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It seems, from browsing around on the internet, that playing music while hiking is heavily frowned upon. Just googling "playing music on trails" leads to a slew of articles deriding the practice, and there is plenty of vitriol directed at music-playing-hikers on various forums and (especially) reddit.

To a certain extent, I understand that point of view. Listening to other people's music can indeed be annoying, and I agree that playing music on crowded trails is very rude. But a lot of hiking is done in remote areas where you might only encounter a few other people over the course of an entire day. I don't see what is so wrong with playing music in that case.

I also don't the understand the extreme extent of the hate at hikers playing music, especially when there isn't a similar level of hate at, say, talking loudly, which can easily be just as annoying. From what some people write on the internet, it seems like they think that playing music is only slightly better than littering or illegally starting fires.

So, here is my question: Is it acceptable to play music, provided (1) the volume is kept to a reasonable level, AND (2) I only do it in a remote area with zero other humans around OR pause the music every time I pass another party of hikers? If you think even that is unacceptable, why?

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  • 7
    See also Trumpeting while backpacking? for a considerable amount of discussion about this situation. Nov 5, 2021 at 2:02
  • 7
    Does this answer your question? Etiquette of playing musical instruments on popular hikes Nov 5, 2021 at 2:05
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    How do you know there are NO other humans around? Sound can carry a long way especially somewhere with little background noise. I have often heard other people's voices and thought they were very near and then been surprised when I saw them some distance away on the other side of a valley. Playing music is probably specially singled out because it isn't necessary and can be avoided. Asking others to not talk or to not make noise with their feet when walking would be unreasonable. Asking others to avoid unnecessary noise is perfectly reasonable.
    – Paul Lydon
    Nov 5, 2021 at 9:44
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    Please just play your music through earbuds. Nov 5, 2021 at 14:45
  • 3
    Why not listen to music through bone-conduction headphones? That way, your ears are clear to hear anything you need to be aware of on the hike, while still enjoying the music. Nov 7, 2021 at 5:07

14 Answers 14

19

I think that the harsh reaction also expresses a measure of moral and cultural rejection. Being surrounded by electronics and consuming mass media is exactly what many hikers try to get away from.

The German philosopher Günther Anders, who was in exile in America and was a keen observer, notes with respect to the still relatively new mass media in his 1956 book Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, Vol 1:

Massenmenschen produziert man ja dadurch, daß man sie Massenware konsumieren läßt

("You produce bulk people by letting them consume bulk goods".)

[...]

And

Die Liebenden, die mit einem sprechenden „portable" am Ufer des Hudson, der Themse oder der Donau spazieren gehen, sprechen nicht zueinander, sondern hören einer dritten Person zu: der öffentlichen, zumeist anonymen Stimme des Programms, die sie, einem Hündchen gleich, spazieren führen, richtiger: von der sie sich spazieren führen lassen.

("The lovers who stroll with a 'portable' on the banks of the Hudson, Thames or Danube do not talk to each other but listen to a third person: the public, typically anonymous voice of a program which they take out for a walk like a dog, or more correctly: Which they allow to take them out for a walk.")

And he states

[The radio] must provide not just illumination, but also warmth, and must not remain silent under any circumstances, but to the contrary must talk its head off and provide a background of noise in the form of songs or words in order to suppress that horror vacui which does not loosen its grip.

The harsh reaction to consuming mass media on the trail comes from the contempt and disdain for people who cannot stand their absence, cannot be alone because they perceive a horror vacui when they are thrown unto their empty selves that must incessantly be drowned out with canned mass produced cultural artifacts.

Another take concerns playing music in public in general, not only outdoors: Music marks a territory. Each music style is an expression of a certain culture.1 When teenagers hang out on a bench in the park they play loud music for two reasons: To identify themselves (to themselves, as a reassurance, and to others, as a distinction) and to mark the place as theirs. It is not surprising that territorial claims made in that fashion are met with a certain measure of hostility by competing groups.


