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Ethics of location sharing

This is a question that comes up in photography circles often and I don't really have a good answer to it, so I figured I'd ask how other people handle it. How to you feel about sharing exact photo locations? The issue comes up because of the risks of damaging an area by over visitation.  

Here in Northern Virginia, we have a protected park. It's gorgeous. A true thing of beauty. And the wetland it contains is a rare and extraordinary treasure full of wildlife.

Unfortunately, it is also overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who go there. The results include:

  • Elevated boardwalks that are overburdened by the number of people who go there raising concerns about their possible collapse.
  • People shouting at and otherwise disturbing wildlife. 
  • Crowding to a degree that makes it difficult to even walk through the park.
  • Vehicles (scooters and bikes) being driven through the park despite prohibitions on doing so.
  • Physical injury to wildlife (e.g. turtle shells have been seen cracked open with footprints still visible on the shells)

It's kind of a poster child for the dangers of too many people--and too many of them not interested in or not aware of basic ethics. E.g., Leave No Trace.

My usual solution is to be vague, especially on social media. Notice, for example, that I haven't named the park. I'll tell people a location is in Fairfax County, Virginia or it's in Shenandoah National Park, for example. But I avoid giving the exact spot, especially if it's a fragile area.

Of course some people see not sharing locations as some form of policing or setting up barriers.


16 Replies

Personally, I think people should be very, very cautious about sharing GPS locations on social media.  As you say, the damage from overpromotion can be severe. 

It's hard to see how not sharing precise locations is "policing".  A protected area is already on maps, and everyone has access to the same maps and guidebooks I do.  Realistically, people who really want to find your secret place can probably already find it on sites like Road Trip Ryan or All Trails just from the clues you already gave. 

Some years ago I hiked to Angel Arch in Canyonlands National Park which people used to drive a jeep trail to see up until the motorized road was closed in the 1980s.   The problem is, the jeep trail was directly in a freshwater creek and driving in a creek causes  incredibly bad ecological damage. An environmental lawsuit eventually forced NPS to close the  jeep trail  for stream restoration.  On the hike I met a woman who thought it was too bad to close the jeep road because now fewer people could see the arch.  The thing is, the arch is just another arch. If you want to see a sandstone arch, Utah has lots and lots of them, many directly next to paved roads for easy access. The creek, however, is a rare and unique feature that supports desert ecology and is objectively far more interesting than the arch, though it's not especially distinctive to photograph.  The moral of the story is, if a photo-op is wrecking the local ecology, don't send more people there. 


Tagging the National Forest or vague area (unless National Park, then I'll name the park) is my approach on social media. Encouraging responsible recreation, conservation, and passion about the environment starts with a love of the environment, and beginners already face enough obstacles to outdoor access. Encouraging outdoor recreation AND stewardship is key. And be gentle with people who are new. I always assume ignorance rather than ill-will when it comes to people littering fruit peels or leaving biodegradable toilet paper behind, and explain with friendliness the ecosystem harms.

I'll share these questions from @plugitinhikes who is passionate about stewardship, and always asks people to consider before geotagging:

(1) Does the current infrastructure support an additional amount of visitors?

(2) Are there adequate parking, roads and restrooms that can handle more visitors?

(3) And consider the possible human and environmental impact that could be placed on that location.

Probably matters less than we think, I suspect much fewer actually see our photos than we’d like to think.

REI Member Since 1979

One person sure, but encouraging the culture of responsible geotagging when there are too many hiking social media accounts to count is the idea. There very popular hiking dog instagram accounts and one with over a million followers geotagged my groomer and my vet here in the Denver area. Haha, I couldn't get a groom in for 2 months after that. That's just an example of one influencer geotagging one thing that is only relevant to people within a 20 or so minute radius of us. A lot of those accounts used to geotag hiking trails, though most have stopped or only geotag vague information.

There are plenty cautionary tales of natural spots being ruined by overuse and notoriously geotagged on social media - a recent one was the closure of Max Patch in the Smoky Mountains. Each person sets an example, and then it becomes a culture.

Reading the original post, i thought, "Who is running the show and what are they doing to manage the crowds?"  This is the paradox of park or protected area management - you want visitors, but all too often too many visitors damage and degrade the resource.

You can educate and encourage proper behavior, but eventually you will probably have limits on visitation......trail quotas for Mt. Whitney, for example.

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At the particular park I mentioned, there are signs telling people to be quiet, not to bring pets, and to walk, not run or ride bikes. But, apart from signs, there's not much. 

Not everywhere does want visitors though. At least not as much. Some places are deliberately managed not to encourage lots of visitors. In this regard, wildlife refuges out west come to mind. There are huge spaces kept undeveloped with no infrastructure so that you really have to make an effort to get in and out. You can't just drive up or walk a mile and be in.


good points, I agree.  Same for the Dolly Sods wilderness

DSC02084 + reduced.jpgDSC02143 + reduced.jpgDSC02392 + reduced.jpg

REI Member Since 1979

I should probably clarify, those pics NOT dolly sods, wv, lol

REI Member Since 1979

I agree with @archaeopteryx. But even for people without huge followings on social media, word still spreads. Someone shares your neat photo. Then someone else does. You just never know how far an image can go and it can go quite far. 

Several of us on these forums are also publishing our photos. If you're doing that, then the impact--and therefore the need to be responsible--is all the greater because, by definition, you are putting your images in a places where they will be widely seen.