The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has five recommendations for responsible social media practices in the backcountry. The first—Think Before you Geotag—addresses a seemingly harmless aspect of social media: tagging where your photo was taken on a map. Of all things social media, why did Leave No Trace decide to target this particular feature? Here are a few reasons why:

Geotags are good for business, but not sensitive environments

First, why do we use geotags in the first place? For people that use Instagram primarily for social reasons, geotags are a nice way to mark where you have been and provide context for your images. For business owners and Instagram influencers, geotags are important marketing tools that help drive traffic to a specific business or destination. For example, a new coffee shop in downtown Manhattan could compete with larger, more established rivals by hiring influencers to highlight their location on Instagram, thus giving their business a certain image and online exposure that attracts customers.

While our theoretical coffee shop welcomes as many customers as possible, sensitive backcountry environments cannot easily handle such traffic. Let’s use Mt. Marcy as an example: covered in alpine vegetation around the summit cone, Marcy is one of only a handful of locations in New York where this rare ecosystem can be observed. Slow to grow and sensitive to trampling, the alpine vegetation on Marcy cannot quickly overcome recreational impacts. Driving high volumes of hikers to a narrow range of specific places, as opposed to spreading usage across the Adirondack Park, poses a real risk to these ecosystems.

Geotags are not always accurate

A map showing geotag locations for Mt MarcyFun fact: geotags are self-reported. Many of the locations listed on Instagram are created and named by users through the linked Facebook “check-in” feature, and are not drawn from a verified source. This is why there are 11 different geotags for Mt. Marcy, of which only two are accurately pinned to Marcy’s location (one is even in Fort Drum, New York, about 140 miles away). The image to the right shows nine of those geotags (some overlap) and where they are placed on the map (red icons) relative to the actual summit of Marcy (black hiker icon). This is not unique to Marcy either; there are 12 geotags for Cascade Mountain, 5 for Algonquin, and 13 for Giant Mountain, some of which are also inaccurate.

The risk this creates is pretty clear. If people see photos of an exciting spot, decide to travel there, and use the Instagram geotag to find out where to go, they might end up somewhere completely different. They might also arrive prepared for a short hike, only to find out it is far longer than advertised.

Use generic geotags (or none at all!)

We recommend using generic geotags when posting about your adventures. Locations such as “Adirondack Park” or “Adirondacks” are great ways to promote the region without driving people to specific locations. This not only protects sensitive environments, but also preserves the sense of discovery for those inspired by your content. It also supports the idea that the entire Park is worth exploring, and not the just the highest summits and deepest valleys.

Additionally, we encourage people to incorporate Leave No Trace messaging into their posts, especially the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. Each person that visits the Adirondack Park can become an advocate for it and social media is a great way to encourage that ethic. By supporting low-impact backcountry practices, we can all contribute to the conservation of our public lands while enjoying them to the fullest.