The Dark Side of “Hike Your Own Hike”

Within the hiking culture, one of the brightest and loveliest philosophies is the concept of “Hike Your Own Hike” (herein, HYOH). This phrase flits about our culture like a butterfly of truth and beauty. Its basic tenets underpin our most basic assumptions that “hikers are good people.”

You can break down the concept of HYOH into several complementary tenets:
1. Hike the hike that makes you happy
2. Don’t measure yourself against others
3. Mind your own business

But like all things that shine brightly, the HYOH mentality casts a shadow, and that shadow is most apparent with tenet #3: Mind Your Own Business. In a vacuum, the notion that you should live and let live on the trail carries a lot of weight. Nobody wants to be judged, and everybody wants to be accepted (and on social media, recognized or even lauded) without catching flak from strangers.

Hiking becomes more popular every year, fueled in large part by social media. Social media gives everybody a platform to demonstrate their activities and attitudes, which can inspire others to follow suit. Anybody who has spent any time on social media knows that not everybody sets the best example, and since social media weighs points-of-views in quasi-equal or arbitrary fashions (“likes” and “followers” add gravity, expertise can be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed), there are suddenly a lot of people setting a bad example either out of ignorance or willful lack of concern who aren’t subject to the sort of social consequences they might have faced in the past.

So then, what does a hiker concerned with responsibility do whenever he or she observes the sort of behavior that sets an easily followed bad example in front of the entire hiking culture? Well, if we’re sticking with the HYOH mentality, we have to mind our own business. But that raises the ethical question of whether saying nothing is tacitly supporting the behavior.

Raise the ethical concern on a social media platform, however, and chances are that feelings will be hurt, defenses will be raised, and whatever message of responsibility you attempt to convey risks getting drowned out in the noise of people clamoring for you to mind your own business. In fact, some hikers have begun holding up HYOH as a means of avoiding acknowledging any responsibility while justifying their reaction, which takes various shades of “Fuck off, asshole!”

An example: the Goat Canyon Trestle is one of the most intriguing destinations in the San Diego County backcountry. As a notable historic landmark set in a pristine desert wilderness, it’s easy to see why people might want to go. There’s only one problem: the hike is illegal. The tracks are private property, and the property owner does not want you to go there. People hike it anyways, and they share their adventure onto their social media. Other people see the post, and they decide they also want to go. Before long, the hike along the tracks becomes one of the most popular destinations in the San Diego County desert.

The ethical issues are numerous: trespassing, damaging historic property, drone flights in a state wilderness, vandalism, and dangerous behavior, to name a few. But what often happens when those concerns are raised to the people sharing the adventure on social media? Defensive backlash often based on ad hominem attack that almost always concludes with the same response: Hike Your Own Damn Hike!

In this context, a wonderful philosophy becomes inverted by people unwilling to accept responsibility and becomes a rebuke to anybody with the gall to point out that somebody is engaging in dangerous, unethical, or illegal behavior. And I get that nobody wants to be embarrassed on social media, which is undoubtedly at least a partial source of the defensiveness. However, a great deal of the invective and toxicity on hiking social media stems from people who refuse to accept that they have a responsibility as members of a large recreational group whose behaviors and choices hold serious long-term consequences, both politically and ecologically.

Public land is at a premium as mankind keeps trying to stretch out across the landscape. With more hikers comes more overuse issues, which is why Leave No Trace principles that rely on personal responsibility become more crucial with every new hiker hitting the trail.

And here’s the thing about ethical principles: they aren’t laws. They get enforced through social norms, mores, and taboos. In other words, it’s a set of behavioral expectations that the hiking community imposes on itself. Can a hiker truly committed to LNT principles really afford not to reinforce those community standards while yielding to people who feel entitled to do what they want?

I don’t believe we can. Yet, I also realize that it’s a dicey (not to mention emotionally unhealthy) proposition to constantly do battle with people on social media. The simple answer is to lead by example, and there are a lot of unsung, undiscussed, and unknown examples of people doing just that. It’s totally fair to say, “I don’t wish to engage people on social media because what good comes of it?”

But at the same time, I can no longer fully embrace the HYOH philosophy without adding one crucial caveat. I am compelled to plant a flag and wave it around vigorously. Sometimes you have to call out a person who is damaging a thing that belongs to everyone. Many hikers bang the drum of “freedom” without simultaneously embracing its most fundamental tenet: responsibility. We own public land. We pay taxes to fund its maintenance. We elect leaders to legislate it. We volunteer to make it better. It belongs to all of us, and because of that, we have a responsibility to each other not treat communal property as a personal plaything.

So, hike your own hike, AND do it responsibly.

10 Replies to “The Dark Side of “Hike Your Own Hike””

  1. The best thing I’ve read all year. Thank you. HYOH should not be considered absolute.

  2. I agree. In reality, there is no such thing as HYOH as currently being interpreted by some. We all need a permit to hike to Mt. Whitney, for example. HYOH wouldn’t be a defense against suffering the consequences for being discovered in the Whitney Zone without a permit. I like that you linked freedom with responsibility. HYOH is supposed to be more about not telling someone things like they should hike 10 miles instead of 6 etc.

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