Pics Or It Didn’t Happen: Is Social Media Ruining Thru-Hiking?

Picture it: you have been climbing for over an hour. Your legs feel sluggish, your breath is ragged, sweat streams down your face. Finally, in the distance you see the trees begin to thin and know you are close to the summit. Your hand instinctively reaches to your hip belt to pull out your cell phone.

You have been envisioning the beautiful summit photo to post on Instagram for the majority of the day, and the ascent was fueled by brainstorming the perfect caption. Maybe you are planning to film the moment you crest the ridge and the sign comes into view. Regardless of your artistic notions, you are thinking about how to capture this moment through the lens of your phone or camera.

Does this learned behavior affect your experience with nature?

Preparing to traverse the Presidential Range. Photo curtsey of Caleb “Hangman” Smith.

Stuck on the Screen

Before my recent 2021 thru-hike of the AT, I never questioned how much I was glued to my phone while outside. I was a true weekend warrior and set out on epic day hikes around western North Carolina. I loved scrolling through Instagram’s discovery page to see beautiful hiking locations near me or perusing the hashtags to check out photos from a specific trail.

At the time, this seemed like a good way to get an idea about what to expect when I arrived at a trailhead. In hindsight, though, I know I often set out hoping to be able to capture a photo-worthy sunset. Even worse, I know deep down I hoped a killer mountain shot would get more likes on Instagram, or that a photo of me running through a field of wildflowers would somehow improve the content I produced.

Most of us take pictures to capture moments or remember special occasions. Recently I started asking myself when the mental shift took place that turned capturing moments into producing content. Why have I let pictures of my hobby turn into a cash cow for likes? Does my desire to shoot a photo at the top of a mountain cheapen my journey to the top? Why do I feel the need to share instances of my life, both on and off trail, on a social media feed? I believe that in this day and age we are conditioned to crave the dopamine rush that social media can cause, but I am very aware that I am willingly playing into this narrative.

Man vs. Machine: Who Controls Whom?

During my thru-hike, I found myself often pondering my relationship with social media and the ways it shaped my experience in the outdoors. I started at Springer on March 22nd with a busted iPhone 7. I rationalized to myself that I didn’t need to waste money before my hike to upgrade my cell phone. I pacified my desire to take pictures all the time by reminding myself that my phone camera was subpar at best and decided to just bank on getting pictures from friends.

Thankfully, I started the trail with friends who had nicer phones than me, and they were always more than happy to snap photos of me at iconic viewpoints like state lines, scenic vistas, and famous hostels. Although the picture quality was never great, I still snapped plenty of photos with my outdated cell phone.

I quickly settled into a tramily, and we learned that the best way to share our photos was in Google Drive. Because of this, I have hundreds of photos from my journey north despite not having taken many pictures myself. I grew accustomed to reaching a summit and posing for a beautiful photo rather than being the one to snap the stunning photos.

social media thru-hiking

Tramily goofing off on top of Max Patch in NC. Photo courtesy of Erika “Creature” Novak.

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Within the first few days of living in the woods, I began to realize that I was slowly relinquishing my hold on my phone. I learned quickly that if I constantly turned airplane mode on and off to search for a signal, my battery would die, so between town stops, I left my phone primarily on airplane mode. It was also made easier by the fact that, as I mentioned, my phone camera was pretty much worthless so I didn’t feel the need to constantly be snapping pictures.

This sharp separation between constantly lurking on social media and fully immersing myself in nature was freeing, but also helped to open my eyes to the fact that I was a total screen zombie in my everyday life. Even on town days or zeros, I found myself binging social media since I wasn’t able to do the same while on trail. I did not set out with the intention of turning my thru-hike into a technological rebellion, but the trail had other plans.

Social Media Detox

Somewhere in New Jersey, my trusty iPhone 7 finally kicked the bucket and I was officially phoneless. This was problematic because (1) I used the Guthook app to navigate on the AT and (2) I no longer could take pictures along the way. I went without a cell phone for about a week before I was finally able to get a burner phone from a Walmart in NY. I spent less than $100 to get a phone to last me the remainder of the trail, and I certainly got my money’s worth.

