When I’m in the woods for a while, some things that I miss include microwavable meals microwave, instantly clean water, and, the big one, music.
Songs play in my head over and over, and it’s always the ones whose last line I can never remember.
Allergic to technology as I am, it took me actually seeing someone on the trail with headphones to realize how obvious it is to take advantage of portable music and bring it to the outdoors for day hikes or even months-long thru-hikes.
My first thoughts were, I admit, pretty cheeky. They’re missing the whole point, I thought. We go to the woods to get away from the technology, not carry it in our pocket.
And then my friend reminded me how long and *&%$ing boring walking on a trail can be, and I also thought about the gut-pulling way I miss music when I camp.
So, now I’m torn—to bring the headphones, or not to? And does it really matter?
A lot of the arguments I found on the interwebs align with my personal reasons for leaving the headphones at home—leaving behind technology for a less busy experience of the outdoors, as well as the safety factor of being able to hear what’s around you (perhaps a rock falling above the trail, or that rustling in the bushes that could be a marmot but is probably a bear).
A lot of folks on the interwebs agree with me, which is nice, and say things like “Most hikers do go into the wilderness to … have all their senses stimulated by the nature around them, including the natural sounds.”
But as I read the arguments for “my side” of the question, I realized that the way folks were arguing seemed totally off kilter.
Does changing the sound alone really change the aesthetics of the experience that much? For example, folks who are deaf go hiking all the time. Sound is not integral to their experience—so is their experience of the place less “natural”?
The director of Access Northern California commented in an article, “When someone loses vision, or hearing, or use of their legs, they don’t also lose their need or desire to enjoy nature. Nor do their experiences become less rich and rewarding than those of people who have all their senses and limbs.”
The choice to wear headphones and permanent loss or diminishment of hearing are obviously not equitable experiences; but the point is that a whole world of people who experience nature without sound, so we can’t argue sound alone makes or breaks the outdoor experience.
What I think is going on here, as with so many of these types of arguments (bring speakers to the climbing crag or not? Should you pack a Kindle on your next trip?), is a desire to affirm that certain experiences of the outdoors are better than others. The idea that there is a type of experience one “should” have of nature, with no room for flexibility or interpretation.
But that’s not the reality. People’s experience of the outdoors is broad, personal, and diverse. No matter what some of those outdoor forums say, you really can’t do it “right” or “wrong,” unless you’re causing harm to someone or something (I’m looking at you, non-LNT Instagrammers).
It’s true that many folks find benefits in leaving technology behind and aiming for full-on immersion in nature. But perhaps this hiker is working through a personal loss by listening to a song that brings them to a place of serenity; or that runner is about to run as far as they ever have with a little help from “Eye of the Tiger.”
In the end, it’s no one’s job to tell other folks the best way to experience the place they’re in. It’s our job to say “I’m glad you’re here.”