The Hills are Alive with The Sound of Music And I'm Not Happy About It

What do you think of music on the trail? Does this add to or disrupt your experience in the wilderness? Should noise pollution be added to trail etiquette and Leave No Trace teachings? Here's what guidebook author, Craig Romano, has to say.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
January 24, 2017
The Hills are Alive with The Sound of Music And I'm Not Happy About It
by Craig Romano, guidebook author

There’s nothing like that rush of exhilaration you feel upon cresting a high ridge bursting with wildflowers and surrounded by snow-capped craggy peaks. You stand upon your heavenly perch and gaze out with utter astonishment on how breathtakingly beautiful the natural world is; from the glistening glaciers before you to the fluttering butterflies among a carpet of brilliant blossoms below you. With senses completely overloaded, who among us hasn’t felt the urge to twirl amid the lupines and pull a Julie Andrews? 

Yes, the hills are indeed alive with the sound of music these days, but I’m not talking about melodious bird songs, wispy winds, and soothing water music. Nope, I’m talking about jarring hip-hop, profane rap, head-thumping electronic dance music and the ever-present "Millennial Whoop." It’s enough to make a modern-day Julie Andrews want to leave the Austrian Alps for someplace more soothing — like a downtown Vienna boulevard. 

I can’t quite recall the first time I recoiled upon being deep in the backcountry and heard blaring over chattering chickadees, loud music coming out of a hiker’s backpack. Was it an anomaly? Surely it must be some urbanite lost on his way to some rural warehouse rave? 

Nope. I would soon, sadly, see, it was only the beginning. Something I once thought would never be an issue — loud music in the backcountry. Thanks to new technology and its proliferation and a generation that embraces it without limitations, my meditations in the mountains were now under assault. Another case of smartphones and not so smart users.

On one recent hike, a young MC Clueless mountaineer strutted up the Lake Twentytwo trail, blasting noise pollution to the delight of his two, not—too-concerned for others, tagalongs. 

On another, to Tolmie Peak in Mount Rainier National Park, I was in utter disbelief when Mr. and Ms. Selfie blasted electronic noise across the meadows that made the marmots contemplate hibernating early. Two hours later, my ears were violated again. Something being passed as music was coming from the pack of a self-centered, 'I’m too cool to be out here with all of you hikers,' trail runner. After this second serenity-violating occurrence in one of the most sacred places in Washington, in one day, I was incensed. 

WTF, to use the vernacular of this generation, is going on? This is a national park — a shrine for so many of us. Blaring music across these sacred grounds is tantamount to yakking on your phone in a cathedral, temple or mosque. It is disrespectful to the sacredness of the place and a direct assault on the sanctity that we acolytes seek when coming to our outdoor sanctuaries.

Don't get me wrong, I think it’s great that a new generation of Americans are discovering the outdoors. But judging from some of the behavior I've been witnessing lately, it appears that a good number of young, neophyte hikers are clueless at best, and downright selfish at worse. And sorry Millennials if you think I'm being a grouchy judgmental Baby Boomer. But every act of music blaring in the backcountry I've had the displeasure to witness have all come from your generation. 

And I know not every Millenial — the largest generation America has ever seen — is a clueless, boorish backcountry traveler. Many, if not most, are true outdoors stewards and sensitive to others and the natural world. And I am sure there are some Gen Xers and Boomers blasting their Steppenwolf, Foghat and Nirvana somewhere in the backcountry. But, I haven’t heard it yet.

And it's not that I don't like music. To quote one of my favorite 1970s soul groups, the O’Jays: “I love music, any kind of music.” But not when I’m sleeping, meeting the pope, greeting the president, attending a lecture or presentation, sitting in a business meeting, and hiking in the great outdoors. There is a time and a place for everything. 

I’ve seen people justify their musical behavior in hiking forums online. Spouting that everyone should just do their own thing — hike their own hike — mind their own business. Really? They never heard of the notion, "your rights end where mine begin?" I have a right to enjoy the backcountry without it being diminished by their “right” to blast noise all over the place. 

We live in a crowded hurried noisy world. Most people head to the backcountry to temporarily escape it. They are hoping to commune with nature, make a spiritual connection to the planet; cherish the natural beauty around them and perhaps even discover something about themselves. Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Jay Z won’t get us there. They are a pox on our beautiful backcountry that has so many of its own beautiful natural songs that need to be heard. When I’m in the backcountry, I want to hear a swiftly moving river — not Taylor Swift. A bounding deer — not Beyoncé. 

Technology has crept into every aspect of our lives so much that it allows us to bring electronic noise and chaos into the backcountry. How about a little technology self-restraint — or compromise? Wear earbuds and we’ll all get along just fine. It only becomes an issue when you forcibly make me listen to your music when I'm outside to hear birdsong, wind song and my favorite song of all — the sound of silence, and I don’t mean the Simon and Garfunkel anthem.

I truly am a believer in hike your hike. But that doesn’t give someone the right to impose their hike on someone else’s. Loud music by its very nature imposes on others. As a society, we have rules of order and etiquette. It’s how millions of us reasonably get along without killing each other. We have traffic rules, and pedestrian rules, and etiquette rules dealing with waiting in line, going to a performance, and meeting the boss for dinner. Sure we can flaunt these rules if we want to and live any way we damn-well please. But generally, that doesn’t work out so well. The same thing in the backcountry. 

There might not be any laws against blasting music, but we do have a set of principles called Leave No Trace (LNT) that all of us who respect nature and recreate in nature responsibly subscribe to. And the seventh LNT rule is: Be considerate of others. That translates to me and most rational people as turn your music off — or at least wear headphones when heading into the backcountry. And you know what else that means? You’ll probably get a friendly nod or cheerful hello on the trail instead of a stare of discontent, an ill-wished muttering, or worse. 

Turn the phone off and you just might discover some new music you can groove to out there too. Because the hills are indeed alive with the sound of music. With songs they have sung for a thousand years. And none of those songs came from a Bluetooth speaker.  

Craig Romano is an outdoors writer, photographer, and author and co-author of 17 books. His Columbia Highlands Exploring Washington’s Last Frontier was a 2010 Washington Reads book for its contribution to the state’s cultural heritage. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in Skagit County.

This article originally appeared in our spring 2017 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Stephen Bobick
Stephen Bobick says:
Jan 24, 2017 01:13 PM

I have seen this at ski resorts too and it's just as obnoxious

SuJ'n Chon
SuJ'n Chon says:
Jan 24, 2017 10:00 PM

Yes, yes, yes! I've written to the Forest Service asking if there were any plans to add education at trailheads about noise pollution and amplified music (but alas, never received a response).

Liz Koenig
Liz Koenig says:
Jan 25, 2017 09:40 AM

I have been really annoyed by this too. Has anyone come up with an appropriate or polite way to talk to people about this on the trail? I feel like a buzzkill but also think they need to know what effect they are having.

Kim Couri
Kim Couri says:
Feb 01, 2017 12:14 PM

Fantastic article! I agree with your points and enjoyed the comedic angle as well. Thank you for sharing!

Barbara Willey
Barbara Willey says:
Feb 01, 2017 04:15 PM

Why oh why can't they use headphones?