Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Tyler Socash: Social Media and the Adirondack Backcountry

social media in the high peaksWhile navigating the spellbinding terrain along the Pacific Crest Trail, I found it difficult to resist the temptation to take photos.

Each endless vista around each corner was more jaw-dropping than the last! As I hiked onward, smartphone in hand, impermanence was weighed against the magnitude of the moment. “After all, you may never see these places again,” reminded my sage hiking partner. I had to contemplate whether looking at the staggering scenery through an electronic screen was detaching me from the present experience.

hikingPictures, they say, are worth a thousand words. As technologically savvy outdoor users continue to capture the backcountry, thousands of images quickly escalates to millions of views. Fascinating photographs, online trip reports, and guidebooks alike showcase the Great Outdoors. These artistic depictions of the natural world can stimulate us to explore; each is a conduit into a greater adventure, encouraging a connection to a place. From the beginning, they have inspired protection and enjoyment of New York’s wild places. Today, however, social media posts are spurring outdoor recreation at an unprecedented rate that some see as threatening that protection and enjoyment.

What’s the problem?

So what’s the problem with the increased sharing of our natural world? A surge of visitors enters the Forest Preserve with limited exposure to proper wild land ethics. The lack of planning, preparation, and trail etiquette can affect our natural resources in a multitude of ways: fragile ecosystems can become degraded, trails erode, lakeside campsites become denuded, and the quality of one’s overall outdoor experience is altered. By constantly advertising how we experience the natural world via technological gadgets and applications, might we be jeopardizing the intangible wilderness characteristics that are innate in the resource?

A significant uptick in outdoor recreation has been widely reported across the Adirondacks. Parking lots are filling, crowds are forming, and the improper disposal of human waste is a pressing issue. Over 73,000 people registered at the trailheads surrounding ADK’s Heart Lake Pro­gram Center alone in 2016. Nation­wide, tens of millions entered our public lands and engaged in human-powered recreation, according to the Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report. As wilderness recreation continues to gain momentum, and as human population continues to expand, we must be cognizant that the cumulative effect of people using public lands will continue to increase.

As we pursue dramatic scenes for great social media posts, our campsites inch closer to water, and fragile soils atop precipitous slides are trampled. Intrepid thrill-seekers find increas­ingly perilous perches to achieve “like-worthy” photographs. Our zeal for photographic perfection might be causing some of us to stray further from the Leave No Trace ethics that help preserve the natural places we all love.

illegal campsite atop mt marcyIn the fall of 2016, one Instagram account eagerly posted photos of illegal campsites atop Mt. Marcy’s fragile alpine vegetation, on the Gothics’ exposed summit ridge, and adjacent to the soft shores of Avalanche Lake. This user even photographed a campfire on top of Phelps Mountain in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, where fires are not permitted. Aren’t our natural resources more valuable than “likes” and social media comments? After a group of wilderness advocates messaged the individual and articulated the importance of abiding by the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s rules and regulations, all pictures were removed.

illegal camping at avalanche lakeBefore we lament the “good old days” that preceded Twitter, Face­book, and Instagram and their possible over-popularizing of our favorite outdoor haunts, we should be reminded that the Adirondacks have endured multiple iterations of intensifying discovery. The year 1869 saw the publication of William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, resulting in rushes of weekend outdoor enthusiasts, who became known as “Murray’s Fools,” into the backcountry. Sound familiar? How about when Bob Marshall’s The High Peaks of the Adirondacks and Russell M. L. Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks inspired a new generation of recreationists? More recently, online forums have been notifying hikers about current trail conditions, anglers about popular fishing holes, and paddlers about pristine campsites. The next phase of promotion is here, dominated by the seemingly ubiquitous smartphone. Thanks to their relative ease and massive dissemination potential, social media are encouraging outdoor recreation on a scale never seen before.

What to do about it?

To the chagrin of some, social media isn’t going away anytime soon. So why not capitalize on the phenomenon? Somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail I began to believe in the positive power of utilizing social media to inspire outdoor stewardship. Embedding the seven Leave No Trace principles into all disseminated posts modeled good etiquette, causing these messages to be well-received and promoted. One picture I posted to a popular hiking page highlighted an ADK backpacking trip’s efforts to remove multiple bags of trash from a remote lean-to.

adk trash removalOther photos ranged from wearing appropriate traction while traveling on durable surfaces in the wintertime to empowering others to take ownership of protecting New York’s wild lands and waters through implementing the Authority of the Resource communication technique. In lieu of carrying out that deer shed, artifact, or colorful feather, the very act of snapping a photo is a fantastic way to leave what you find so that others can experience nature’s “Wow!” moments. Even the mystery of the wilderness can be preserved by leaving the location of a quiet pond, campsite, or viewpoint out of the social media post. All of these actions preserve the magical essence of the back­country.

