I was atop 5,392-foot Cascade Pass, in Washington’s North Cascades, when I saw it happen. A hiker stepped up to the edge of the viewpoint, camera in hand, and squinted through the viewfinder. When the framing wasn’t quite up to her standards, she decided to move a few steps to the left, where no trees would impose upon the edges of her photo. Unfortunately, that meant stepping right onto a patch of fragile alpine heather. I winced. In spots like this, where snow covers the ground nine months out of the year and conditions are harsh year-round, it could take decades for that crushed plant to recover.
It wasn’t the first time (nor the last) I’d watched a camera-toting hiker trample a delicate ecosystem in pursuit of artistic perfection. With a smartphone in every hiker’s pocket, anyone can be a photographer. And with the pervasive presence of social media, especially Instagram, they all want to be one. The outdoor influencers of the social media sphere build a living off of that entire concept, drawing in followers with perfect shots of campsites at sunset and empty trails leading off to a mountainous horizon. The problem is, all of those followers want their Insta to look like an influencer’s, and that means photos without pesky branches, other hikers, or poorly positioned rocks in the way. Hence the scrambling over the underbrush, the trundling of rocks, and the trampling of innocent—and vulnerable—plants.
“In pursuit of the perfect photo, the wilderness these hiker-photographers are trying to document ends up suffering.”
Most hikers these days are familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace, which outline how to spend time in the wild without harming it. Social media-driven photography is great for boosting “leave what you find,” but everything else seems to fall by the wayside: Rocks get moved, plants get crushed, tents get relocated to a pristine meadow that looks much better in your feed than the dirt tent pad where you actually slept. In pursuit of the perfect photo, the wilderness these hiker-photographers are trying to document ends up suffering. It doesn’t matter how much you espouse traveling light or protecting native species if you blunder off-trail as soon as there’s a tree in the way of your landscape photo. I’ve seen this selfish behavior impact everything from the fragile cryptobiotic soil of Arches National Park to the eelgrass beds of Canada’s Gulf Islands, and it needs to end.
There’s nothing wrong with hiking photography if you do it right. I carry my camera to just about every trailhead, and I don’t plan on changing that anytime soon. But your photos and social media feeds can’t be more important than the place you’re visiting. If you get so caught up in getting the shot that you forget to watch your feet, destroying pieces of the very wilderness whose beauty you are trying to capture, then maybe it’s time to put down the camera for a while and look around. A picture might be worth a thousand words—but the soil you trampled to get it might take a thousand years to recover.