It’s in the unwritten social media owner’s manual: If you’re gonna post, you gotta look. Get your summit shot queued up, attach the right hashtags, and you’ll probably feel accomplished, at least for a moment—until you scroll through the rest of the outdoor glory shots populating our social channels. The upwelling starts as congratulation, morphs into admiration, maybe even inspiration. But then Instagram’s inevitable filter crops up: the green tinge of envy.
Recent research rates Instagram as the worst social media platform for mental health and wellbeing, leading to documented cases of anxiety, depression, and even bullying. Recently, anti-’Grammers have also cited environmental conservation. Photos rarely come with LNT guidelines, and suddenly the backcountry is full of spots like Colorado’s Guffey Gorge that have been trashed by crowds who know how to “like” a place but not how to love it.
But there’s another reason to temper the urge to feed the feed, and this one is the least discussed, but perhaps the most important: The constant focus on snapping the perfect wilderness photo can actually rob us of the memories we’re trying to preserve.
Don’t choke on your polarizer. This is not a rant against photography. A recent Psychological Science study indicates that, while photography helps us recall the visual details of our experiences, it comes at the expense of every other sense. We may remember the X-Pro-filtered contours of Mt. Rainier at sunrise months later, but we don’t absorb everything else—the musk of morning mist, the chatter of snowmelt, the ineffables that turn a gorgeous 2D pane into a potent reason for being—if we’re constantly searching for the shot that will win a digital popularity contest.
I swear this is not a wheezy jeremiad from a retrogrouch in an external-frame pack. Have I ever squeezed through a gut-pinching slot canyon (twice) to nail the sickest angle? Guilty as charged. Have I ever tracked through knee-high poison oak to sling a hammock in front of a mountain panorama where I never actually slept? More than a hundred likes!
I admit I haven’t been able to quit cold turkey. But I’ve got a new approach. Recently, I started alternating one for the ’Gram, one for me: Every other trip, I get to see how it feels to spend an entire hike present and in the moment, with nothing to process my environment but the original five senses.
On a birthday trip with buddies to a North Cascades fire lookout, my phone languished in the car. In the timeline of my social feeds, where there should be a series of videos and shots documenting days of epic wilderness revelry, there’s a gap, like I fell off the map. And yet, I remember glowing glaciers suspended on smoke-obscured peaks; the echoing whoops and wide eyes of my terrified friends as we balanced on a tippy log on a frosty lake; the slap of high fives as new friends bagged their first peaks ever. My buddies took the social glory—including a shot of me casting for rising cutthroats at dawn, fir trees cutting a black waveform against the monochrome sky. I spent zero time perfecting a pose, but I can smell the lake right now.
So far, I’m digging this system. I come home with less material than I used to, but enough to prove to family that my weeks off social media aren’t masking a substance-abuse problem. The memories of trips I don’t document are sweeter and richer for being essentially secret—and wholly mine. In fact, the scales are beginning to tip in the other direction. I look forward to leaving my phone in the pack, eliminating one more filter between me and the wilderness around me.
Go ahead and try it—you might even like it.