The great paradox of conservation is that it’s a double-edged sword. In order for people to be passionate about our wild places, they need to have a positive experience in one. However, once people are introduced to a sacred space, it can become overused. Aldo Leopold argued in A Sand County Almanac that “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Social media can actually be the ultimate low-impact vector for conservation. A well-crafted social media post, whether a picture or a message, can inspire others to feel compelled to protect natural resources that they may never venture into. The potential of posting for preservation and educational purposes encourages my outlook on the coming use of our beautiful Adirondack Park.

So let’s all make a valiant effort to share only Leave No Trace photos and thoughts on social media. Let’s spark a collective process that inspires stewardship and the preservation of wildness. Let’s ensure that we all remain vigilant in our efforts to keep the Adirondack Forest Preserve forever wild. Beyond that, though, as you’re circled by kingly mountains and breathed upon by their healing balm, try to remember that the scenery is best experienced through your senses. Sometimes it’s best to forego the social media, and to be content in that one-on-one mystical moment with nature.

After all, you may never see these places again.

You can take the pledge to Leave No Trace with ADK this summer and use the #LeaveNoTraceWithADK hashtag to share your photos of stewardship and responsible recreation.

A version of this story was first published by The Adirondack Mountain Club.

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Tyler Socash is ADK’s Outdoor Skills Coordinator. He believes in fostering a personal connection with our public lands through exposure, education, and stewardship. The day after completing his master’s degree at the University of Rochester, Socash embarked on a 7,000-mile thru-hiking journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, Te Araroa in New Zealand, and the Appalachian Trail. He joined the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates as an activist to promote the intangibles of wildness and their benefits to humanity. In an effort to meld humor with conservation efforts, Socash co-created and co-hosts Foot Stuff Podcast, which spotlights stories of adventure, antics, and activism around the country.

18 Responses

  1. Justin Farrell says:

    Nice column, Tyler. ?
    I’m guilty of sharing my GoPro videos from time to time of some (not all) of my adventures, but I also try to be discreet with sensitive location details, especially in high use areas. I also try to include things like picking up litter in my videos whenever I find it, and also point out some of the negative impacts that people can cause…like cut tree stumps, duff fire damage, etc.

  2. Taras says:

    Excellent! Thank you! Well said!

    All technology is a double-edged sword. We should learn to wield social-media in a manner that does the most good for the backcountry. I do believe more people ought to learn about LNT since the impression I get is many simply equate it to “If you carry it in, carry it out.”


  3. Bruce says:

    “Even the mystery of the wilderness can be preserved by leaving the location of a quiet pond, campsite, or viewpoint out of the social media post.”

    My thoughts exactly, Tyler. It was briefly suggested in another Almanack article some time ago that a certain Wilderness mountaintop needed a trail so more folks could enjoy the view the writer got to enjoy by bushwhacking. Now that writer is known to care for the environment, so I suspect the bushwhacking was done in a responsible manner, without leaving much, or any sign of his passing. Bushwhacking can mean simply going where no human trails exist and can be done without leaving significant sign of one’s passing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    Why does there have to be trails leading to every good thing the Adirondacks has to offer? Some of us believe that largely undisturbed places, with no hiker highways leading to them are the real treasures.

  4. Todd Eastman says:

    Low-impact practices are fine until a place’s capacity is overwhelmed. Some yrails and infrastructure should be improved to absorb increased numbers of users.

  5. Paul says:

    That fire looks almost like it was photo-shopped in?

  6. Charlie S says:

    “Aren’t our natural resources more valuable than “likes” and social media comments? ”

    A better question would be, ‘Why do so many people have this big urge to let the whole world know what they are up to every minute of every day?’
    Very strange!

    • CJ says:

      Says the guy who comments on the Almanack a dozen times per day.

      • Charlie S says:

        This is different than throwing out one-liners in three or four or five words about trivial things on Facebook or twitter or whatever the latest fad is in technology CJ. There’s more depth to me than that!