I selected a phone that was essentially a flip phone with a touch screen, so the camera quality was even worse than my original iPhone 7. Because of this I completely gave up on taking pictures myself and decided to rely solely on asking my friends to take pictures for me.

READ NEXT – Social Media and Learning to Hike Your Own Hike.

This may not seem like a noteworthy moment, but it was my inability to take pictures that allowed me to finally be fully present on my hike. Instead of stopping to pose by a rhododendron bush or taking a picture of a really cool shelter, I found myself stopping to truly admire the flowers and taking breaks at shelters to socialize with other hikers. My experience on trail did a complete 180 when I was able to focus on what was happening in front of and around me rather than living through my screen.

I wish I could say that without taking pictures I no longer found myself wanting to post to social media, but that wasn’t the case. My tramily and I still took tons of pictures, and I often would borrow my friend’s phones to log onto my Instagram to post updates.

Posing at one of the most iconic locations on the entire AT, McAfee Knob. Photo courtesy of Erika “Creature” Novak.

However, I was able to use social media to gauge who was in the bubble around me. There were more than a few times that I figured out friends were only a day ahead or behind me thanks to the location of their photos on trail. Because of the ability to keep communication open, I do think social media can be a great tool. On the opposite end of the social media spectrum, though, is the dreaded FOMO.

FOMO: Fear of Missing Out

After briefly scrolling on Instagram during my months spent thru-hiking, I often found myself feeling like I was missing out on fun being had by other hikers. Anytime my friends posted about cool experiences they were having or neat stops they took, I felt like I missed an opportunity if my tramily didn’t also want to do those things. Specific examples include staying at the Doyle, doing karaoke in Rangeley, ME, and camping in tent city during Trail Days.

I had an incredible experience on my hike, and I wouldn’t trade a single mile for anything. Nevertheless, because of how connected I was on social media throughout my hike, I was very aware of everything I didn’t do. I had to stop myself from saying, “I wish we had done a, b, c,” and shift my focus to, “look at the amazing time I had doing x, y, z.” This is something that I am still working on post-trail and will continue striving to overcome.

Instagram vs. Reality

It is important to keep in mind that more often than not, people are only posting their highlight reel to their feed. Thru-hikers may not post about how mentally taxing the trail is becoming or how homesick they are. Every photo on their feed makes it look like they are having the time of their lives. On more than one occasion I told myself I couldn’t quit my hike unless I came up with a clever caption announcing I got off trail. Thankfully, that post never came and I was able to make it to Katahdin.

social media thru-hiking

“The Maine Train” crossing the VT/NH border. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

Typically, only the celebration will be considered “post-worthy,” whereas the work that went into making the moment possible will not be captured. Positivity isn’t purposefully always posted, but followers typically want to see the trophies instead of the tarnish.

READ NEXT – How to Safely Post Your Thru-Hike on Social Media.

The Let-Down

Expectations must be kept in check. Seeing impressive photos from a rock outcropping doesn’t show you how difficult the climb to the top was, or give you an idea of what the terrain may be like. There were more than a few times on trail that I had seen friends ahead of me post about exciting upcoming things. When I finally got to the post-worthy spot, the only thing I found was a disappointment.

I vividly remember this happening when I met trail celebrity Jake the Donkey at a “secret shelter” in NJ. I had seen so many cute photos of Jake giving kisses or cautiously nibbling on fingers. I was pumped to take the blue blaze to his hiding spot. To my disbelief, Jake was just a donkey. He didn’t do any tricks and he wasn’t even all that interested in hikers. I was disappointed, to say the least. I don’t know what I expected to happen, but just seeing a donkey in a field wasn’t it.

Sticks loving on Jake the Donkey at a shelter in NJ. Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

The same underwhelming feeling happened at multiple iconic privy destinations like the Taj Mahal in PA and the two seated privy in ME. At the end of the day, they were just privies, nothing out of the ordinary. I let the hype on social media get the best of me.

