Where Are Millennials in the Great Outdoors? Look on Instagram.

Photographer Corey Arnold wanted to find millennials in the national parks. Little did he know, turning to social media was his best bet.

In order to find and document millennials in the national parks for the National Geographic magazine story "Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?", 40-year-old photographer Corey Arnold discovered that he needed to employ a tactic anthropologists call “participant-observation.” In other words, he needed to act like a millennial.

He wasn’t totally out of his depth. Arnold, who spends half his time working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and the other half as a photographer, is familiar with a nontraditional, somewhat nomadic lifestyle. For this story, he stopped just short of buying a pair of skinny jeans and instead settled on a 1987 Astro Tiger camper van, which he decked out with a signal booster and an Internet connection. Then he went looking for millennials in the great outdoors where they go to be found—Instagram.

John Cimfl, Crater Lake National Park
John Cimfl, Crater Lake National Park
Photograph by Corey Arnold

At the outset of the road trip, he tasked his 26-year-old assistant, Quinn Bassler, with searching the hashtags of parks along their route. #GlacierNationalPark was one of their first queries. The results might make you blush. “He came across these girls flashing nature,” Arnold says. It turns out the bold group of young women, members of the Montana University ski team, frequently travel to national parks together, often posting lighthearted photos in their favorite irreverent poses. (But not in violation of any Instagram community standards, mind you, as the trees and valleys were the recipients of the unexpected view.) “We decided to meet up with them,” says Arnold. “These girls were so full of passion for the outdoors and the environment, it was the right group that kind of kicked things off.”

Not only did Arnold discover subjects through the Instagram rabbit hole, he invited people to share their itineraries with him. “On assignment for @NatGeo. Hit me up if you are a youngster in Glacier or Yellowstone/Tetons area and want to share your story,” he wrote on one of his Instagram posts. Each picture he added along the way amassed dozens, sometimes hundreds, of comments from eager park-goers sharing their stories and offering to meet up, each one full of promise.

He likened choosing whose stories to pursue and figuring out how to fit their itinerary into the timeline of his own road trip to the process of solving a puzzle. “I would get hundreds of messages,” he says. “I photographed hundreds of kids.”

Can you imagine getting an Instagram message from a National Geographic photographer? The response was generally elation. “Sometimes I would message people on Instagram, and they would be shocked like ‘Nat Geo is sending me a text. OMG.’ They’ll do anything: ‘We’ll meet you anywhere, anytime.’”

“We’d look through the photos really well before we’d start engaging,” Arnold says. “You do as much research as you can. You can really pinpoint the most interesting characters that way. I’m not just going to randomly run into a biologist tracking bears.”

That biologist tracking bears was a young grad student named Wes who posts to the handle @GrizKid. “He reached out to me as soon as I posted on @NatGeo and told me about his project studying black bears in Bryce Canyon, and he said I could come along. He needed to go in the winter and tranquilize black bears while they’re sleeping in their den and change the batteries on their radio collars,” says Arnold. “I thought that was such a unique perspective on a national park.”

Even with all the preparation in the world—institutional connections, expert advice, hours on the phone, interactive social media research—Arnold can vouch that you have to stay open to serendipity.

“I did a canoe trip with a bunch of students in Congaree that was pre-arranged. We did the whole day trip with the kids, but right when we pulled off I saw this woman with pink hair walking through the woods holding an antennae up. Her name was Piper, and she was like ‘I’m going to catch bats and put radio tags on them. You can join if you want.’ So in an hour we switched gears from canoe trip to setting up lights and shooting this girl capturing bats in a swamp in the middle of the night.”

“You never know what’s going to happen. When something’s happening you just have to go,” he says. “That’s what’s fun about documentary work: You never know where it’s going to take you.”

Becky Harlan is a video producer for NPR. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow Corey Arnold on Instagram.

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