A while ago, Outside magazine asked ‘Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors?’

The gist of the question was whether our tendency to tag beautiful areas on social media was likely to drive more people to that area, and hence increase environmental impacts. “The great outdoors is all over social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #nature has been used more than 20 million times. Attach a geotag to your photo of last weekend’s campsite, and your followers can tramp to the exact same spot.

Some nature lovers worry about the downside to this: Is Instagram funneling hordes of people to places that can’t handle this crush of admirers? Are those filtered, perfectly tinted pics sending a message that people can always go where they want, when they want, and how they want?

The take home messages I got from reading the Outside article was that:

  • It can be great to share images and inspire others to get out into wild places, but
  • Don’t tag fragile places, and be mindful about how your image might influence other people’s behaviour.

But now there is some research being done that might help you avoid crowded areas in the mountains through analysing social media posts.

As reported recently in Outside magazine,

“Many people these days post pictures to social media of themselves enjoying public lands. Several years ago, researcher Spencer Wood, now a staff scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Creative Conservation, wondered if all those posts could be used to estimate, cheaply and accurately, how many people visit an area. Wood’s initial study in 2013 found that, yes, it could be done.”

The next stage in this type of research is to develop the software that allows you to track this visitation in real time. This would mean that an app could be developed that could tell you how crowded a particular mountain top, trailhead car park or campsite was, allowing you to go somewhere else and avoid the crowds.

Here’s some background to the idea:

The program in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is the first of its kind in the country. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, which lies on the west side of Washington’s Cascade Range between the Canadian border and Mount Rainier, is one of the most popular national forests in the nation, with an estimated 2.2 million visits in 2015. That’s likely increasing, thanks largely to Seattle, the fastest-growing big city in the nation. More than 940,000 Seattle-area residents said they hiked in 2017, a number that has doubled over about a decade, according to the Seattle Times.

The result, on peak weekends, is a very busy frontcountry. It’s not uncommon to find 200 or more cars at popular trails along the Interstate 90 corridor just outside Seattle. “People are willing to park as much as two miles down the road from the trailhead,” says Mike Schlafmann, public services staff officer for the forest. “There’s high demand for what appears to be a very specific type of experience. One of our challenges is knowing where people are going and why they are going there.”

But how to make this data useful for recreationists?

How will all of this make your outdoors experience better?

Imagine this in the not-distant future: You want to go for a day hike on a Saturday morning. You open an app on your phone. Before you even leave the house, your phone tells you—based on real-time estimates—whether your chosen trailhead is already jammed with cars. But the app isn’t done. Knowing the kind of hike you’re looking for, it then recommends similar destinations that it knows are much less crowded.

Choose one, then click. A button takes you to a Meetup group of people carpooling to the trailhead. Or, if you live in a major city, up pops info about when the next public bus leaves for your destination.

Thankfully Australia doesn’t have the population pressures of the USA. But something like this, focused on key use areas during peak periods, could really improve the experience of people who are trying to get away from ‘the maddening crowds’.