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The Internet-Age Struggle: How Can We Protect the Outdoors Without Gatekeeping?

With information about “secret” trails and campsites all over the internet, finding a balance between conserving the wilderness and welcoming people to it has never been more important—or more challenging.

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Earlier this year, I was working on the website I co-founded, where I create hiking guides for and and curate information on lesser-known trails. I checked my email one afternoon and was thrilled to see a submission from a hiker who wanted to write about the Sierra High Route, a challenging, remote hike that sees little foot traffic. 

I happened to have a thru-hiker crashing on my couch that week. When I mentioned the submission, he groaned.

“Don’t publish information about the Sierra High Route,” he said. “You’re making it too easy for people to hike it.”

His reply left me deflated. Was sharing this information with the internet a bad thing? Every backcountry adventurer I know has a few gems that they like to keep under the radar. My friends and I have a favorite “hidden” alpine lake and one semi-unknown campsite in a popular national park. But writing about the Sierra High Route seemed different: I was helping create a trail profile on a relatively well-known route (which also has a guidebook). How could that be a bad thing? To me, we were presenting organized information in a way that could make a remote route potentially less dangerous. 

My houseguest disagreed. In his opinion, the Sierra High Route should be exclusive and accessing information about it shouldn’t be easy—publicizing the information cheapened the experience of the adventure. I looked over the information I had compiled; the writeup made it obvious that this was a difficult, off-trail route with over 40,000 feet of elevation gain. Still, his reply left me wondering: Would this guide drive more hiker traffic to a remote area? Was this a conservation issue, and could we mitigate it by increasing communication about responsible travel? On the more abstract side, was I reducing the valor of the hike by not making people “earn” the research portion? 

This brought to mind the obvious next question: who gets to decide what information is public and what should be kept exclusive? If I pulled the piece and limited the trail guides to mellow, already popular backpacking routes, was I contributing to gatekeeping in the outdoors?

Gatekeeping can take many forms, but one of the most common is to limit information on trails to an “inner circle.” Only if you’re established enough—know the right people, live in the right place—do you deserve to know the details of a particular route. Here’s how that thinking goes: Backpacking the Sierra High Route is hard, so that difficulty should begin the moment you begin to research the trip in order to preserve the integrity and exclusivity of the endeavor.

My houseguest’s apprehension also made me think about overcrowding on public lands, and the role outdoor media plays. Thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 saw a significant increase in outdoor recreation, And while it was good to see more people discover the joy of hiking, some side effects weren’t positive.

Campers trashed Max Patch Bald on the Appalachian Trail, leaving behind  toilet paper, beer cans, and abandoned tents captured in images that made my stomach turn. There was seldom parking at previously deserted trailheads in my area. And some of those new hikers got into trouble, with backcountry rescues multiplying to the point that some rescue teams had a hard time keeping up.

As visitation increases, trails widen, campsites overflow into fragile areas, and hiking corridors become unable to bear the burden of parking, waste, and foot traffic. I’ve heard this subject in whisperings throughout the community: As lifelong recreators witness what happens to our beloved trails as popularity increases, we are becoming instinctively more tight-lipped about our favorite places. Without realizing it, we automatically start the process of gatekeeping and deciding who deserves to know and who is left out.

But part of my job as an outdoor writer is to make access to the outdoors easier. Hiking and backpacking is for everyone, not just those who are lucky enough to have been integrated into the community already. When we try to keep the best trails under wraps, that’s the definition of gatekeeping: Who are we to decide who gets to hike and who doesn’t?

With the plethora of information already available online, it’s time to consider how we can strike a balance between welcoming new hikers to the outdoors without destroying the very thing that brings us all out there in the first place. Unlike some, I don’t think it’s a given that making it easier for new hikers to get into the activity has to cause harm to the wilderness. With the right attitude, we can help readers understand the values of responsible outdoor recreation. The more people get outside to explore, the more inspired they’ll be to care about conservation and see themselves as stewards of wild spaces. Additionally, helping people experience lesser-known areas takes pressure off of the most heavily trafficked locales.

All of us in the outdoor community already benefit from the joy of time spent outdoors. I don’t believe it’s our place to decide who should or shouldn’t be able to access these places we love by deliberately withholding information. Instead, we can use our experience for good by responsibly sharing information in well-rounded posts and guides that help readers understand what they need to safely complete the route, instead of just publishing the GPX track and resupply locations. 

The information we present should also help new hikers stay out of trouble and understand the natural progression of difficulty in the routes they choose. Truly difficult routes like the Sierra High Route have a natural barrier to entry, and quality information should be honest about that while still highlighting the rewards and key beta to improve trip planning and execution. Above all else, those of us in a position to share information should be working to spread the joy of the backcountry while emphasizing the importance of maintaining it for generations to come.

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