Is tech ruining the wilderness?

Documenting recreation on Instagram, Strava and YouTube is changing the way we experience the outdoors.


Brooke Warren

I run up a trail that climbs a steep ridge, through sage and piñon, ponderosas and aspen. About two miles in, the forested slope gives way to a small meadow, where thigh-high grass is sprinkled with lupine, penstemon and flax. I should stop and take an Instagram photo to share on Facebook and Twitter, just to make my friends and computer-bound colleagues jealous.

But I won’t, because the Strava app on my phone is recording my location, my speed and, perhaps most importantly, my performance compared to that of others who use this social network for athletes. Stopping will sabotage my effort. If I only had a GoPro camera strapped to my chest, I could capture the image of the wildflowers and keep the data flowing to the app.

At the top, I look at the little screen on my phone: My fastest time yet! I celebrate by taking a sweaty selfie and sharing it. I also check the phone’s altimeter and compass to orient myself, then pull up Google Earth to find an alternate route back. A chirpy ringtone violates the silence: My boss calling. Too out-of-breath to answer, I let it ring. That’s when I notice I’m not alone: There’s a guy sitting quietly under a piñon tree, wearing old hiking boots, cotton shorts and a T-shirt, giving me the stinkiest stink eye I’ve ever seen.

I don’t blame him. Not only have I broken his solitude, I’ve brought the rest of civilization along with me. I’m one of the cyborgs — part human, part gadget, part app — who have invaded the outdoors with our devices and metastasizing cellular networks, snapping photos wherever we go and sharing them with the world. I consider explaining how this all makes us safer, and actually enriches the outdoor experience. But the man’s look keeps me silent. I turn and run home, Strava monitoring my every step.

“Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
— Aldo Leopold

Back in 1921, Aldo Leopold wrote that wilderness should be “a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state … big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of … works of man.” Leopold wasn’t trying to save the wild from roads, he was trying to defend the wilderness experience from the technological fad of the time, the automobile. To experience wilderness from behind the windshield or from a scenic pullout was hardly an experience at all. You need the bite of the wind, the sting of the sun, perhaps a little bit of risk.

We’ve come to accept that cars don’t belong in the wilderness. Yet most of us don’t hesitate to tote along other types of trendy, and often useful, technology: the kind of lightweight synthetic sleeping bags, Gore-Tex clothing, campstoves, water filters and guidebooks that Leopold and his contemporaries lacked. As a young backpacker, I eschewed such luxuries, too: It wasn’t a real wilderness experience unless you got buried under half a foot of snow in the desert in a crappy sleeping bag, contracted giardia after slurping directly from a stream, devoured your oatmeal raw because the wood was too wet for a campfire, or wandered lost and scared for hours through Leopold’s “blank spots on the map.”

Today, those blank spots are cluttered with blog posts, websites, apps, compasses and digital maps, and your traveling instructions are delivered in Siri’s eerie voice. One app guides screen-gazers through Utah’s canyons; others, using names like PeakHunter, meticulously chart routes up peaks. Google Earth allows us to “fly” into places and plan a route in advance, and even to “hike” backcountry trails or “raft” the Grand Canyon.

Just as I once scorned guidebooks because they robbed the unknown of its mystery, a part of me resents the new tech for relieving me of the freedom to get lost. For it is only then, when we are disoriented and confused, terrified and blissed out, that we really see where we are. Another part of me, though, the same part that relishes the information my weather and streamflow apps impart, can linger over Google Earth for hours, finding new places to explore and even “climbing” El Capitan in Yosemite.

Gadgets save lives, too. Last year, personal locator beacons, which use satellites to send 911 calls from areas beyond the cellular network, initiated 113 backcountry rescues nationwide. Many of those people might have died without their PLBs. But PLBs, not to mention satellite and cellular phones, are also a pain in the neck for rescuers. Consider the “lost” couple who were helicoptered out of the woods even though they were within sight of the highway, or the two men and their sons who used their PLBs to launch three separate rescue efforts over two days, first because they couldn’t find water, and then because the water they found was too salty.

“If you have cellphone (or satellite or PLB) coverage, you’re more likely to use it as a crutch, do more risky behavior,” says Brian White, recreation and wilderness programs manager for the San Juan National Forest. Indeed, the leader of the salty-water group said he never would have attempted that hike without his SPOT. The most popular personal locator beacon, it’s become known as “Yuppie 911.”

