
And it didn’t take long for people to voice their concerns.
The ‘Hikers for an 8th Leave No Trace Principle’ are calling for some restraint from influencers and the general population in how they portray and publicize places in the outdoors. An eighth ‘digital’ leave no trace principle should be added to the existing seven to account for this new, increasing trend.
This would entail caution in posting of sensitive places on social media and avoiding the creation of a buzz surrounding them.
For the moment it remains an opening to a discussion, one which if we have it now is probably perfectly timed. Like many things, its best to start conversations early.
And I also think it’s a pretty reasonable request. After all, places that are instagramed regularly like Pulpit rock in Norway for example, have seen massive increases in traffic.
Another local spot I used to visit, a great swimming hole with beautiful blue water, had a trickle of traffic when I first went there. Within a few years, the place had exploded with people.
The so called ‘love heart’ pool which was drawing all the crowds, had actually never been known to me. I just knew it by its original name and I had no idea there was some sort of love heart shape that could be photographed. It took some careful angles of the rock formations by photographers/Instagramers to create the ‘love heart’ which was soon well known by the crowds. No one even knew the original name of the place, people simply called it the 'love heart pool'.
Unfortunately, with more traffic comes an increase in destruction.
The place was overwhelmed with people, rubbish and waste. Then a young boy drowned and the area has now been closed for good. Weekend police patrols including gaurds at the entrance and high barrier razor wire fences ensure the area remains off-limits.
So if this is the case, why not ban photos from being taken or stop influencers from promoting them? What can we do?
THE CATCH 22 OF SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE OUTDOORS
I love the outdoors. I spend most of my free time there. I enjoy hiking, climbing, canyoning and getting away into the mountains. I feel free and happy outside.
A while ago I ran an outdoor adventure group through Meetup.com as well. We had over 2000 members and I was leading hiking and abseiling events as often as I could. Through this, I met many hundreds of people from all walks of life and when combined with my current outdoor experience I came to a conclusion.
The only way people care about the outdoors is by them getting out there.
That’s right. No one started caring while sitting on their couch watching another documentary on the fragile environment. It’s easy to dismiss things when they aren’t a part of your life. Plain and simple.
But people do start caring when they are involved, when they are in amongst it.
And I can say this with full confidence because before I got into the outdoors, back when I would spend whole days on the computer or spend the night drinking;
I didn’t care.
I didn’t care about public lands, the environment or anything else. Sure, I knew things were happening. Mines, oil, urban encroachment, the usual stuff. But I had never seen any of it with my own eyes. I had never experienced what it’s like to have the places I love destroyed.
But I did start caring once I was outside. Once I had started my adventures, these things mattered a whole lot more. I was shocked at the rate of destruction happening. I started carrying all my litter out. I would pick up other people’s litter. I would be more cautious about my impact. And it’s this process that I’ve seen happen with other people as well.
So here is the conundrum.
More people outdoors means more people caring. But it also increases the pressure on the environment as we flock to popular spots.
HOW DO WE FIX THE PROBLEM?
This is the start of the eighth leave no trace principle. If we can manage the impact we have when we post our photos or tell our stories, we can perhaps have a chance at saving what little is left of the wilderness.
It’s a fact. Viral instagram photos attract and promote massive numbers to the spots they promote.
Some places do need restrictions in place. If facilities aren’t provided at popular spots, the damage is magnified. Signs and barriers only protect a place so much, while slapping peoples wrists and knee-jerk reactions also aren’t the answer.
In the end, it’s the careful thought of our own actions that leads to change.
So to this end, I hope to do the best I can in the fine balancing act of inspiring people to get outside, while protecting the spots I love. It’s a hard undertaking, but I believe that if we at least try and put some effort in, we will be rewarded with a waterfall that isn’t overly crowded or polluted.
And that will make it worth every drop of sweat spent in its promotion, and its conservation.