Beyond the Summit

I summited Katahdin on September 7th in less than ideal weather. We were engulfed by clouds pretty much the entire time, so our photos on top of the sign are less dramatic than others. I have had to remind myself that this does not take away from my summit day. I hiked from Georgia to Maine, and that experience can not be summed up in one picture. My tramily still took tons of summit photos, but it’s what those photos represent rather than the photos themselves.

social media thru-hiking

Summit picture with my tramily, “The Maine Train.” Photo courtesy of Joshua “Gooey” Kay.

I am so thankful for the collection of pictures I do have from my hike because they allow me to relive precious moments that I may have otherwise forgotten. Social media has enabled me to connect with trail friends and stay present in their lives. My relationship with social media may be rocky at best, but I am grateful for the continued presence of the trail community it facilitates. I must remain mindful of the fact that I don’t have to take pictures or post about something for it to have been significant.

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

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Comments 8

  • Grant Lewis : Nov 11th

    Great article which gives us all something to think about when it comes to our personal relationships with social media! Thanks for your insight Anna and for sharing some of your experiences with us.

    Reply
  • Zach : Nov 11th

    I applaud your honesty here, Magic. Very thought-provoking, and I’m sure something many (dare I say, most) other long-distance backpackers can relate to. Excellent piece.

    Reply
  • pearwood : Nov 12th

    Hi, Magic!
    A worthy reminder. Thanks to my parents, I have been a computer and network geek for most of my seventy-one years. For that reason, among others, I plan to go as low-tech as possible when I start at Springer Mountain next February. It helps, I suppose, that I fell in love with topographic maps even before getting hooked by computers. Yes, I’m on Instagram. Yes, I blog for The Trek. I try not to let those things dominate my life. Sometimes I succeed.
    Blessings on your way,
    Steve / pearwood
    https://thetrek.co/author/steven-tryon/

    Reply
  • MojoRisen : Nov 12th

    Yes, media has cause the masses to find all the areas that were once word of mouth. And the stats show it. Masses clamor for the trails that were once solitude and a little more quite and clean. You now have to pack tons of water and dig a little deeper into the small pockets yet stepped. Please do use all a favor and if you find that secret solitude don’t share it but count the blessing and place it in your memory for another day.

    Reply
  • Russ1663 : Nov 13th

    Thats a really interesting line of thought. I do post a picture when I go to a location so family and friends can see what I am up to.

    Past that, I don’t have the undying need to post and post and post. I do keep a written log, you remember pen and paper log books. I am of a similar mind of Pearwood, waterproof topo maps and at least a couple of compasses. I wander both the AT and trails in eastern Va as well. I will use my cell phone for location as it is useful. I share my world a bit but not every word and picture.

    Reply
  • Chris : Nov 17th

    I take plenty of photos because I think it’s a form of self expression. However I’m never in any of my photos. It’s just mostly shots of things / views I find aestheticaly pleasing. I post them and very few people see them and that suits me fine.

    I like your candidness in saying you gave into FOMO and that it ultimately was an empty experience for you.

    However I think the goal for most people is to create a sense of FOMO in other people. Look at you YouTube. It’s driven by people going bonkers over the most mundane things. Same with everything else as you’ve discovered.

    People want to look special to other people because they don’t feel special themselves. Obviously you’re self aware enough to have stepped back from the abyss.

    I also agree with another post. Social media is decimating our natural resources and environments.

    Reply
  • Christine Johnston : Nov 23rd

    Interesting perspective. I’ve often reflected on these points as well, and my most recent thoughts are that whatever I decide to post to my hiking group should be with the intention of inspiring others to connect with nature. I know friends and colleagues who have forgotten about their “wild” impulse to be in the woods, swim in the ocean, climb the great mountain. When someone “likes” my post I hope that it has evoked some spark to get to nature. I don’t care about the like- I generally translate them into people who will probably get their butt to that inspired, soul calling environment.

    Reply
  • Omoo : Nov 28th

    Thanks for drawing attention to this. This social-media-in-nature conundrum is so obvious to me, I’m shocked more hikers don’t recognize it. We’ve become addicted to preserving and sharing the artifact rather than enjoying the moment. I didn’t have a regular “tramily” on my hike, so I didn’t feel the same pressures you felt, but I was constantly thinking about how my next blog essay would appear. Ugh!

    Lastly…that woman on the far left on McAfee Knob? Not smart.

    Reply

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