That sandstone bluff was a sight for sore eyes. Well, sore legs, at least. We needed a proper, safe place to bivy for the night, and I was already salivating over the stunning photos I imagined myself snapping from there: the sun setting softly over the sagebrush meadow, our three sleeping bags laid out on the shoulder of the towering formation. Our legs were tired of pushing through the deep sand, carrying heavy packs, and we were ready to call it a day—so morale took a hit when we realized that the entire meadow that lay between our hot, tired feet and the afternoon shade of the bluff was covered in extremely fragile cryptobiotic soil crust.
Our footprints traipsing up to the dreamy bivy site would crush that delicate crust, the vital living ground cover that supports countless parts of the desert ecosystem that we’d come to enjoy. It could take up to 50 years for the desert to restore what we would have annihilated just walking to a rock we could sleep on. For a moment, our hopes of that Instagram-worthy camping spot were dashed. We eventually found a crust-free wash leading up to the bluff and climbed through the junipers growing out of it to avoid stepping on the fragile crust on each side. The bivy was just as incredible as I’d hoped, and we carefully walked back down through the sandy wash the next day.
I didn’t think much more about our “dream bivy that almost didn’t happen” until I saw this Instagram post a few days later:
The striking peak and glowing tent caught my eye, but it was the caption that made me look twice: “…don’t worry, this was higher & further from the lake than it looks…you may only camp in established sites along this trail…this was one of the better ones.” Why did @bobaumgartner feel the need to point out that the tent in his spectacular shot wasn’t actually three feet from the mirror-smooth lake water? Because Leave No Trace ethics say to try to camp in established sites, usually at least 200 feet away from a lake or stream. The idea is to minimize water pollution and lower the visual impact for other people in the area who might also want to enjoy the backcountry scenery.
When I commented on his photo, noting his Leave No Trace ethics, he replied: “I’ve noticed a disturbing trend as well … seems a few people will go to great lengths for a photo op, even if it means setting up a tent in a fragile or dangerous spot … most likely not even camping there, but the problem is that it inspires others to do the same … a major brand even started a hasthtag ‘camp everywhere.’ I just hope people use good judgment when they are camping in the wilderness.”
I thought back to several other stunning photos that had floated into my feed lately, many of them with tents set up in spots I doubted the photographer actually slept. A few of them with people doing illegal or frowned-upon activities like building a fire in the backcountry of a national park or camping right alongside a lake.
We all love finding that lookout point of a lifetime, or that secret tent site where it feels nobody else has been before. Out in the wilderness, we enjoy feeling free—it can be tough to want to “live by the rules.” And now that we’re all uploading our very best trip photos for audiences of dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people on Instagram and other social media, we’re not just thinking about the view over there, or the most enjoyable spot to spend the night. We want The Most Epic Tent Site On Earth for our photo, whether or not it’s an already established, or Leave No Trace, site. But with more and more people venturing out to hike and camp, these delicate, untouched places will quickly be trodden and destroyed if we aren’t careful. It’s up to all of us to protect those photo-worthy spots, and I’m realizing that sometimes even a single footprint makes a difference.