For years, Parker McMullen Bushman wasn’t comfortable referring to herself as an outdoorsy person. It sounds silly, she says, having spent years working as an educator and environmental justice advocate. Still, Bushman was hesitant to publicly claim the title.
“That term was something I associated with white folks who were fit and skinny and rich enough to get the right gear,” Bushman says. “My own outdoor activities didn’t seem as valid, because I didn’t see representation for people who looked like me doing the things that I did.”
Today, her personal definition of an “outdoorsy” person is anyone who spends time outside, gardening, picnicking, hiking, or playing basketball at a local park. It doesn’t matter if a person lives in the Bronx or rural Arkansas; most people are outdoorsy. And part of Bushman’s mission on TikTok has been to challenge the overarching stereotype that has inhibited her—and countless others—from fully embracing and feeling comfortable in the great outdoors.
Bushman was introduced to TikTok by her niece early on in the pandemic. Like most users, she started off dancing. Those videos didn’t take off, she jokes, but that hasn’t stopped her from busting moves on the hiking trail. Under the moniker Kween Werk, which stands for “keep widening environmental engagement narratives,” Bushman provides commentary on social justice and accessibility issues within the outdoor space and beyond. Her signature look, even during her most strenuous hikes, consists of a colorful headscarf, a bold lip, and statement glasses.
Anyone can spontaneously go viral on TikTok, an aspect of the app that benefits creators like Bushman, who doesn’t put much thought into curating her visual brand. She is among a crop of TikTok content creators who are passionate about the outdoors and have brought quarantined audiences closer to nature in the past year. Her feed is a mishmash of clips—commentary on social justice issues, scenic footage from recent hikes, and updates on her family life—which exist in stark contrast to the crisp, high-quality landscape photos that dominate the world of outdoor Instagram. “My aesthetic on Instagram is crap,” Bushman says, “so TikTok is the best medium for me.” In this way, TikTok offers a seemingly more authentic approach to the outdoors—one that is more suitable for consumption and education than the veneered world of a photograph.
For every TikTok account that exclusively posts dreamy, surrealistic landscapes—and there are some; the app is not devoid of these videos—there are many more people like Bushman: folks who enjoy the outdoors; hikers, birders, or travelers. While TikTok’s curated For You feed, the algorithm-dominated home page that showcases the platform’s best content, is a mix of footage from both pros and amateurs, TikTok users tend to favor unedited, spur-of-the-moment content.
“The joke is that TikTok hates hard work,” says Becky Michelle Wood, a freelance blogger who is documenting her journey across the United States in her SUV on TikTok. “Sometimes I spend a lot of time creating a narrative and filming, but there have been instances when a video of me talking to the camera in my van does really well. The unpredictability and authenticity are fun.”
In one video that garnered 14,000 likes, for example, Wood explains how her Subaru was randomly recognized by one of her followers, who used her car’s setup as inspiration to build his own sleeping platform inside his vehicle. It’s a casual, low-effort video that almost feels like a FaceTime video between Wood and the viewer.
Overall, there is less pressure to capture the perfect shot on TikTok as compared to Instagram or to frame an experience as a highlight reel. An outdoor creator’s TikTok feed, according to Wood, is more reflective of a journey or their relationship with nature, rather than a singular moment of achievement. She has found that posting on TikTok often requires less of a setup than for Instagram or YouTube, thus allowing her more time to dwell in the present and enjoy the scenery.
In May, Wood posted a semi-viral TikTok of a baby mountain goat following her around for three days during a hike in Washington. She stitched together a five-second video clip of the goat and two up-close photos to the song “Never Forget You” by the Noisettes. “Sometimes, you only need a short clip, so filming something doesn’t really take away from the experience,” Wood says.
But for all its praise, TikTok is not immune from the criticisms that have plagued Instagram. On its surface, these apps appear to be a social good: they bring together people with similar interests and broaden users’ horizons by introducing them to new places and cultures. But virality comes at a cost, especially when looking at public lands and conservation efforts. Location tags can drive unprecedented foot traffic to lesser-known places, transforming these once-obscure destinations into must-see attractions. And they’re marketed as such—by the local government or, more often, the tourism companies that capitalize on the social media frenzy.
These scenic places are, to put it bluntly, turned into commodities. As my coworker at Vox, Rebecca Jennings, observed at Antelope Canyon in Arizona, it appears to matter little to visitors if they actually enjoy the experience of seeing these natural sites or care about the ethics of the trip. What matters, in the Instagram era, is the photos. (Still, others have pushed back against this mentality, saying that it could lead to gatekeeping or deterring newcomers from the outdoors.)
Instagram accounts like Public Lands Hate You and You Did Not Sleep There have successfully fostered a general awareness about posting etiquette among members of the public and influencers. And while TikTok’s geotagging is less sophisticated than Instagram’s, Wood is concerned about the uptick in “nature porn” on the platform, which features aspirational travel shots that are usually sponsored by outdoor companies or brands.
“I’m a little worried about TikTok becoming more like Instagram as more traditional influencers move over, and so the content might feel less relatable,” she says. “Right now, it feels like there’s room for smaller creators, who are eager to show people the realities of their lifestyle.”
