Is There a Right Way to Post About Your Hike on Social Media?

Social media and hiking can mix—as long as you're intentional about your usage.

Photo: Westend61/Westend61 via Getty Images

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When I first created an Instagram account eight years ago, I immediately followed as many fellow hikers as I could. I wanted to flood my senses with images of amazing athletes on exotic trails. I was sure that by doing so, I’d be able to cultivate a buzz of manic inspiration. I’d get outside all the time, high on a constant drip of motivational images. I’d have no choice but to live my best life. 

It took me years to realize that those very images were doing exactly the opposite: driving me away from hiking and scuttling my sense of self-worth.  

About a year ago, after hearing yet another story on NPR about how social media impacts young people’s mental health, I decided to take a step back. I deleted my social media accounts—and almost immediately started to feel better. Now that I wasn’t scrolling all the time, my self-confidence started to improve. My persistent body-image issues suddenly had less of an edge. I spent more time hiking just for myself, and I enjoyed each outing more and more.

 I was so impressed with my “personal growth” that I started logging back on just to peacock about it. Every time I took a cool trip, I’d re-download my social media apps, post something about how wonderful my life was, and immediately delete the apps again. I figured all my negative social media symptoms had come from scrolling, but this strategy let me create content without consuming it. I thought I’d figured out a way to hack the system.

Then I noticed that several of my good friends had unfollowed me.

 At first, I was shocked, even offended. But the more I thought about it, I realized I really couldn’t blame them. After all, I didn’t even re-download an app unless I was having some kind of big life success. My grid had become glowing image after glowing image—hardly representative of the ups and downs of my normal life. By trying to cut back on my personal social media use, I’d created a highlight-reel effect that was out of control. 

I remembered how depressed I’d felt a year prior when my Instagram consumption was at its peak. I remembered how much I resented the people who posted beautiful pictures with breezy, self-satisfied captions. A number of mental health experts recommend unfollowing accounts that make you feel bad about yourself. It was no wonder my friends were unfollowing me. 

Still, the realization was jarring. In the past, I’d only ever viewed myself as a victim of the evils of social media. Now, I started to wonder: Was I part of the problem? 

To find out, I reached out to Sebastian Slovin, the director of programs and cofounder of Nature Unplugged, a nonprofit organization that helps outdoor enthusiasts improve their relationships with both tech and nature. I asked him if there was any way I could stop being insufferable on the internet. His answer: Yes. And no. 

“I think that creating content, generally speaking, isn’t usually too harmful,” Slovin said. “The real challenge is that these platforms are too good at sucking us in.” 

Slovin said that most social media posts have the potential to be harmful to other people, but that’s not because of anything the poster is doing. Instead, it’s because social media platforms are designed specifically to attract and retain consumers’ attention in sometimes nefarious ways.

“There’s a tremendous amount of money and research being poured into these platforms, and there are very smart people doing everything they can to undermine our personal willpower and keep us on their platforms as long as possible,” Slovin said.

To that end, social media algorithms are designed to figure out what kinds of content will hold users’ attention the longest. They then feed us more content of that type. 

Close-up of hands scrolling on cell phone in front of forest background
Posting about your hike might seem harmless—but could have more impact than you think. (Photo: Westend61/Westend61 via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, Slovin said, the things that hold our attention are rarely feel-good posts. More often, they’re posts that are incendiary, politically divisive, or shocking. They’re the posts we stare at longest. For me, those are the images and captions that make me fixate on my flaws. 

The level and cruelty of the targeting is stunning. No matter how hard I try to cleanse and curate my feeds, I—who used to have an eating disorder—remain constantly bombarded with images of slim women drinking juice or exercising or skinny-dipping amid stunning outdoor vistas. Instagram is like a vicious older sibling. It knows just what buttons to push. 

The other issue with social media is that the content often reaches people in their most vulnerable moments. That could be in bed at night or first thing in the morning. Standing in an elevator or sitting in a hospital waiting room.

“When we’re feeling bored, sad, disappointed, frustrated, not super happy about our current life situation or body, then most of us are usually going to look for some sort of escape,” Slovin said. “It could be alcohol or drugs for some people. But right now, for a lot of people, it’s social media.” 

That certainly rings true for me. When I’m anxious or lonely, I often catch myself grabbing at my phone to numb those emotions. Social media showers us with beautiful imagery and illusions of connection. It’s a confetti of dopamine and serotonin. It’s addictive. 

Between that addictive quality, the cunning algorithms, and the pervasiveness of influencer culture, social media is basically designed to create FOMO. Slovin said that remains true no matter how hard we try to keep our posts vulnerable, uplifting, or real. In fact, research shows that posts designed to inspire people to get outdoors, get fit, or eat healthy often end up doing more harm than good.

So should we just stop posting about our bucket list hikes altogether—or stop reading about other people’s? How can we share about our lives without making everything worse?

The first trick, Slovin said, is to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Limit your social media use to a short window each day. When you reach for your phone, try to identify whether you’re using it to cope with boredom, sadness, or some other difficult moment. If you are, consider closing your eyes and just letting your feelings do their thing for a while, instead of relying on an algorithm that’s poised to make you feel worse. 

The second trick lies in checking in with your motivations before you post. Are you aching for acknowledgment? Are you tracking your likes? Are you planning your weekend with the perfect post in mind? Be brutally honest with yourself. 

“One of the biggest health benefits to nature is that it does a really wonderful job of keeping us present,” Slovin said. “But if we’re spending all our time outdoors thinking about what we’re going to post next or what other people are going to think of us, that’s a loss.” 

Studies show that we’re less likely to enjoy hiking or exercise if it’s fueled by external motivators, like others’ approval, rather than internal motivators, like a love of movement or curiosity about nature. Slovin also speculates that the health benefits of nature diminish when our minds are elsewhere instead of with us on the trail. 

“I don’t want to shame that behavior, but it’s not going to be fulfilling. There will always be someone getting more likes or doing cooler things than you. It’s never-ending. It’s a hamster wheel,” Slovin said. “So, ask yourself: What’s your primary driver? If it’s internal motivation, that’s ultimately going to be beneficial for you. But if your desire to hike is about the likes and the pat on the back, it’s going to be an unfulfilling practice.”

From 2023