        • CJ says:

          Oh OK I guess it is different thanks for the explanation. I’m also glad that your comments have a lot more depth than everything on social media.

          • Charlie S says:

            I detect a hint of arrogance in you CJ….you’re on edge. I must be doing something right!

            • Paul says:

              This one is only 88 characters even with the ….

              You are allowed even 52 more for twitter!

              If you leave out some of the “so and so says” headers and quotes from previous comments many comments would probably fit into the twitter format.

              Some people use this for important communications these days so its not all bad. I am sure that smoke signals, or Morse code to send messages, got a bad rap when they started!

  7. I’m seeking to work with an AP developer (out of Vermont) and create a mobile AP that Park and Trail Users in the Adirondacks can click into to determine if select High Peak trails or special natural sites are at or near capacity in order that users can make different choices and actually avoid adding to overcrowding impacts on peaks and at special sights. If DEC was technologically proficient and we had the Ranger staff coverage we truly need, this could be a DEC Forest Preserve AP that all users could link into for the latest info. when trail use reach set capacity limits. I would be interested if others have an interest in working on this or similar concepts.

    • Taras says:


      Seeing that no one counts hikers at trailheads, and there’s no turnstile ;), your proposed app would rely on crowd-sourced data.

      Like existing traffic-reporting apps for vehicles, do you envision hikers using the app to report their presence on a trail and/or observations of the number of other hikers they see on the trail/summit?

      Here are a few hurdles:

      – Limited cell coverage; most trailheads have none. A few taller summits do but it’s spotty. Clear line of sight with Lake Placid helps so Cascade’s busy summit (usually) works. Perhaps a workaround is a sore-and-forward system that uploads when the phone establishes a connection. However, this eliminates the real-time aspect and detracts from the app’s accuracy.

      – Roaming charges. There are many Canadian hikers who visit the High Peaks and roaming charges for mobile data are far from cheap.

      – Limited carriers. Back to those numerous Canuck hikers like myself, Canadian phones work with the world-standard GSM system. That means our phones work with AT&T in the USA. Verizon uses CDMA so we have no coverage in areas it serves exclusively, like Keene – Keene Valley.

      – Limited incentives. The app would need an incentive to use it beyond altruism. For example, at a minimum it would need an offline map containing all trails and the ability to navigate along desired routes. At best, description of trails and recommendations for alternate hikes during peak times. In other words, it has to have some useful payback besides just being a traffic monitoring tool.

      – Low traction. This is a guess but your target market is new hikers or at least new to the High Peaks. I’ve hiked umpteen rounds of the 46 and know which peaks are likely to be crowded so this app has limited utility for me. The trick is to get this app into the hands of people who have low familiarity with the area (and with any hiking-related app). It goes back to creating a product offering greater utility.

      Let us know if you make any headway with this project!

      BTW, NYSDEC offers a “Pocket Ranger” app for hunting, fishing and wildlife watching. I haven’t used it but perhaps your idea can be incorporated into it for hikers.


    • Paul says:

      Dan I think you mean App? I think that AP is the associated press! Make sure the developer doesn’t call it an AP – if he does find a new developer! Good luck it’s a pretty good idea.

  8. Ben says:

    I’m sick of Indian Head pictures. I’d be ok with never seeing another one on social media. Especially people staging the pictures with beers etc- and I love hiking and I love beer.

  9. Bruce says:

    A large part of this whole social media thing is to announce to the world, “hell, I was there,” with a selfie. People who don’t know you could care less, so instead of making posts available to the world, be discreet and send them privately to the small handful of folks who might actually care.

    I have a Facebook account only because the sign in gives me access to the rare private message for me and to other places not a part of Facebook. Even at that, I get hundreds of messages from Facebook on my e-mail account every month announcing that this unknown person wants to be my “friend”, or someone has posted new photos. I can find my “delete” key in total darkness.

  10. Charlie S says:

    “A large part of this whole social media thing is to announce to the world, “hell, I was there,” with a selfie.”

    Rollo May, the father of existential psychotherapy, defined it best way back in the 50’s when he called this society ‘The fit-in society,’ ie… everyone doing what everyone else is doing to fit in. In other words everyone wanting to be like everyone else. It’s worse today than it was then which makes sense since there’s more people today, more people wanting to be like everyone else.

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