The Ethics of Geotagging

By Courtney McCratty, Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Ambassador

This is not what the view looked like online. The image I saved and the 5 hour hike, made me think I would have the mountain top to myself. Yet, there I was finally seeing what the user had cropped out of their picture perfect summit image, piles of trash and waves of selfie sticks. On the way down, we came across one couple who had ran out of water and another who had twisted an ankle. It was the most overcrowded "secret" trail I've ever been on. 

As someone who travels full time, I'm consistently turning to Instagram to find new trails. Scrolling through social media, and saving images in places that I want to visit, the geotags allow me quick and easy access to "Hidden Trails." However, that also means it allows everyone else access too.

 Photo by GWH Ambassador  @climboncourt

Photo by GWH Ambassador @climboncourt

Leave No Trace is a way of life in the Girls Who Hike Community, but outside of GWH not everyone adheres to (or knows about) LNT. These practices allow the places we visit to remain beautiful for fellow visitors, but more importantly for the ecosystems, both plant and animal, to thrive. As more people visit our favorite hidden gems, the trails get a little wider, the vegetation gets a little thinner from those going off path, and animals feel threatened in their homes from our movement and noise. 

 Photo by GWH Ambassador  @lrtrav

Photo by GWH Ambassador @lrtrav

Geotagging, also urges those who are not hikers access to locations without realizing potential consequences. In the last 10 years accidents from unprepared hikers has skyrocketed as more people head to these tagged locations. In Hawaii, the Moanalua Trail has become a popular legal backroot to the Haʻikū Stairs. While it allows the same breathtaking mountain top views, it can be very dangerous to those who are unprepared. It's a 13 mile hike that features sheer dropoff on either side at many points, with cross winds that can push you over on windy days, as well as several rope climbs and no access to water for 5-6 hours, despite the tropical heat.

 Photo courtesy of Girls Who Hike membe r @hikesandhandstands

Photo courtesy of Girls Who Hike member @hikesandhandstands

These conditions on the trail are not as picturesque as the final summit view, and are rarely posted within the same geotag. Unprepared hikers are risking dehydration, broken limbs, and even death. Many times these explorers do not calculate these risks because they have not researched the location thoroughly, they've only saw the beautiful end photo someone else posted.

 Photo courtesy of Girls Who Hike membe r @hikingd_

Photo courtesy of Girls Who Hike member @hikingd_

Instead of geotagging, if we only tagged a city or a park, it would allow those who really wanted to visit those locations a chance to ask where we were, and to begin a dialog on what to expect with these hikes, for those who are not hikers. Leave No Trace is not just about trash, it's about protecting our land, our animals and about being a role model to those who do not visit nature often.


Courtney is an Ambassador for our Los Angeles chapter. You can follow her adventures @climboncourt. To join her local meet ups and discussions through the Los Angeles chapter, click here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.

Sharron McBride