Still, as content creators, Bushman and Wood—regardless of their intention—have to abide by the rules of the attention economy. Their individual success is measured through the likes, follows, shares, and comments they generate. They still have to post frequently to maintain relevance and cultivate an audience, and they usually become siloed into one of TikTok’s many algorithmic subcultures. For outdoor TikTokers, that includes environmental education, foraging, birding, hunting, hiking, and van life.
Keith Paluso falls into the educational niche, although he doesn’t really consider himself a teacher. In recent months, Paluso has accumulated more than 50,000 followers by posting various videos of himself birding in Tennessee. A self-described “diehard naturalist” and on-and-off park ranger, Paluso’s most popular videos are “birding breaks” filmed in the field. He begins his videos with a friendly whisper, “Hey, it’s Ranger Keith,” as the chirps of various birds echo in the background.
Paluso believes his experience on TikTok has affected his outlook and career in environmental education. “I’ve worked in mostly rural areas, poverty-stricken places, so I’m used to, you know, doing tours and only being able to take several people who can go on a hike,” he says. “Social media has really opened my eyes to accessibility issues and the challenges people face that you might not have realized from the beginning.”
A few months ago, Paluso began adding captions to his videos to make them reader-friendly, as part of his goal to serve viewers with disabilities. There’s a calm, meditative quality to his feed, which he thinks “allows people to briefly relax from the existential dread that everyone’s had for the past year.” It’s also a way for him to bring mindfulness into his content, in addition to “gently hammering in outdoor ethics,” like encouraging followers to take part in conservation efforts.
Paluso’s videos are a soothing alternative to the adrenaline-packed, adventurous content propagated by the most successful outdoor influencers who are also landscape photographers or vloggers. Their full-time job is to travel to coveted destinations—usually with the help of corporate sponsorships and advertisers—and market the travel experience to their followers. While such content is beginning to trickle into TikTok, many outdoor creators still hold down “traditional” careers. And it’s unlikely that the platform will allow advertisements to disrupt the magic of its curated For You feed, which keeps viewers on the app. The shift in content might be gradual, but for now, anything that resonates with viewers still has a chance of going viral.
Keith Doubman is well-acquainted with this sudden virality—since posting his first video in May last year, he has garnered more than 200,000 TikTok followers by posting snippets of his 4,680-mile walk across the United States to raise money for cancer research. Doubman’s journey was grueling and grimy, but he maintained a peppy tone throughout his walk from Delaware to California. His videos typically began selfie-style, with an enthusiastic “Good morning, TikTok family,” Doubman stretching out the greeting’s syllables before revealing the day’s landscape. On the 239th day of his hike, Doubman trudged through a sand path in California: “I feel so dirty right now because I haven’t showered in like five, six days,” he told viewers.
Doubman isn’t a professional videographer, and while he bought a small drone for the journey, his TikTok videos were generally short and unedited, unlike travel content popular on Instagram or YouTube. Yet, his infectious personality and willingness to show viewers the path less traveled helped him build a sizable audience who donated to support his cause. Doubman’s success was a personal surprise. He worked two jobs to save up for the trek and had only two goals when he embarked on the journey: to raise $50,000 for cancer research and to finish the walk, both of which he accomplished. He continues to upload footage and photos from his past walks onto TikTok.
“It’s crazy to think that I have supporters and followers who care about me making content,” Doubman says. With his goal complete, he’s envisioning a new way to travel: “With the pandemic, I’ve been seeing more people changing their vans into campers, working online remotely, traveling everywhere. I would love to do that in the long term.”
It’s a Nomadland-esque vision that was—and still is—out of reach for many, including Doubman himself. Nature itself isn’t exclusive, but social media has reinforced an inaccurate image of the outdoors and who enjoys it. TikTok briefly changed that image by elevating unfiltered, “real” content from regular users, like Wood’s confessional van videos and Paluso’s birding Q&As. It allows creators to more freely establish their own personas on the app, without needing to cater to a specific audience.
Bushman intentionally defies the impulse to box herself up as a certain type of creator. She doesn’t believe in sticking solely to one niche. That’s her philosophy as an environmental and social justice advocate; everything is connected, and it’s not enough to advocate for one thing. Issues surrounding racial oppression, according to Bushman, should be tied in with conversations about sustainability and access to green space. “My favorite comments are that I’ve inspired someone to go out and hike,” she says. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have that in my life. I don’t want any other kid or person to feel that way. I want them to understand that these spaces are for them that they can claim as their own. They have every right. They deserve clean air. They deserve clean water.”
Ultimately, connecting with and caring about nature shouldn’t require a person to leave their immediate city or state. It can even occur through a screen. Scrolling on TikTok is an immersive experience that some creators have used to help viewers feel closer to the outdoors. And so far, the space has stayed real, remaining generally void of the corporate advertisements seen across Instagram. Expertise is applauded, and a person’s relatability is rewarded. Together, these creators establish an ecosystem of knowledge, bringing a diversity of experiences that showcase the reality of being in nature—on the internet.