Last summer I was crossing the Lairig Mor, a remote and unbelievably dreamy stretch of mountain pass Beinn Bheag and Stob Mhic Mhartuin that forms the highest point of the West Highland Way. It was one of those rare picture-perfect days in Scotland when the spring sun was beating down and I’d already walked for nearly 20 miles that day, all the way from Fort William. It was nearing dinner time so there were hardly any other hikers around, but the summer solstice was a few weeks away and there were hours of daylight left and ample time for me to find a camping spot.
Pressing onwards and drinking in the solitude, I suddenly became aware of another, more intrusive beat over the sound of my hiking boots hitting the earth, followed by tinny, strangled sounding music. Looking up, I saw a troupe of young men coming down the trail towards me. As the straggly bunch neared, the clang of techno grew louder, its invasive needling made all the worse by the impressively poor sound quality of the world’s crappiest portable speaker.
After a while, I passed them with a nod, took a deep breath and told myself, 'at least young people are getting outside and enjoying the great outdoors.' The jangling residue slowly receded as they continued downhill, taking what seemed like an age to completely disappear from my airspace. Finally, the quietude returned and I busied myself setting up camp, but thinking back, it’s the one blemish on what was otherwise an unbelievably perfect day.
If you’re a big fan of hiking wearing a jammy pack, you’ll probably think this sounds like no big deal, and it’s by no means the first time I’ve passed hikers who for some reason see fit to treat the entire natural world to their terrible taste in music, but just so we’re clear, I think it’s one of the most heinous crimes you can commit on the hiking trail. It’s perhaps a step down from illegal poaching or starting a wildfire, but it’s definitely up there with littering and pooping on the trail for sure.
It’s not that I’m a technophobe. I’m all for carrying a satellite messenger for safety and using your phone’s GPS capabilities (though I’d use these in addition to a map and compass, not as replacement for them). Look, I’m even known to carry a portable solar charger to keep my phone juiced on long walks, though that’s mostly so I can take pictures.
And before you start in about how great your jams are, I’m also not not a music lover – I spent eight years as a radio DJ in the US followed by another two working as a record promoter in New York. Believe me, I’ve seen my share of shows. But you know where I like to listen to music? In a dirty little backstreet club that still smells of cigarette smoke from the 1990s. Not on my precious hiking trails.
'But my tunes are so good!' I can practically hear you protest.' And it’s only for a few seconds as we pass on the trail! Oh and I’m actually a big baby who can’t commit to walking without distraction and I’m scared of bears!' It doesn’t matter how great you think your taste in music is (it isn’t), or whether you think it will help keep you safe from bears (they want nothing to do with you) or if it’s the only thing that helps you 'get in the zone', playing amplified music on a hike is totally obnoxious.
Playing amplified music, whether it’s via a portable speaker or from your phone, flies directly against the principles of Leave No Trace, which whether you like it or not you agree to any time you hit the trail or set up camp. Specifically, it contradicts your agreement to respect wildlife as it disrupts their natural behavior. If you think I’m being a drama queen here, check out this 2023 study conducted in Glacier National Park that found that even low-level human interaction with nature caused 16 out of 22 mammal species to change where and when they accessed areas. Some completely abandoned places they previously used, others used them less frequently, and some shifted to more nocturnal activities to avoid humans. Imagine what would happen if you blasted Katy Perry at them?
It also violates your promise to be considerate of others. You might not think your appalling taste in music is inconsiderate of me, but it is. I go to the mountains to get away from being constantly advertised at and told what to listen to every time I enter a shop or cafe. I want some peace and quiet. I don’t mind at all hearing other people moving around and talking any more than I mind the sound of a bird tweeting, but I draw the line at your tunes.
Now if we want to get outside – and I think we can all agree we do – we’re going to make at least some noise and no one is saying you can’t have a normal volume conversation with your hiking partner, but projecting your tunes out for all to hear is entirely avoidable. Never mind the fact that if you’re hiking with friends, you end up shouting over the sound of the music to make yourself heard. Just leave the speaker at home. It’s less weight to carry for starters and less impact on the environment you’re pretending to enjoy.
If you must listen to music on a hike, please do us all a favor and buy yourself a pair of bone conduction headphones so that we’re not also subject to it, and you can still hear that mountain lion creeping up behind you. If it’s really bears you’re afraid of, it’s far better to keep the distractions to a minimum and use your voice if you encounter one (there’s no conclusive evidence that bear bells work so it’s doubtful that music helps either). And if you’re one of those people who actually finds hiking incredibly boring and needs the distraction, find a new activity! Try indoor rock climbing, e-biking or road running perhaps. I don’t really mind what it is, just get your jams away from our trails.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.