I spend way too much time, scrolling through outdoorsy images on Instagram.
Sometimes I get inspired by the images I see.
Sometimes I add places to my travel wishlist.
Sometimes I chat to like-minded people who I will never meet in the real world.
Sometimes I see a pair of outrageous climbing tights that I suddenly need to own.
Over a number of years of faithful scrolling, Instagram’s algorithms have learned what I like.
I like mountains and mountain bikes.
I like seeing female rock climbers kicking ass.
I like landscape photos taken on hiking trails.
Many of the images in this curated gallery of mine, are accompanied by the hashtag ‘#outsideisfree‘.
What does it actually mean?
I think that what these people are trying to tell me, when they say #outsideisfree, is that:
I should go outside.
Because it’s free.
And everyone is welcome.
I don’t need to be rich. I just need to walk out the front door.
I should spend my money on experiences instead of things.
I don’t need to blow the budget to have an adventure.
There is a part of me that agrees with those messages. And yet, every time I see #outsideisfree, I feel a pang of discomfort.
The adventures that these insta-gods are having, look pretty damn expensive to me. They tell me, hundreds of times a day that ‘#outsideisfree’, but I’m still not buying it.
What does it look like?
I did a search this morning and found that there are at least 2.2 million pictures on instagram that use the #outsideisfree hashtag.
My first few search results looked like this:
A sleek carbon fibre road bike is leaning up against a spectacular frozen waterfall, high up in the French Alps.
A woman is running down a dirt trail that winds through lush green rainforest. She is wearing a Saloman running vest and a ‘Running Mums Australia’ hat. I learn from the caption that this is the first test of her new trail running shoes. No blisters! Winning.
Two figures in matching blue jackets walk towards a gorgeous lens flare, caused by the sun rising over a snowy mountain peak. They are connected by a bright orange rope. Crampons are strapped to their boots. Ice axes are strapped to their packs.
A woman is standing in a rocky creek, surrounded by dense forest. The clear water comes up to her knees. She is carrying a bulging hiking pack, with a Nalgene bottle clipped to the outside. Her left hand holds a Black Diamond hiking pole for balance. In her right hand is a buff, which she is using to wipe the sweat from her forehead.
A tired, but happy-looking woman pulls a pack-raft out of a lake. She is dragging the raft towards a mountain bike that is laying on the pebbly shore. The bike is loaded up with panniers for the next leg of her epic human-powered journey.
3 young men smile for the camera, as they pull the skins off their skies. They have reached the summit of another back-country mountain. It’s time to pack their climbing gear away, and ski back down.
Our newest cycling kit will be available for purchase online from 14.03.18. Pre-order yours today. Link in bio.
That last one made me giggle. It’s an advertisement for women’s cycling kit that costs about $250 Australian Dollars. The worst part is, that I want that kit. It’s so damn pretty and well-made. I have to remind myself that I don’t need that kit to ride my bike. My grubby old clothes are perfectly fine. Outside is free, remember?
I tear my eyes away from the gorgeous cycling jersey and notice that outdoorsy brand names are visible in almost all of the images. How clever it is to have your consumers generate so much free advertising for you. My eyes move now, from the brand names to the equipment itself. I shudder to think about the price of all those bikes, ice-axes and high-performance clothes.
From what I can tell, all the folks posting these images are young, thin, able-bodied and white. I can imagine myself being part of their crowd. They don’t look so different from me or the people I typically go adventuring with.
My beautiful new imaginary-friends are all smiling huge smiles. All of them are inviting me to get outside. Because outside is free!
Is ‘outside’ free for me?
A few weeks ago, I went on my first solo overnight hike.
I walked through stunning rainforests filled with ferns and vines. I pitched my tent below moss-covered Antarctic Beech trees. I saw 12 lyrebirds, countless rosellas and no other people.
The whole experience was peaceful. I came away feeling recharged, and proud of myself. I also felt outrageously lucky that I had the resources and the time to simply leave my house one Tuesday morning and come to this spectacular place. Spectacular… and therefore super instagramable.
I quit my full-time legal job at the end of last year, which means I currently have the time to adventure on weekdays. It also means that I’m paying a lot more attention to every dollar that I spend to get outside.
When I got home from my hike, I wrote a list of all the gear I had carried with me on the trail. I estimated the cost of each item. I was curious to see how many dollars worth of kit I’d had on my back.
When I added everything up, I got to $3,290 AUD.
That’s a crazy amount of money.
Now that I think about, I realise that I forgot to factor in all the small things, like my sunscreen, socks, buff, hat, fuel for the stove and the silk liner that goes inside my sleeping bag. I also forgot to factor in a few really expensive things, like my phone, my down jacket and my beautiful camera that my parents gave me as a combined Christmas, birthday, graduation present. The real dollar value of the stuff on my back, might have been over $4,000 AUD.
My new $4K figure doesn’t include the cost of registering, insuring and maintaining the Subaru Forester that I used to drive down the dirt roads to the trail head. Or the cost of my driver licence. Or the cost of learning to drive, which was borne by my parents when I was a teenager.
It doesn’t include the cost of building or maintaining the trail I walked on. I wonder how much it costs to install and maintain the simple drop-toilet at the campsite where I spent the night. Did they have to fly it in by helicopter?
It doesn’t include the costs of my previous hike along that trail with Dirtbagjens. If I hadn’t hiked that trail once before, I would not have felt comfortable tackling it solo.