1 I vividly remember the day when a young, accurately dressed new colleague set up her desk in a room with a handful of co-workers. She asked very innocently whether we'd mind if she played some music. We didn't quite know how to respond until a colleague with punk inclinations similar to mine simply said: "Better not. You wouldn't like our music either." That simple truth settled the matter.

Another anecdote concerns the strategy which the city of Hamburg employed to deter young punks from the central subway station: They played classical music non-stop. The punks found it unbearable and stopped gathering there.

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For the most part people head into the back country to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature; playing music detracts from that for many people. This is partly because music covers up other sounds, being largely continuous noise, and often played loudly. Many portable speakers (at least until quite recently) are horribly tinny and very artificial sounding, so the noise coming from them is annoying to many people. This is especially so with music played directly from a mobile phone.

Have you ever experienced someone playing their music from a phone or speaker in a public space (e.g. bus, mall, etc.), and looked down on them for doing so? So, imagine if you had gone into the outdoors to see and hear nature, only to have those nice (quiet) sounds covered by a tinny speaker.

In addition, music taste varies widely; you might enjoy a nice bit of drum & bass, but the person coming towards (or following) you on the trail quite likely doesn't, and the same applies to any sort of music.

Music can carry a substantial distance in open areas, especially deep notes (e.g. bass drum), so if you can hear people talking, they have probably already been able to hear your speaker for quite some time.

In contrast, people generally do not talk continuously, there are (natural) pauses in speech and conversation. They also make natural sounds, which are less challenging to the ear than music played artificially. In addition, if there is some physical exertion involved (e.g. a hill to walk up), most people will naturally save their breath for walking rather than continue to talk. A group of people yelling and shouting is just as much looked-down-upon on a hike as those playing music.

Music can also disturb wildlife in the area, changing natural behaviours of birds and other animals (many of these ones are about traffic noise).

If there are no other people around, feel free to do whatever you want, however, with the advent of small, lightweight earbuds and headphones. I suggest you get some of those, and enjoy your music without affecting other people or the wildlife around you. A moderately expensive pair will give you better sound, noise cancelling (as you obviously don't want to hear the natural sounds), be easier on batteries and lighter to carry compared to even a small portable speaker.

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    Music can carry a substantial distance in open areas is key. Across a valley it can be audible so far away that you'd need binoculars to spot another human. And plenty of animals have sharper hearing than humans. In some cases you might not want earphones in, to be aware of hazards, but in the same places you shouldn't cover up natural sounds with noise
    – Chris H
    Nov 5, 2021 at 9:03
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 7, 2021 at 17:12
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Is it acceptable

It depends. The response will vary from person to person. Some might agree, someone like me won't. In general, this hatred you are referring to isn't only towards music, but towards all artificial and unnecessary sounds. Example - Playing music, loud talking/shouting, whistling for no reason, etc.

For many (if not most), being outdoors is all about going closer to nature and eventually a peaceful time. A lot of people prefer hiking with an agenda of wilderness, birdwatching, etc. I have been part of such people and a random guy with his portable speaker meant we didn't see a lot of birds, because it scared most of the birds away and secondly, we couldn't hear bird-calls properly.

I have also experienced that we couldn't see the male tiger we were looking forward to photograph in a wildlife sanctuary because the jeep driver's phone rang too loud, of course it never showed up at the water-hole.

Like I said, its not just the music but any sounds that don't belong there. I avoid crowded trails not because I hate people and their music, but because I prefer peaceful places.

Another seemingly arrogant but valid argument is, music is a personal choice, keep it that way. Bring your headphones and enjoy music without imposing it on anyone. That way, you don't have to argue if there aren't enough people around and the volume is too low to be disturbing, etc. I have bivouacked enough in mountains and hear music from campsites quite far down in the valley.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Nov 7, 2021 at 21:14
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One of the first hits with your google search terms is explaining the issue very objectively, with no noticeable "vitriol" or "extreme hate": Here's why you should stop blasting music on the trail (one of the most important parts is not about humans at all, but about damage to the animals).

So I won't repeat all those points. You have certainly seen them, and disregarded them, or you wouldn't be asking.

