Should You Play Music in the Backcountry?

I recently had an interesting talk with a reader about which speaker to bring backpacking. This chat just happened to be in a public forum, and a heated debate rapidly erupted. Long story short, this sounded like an excellent topic for an article, so let’s talk about music in the backcountry.

First, it’s fair to say that there are two sides of this debate, so I wanted to cover them both in as much detail as possible while still staying fairly objective.

Of course, there are those who love to play music in the backcountry. Music is an amazing phenomenon. It doesn’t hurt that portable speakers are now everywhere, either. The quality of portable audio devices has become quite good, while managing to keep them compact and easy to carry. With the vast adoption of smart phones, a source of music is always just a couple presses away, so it makes sense that this would trickle into the woods. Rocking out to your favorite song at the camp fire or drifting off while listening to a musical score is a great way to unwind, entertain, and keep the evening lively, especially on long winter nights. And, one can be argued, that listening to music is not just enjoyable, but a right to humans everywhere. It’s also worth noting that playing music in bear country, especially while so, is a great way to announce your presence to avoid walking up on an unsuspecting critter, the purpose of a bear bell. To this group, music is a delight, uplifting, energizing, and full of life and emotion, welcomed on any trail.

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Now, the other side of the argument is for pure, blissful silence in the wilderness. Many people go camping as a means to get away from the ever pumping iron heart of city life, and hearing someone else’s music is simply a reminder of the never ending noise and commotion of the environment they’re trying to escape. For those, the sounds of birds, coyotes and the wind rustling miles of rhododendron is enough of a musical score to provide all the rhythm one needs to be lulled off to sleep at night. To this group, hearing the music of another is disruptive, irritating, and even maddening to the point that many campers have packed up and left an area to avoid the sound of others, or even approached other camps with their thoughts. According to a quick poll on the Backpacker forums, almost everyone there fell into this group, although there is probably a certain bias for solitude there. More on that later. It’s also been pointed out that if you’re listening to music while camping, you’re unaware of your surroundings and could potential be opening yourself up to dangerous situations, be that incoming weather, animals or otherwise.

part of the conflict here comes from the fact that you cannot, and will not always be aware of the desires, or even presence, of those camping around you. In the wilderness, you can be camping twenty meters from another group of quiet campers and never be aware of it. This has happened to me many times as I slipped off the find the restroom on a “deserted” mountain during poor weather conditions. The problem is somewhat elevated by the fact that, in the wild, the sound of music can carry for miles against the otherwise quiet landscape, reflecting and even amplifying off valleys and walls in ways that aren’t predictable. While everyone at your camp may be fine with music, there like is another individual of group within ear shot that wants noting to do with you, your group, or your music. I recall several instances where I could hear music from across sprawling lakes, and even canyons with huge swallows of space in between us. Although, my ears are particular sensitive to subtle sounds in the distance.

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Now, there is a happy medium to this situation that’s often suggested by long time backpackers – Headphones. Headphones provide audio quality far surpassing that of portable speakers, and they’re subtle. They’re also light weight, affordable, and allow music to be played as loud as one wants without the risk of disturbing others. I normally pack a pair of headphones with my on my trips. Although they’re rarely used as I would much rather soak up the soundscape of the natural world around me, I like having the option to jam out if I’m having trouble sleeping or need help passing the time during a storm.

So, what do you guys think. Where do you fall in this new age debate of sound vs silence? I’d be quite interesting to hear the thoughts of my readers as I imagine the demographic here is a bit different than that of the forums. Let me know what you think.

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9 thoughts on “Should You Play Music in the Backcountry?

  1. I am anti-speaker without a doubt. I’ve found that beyond 3 miles into a trail its typically not an issue though. Blaring music in the wilderness shows a disrespect for others wilderness experience. Bring the headphones so you can listen to Nickelback and so I can experience the wilderness in peace.

    1. Thanks for the input! I’ve noticed that most issues actually disappear at around 3 miles, which is pretty convenient. Just keep hiking and all my problems melt away! ha ha. But, yes. I agree. Headphones are the way to go. I love the peace and quiet that I just don’t get when I’m in the city.

  2. Before I even reached the end of the article I was prepared to make the headphone argument. Even if everyone on the mountain is ok with speakers they most likely don’t want to hear Miley Cyrus on repeat all night. I have lived this experience. Just bring the headphones and everyone is happy.

  3. DO. NOT. EVER. Wear headphones while hiking.

    Had I not decided to take one earbud out on a whim moments before I heard its rattle, I would have trod on an angry rattlesnake. But for an incredible stroke of luck I’d have died stupidly, an hour’s hike from help.

    The wilderness isn’t your backyard. It’s not your dog park. There are real dangers and you need some level of situational awareness while enjoying it.

    Music on a portable speaker is actually better than no music at all, as it will announce your presence to animals and prevent unhappy surprises.

    1. Headphones while hiking? I agree, a terrible idea.
      While at camp nestled away safely inside a tent? That’s a better one, in my opinion.
      I can’t say I agree with playing music openly while hiking is a good idea (it’s surely to disturb others), but announcing your presence is. A nice companion to talk with is just as effective.

      Thanks for reading, and happy trail!

  4. I think there should be laws passed against listening to loud (audible) music in nature. Why are you in nature in the first place? Why not just hike around the city? As I get older it seems people are becoming more and more self absorbed and ignorant at the same time. Playing loud music not only infringes on other hikers connecting with nature but disturbs the animals that live there.
    If your someone who does this please try hiking without a radio or even headphones. Maybe you’ll figure something out about yourself for a change!

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