The Truth About the Outdoor Insta-life

Boulder, Colorado gives residents direct access to some of the most scenic and challenging terrain in the country. Its rocky outcroppings, pine-shrouded trails, and alpine lakes also make for swoon-worthy Instagram posts and thus, entice more and more folks to its scenic wilderness each year.

The Boulder-based Instagram influencers we chatted with didn’t “go west young man” (or woman), to find gold in the form of sponsored posts, paid ads, or free gear. Like so many before them, they came because they loved the mountains. However, some eventually landed in the lap of social media fame and started to make money pursuing their passions for the great outdoors – the new American dream.

But is it really so dreamy spending hours snapping photos of beloved spots, secret crags, and hidden swimming holes only to share with an insatiable public looking to visit these places and snag their own enviable pic? Does personal vanity ever overshadow Mother Nature’s beauty? How much does the outdoor influencer lifestyle detract and distract from the person’s actual relationship with the earth? Let’s find out.

Hannah Reeves | @hanner.reeves

Hannah Reeves moved to Boulder a few years ago because of its reputation as a mountain Mecca. A quick scroll through Reeves’ feed and you’ll spy beautiful western landscapes with a smiling green-eyed woman in the foreground. Her energy is as vibrant and contagious as the scenery it’s abounding in – which is pretty standard for cute, fit mountain girl accounts. But peer a little deeper and Reeves’ account is more than “here’s a shot of me from behind with my arms outstretched over a rocky vista” – cue 2,459 likes. She tries to be much more intentional – and is succeeding.

Reeves shares a fair amount of personal information with most posts, including anxiety surrounding current events, relationship struggles, and angst surrounding a total life overhaul. But it’s also not just about her – skin a few posts and one can find the word “you” peppered in just as much, if not more than the word “me”.

By sharing her emotional development through interactions with Colorado’s natural world, she’s inspiring others to get outside in search of personal growth, emotional healing, and overall well-being. Reeves posts photos of plenty noteworthy and well-known Boulder locations, and while Reeves encourages others to get outside, she takes care to keep certain lesser-known locations a secret by omitting a geo-tag. Reeves frequently reiterates her perspective on keeping the wild exactly that, “Some folks weren’t happy about me “gatekeeping” but the vast majority were in support of keeping wild spaces secret. For me, part of the fun of finding a new spot is exactly that: finding it.”  

Each photo is beautifully framed, capturing both the subject and background in perfect form – which must take time and multiple shots. But Reeves explained that she is extremely conscious of her own boundaries between enjoying mother nature and working in mother nature. “If I’ve ever felt conflicted [about snapping photos of the outdoors] then I’ve recognized it and put my phone down. But overall, I love taking photos of the mountains, sunsets, prairie dogs, valleys, and canyons regardless of what the photos are used for.”

When asked if she feels like snapping a photo could interrupt the peaceful moment in mother nature, Reeves explained, “I have felt this way before, when trying to get a photo of me wearing something I told a brand I’d share on my feed. I hate that feeling though and usually avoid situations where I feel pressed to get the good shot.”

Reeves explains that being an Instagram influencer hasn’t totally changed the way she interacts with nature, she was always snapping photos. “I’ve always loved capturing what feels beautiful to me, even as a kid with my parents disposable cameras. Nowadays I just get to share those moments with folks who may or may not also find them to be beautiful.”

JJ Yosh | @jjyosh & @backpackingkitty

This San Jose native moved to Boulder in 2012 and started his Instagram account just a few years later. While JJ Yosh wasn’t entirely focused on gaining followers and creating a brand, he certainly was intentional about making a living through social and visual media. What started as small, unpaid travel partnership exchanges grew into a full-time job in which Yosh and his New York based manager consistently secure brand partnerships, negotiate fees for paid posts, and participate in podcasts interviews.

From the outside, it doesn’t seem like Yosh would have a ton of time to actually get outside and enjoy the outdoors when making a full-time living off of it. But, he explained, “I usually split my time outdoors, so that I’m either 100% working or I’m just hanging out with friends and not worrying about getting anything post-worthy.”