So the fundamental bastion we have to look at is ethics. Very practically, if you check the entry on "freedom" on Merriam-Webster, you get two different meanings (and a third which is not relevant here):

  • A: The power to do what you want to do: the ability to move or act freely [...].
  • B: The state of not having or being affected by something unpleasant, painful, or unwanted.

Coincidentally, these two conflicting meanings are exactly the two aspects that are relevant for your question. This, in a nutshell, is why you are finding that the issue is so contentious and hotly discussed.

As you can imagine, every person probably is placed on a spectrum amongst these two extremes (and for different topics, this may be a different stance). For example, 99% of people are probably preferring the freedom to be free of pain. In some countries, many enjoy the Freedom of Speech (or suffer because they can't). And so on.

Regarding the outdoors (especially in hiking), many people most certainly enjoy being free of unpleasant or unwanted things. Even if someone plays music that I in principle like, when I'm hiking, I'm generally not in the mood for that music. Unless I'm a trail runner and blasting my favourite motivational soundtrack in my earbuds, there is a likelihood that I wish to have the freedom to do what I want to do: to walk in a quiet, natural environment.

Walking quietly, I am not infringing on anyone else's freedom. Everybody else who wants to do the same, can do so: everybody else has freedom A. By virtue of me being more or less unnoticeable, everybody else has freedom B as well. If I am suffering because I cannot play my favourite music, my own freedom A is reduced. Net sum: 1+1-1 = +1 overal freedoms.

If I am playing music, then everybody else around me loses the freedom to hike while hearing what they want (A), and the freedom to not be affected by something unwanted (B). My own freedom A is fulfilled. -1-1+1 = -1 overall freedoms.

So, in a simple utilitaristic viewpoint, if everyone is not playing music, the overall freedom of the whole population of hikers is maximized. Yes, my own enjoyment may be reduced because I am restricting my own freedom A. But I still have the other freedom B, so it's a zero-sum for my freedom. But for everyone else, they get A + B, so a healthy "+2" count.

If, on the other hand, everybody would play their favourite music, I would get my freedom A, but with a very high likelihood, my freedom B would be hurt - other people would blast music which I do not care for (I have very specific taste in music and it is highly unlikely that I ever meet someone who plays "my" style)! Or the fact that we both play music at the same time might make it unenjoyable for both of us.

So by simply looking at it logically in one of the simplest possible ethical frameworks, it should be clear that this is were the value of restraining yourself lie, and why you should not play music on a trail (and overall try to be as invisible or inaudible as possible).

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    @Aqualone, yes, noise pollution. Ever been somewhere having a conversation and a loud motorcycle group go by? Ever live or stay near an airport? Pollution is the mass distribution of anything that is not naturally occurring in the area sometimes to the point of blocking out the main attraction entirely, i.e. product packaging, sound (ahem), light (bye dark skies!), visuals (ads freakin' everywhere!). The only place even half of these things are reasonably acceptable is in the city and even then, like xmas (holiday pollution), their reach is increasing. Some of us want to get a way from that.
    – coblr
    Nov 5, 2021 at 22:04
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Dec 9, 2021 at 14:26
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People go hiking to experience quiet- the absence of sound. For you to fill that empty space with sound is in very poor taste. It it audio-littering that ruins the space for others. Put you headphones on, or better yet, leave the audio device at home and experience real nature. You can listen to music or podcasts or whatever literally any where else- a hike is not the time or place. And if you are playing music, what is stopping the next group of hikers and the next?

So PLEASE preserve this quiet. Do it for yourself, it not for others.

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    Very important point raised here: "You can listen to music or poscasts literally anywhere else...."
    – ab2
    Dec 8, 2021 at 22:54
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You mention "areas where you might only encounter a few other people". Your music will certainly annoy all of them, plus the ones within earshot whom you do not encounter, and this might be a very large range. You will very likely have spoiled a very large part of their day, which might well be a rare opportunity for them.

What your threshold for "acceptable" is, in terms of the number of people whose days you can willfully spoil, only you can answer. Please understand that for many people, it's zero.