It doesn’t include the cost of all the other weekends away, where I learned how to be comfortable and self-sufficient in the outdoors.
I didn’t have to pay anything to enter the land that I hiked on. It is designated as a National Park. It belongs to the state now. But that wasn’t always the case. I am embarrassingly ignorant of the history of land within the Barrington Tops National Park. My very brief research suggests that the Gringai clan, the Wonnarua people and the Worimi people all had/have strong connections to that patch of country. I don’t know which tense to use, because Australian history is a complicated mess. I feels dishonest for me to hike across that land, and tell you that ‘outside is free’. It might be free for me. But others have different stories and have paid different costs.
I’ve just told you how much my gear costs. And now I desperately want to point out that many of the items I own, were gifts. Others were purchased second-hand, or when they were on sale, or with the help of a gift voucher.
I want to tell you that my savings account is dangerously low right now (which is true… but 10 years ago I would have been stoked to have a savings account at all, so I guess I’m doing OK).
I want you and I to whinge about those smiling rich folks on Instagram. I want us to be on the same team. Team Dirtbag.
I want to pretend that #outsideisfree. Because it would make me feel more comfortable.
The reality is, that I have spent about 5 years working full time as a corporate lawyer. I have become accustomed to having disposable income and free weekends. I have sat in air conditioned comfort 5 days a week and had the energy to be physically active on weekends. It’s easy to downplay the risk of injury when you can afford basic healthcare. It’s easy to hike up a steep trail with a pack on, when you’ve got a lifetime of organised sports and fitness training behind you.
My partner and I rent a 3-bedroom house in a nice suburb close to the city. There’s space to safely store all the adventurous equipment that we have each acquired over the years.
I have a university education that I didn’t have to pay for up front. While I studied, I had access to university mountaineering clubs where I was able to hire expensive outdoor equipment before I could afford to buy it. I was taught outdoor skills for free, by fellow club members.
Since then, I have paid for professional coaching in mountaineering, mountain biking and whitewater kayaking. I have bought airfares, equipment and hundreds of small things that make it easy for me explore the outside world in comfort and safety.
I live a privileged life. If I chose to, I could go on a another solo overnight hike tomorrow and have a great time.
I could post photos of that hike and tell you that #outsideisfree.
But I’d feel like a big old liar.
Why do I care about stupid hashtags on instagram?
Clearly, the world has more important problems that they types of hashtags we use on instagram.
You could say that if I don’t like the super-commercialised white-washed instagram world, I could just delete my account. There would be plenty of benefits if I did. But in the short term, I know that I’ll hang around on the addicting platform. I’d miss the little dopamine hit that I get when people ‘like’ my outdoor photos. Millions of other people around the world will be on the platform too. All of us will keep seeing epic images telling us that outside is free.
I have gained so much as a consequence of spending time outside. I’m more confident, capable and calm than I would otherwise be.
It feels deeply unfair that all these benefits are easily available to me, but not easily available to others with slightly different backgrounds.
Saying that ‘outsideisfree’ denies the fact that:
- specialised outdoor gear costs a fortune
- if you can afford fancy gear, you need somewhere secure to store it
- the #outsideisfree hashtag helps advertise expensive gear and encourages us to buy more stuff
- small, inexpensive adventures don’t get rewarded on the instagram platform, because people like me prefer stunning images of epic adventures
- small, inexpensive adventures don’t have much advertising value
- outdoor activities have traditionally been undertaken by wealthy, able-bodied folks, often male, often white, often straight etc. It’s hard to break into those circles if you don’t fit the mould
- it takes time and money to learn and master outdoor skills
- using cheap shitty, ill-fitting gear is not going to give you the best chance of enjoying yourself and coming back for more
- different people have different attitudes towards the outdoors and different ideas about the value of spending time outside
- the places we adventure in often have histories that we’re not fully aware of
- you can’t spend time adventuring if you don’t have any leisure time, or any energy to spare
If you’re honestly committed to opening the world of outdoor adventures up to a more diverse crowd, I don’t see how the #outsideisfree tag helps your cause.
I know that removing this hashtag from the insta-world would not magically make the outdoors accessible to everyone. But I do think it’s worth taking some time to think about the language and imagery we use to describe ourselves and our adventures.
Can ‘outside’ be free?
Maybe nothing in life is completely free. But spending time outside can be done cheaply.
I could shut down my laptop right now and walk out the front door of my house. There’s a great dog park about 200 metres away. I could sit there and enjoy the sunshine. People would walk past me and smile. I would be welcome there. I could watch birds, dogs, ants and people wandering round the park. It would be a very inexpensive adventure. Arguably, free. It wouldn’t be very glamorous. Photos of that adventure wouldn’t get many ‘likes’ on instagram. But I would definitely feel better afterwards.
In the back of my mind, I’m aware that I can afford the rent for this house, that is surrounded by green park land. The ‘outside’ around you might be very different, but I hope that some kind of adventure can still be found there.
I strongly believe that adventures don’t have to be expensive or epic. They don’t have to start with a plane ticket. But it can be hard to remember that when you’re constantly bombarded with images of sponsored athletes wingsuiting off of Antartic peaks telling you that adventures are epic and everything is free.
Outside is not free.
But it is an excellent place to be.
Happy adventures, wherever you are.