Gatekeeping and Geotagging: My Thoughts on This Hot Debate

Ah, geotagging. It's a tough debate, no doubt about that, and each side has some valid arguments–it's not an easy conversation, but it's one that does have the power to determine the future of our natural spaces. I'd like to take a minute to discuss both and provide my personal take on the matter.

As a photographer who takes great joy in finding hidden gems, I totally get wanting to keep some of these spots to yourself. There are some things you might not want to share with the world, and I think that's very much okay. I used to veer more towards keeping these places "secret," thinking that was the right way to sustainably protect and preserve our wilderness, but as I've read and learned more about the issue of what we now call "gatekeeping" and identified my privilege, it's become clear to me that these public spaces are just that: public.

We all pay taxes out of our hard-earned paychecks to keep them public, so we ALL can experience and enjoy them together (ideally equally, although we haven't quite gotten there yet).

Now, when I arrive at a destination to find trash, toilet paper, underwear (yes, this happens), or other litter left behind by those were there before me, I'm completely disgusted. That type of behavior affects everyone: you who might take great care of these places, future visitors, and the place itself. Many ecosystems can't come back from high levels of misuse. But I believe this disconnect and this misuse of wild places has more to do with having good outdoor stewardship than geotagging.

Knowing and understanding how your actions can negatively affect the natural environment is so much more powerful than forcing someone to look up these "secret" places on Google Maps or AllTrails on their own by omitting geotags.

That said, I'm aware that geotagging does often result in overcrowding–this is also where good sustainable practices come in. One thing we can all do to avoid overcrowding is a Leave No Trace Principle titled "Planning Ahead," or "know before you go." I research for peak times and plan my day around them. This lessens the environmental impact on the location and provides a more enjoyable experience for me too.

We need to pivot away from secrecy and "gatekeeping" and move toward preservation education, and then we can live up to the "welcoming" stereotype the outdoors community so proudly boasts.

Did you know past legislation straight up banned POC communities from public spaces up until the Civil Rights Act was passed in ‘64? Or that, according to the National Health Organization, 70 percent of people who visit national forests, national wildlife refuges, and national parks are white? This is a direct result of years of suppression that involves racialized economic policies, employment discrimination, unequal access to quality education, and other tools that makes gear and natural spaces inaccessible for people of color (POC).

I believe these wonderful natural spaces should be enjoyed by all, under one circumstance: we all have to work together to protect and preserve these special spots, so we can enjoy them sustainably for years to come.

But here's the thing: it's up to us to make sure these Leave No Trace principles are widely known. It's actually not common knowledge to those who didn't grow up in the outdoors community, have adventurous parents, and even if the previous are true, we're learning more about protecting our environment every day.

(We're still in a climate crisis, aren't we?)

I've been hiking, camping, and skiing since day 1, thanks to my adventurous family, but we've also been guilty of feeding the birds, or burying our TP with our poop, etc. We just didn't know, which means there are still a ton of people out there who don't know either.

These LNT principles are learned, and it's up to us to share them, and I'm still learning and growing with every adventure.

Chipmunk eating hikers' popcorn.

As the internet grows, the world gets smaller. Soon enough, there will be nothing above water left to discover. As history suggests, us humans are pretty dang powerful. One step off trail could change a 100-year-old plant's life forever. One misplaced campfire could cause a devastating forest fire.

That's why with every Wander in RAW blog post, you'll also find Leave No Trace principles, sustainability tips, and etiquette to follow on every one of your adventures, to ensure a safe, welcoming, and sustainable experience and future for the wild spaces we all love and enjoy.

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