There is, however, an exception: where bears might be encountered it is common advice to make lots of noise, as the danger arises when you surprise a bear at close range. It's not clear if recorded music is known to be effective, I usually see bells or loud talking recommended, but you could present it as an excuse, in bear country.

Of course, you could just double down: turn up the tunes and wear a high-lumen headlamp, and be sure to look straight in the eyes of everyone you meet. If they don't need to hear nature, they don't need to see it either. Why settle for half measures?

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    Bonus points for using an ATV with 2-stroke motor instead of walking the trail. And why not bring a flamethrower to deal with that pesky vegetation... Nov 5, 2021 at 22:59
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I want to challenge a premise you made in your question.

only do it in a remote area with zero other humans

I want to say that unless you are in an open desert, there is no way you can possibly know there are no other humans. In fact, this is the exact time you should avoid playing music for 2 reasons.

  1. Leave No Trace. This is the most basic gospel tenet of outdoorsmanship. If you are playing music in an area without other humans, you are absolutely disturbing the wildlife that is enjoying an existence that is mostly free of human disruption.

  2. The people in the most remote areas are the ones that are most likely to be offended by your music. These are the people who go camping or hiking to get away from civilization and experience unfettered nature. If you play your music in a remote area, it may be less likely to infringe on someone else's experience, but it will be a lot worse for those whom it affects.

Counterintuitively, if you must play music out loud on a hike, the best place to do it is on extremely popular trails nearest a population center. People who are hiking there are not expecting to get too far removed from people and civilization, so hearing music on the trail might annoy them, but it will not surprise them.

You need not understand why people are offended by your music, but suffice it to say that they are and you should try to avoid upsetting them. If you want to read more about etiquette with music in the outdoors, you can see this answer I gave to a similar question.

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Is it acceptable

There can be three sources of music:

  • A cappella singing,
  • Instrumental music,
  • Artificial music (from a loudspeaker).

Personally, I think soft a cappella singing/humming or whistling can be acceptable under certain circumstances. I don't know if it scares animals any more or less than talking. Some people may want to play the guitar or other instruments while at their camp, but that's already more intrusive than singing. I don't think artificial music (from a loudspeaker) is acceptable under any circumstances.

Even if you use headphones, please remain aware of your surroundings. Once I had stopped to admire a pretty pheasant right next to the trail. I was just about to take my camera, when a hiker with a headphone blasted past me, scaring away the pheasant. I spoke to him later (he was part of the same group as me) and he hadn't noticed the pheasant even as it fled. It's a pity for him, but also for other hikers (and for the pheasant). Although such an incident could happen even if he hadn't been using headphones, I do think they contributed in this case.

User "Weather Vane" makes an important additional point (see comment below this answer) about the difference:

One big difference between artificial music and human noises is the latter is reactive to the surroundings. For example if you are having a conversation with your companion and you sight an animal, you immediately stop that and speak in hushed whispers, if at all. — Weather Vane 22 hours ago

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  • Interestingly, when I have worked with hunters, they are taught that when carrying an animal, especially a deer with antlers, they should sing/whistle at the top of their lungs, so as to prevent other hunters potentially mistaking them for an animal target and shooting them. It isn't really hiking in that case though.
    – bob1
    May 29 at 22:13
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In a city you are bombarded by music everywhere you go. A supermarket, a restaurant or any other public place, in some cities even in the tube or train stations. In countries like Italy you can go through terrible orwellian experiences under the loud speakers blaring music and advertising in airports, train and tube stations. If there is no infrastructure to put some speakers like in a public park or an open square often you have buskers everywhere.

In places like beaches or other crowded holiday or vacation places you are expected to be enjoying yourself at the rhythm of those playful tunes that can be heard anywhere, if they are not overwhelmed by the sound of the nearby open air disco.

If you want to bring your music on an hiking trail you are trying to ruin one of the few places that until now were able to escape this persecution.

I only do it in a remote area with zero other humans around

There is not a remote area with zero other humans around. Maybe you don't see them, but given how crowded is this world you can be sure there is someone else somewhere on that trail.

