When Haley Briner took a day trip recently to a clear Pennsylvania stream that cut through deep, rocky gorges, she posted photos in a Facebook group dedicated to hiking and backpacking.
That’s when the usual questions came pouring in.
“Where is that?”
“Can you please give a location?”
Briner, 22, a Harrisburg native, didn’t keep the bucolic swimming hole a secret: She told everyone she went to Rock Run, north of Williamsport in the McIntyre Wild Area. It’s been described as the “prettiest stream in Pennsylvania,” and at least one person in the Facebook group chided Briner for divulging the name.
“Don’t tell the location!!!!! Its already too crowded,” the member commented.
The debate over geotagging, which simply adds geographic data and location to photos of a scenic overlook, mountain summit, quaint cabin, fishing spot, or even a sunflower field, is worldwide.
Countless media reports have been written about people allegedly “loving nature to death.” Opponents of tagging locations on social media say the practice can lead to overuse, to crowds who leave trash and graffiti and even damage rock structures. Opposition hashtags including #nogeotags and #secretplaces have popped up on social media. Danielle Williams, founder of Melanin Base Camp, a group that aims to increase ethnic minority and LGBT participation in the outdoors, said opponents of tagging are acting as gatekeepers.
“It involves individuals — usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping — asserting their self-proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces,” Williams wrote in 2019.
Proponents of tagging say it’s only fair that choosing to keep those locations a secret goes against the spirit of the outdoors. Briner said she divulged her swimming hole because it’s not a well-kept secret, and because she thinks everyone has a right to visit.
“Honestly, it’s bittersweet,” she said. “I was 13 when I started hiking and I’ve seen a change over the last two years, with places being littered with graffiti and trash. But at the same time, I wouldn’t know about these spots if someone hadn’t told me.”
In Philadelphia, trash left behind at the popular Devil’s Pool swimming hole along the Wissahickon Creek have prompted complaints from locals. One city councilmember suggested filling in the hole with rocks. In 2018, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics released guidelines for geotagging, which amounted to “think before you do it” and encouraged the ideal of leaving no trace of your visit behind, be it trash, the rocks you stacked atop one another, or even human waste.
Tagging difficult trails, knife-edge approaches to high summits, or waterfalls can get beginners into trouble. Many people have died while trying to take photos outdoors. Last year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission shut down one of the state’s most popular, Instagram-worthy trails — Glen Onoko Falls in Carbon County — because of ongoing injuries on the steep, rugged terrain. Nearly a dozen fatalities have been reported there over the last half-century.
In New Jersey, the Pinelands are both a playground for off-road enthusiasts and ATV riders — some of them riding illegally — and a sensitive and unique ecological home to species found in few other places.
“We think it is great that people share their favorite places and experiences in the Pines, but we have to caution to not share location information of threatened or endangered species,” said Jason Howell of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “It is an unfortunate reality that some of the most at-risk wildlife in the Pine Barrens can be harmed by drawing too many people into certain critical habitats without careful management.”
The Keystone Trails Association, a nonprofit aimed at protecting trails and promoting hiking in Pennsylvania, has not taken an official position on geotagging, according to executive director Joe Neville. He said the pandemic, however, has propelled many more people into the outdoors, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is lower. Neville said the Lancaster County Conservancy has had to restrict usage of some of its trails because of overcrowding and overuse.
“Does geotagging exacerbate these problems? Probably to some extent,” Neville wrote in an email. “However, does it also promote greater participation in outdoor activities? Probably.”