When I first got into hiking, I was torn between whether or not to use headphones. I can’t run or exercise without music and I listen to hours of podcasts daily, but I didn’t want to do “being in nature” wrong. I wouldn’t stay plugged in for the duration of a hike, but a lot of forum commenters talk about any technology usage like it’s poison.
It took several hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail to rid all traces of guilt for enjoying some audio when the mood struck. Time is your most abundant resource on a thru hike, and I learned to give myself permission to fully accept the comfort.
There is no correct way to enjoy nature!
No one would argue against the sensory experience of hiking. One of my favorite times to be alive is during the golden hours of early evening, sounds of life bustling everywhere. I do some of my best thinking amid the soundscape of the woods.
I understand why avoiding technology is an essential element of wilderness time for some people. Sometimes I want to do two things I love at once, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
There are so many perks of headphone time. Music can be exactly the fuel you need for a tough climb. Maybe your ankle hurts and listening to something will help take your mind off the pain. Comedy podcasts have kept my mood afloat through some miserably rainy stretches. It’s rewarding to find new relevance in old favorite songs by consuming them in nature. Sometimes you’re just bored and want a little company in your ear. It happens.
For many, hiking is a chance to “get away” from the rest of the world. AT hikers frequently talked about willfully tuning out politics. It’s a privilege to be able to separate politics from any part of daily life. Parks are managed by government funding and power structures, and I’m trying to be more considerate of indigenous cultures whose land was stolen for my recreational pleasure. Listening to political and historical content outdoors actually gives me a deeper connection to the welfare of the land and its disenfranchised people.
Just be careful not to lose too much awareness of your surroundings, and I don’t mean that in a poetic sense. You need to pay extra attention if the area is known for wildlife, particularly if the trail is sparsely populated. Less life-threatening, you don’t want to logjam hikers behind by you zoning out to music and failing to let them pass.
It’s worth noting that I write all this as a white guy who has come to feel very comfortable alone outdoors. Limiting awareness with headphones in an unfamiliar setting can be anxiety-inducing and I don’t want to minimize anyone’s safety concerns. For some thoughts on solo female hiking, check out this fantastic recent guest post.
A few quick headphone tips. When I’m listening to podcasts or audiobooks, I use only one earbud and turn the volume low. This allows me to enjoy nature sounds and audio in pleasant harmony.
To conserve phone battery, I’ll download whatever I want to listen to beforehand, then hike with my phone in airplane mode on low power settings.
I used a waterproof, touch screen phone pouch on the AT (can’t find the exact online model right now, there are tons of options). Even allowing a headphone cord to run through the zipper closure, my phone stated dry in light to moderate rain.
What are your hiking habits regarding headphones? What content fuels your hikes?
2 thoughts on “Hiking with Headphones”
Jake- I really enjoy your writing, and the places (literal and figurative) that it takes me. You offer some great insight into the long distance hiking experience, and in ways that could be beneficial not only to newbies, but to those of us who have already logged some significant miles, as well. As you were initially, I have been hesitant to plug in headphones while hiking, believing that I would be desecrating the experience of being in nature by doing so… But, one thing I am slowly learning, and appreciating, about long distance hiking, is that it can be a catalyst for personal growth and evolution. I now know many hikers who say, without hesitation, that listening to music (and podcasts) helped them to get through challenging times on the trail… some may call that a crutch, but to that I would now ask “So?” Why would any of us deny ourselves healthy choices that help us on our journey, whether the journey is on the trail or elsewhere? I think of music as being one more dimension of nature… the rhythm of waves crashing on a shore, the song of a hermit thrush echoing in the forest, the soothing cadence of a waterfall that remains constant through all hours of the day and night, the drumbeat of the heart… As a species, we humans have the unique ability to dynamically add to all of this, so I would now argue that listening to music can be as natural as anything else we experience on the trail… But, do all your listening through headphones, so that everyone on the trail can have the experience they choose for themselves. Thanks for encouraging your readers to think about this, and to share their thoughts!
Thank you for the beautifully written response. I hadn’t connected the idea of my music and nature’s rhythms, that’s very cool to think about. I definitely heard a lot of hikers say that listening to audio was a crutch. If so, it’s a crutch that helped me go the whole way without considering stoppping, so that’s a-okay with me!