One Friday this past March, I hiked a few miles down a trail and set up a tent in one of the quietest places I’ve ever been. My girlfriend, Hilary, and I, liked the spot so much we spent three nights there, scrapping our entire five-day backpacking itinerary just to stay put. We saw four people on our first afternoon there, and then zero people the rest of the time. I finished reading two books. It was wonderful.
I didn’t post photos of the campsite online, and didn’t geotag it. It was an at-large backcountry area, meaning you could camp anywhere, and on the rock where we pitched our tent, I saw no signs of any other previous campers. And we didn’t leave any—no fire ashes, no spilled food, no trash. And I thought, why would I tell anyone about his place we had just stumbled into, with no guidebook to tell us where to go? When close friends asked about the trip, I said I’d tell them the location of the campsite if they ever went there, but they had to swear themselves to secrecy.
Sometimes I joke that all of us on Instagram are going to the same ten places to take photos of ourselves, including Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Delicate Arch, Potato Chip Rock, and Tunnel View in Yosemite. And I’m learning to be OK with crowds, because they’re a reality when you go after the low-hanging fruit at already-popular places. But given the opportunity, I’ll take a place a couple notches down on the epic scale if there are fewer people there. I mean, I live in the middle of 3 million people, and I don’t mind most of them, but I don’t need to be around people 365 days a year.
Last weekend, I read an Instagram post by Brianna Madia that brought this home for me. A few sentences I liked:
“‘Why don’t you geotag?’ It’s a question I get a lot (along with, of course, “where is this”). … Do some research. Go buy a guidebook. Learn how to read topo maps. Chat with that crusty old local at the gas station. Set the mileage on your odometer. Go turn down a couple dozen wrong dirt roads in the dark of night. … There are still places without hordes of people and paved roads and gift shops and visitor centers and shuttle buses and marked trails. … There are quiet, sacred places where the act of exploration is still a requirement. Places that were never supposed to be ‘easy’ to find. … With all due respect, I intend to keep them that way.”
I’ve written sentences for magazine stories that say “at ______ Lake, pick a campsite,” only to have an editor send the copy back to me, asking, “Which is the best campsite at the lake?” To which I pretty much always throw my hands up and say to no one in particular, Hell, I don’t know, the lake is the size of a baseball infield, take seven minutes and walk around it and pick a damn campsite. Do you want me to tell you which rock to put your stove on?”
People used to get mad when magazines broadcast their favorite outdoor places to a huge audience, and justifiably so. When you put the headline “Secret Trails” on your cover and send it to 50,000 subscribers, you might as well put the words “(But Not Anymore!)” right underneath it.
I always figure most of the places I go aren’t really all that secret—after all I found out about them somewhere (probably the internet). But when I post a photo on Instagram and someone comments “Where is this?” I just kind of ignore it, because what fun is it if you tell everyone the exact spot you took the photo? It’s kind of like taking your friend to a restaurant and then demanding that they order the exact same thing you do. And that’s the opposite of adventure. But finding your own spot out there? That can be pretty magical.
Sometimes, maybe the best campsite is the one you keep your mouth shut about.