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Why Is it So Hard to Honestly Portray Backpacking on Social Media?

Hiking isn’t all gorgeous sunsets and glowing campfires, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at Instagram. And for people just getting into backpacking, that matters.

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When I lost my full-time job and made the jump into freelancing last summer, I became a dedicated Instagram user. I recognized the platform’s dual utility: I could post a scenic photo to show that I was outdoorsy, and therefore relevant, while using the caption to point followers to my new writing.

Even as I jumped headfirst into it, though, I still considered myself a reluctant ‘grammer: I was doing it for professional reasons, not because I enjoyed it or anything. Then, sometime in the past six months, I slowly left my reluctance behind. I looked forward to posting stories about my backcountry trips, anticipating that sweet hit of serotonin whenever someone liked my photo.

Whatever remained of my social media resistance delusions fell apart during a recent podcast interview, when the host asked: “What’s it like to be part of the social media side of backpacking?” Though I vehemently denied that I was part of any such thing, he had a point.

With a mere 1,900 followers, I am not popular by the internet’s standards. But between social media and my various freelance outlets, there are plenty of opportunities for people to read about my backcountry travel and see my pictures. And the more I look at those pictures, the more I realize that I’m as guilty of showing off only the glamorous side of backpacking as the big influencers are.

After the podcast interview left me in a soul-searching mood, I glanced back through my posts from my recent Ouachita Trail thru-hike. The Ouachita Trail is 223 miles long, traversing tree-covered terrain through Oklahoma and Arkansas. We broke treeline just a few times throughout the entire trip, and while we did have a few lovely sunrises, it was cloudy, socked-in, or raining for the majority of the trail. We hiked in November, so the trees were bare and the undergrowth was muted shades of brown.

Looking at my posts from the Ouachita Trail, you wouldn’t know any of that: Out of 11 photos, 3 were open ridgelines, and 7 were taken during the few days of sun. I loved the Ouachita Trail, but what I posted was not an accurate representation of the realities of our thru-hike.

Did I mislead my followers? Or are viewers savvy enough to understand that what they see isn’t the full story? I do think we’re jaded enough to realize that not all backcountry photos are accurate representations of a backpacking trip, but it’s hard to pretend like the unrealistically high expectations created by brilliant vistas and dirt-free hikers filling our feeds don’t impact our experiences.

Instant-gratification feedback—in the form of likes, shares, and follows—sustains this cycle. My brighter, more dramatic photos get more attention, so I’m more apt to post those. The Ouachita Trail sunrises were gorgeous in real life, but I automatically enhanced the saturation before posting. For social media, the real sunrises weren’t enough.

As the formula for successful social media posts becomes narrower, what does this mean for new backpackers? Social media accounts that curate staged, glamorous, or oversaturated photos perpetuate a false representation of the realities of extended backcountry travel. That can lead to unrealistic expectations when beginner hikers start backpacking or attempt a thru-hike. Even accounts that seek to promote the reality of backcountry travel fall into the positive-feedback trap, eventually resulting in a feed indistinguishable from outdoor brands or magazines.

Today’s novice hikers might be getting a steady stream of information and #natureporn, but when they do hit the trail, what they saw isn’t usually what they get. To reach the photogenic viewpoint, the hiker might have woken up under layers of lumpy down in a condensation-filled tent. Maybe they were hot and sweaty on the climb, damp hair plastered to their face. The trail leading to the summit might have been under trees, a poorly lit path with deadfall obstructing any sort of Instagram-worthy vantage point.

As more people venture into the backcountry, it’s important that Instagram photos don’t falsely idealize backpacking. Creating false representations eliminates the expectation of the unpleasant parts of the experience—the Type II fun, if you will. People aren’t seeing the tent being pitched with frozen fingers on a slanted campsite, or miles of monotonous grey sky barely visible through thick branches. Instagram portrays a false reality, which can make the actual experience disappointing at best, painful and dangerous at worst. If all that people understand of backpacking is what’s been curated for social media, they’re less likely to be prepared for long days, inclement weather, or challenging (but not photogenic) terrain.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t put up pretty photos. But seeing my pictures shared on social media and through writing outlets has forced me to look critically at how I portray my outdoor experiences. With honest representation as the goal, I hope we can learn to share the unglamorous parts of our trips too, rather than feeding into the urge to crank up the saturation on an already beautiful sunrise.