These Social Media Mavens Are Using Instagram for Good in the Outdoors

Here’s how you can, too.

When Meghan Young finished law school in 2015 and decided to resume her outdoor hobbies with a vengeance, she realized most of her adventure buddies were men. She really wanted to hike and climb with women, but she didn’t know where to find friends who were interested in the outdoor hobbies she loved. Then, during a solo hike, she happened to meet another woman on the trail. They got to talking and realized they were both craving a space where women could connect with other women with similar outdoor hobbies, and where they could practice their outdoor skills without being mocked for their curiosity.

“You don’t know what you don’t know, and if you didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family or you don’t have a mentor, there’s no reason you’d know it,” Young says.

Young and the woman she’d met on the trail, J.J. Smith, ended up creating that space: In August 2015, they (along with friend Amanda Lipke) founded PNW Outdoor Women, which is now a thriving Instagram community with more than 24,000 followers. The group also includes a popular private Facebook group and free educational events geared toward women and nonbinary people. She says Instagram, in particular, gives her a way to spotlight members and connect with sponsors.

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What a lovely sentiment and moment from @thenomadicartist – – – – – – I believe mountain friends see you at your highest highs and lowest lows. These friends share deepest joys at a spectacular summit or glorious sunrise, face fears and push physical and mental limits together, and embrace the wonderment of trail life – blue bags, snot rockets, tent farts and all. ❤️❤️❤️ . . . #pnwoutdoorwomen #landscapephotography #girlswhohike #roamtheplanet #optoutside #washingtontrails #pnwonderland #wanderwashington #sheadventures #thatpnwlife #cascadiaexplored #pnwcollective #upperleftusa #pnwisbest #pnwhiking #wildernessculture #pnwdiscovered #washingtonexplored #washingtonhikersandclimbers #pnwadventures #backcountrybabes #allaboutadventures #ourpnw #liveoutdoors #stayandwander #alpineadventures #pnwpeakbaggers #adventureculture #mtrainiernationalpark #tahoma

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Most of all, Young, Smith and other advocates like them are focused on challenging the stereotype of what it means to be outdoorsy, especially on social media. Elyse Rylander, partnership manager at Camber Outdoors and founder OUT There Adventures, aptly describes the most common images you see on Instagram as full of “white, young, blond, well-sculpted couples in their really adorable vans with mountainscapes behind them.” 

This one-note depiction becomes worrisome when you look at the research, which shows that using Instagram can poorly affect mental health, especially for women and teens between the ages of 18 and 35. This may be because Instagram tends to force unhealthy comparisons (“Their lives are so much better than mine!”), especially when compared with platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The more often women use Instagram, the more anxious and depressed they report feeling, the study revealed.

These negative effects have led some outdoor lovers to abandon social media altogether. Still, there’s no denying the power of platforms like Instagram to connect people, amplify voices and change the dialogue around issues like mental health and outdoor equity. If used correctly, Instagram can be a tool for good.

Bringing people together

One of the biggest upsides of using social media can be finding “your people,” especially if you’re searching for others like you in the outdoors, like Young and Smith were, but you can’t find them. Research shows that we need social support to survive; belonging to a community improves physical health and encourages coping. It can reduce distress and help us figure out our identities. A 2006 study even found that social support can reduce the negative effects of discrimination for certain populations. 

“Social media plays a really pivotal role in connecting disenfranchised communities,” Rylander says. In her experiences working with LGBTQ+ teens, she’s found that the internet is an especially helpful tool for combating loneliness.

Young says this is true in the world of PNW Outdoor Women as well; she often hears about people who met on the group’s social media platforms and now adventure together, supporting each other and sharing information that might previously have been kept to exclusive circles. As counterintuitive as it sounds, they likely wouldn’t have met if not for the community cultivated by Instagram and Facebook.

“They hit the trail together and they form friendships,” Young says. “That’s special to see.”

For Danielle Williams, the founder of the 24,000-strong Melanin Base Camp Instagram account, bringing people together in service of a common mission or goal—and showing them that they’re not alone—is the best way to use social media platforms.

“Melanin Base Camp is a great place to find people who look like you— especially if you’re tired of feeling like ‘the only one,’” Williams says.