Yosh does admit that, “I’m never without my phone. I might be addicted to it. When I’m running – I use it to record my runs, play music and take pictures along the way. I do pack it away in my running pack but it’s always within reach.”

Yosh also candidly acknowledges that his role as an influencer has certainly reshaped the way he interacts with the natural world, “I’m always thinking of cool shots I can get in the environment. Being an influencer also forces me to get outdoors and see cool new places I might not have seen.”

Some of his partnerships are specifically focused on increasing traffic to certain locations – including Reno/Tahoe, South Dakota, Shanghai, and the Maldives, to name just a few. Yosh doesn’t think social media is specifically to blame for the increase in travel and people “opting outside” but thinks that it would have happened regardless. “I think it’s great that people are able to experience more of the world, even though it has been harmful to certain locations – like the huge cruise ships in Venice or the trash and crowds on Mount Everest, but I think this would have happened anyways with or without social media.”

Yosh pointed out something Colorado natives and transplants are well aware of and feel, “The world is getting smaller because of how easy and affordable traveling is becoming. I also believe people need to experience nature to appreciate it, so the more it’s shared, the more people wake up and realize how important it is to protect mother nature.”

Alli Fronzaglia / @theboulderhikerchick

Alli Fronzaglia’s feed is filled with snaps of alpine lakes, mountain tops, and selfies of her on many rugged trails, and, while she has an established following of 10k+, she doesn’t make money off of her social media account. “For many years, I’ve been obsessed with exploring the trails in Boulder and beyond. It’s an obsession that combines my passion for connection (with nature, with other people, with myself) and my passion for challenging myself physically and mentally. Instagram was a natural place for me to find myself sharing images of the outdoor spaces and experiences that impacted me. I established my account, @theboulderhikerchick, in 2013. “

As a freelance writer, Fronzaglia has published over 75 online hiking guides and notes that outdoor spaces she loves or has promoted have seen increased foot traffic. She finds it difficult at times to chart the waters between sharing beautiful spots and gatekeeping, “Sometimes I post or write about an off-the-beaten path trail with the intent of lessening impacts on more popular areas. Then somebody will comment, “Wait! That’s my secret place — don’t ruin it!” I feel that. It’s a tricky thing to navigate. I want to educate people, I want to share some of my favorite places, but I definitely also want to protect them.”

In order to walk this line, @theboulderhikerchick shares some information about locations and points people in the right direction so they can conduct research on their own. “Otherwise, I will provide the location but encourage the person to research it themselves. I’m a big fan of empowering people by showing them how to find the information they need. It’s out there. All of our public lands are maintained by entities with websites and maps, not to mention all the secondary resources and apps that are available. ”

While it was never her intention to gain a substantial following, her numbers keep rising, slowly and organically. Fronzaglia admits that she sometimes forgets her photos and words have a larger than average reach, “I write my posts like I’m talking to a friend, because that’s just my internal default setting. I forget that my audience is as big as it is. Sometimes I’m reminded if I post something carelessly or opinionated and then I start getting comments back in disagreement. Sometimes I get trolled. Sometimes I get educated! That’s social media for you.”

Those with awareness surrounding the outdoors and social media can readily admit that Instagram has been a double edged sword for Mother Nature. Increased awareness could translate to increased protection, keeping wild lands wild. However, safeguarding places to help them remain tranquil and untouched can be considered elitist, and, as Fronzaglia pointed out, contributes to inequity in the outdoors.

Some things are good because they are just so good – like soaring, jagged peaks and lush, green meadows peppered with purple and blue wildflowers, that whisper softly when the wind passes through. Humans are humbled when standing at the base of mountains. We are at peace when sleeping under blankets of stars in the calm, still desert silence. We are filled with awe and wonder when the sky is on fire. But we are quickly taken out of the moment when we whip out an iPhone to capture said moment. Like all things in life, being present in nature while encouraging others to witness her beauty is a balancing act. One that we will probably get wrong more often than we get right, but hey, at least we’ll try our best.

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