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When Katie Boué heard Sen. Mike Lee was introducing legislation to block the protection of public land in Utah, she knew exactly what she needed to do. “Utah’s @senmikelee is being awfully un-American this week,” she wrote on Instagram. “[He] wants to abolish the Antiquities Act and claims that western land should look more like ‘Illinois or Missouri’ — no offense to those states ... but they’re not exactly known for their pristine landscapes.” She posted the message alongside a photo of a “protect public lands” sign that looks like it was taken in a climbing store. It got almost 3,000 likes.
That post is what you might call “on brand” for Boué, a social media influencer specializing in outdoor photography. She says influencers have a responsibility to use their platform for good.
“You can either share a picture of yourself standing on a really cool summit and say, ‘Oh look, a really cool summit,’ or you can post that same picture and say, ‘Did you know that the Land and Water Conservation Fund supports our public lands with $900 million in potential funding each year? But it’s expiring on September 30, so we need you to take action,’” she said. “And then your pretty mountain picture just ended up getting a thousand signatures on a really important issue.”
Not all outdoor influencers share Boué’s passion for activism, but with the growth of their platforms in recent years, many have been pulled into the growing debate about responsible social media usage in nature.
On the one hand, there’s the notion that posting content on the outdoors inspires others to get outside (see: #OptOutside, et al.). On the other, there’s the very real fear that posting photos of hidden hikes and hot springs invites an influx of visitors these places lack the resources to handle.
But of course, it’s more complicated than that.
In 1999, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (LNT) published seven leave no trace principles to “communicate the best available minimum impact guidance for enjoying the outdoors responsibly.” Today, these principles remain largely intact, despite calls for LNT to add responsible social media usage to the list.
Groups like Hikers for an 8th Leave No Trace Principle have gone so far as to pen the new principle themselves. “Use discretion when posting on social media and consider the potential impacts of creating a ‘buzz’ about specific destinations,” their suggestion reads.
The discretion they’re calling for is frequently cited in the issue of geotagging on Instagram. On the app, geotagging lets you share the location where a photo was taken. Tap on a tag — say, Yosemite — and you’ll see all the public photos associated with that locale. But geotagging can also get specific, and that’s where the real issues start. “We’re having a lot of problems with people geotagging hidden or sensitive places,” Boué said, adding that these places don’t always have the infrastructure to handle a lot of new visitors.
Ben Lawhon, the education director at LNT, said they’re waiting to see how social media evolves before responding to these demands. “If we were to jump at every perceived opportunity to add a new principle, we’d have way more than seven,” he said, adding, “nine out of 10 people who visit public lands are uninformed about Leave No Trace, so consistency is important.”
Rather than add an eighth principle, LNT has opted to publish guidelines urging people to “tag thoughtfully” and “avoid tagging (or geotagging) specific locations.” It’s not the hard stance activists want, but it’s a start.
Influencer Taylor Burk says he understands why they’re worried about geotagging. “You know when you’re a kid and you find that one swimming hole where you like to hang out and play, and then people start telling their friends, and their friends start telling their friends,” he said, as though speaking from personal experience.
“It starts growing and you can’t go hang out anymore, it’s dodging crowds.” Burk added, “there’s also the conservation side of things, like Bears Ears, in Utah. Sometimes the more people that know about these places and go to these places, the easier it can be to protect them.”
Outdoor influencers are a relatively new phenomenon, and their rise is largely attributable to Instagram. Adam Buchanan, who started the first influencer marketing program at Columbia Sportswear, says he thought of the idea while camping in the La Plata Mountains in Southern Colorado.
Snuggled in a puffy down jacket made by Sierra Designs, he knew he should switch to the thin soft-shell coat Columbia Sportswear had sent him for free, in exchange for a product review. But given the freezing temperature, he didn’t want to: The coat looked insubstantial, despite its “omni-heat” claim. Finally, he slipped it on. “I was blown away,” he said. “Walking around, I didn’t feel any difference.”
That’s when a lightbulb went off. “From that point on, I knew the Columbia story had to be told a different way,” he said. Not through commercials or ads, but through real people who could experience the products for themselves and then go out and tell their communities.
The following year, he joined the Social Media team at Columbia Sportswear, and set out to do exactly that.
Katie Boué was one of the enthusiasts he sponsored. Fresh out of college and without a large following to speak of, she’s emblematic of Adam’s approach: Take someone who’s passionate about the outdoors, give them the freedom to say whatever they want, and watch their audience grow and their credibility strengthen. “We need people who are very passionate about the outdoors, very passionate about products, not just people that have a large audience,” he said.
At the time, Boué had just spent all her savings on a van and was planning to drive it around the US. When she reached out to Buchanan and asked him to sponsor the trip, he surprised her by actually saying yes.
“Now people are like, ‘Okay you and everybody else has a van,’” she said, but back then, the idea was novel. Today, Boué works part time as a contractor for the Outdoor Industry Association, and part time on her own social media brand.
A few weeks before we spoke, she was in the southern Utah desert, creating content for an outdoor shoe company. “We were only in the desert for, like, 48 hours,” she said, “and just kind of got there, set up camp, and came up with a game plan.”
Because she now has an established social following, Boué said this type of spontaneity tends to work. “That’s what these brands are really trying to capture — the authentic moment,” she said. “Which is great, like, ‘Oh, gee, you want us to roast marshmallows, shucks,’” she laughed.
The shoe company was a rare partnership for Boué, who says she turns down the vast majority of sponsorships. “When you’re getting, like, free jackets, it’s very easy to keep saying yes,” she said, noting that these days she’s pickier about what she takes. “I’m here for sustainability, and the sustainable thing is to not have 50 water bottles when I only need two,” she said. She added that the quickest way to tell if a brand will be a good partner is to ask them what they’re doing for sustainability. That’s usually a pretty quick, “Oh, uh, bye,” she said, laughing.
Although Boué’s part-time job allows her to be this discerning, most outdoor influencers expressed a similar level of hesitance regarding brand sponsored posts on social media. Jess Dales, a full-time influencer based in Seattle, says she didn’t take on sponsors until she had almost 50,000 followers. “It just wasn’t worth it to me, the stress of having to take a product with me out hiking and then worry if my followers were gonna think I sold out,” she said. Today, she’s more comfortable with the concept.
When I asked Dales what she thought about geotagging, she hesitated. “So I don’t geotag because I don’t wanna fight,” she said, “but I actually find the argument for geotagging in some ways more in line with why I do this in the first place. I truly believe that human nature is such that if you don’t feel a connection to something, you’re not going to stand up for it or protect it or care when it comes under threat.” There was a pause. “I feel like sometimes I’m the only person that doesn’t have a crazy strong feeling one way or another,” she added finally.