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@saltyaneesa – Some of the gila faces in all the indah places: part 2, otherwise known the climb in selfies 🤷🏻‍♀️ . My favourite Lombok adventure so far, plenty of view shots to come 😍 I’ve always loved hiking 🏃🏻‍♀️and have done so consistently while travelling through different countries, no matter how much I feel like death after the fact 😂 . One thing I couldn’t help but notice on this climb was who else was trekking up and down and sitting at the top to enjoy sundown and/or campout 🧐. I was the only ‘bule’ (foreigner) aside from a French couple. It was mainly people from Lombok or different parts of Indonesia exploring the beauty of their own country or island. My mate did most of the talking for me to figure this out ‘cause no chance my Bahasa’s good enough 🤦🏻‍♀️ . For me, it was so refreshing to see so many other people of colour, especially women who were mostly muslim, hiking alongside us 🤗. It’s not something I’ve ever seen on previous adventures like this. Usually me and the people I’m hiking with (or just me) are the only non-Caucasians. To see them perform wudhu and pray openly, when I’ve always had reason to feel self-conscious doing this publicly in the West, even with practising friends or family I’m out with, was quite empowering 🔥. I’m sure it’s a common sight on lots of climbs in Islamic regencies/countries but it’s not ever something that’s represented. And I think there’s definitely an issue there 🤔 . Just some food for thought 💁🏻‍♀️ . Aside from that, we had a challenging yet rewarding experience, though he didn’t do this one in flip-flops. Disappointing much? 🙃 Seriously though, there’s no one better that I can think of to have had this mountainous escape with. . They say that all you need is one good friend and you can get through anything 💪🏽. Of course I have friendships of the kind digitally, the nature of leaving home and the lifestyle I live. But to have created a deep connection in real-time, one real one’s all ya need ☝🏽. The embodiment of selflessness, pure-heartedness and so much more in human form, thanks for teaching me by merely your way of being 🙌🏽 . Here’s to more adventures 😎 👏🏽

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Since founding the channel in 2016, Williams says it’s inspired her to take on new projects to increase representation in the outdoors. For example, in April 2019, a Vancouver-based climber named Anaheed Saatchi posted an article on Melanin Base Camp challenging the film industry to produce movies that went beyond “relatively privileged white guys doing hard things on the rock.” The post that went along with the story elicited more than 500 comments. One of them suggested, “if you don’t like the lack of diversity in outdoor films, you should make your own.” This was all the motivation Williams needed to get to work making her own diverse outdoor-focused films, starting with a short film about Sabrina Chapman, a Black Canadian climbing prodigy on a mission to complete her first 5.14a.

“We recently wrapped up filming in Kentucky and we’ll be filming in Toronto next month thanks to our 416 backers who helped us raise over $28,000 on Kickstarter and generous contributions from Mountain Equipment Co-op, Trango Climbing and Marmot,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Amplifying diverse experiences and perspectives

Another of social media’s super powers is celebrating the variety of experiences people are having at any given moment. Williams says her main goal for Melanin Base Camp is to repost other people’s photos and images, all in favor of representing the diverse community of people enjoying the outdoors. This helps us see that we can enjoy the outdoors in lots of different ways.

“That means reposting Black, Indigenous, and people of color in our page, many of whom have intersectional identities. It also means showing a variety of outdoor activities—not just the ones that are prohibitively expensive for most people in the U.S.,” she says.

“To see another woman doing what you aspire to do, tells you that you can do it, too,” Young says. She also uses PNW Outdoor Women to amplify voices that don’t often get heard. “We try to show you a representation of yourself doing something you thought might be off limits. We all deserve to be out there.”

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This dose of realness from @thewanderingpuhls is so welcome and crucial. It’s not always perfect sunsets and adventures. Shoutout to you for sharing the grace and the grit. For any Mamas out there looking for community, we highly recommend checking out @adventuremamas! – – – – – – It’s been a challenging few weeks for our family, and an exhausting couple of months. Lots of good things in the end, but the hustle of adventures between two demanding careers can make it hard to find balance and rest. We are so lucky to have a village that helps restore us. That helps us parent and loves us as individuals. For me, a huge part of that village are my fellow ambassadors in @adventuremamas. But this is just a reminder to anyone who needs to hear it today this 👏 shit 👏 is 👏 hard. Parenting is hard. Adventuring is hard. Advancing your career is hard. Carving out time for self care is hard. I think it is so important to look on the bright side- the positive effects of all these things on our lives. But let’s all be gentle on ourselves if we feel like we’re not excelling at everything all at once. It’s hard.