Search YouTube for “Moab Base Jump,” and it will spit back nearly 12,000 videos of folks free-falling, squirrel-suiting or otherwise cheating death among the sandstone spires and walls. Perhaps the most harrowing simply shows a guy on a ledge, high above the ground, talking calmly to his camera. “I probably lost my leg,” he says. “Yep. Not cool.” He crashed while BASE jumping, and his shattered tibia protrudes raggedly from the flesh just above his ankle. The video has been viewed more than 1 million times.

Not so long ago, that kind of experience would have been a solitary one. Any sharing would have been delayed for days, until you had time to recover and write a letter, develop your photos or tell the story to buddies over a campfire or a beer. And the backcountry storyteller’s ethic demanded that certain details — the exact location, for example — be discreetly withheld, even while others were embellished.

In the age of connectedness, however, the solitude, the ethics and even the storytelling have been tossed off the cliff without a parachute. We backpack for miles to some secluded spot “and we feel so alone and we want to tell someone. We want to hear a voice,” writes Jim Stiles in a 2012 essay in his Canyon Country Zephyr. “But we can’t. Because this is The West — the big, hard, breathtaking, heartbreaking, unrelenting, unforgiving American West. Or at least, it was. … Now, you can bring the world to your favorite ‘lonely spot,’ ” via cellphone, Facebook and Twitter.

This past winter, when Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free-climbed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite, the rest of the world was invited along, sharing a once-lonely experience through the climbers’ constant Tweets and Instagrams. “Sketchy” Andy Lewis, one of the world’s top slackliners and an avid BASE jumper, not only “performs” his risky feats for thousands of YouTube viewers, he has flung himself into live performance art, slackline-boogying alongside Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show. If George Mallory climbed Mount Everest simply because “it’s there,” perhaps today’s extreme athletes hurl themselves off cliffs simply in order to “share.”

We’re not just rock climbers, backpackers and trail-runners; we’re performers and entertainers. Instead of storytellers, we’re broadcasters of a limitless stream of images. Or, in the case of Strava, data.

“A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches - that is the right and privilege of any free American.”
— Edward Abbey

My 20-year-old self, the one who escaped a rainstorm by jamming himself and his stinky sleeping bag underneath an overhang crawling with black widows, is disgusted. My middle-aged, techno-friendly self tells him to calm down and look at the bigger picture. Our growing desire to “perform” outdoors to impress our friends and social media voyeurs is pushing us deeper into the wilderness and exposing once-hidden places to millions of strangers. But that increased visibility has the potential to build a new constituency that cares about those places. “Just think if they had all this technology back before Glen Canyon Dam,” says David Eckenrode, an avid outdoorsman and longtime commercial raft guide. “All these people could see what that place looked like. They could go BASE jumping, canyoneering, paddling there. The masses would say, ‘You can’t inundate this thing.’ ”

Maybe so. Yet I can’t help thinking that the experience of the hypothetically un-dammed Glen Canyon, flooded by digital signals, devices and extreme recreationists rather than water, would not fit Leopold’s vision of wilderness. It would still be spectacular, but no longer remote. Armed with devices to guide us, film us, even rescue us if needed, we have become insulated from the natural world’s harsh reality. We no longer feel its beauty as directly, even though our Instagrams look great. Our urge to capture and share every moment of our trip has reduced the singularly sweet experience of cool water pouring off a desert cliff into mere spectacle, its pixels repeated ad infinitum across digital platforms.

“The whole idea of wilderness is to get away from the trappings of modern life,” says White. “If you’re taking that into the wilderness with you, it detracts from the experience. When I’m on the job, I take that stuff. When I’m alone, I don’t: I want the risk.”

Until recently, this seemed like a good compromise. After all, if my younger self and the guy who glared at me from under the piñon don’t like technology, they can leave it at home, the Luddites.

But then I take off on another run, up a different hill, this time less worried about beating my time. After I dance around two women with tiny dogs, I hear a loud yell coming from the trail ahead. A mountain biker, GoPro camera on his helmet, on a bike that cost far more than my car, tears down the trail toward me. I’ve got the right of way and stand my ground, but trail etiquette is lost on him and it’s pretty clear that either I’ve got to give way, or end up as the guy’s handlebar ornament. I jump aside, wondering what could possibly motivate someone to act like such a jerk. Then he bellows again, giving me the answer: “Stravaaaaa … !”

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