That said, there is another point. Other people also go there to see some wildlife, but if they are on your footsteps or close to you they'll be able only to hear the movement in the branches when the animals run away.

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Some notes on sound propagation (to address comments and other answers in a more structured way than would be possible with more comments):

Further reading, and notes on speech

Wikibooks has a pretty comprehensive article on outdoor sound propagation. From that, 1kHz at 20°C and 50% RH is attenuated by 4.66dB/km.

Wikipedia gives a range 40-60dB for normal conversation, while engineering toolbox has a range of figures for sound pressure levels at a range of distances and speech types, and claim 6dB loss for a doubling of distance.

Taking figures from the last link, a normal voice at 118 metres would be similar in volume to a whisper.

Music travels further than speech because:

  • Bass notes extend to a lower pitch than normal speech, and lower frequencies travels further than higher notes, i.e. are attenuated less by air (see the first link).
  • We naturally modulate our voice volume to the conditions, so will speak quietly when in a sheltered valley, much louder in a strong wind or near a waterfall. We're not nearly so good at turning down our speakers.
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Many hikers are already listening to music -- the symphony of the nearby running stream, the distant percussion of waterfalls, the complex melody of many birds, the almost, but not quite, inaudible background of many small critters, the sigh of the wind --- and the pauses when you can listen to a profound and restful silence unlike you can ever experience in civilization.

This is as much music as music. So, consider: would you turn up your music during a concert? Would you even play your own music privately while in an audience at a world class (or any) musical performance?

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    This is such a great way of putting it.
    – aucuparia
    Dec 12, 2021 at 23:18
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I really hate music when I'm hiking (particularly loud music). I hike, in part, to get away from noise and crowds, to get in touch with nature and enjoy the sights and sounds of being in nature. And that's not even getting into the fact that I likely don't share your same taste in music.

I can't stop people from blasting music. There's no law against it. But blasting your personal taste in music where others are forced to listen, especially where people go to get away is inconsiderate.

If you're really sure no one else is around, then I guess it's up to you and the animals you disturb. Otherwise, it's very annoying.

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  • Poorly expressed, if you put in the hate argument you give an excuse to those who like to blast music.
    – FluidCode
    Nov 7, 2021 at 22:16
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    @FluidCode: Here, the question "Is it wrong" is a subjective question. That's why I responded with how I felt. I thought I articulated those feelings clearly, and did a pretty good job of explaining why I have those feelings. There is no objective argument that it's wrong. If someone's a jerk and decides that's a good excuse to do exactly that, I don't see it's because I expressed myself poorly. Nov 7, 2021 at 22:29
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There is nothing more refreshing than breaking out my minor-keyed harmonica after dinner by a campfire playing a melancholy cowboy melody from yesteryear - communally sharing stories with friends with much laughter and tears. It can get very loud at times. Guilty as charged. I come from a large Hispanic family where if you don't shout you are not heard above the ambient noise of 90dB so there is definitely a cultural component.

More broadly the issue is the same as talking during a movie or church. As passionate hikers we are communing with nature not just walking as on a treadmill. We've made a considerable investment of time and resources and for some, it is a religious experience. Our day-to-day lives are such an abstraction from our natural estate that to reintroduce that which we are trying to escape from can be deeply annoying, at a moral level, which explains the degree of vitriol. In a world of self-centered people that we deal with like that one guy down the hall that loud-talks zoom meetings from his cubicle, we don't expect people that share our 'values' to behave in such a manner and fall into a "No true Scotsman" trap. Even at low volume, it shows a disrespect to many who at some level consider the experience Holy...like turning on a radio ad for a car dealership's weekend Salathon during a Yoga meditation or a Christian prayer. I'd recommend Jonathan Haidt's

The Righteous Mind

which delves deeply into this unfortunate situation hard-wired in our brains. Does that make sense?

0

Many users have provided thoughtful answers to this question. I'm not as elegant and thoughtful so I wanted to provide a decision tree hikers can use when determining if it is okay to play their music out loud on trails.

Decision Tree For Blasting Music On Trails

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