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Young also believes that there’s a scarcity mindset present on Instagram, which can make people feel like there’s only enough space or resources for a few people—specifically, those van-loving, super fit people you see in many outdoor feeds. But the reality is that there’s room for everyone; by showing diversity in the outdoors, we can remind each other of this fact, Young says.

Getting real about life’s downsides

In an Instagram world teeming with images of epic adventures, it can be refreshing to discover someone talking about the ups and downs of outdoor living. Alexandra Lev of @luckyalexandra is known for using her account in exactly that way; she often talks about her own mental health struggles and recently has been very open online about her dad’s health problems.

“So many people are overworked and experiencing burnout and chronic fatigue, which can lead to anxiety, depression and sleep issues,” she says. She hopes she can be a support system for people who are facing mental health struggles. “For me, Instagram is a little photobook for sharing highs, lows and beautiful pictures. It’s not always an adventure.” 

This real-life snapshot is important for combating the negative comparisons we often experience when we look at images that represent an experience we feel like we can’t obtain. Sharing your struggles can also promote social support in both directions, decreasing feelings of loneliness. Rylander says this is especially important for teens, many of whom are still developing their identities.

“I’ve worked in the outdoor industry for 15 years and I have maybe a handful of photos that look like what going outside is ‘supposed’ to look like,” she says. “It’s usually that the muddy, wet dog shook all over me and then I left my trail mix somewhere along the way. I think we do a poor job of talking about ways to get outside that aren’t epic.”

How to keep your own Instagram experience positive

Ready to cultivate a healthier relationship with social media? Here are some research-backed tips for managing your own social media accounts to reduce anxiety and comparison, and encourage diversity and positivity:

First, take a good look at who you follow. As that 2015 study showed, it’s a good idea to follow people whose experiences represent an array of real-life pastimes, to reduce frustrating comparisons. Aim to follow real life people who represent diverse interests, body types, backgrounds and perspectives.

“I think it’s easy to look at a feed and think someone has it all figured out,” Lev says. “But everyone is fighting their own battle.” 

Cultivating a diverse feed can also help you feel less alone: When you see many types of people on social media, you get a daily reminder that you’re not the only one, Williams says. Whether you love to hike, hunt, kayak or slackline, there are others out there enjoying the same thing—and you should connect!

Second, use your feed to invite others into your version of the outdoors. Consider using your feed to share information about how you got access to popular places in your photos. “If you obtained a Havasupai permit to visit Havasu Falls in 2019,” she suggests, “explain how that process worked so that someone who didn’t grow up with that sort of access or knowledge has a chance to experience it in 2020.” You can also share the steps you’ve taken to follow Leave No Trace principles and protect the wild places you visit. 

Third, be real about the issues you support—and speak up. Use your platform to acknowledge people from all backgrounds, identities and experiences. This might mean following Lev’s lead and creating posts that show the real story behind the adventure, or it could involve taking a page out of Katie Boue’s book and using your feed to engage your followers on issues like climate change, environmental equity and more. You might also seek inspiration from influencers like Jenny Bruso, who uses her platform to diversify the outdoors and deconstruct traditional ideas of what outdoorspeople look like. 

Fourth, unfollow toxic accounts. In the end, it’s up to you to follow accounts that make you feel good. If you notice that looking at an account is making you feel like you need to buy more, do more or be more, consider muting that account or unfollowing it. “You can change up what you’re consuming. Don’t look at what isn’t healthy,” Young says.

Finally, turn off your notifications and limit your time online. Social media can be addicting, but you can take steps to combat the constant scroll by setting limits. Research shows the more time we spend on social media, the more likely we are to experience anxiety and depression. Plus, spending less time online and more time outside is a good thing. So limit the amount of time you spend on Instagram and consider turning off your notifications; that way, you’re not being constantly dragged back into the app without your consent.

Cultivating these small habits is important because, as Young says, the bottom line is that social media is just a tool. “Whether we use it for good or bad is up to us.”

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