I’m guessing this question probably divides the hiking community pretty evenly. About half of the people reading this probably throw in their earbuds as automatically as they lace up their hiking boots, while others wouldn’t dream of doing so.
The question is: Which approach is best? Should you wear earbuds while hiking or not?
We’ll dive into the issue and explain why there is no one-size-fits-all answer below. We’ll start by examining the reasons hikers tend to do one or the other.
Why Do People Wear Earbuds While Hiking?
If we’re starting from a blank slate, it makes sense to start with the reasons people would wear earbuds while hiking, as opposed to the opposite.
There are obviously scores of motivations for wearing earbuds, but a few of the most common include:
- Bringing the juice. Sometimes you just gotta rock while hiking – even if “rocking” for you doesn’t include rock and roll. But music can pump you up. And whether that helps you persevere through difficult miles or get in your steps without dreading it, music makes it easier for many.
- Distraction. If you’re bothered by something going on in ordinary life, or you are trying to keep your mind off the fact that your pack weighs roughly 300 pounds and your legs are jelly, music or spoken word stuff can make it easier to pick ‘em up and put ‘em down.
- Cultivating the right vibe. Many hikers use music as a method of mood control on the trail. And this not only includes those seeking to turn around a bad day, but also those just trying to turn an ordinary hike into a transcendental experience.
- Recreational listening or learning. There are tons of “productive” reasons you may want to listen to music, podcasts or audio books while hiking, but you may also do so because you simply enjoy it.
- Productivity. If you’re one of those folks who’s always trying to maximize your use of time, you may see hiking as an opportunity to listen to things you “need’ to. This may mean doing anything from learning a foreign language to tuning in to a podcast about a subject related to your job.
Some people also wear earbuds while hiking as a way of politely discouraging others from initiating conversations. But some of these folks aren’t even actually listening to anything – they’re just wearing them as a “do not disturb” sign.
And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
Why Don’t People Wear Earbuds While Hiking?
Some people likely refrain from wearing earbuds on the trail because it simply doesn’t occur to them to pop ‘em in. And some people simply don’t enjoy music or other types of auditory entertainment.
But there are also several reasons people may deliberately decide not to wear earbuds while hiking. These include:
- Being accompanied. While we’ll allow that there may be times in which you can listen to music while hiking with others, these are likely somewhat limited. Generally speaking, you’ll won’t want to have your earbuds in while hiking with others.
- Having safety concerns. Likely the most common reason that people forego earbuds is due to self-preservation. And this is an entirely valid reason to avoid doing so. In fact, we’ll touch on some of the dangers you may expose yourself to by wearing earbuds on the trail below.
- Unfamiliarity or a lack of comfort with the area. Even if you’re an experienced hiker without many safety concerns, you may elect to leave the earbuds out if you’re hiking on a new trail. Whether or not there are bona fide safety concerns, you’ll likely just feel better crossing a new trail off your life list without being distracted by music.
- Interest in the sounds of nature. If you simply like the sounds the natural world has to offer, you may better enjoy hiking without earbuds. For that matter, those who hike in pursuit of birds, bugs or frogs may find more of their targets by listening for songs and other audio cues.
The Dangers or Hiking with Earbuds: Safety Concerns
Safety concerns are some of the most prudent reasons that people leave their earbuds at home. And this is completely understandable, as there are myriad dangers lurking on even the tamest trails.
Most of the dangers involved with wearing earbuds revolve around things you may not hear while wearing them, such as:
- Storm sirens. High winds and tornados can pop up suddenly, even on the most picturesque days. Many locations that experience dangerous storms have sirens that’ll sound when dangerous weather threatens, but you may miss them if you’re wearing headphones.
- Harmful wildlife. In many areas, the threat of wildlife on the trail is pretty low, but there are a handful of animals – including large cats, canids and bears – who may see you as a threat or prey. Earbuds will reduce your chances of hearing these kinds of critters and potentially put you in a bad situation. You are also less likely to hear smaller but still important threats, such as buzzing wasps or bees.
- Overhead hazards like breaking branches. Admittedly, the chances of you hearing a breaking branch or plummeting walnut and then moving out of the way quickly enough are probably a bit slim. But those odds decrease to almost zero when wearing earbuds.
- Offroad vehicles. Some trails allow the recreational use of ATVs and most allow park rangers and staff to use them during the course of their duties. In either case, you may not hear these (occasionally fast) vehicles approaching you from behind.
- Joggers or bikers coming from behind. Though joggers and bikers aren’t quite as dangerous as full-blown vehicles, they can still slam into you if you’re lost in your own world, jamming down the trail. In fact, many mixed-use trails discourage the use of earbuds for exactly this reason.
- Other hikers in your party who fall behind or suffer an injury. Setting aside the social acceptability of wearing earbuds while hiking with others (which may be considered impolite by some), doing so means that you are unlikely to hear the shouts of friends or family who fall behind, experience an equipment malfunction or suffer an injury requiring first aid.
- Humans with bad intentions. Unfortunately, you don’t leave the threat of crime behind when you leave civilization and hit the trail. And this means that wearing earbuds can put you at greater risk of being a victim.
Which Approach Is Best? Should You Wear Earbuds While Hiking or Not?
We all hike for different reasons.
Some hit the trail for exercise, while others do it for mental health reasons. Still others do it in pursuit of birds, butterflies or blooms.
Personally, I do it for all of those reasons, as well as the pursuit of the pseudo-zen-like state I enjoy during a good hike.
There’s just something magical about being on the trail while listening to some of your favorite tunes that’s hard to beat.
And while it doesn’t matter why you hike, the reason you do so should influence whether or not you wear earbuds while hiking.
For example, if you’re relatively new to hiking or the great outdoors, it likely makes sense to keep your ears open.
You’ll need as many clues as you can get to keep yourself safe.
But if you’re a seasoned hiker, trekking in an area both familiar and free of significant hazards, you should consider jamming out.
If you want to, anyway.
Ultimately, it comes down to your personal preference and appetite for risk. Just be sure to consider the issue carefully before making a decision.
Five Things You Can Do to Keep Yourself Safe while Wearing Earbuds on the Trail
If you do decide that the benefits of wearing earbuds while hiking outweigh the risks, there are a few things you can do to help keep yourself as safe as possible.
- Looking back frequently. Several of the threats discussed above involve failing to hear things approaching you from behind on the trail. But simply looking back frequently will help to reduce the chances of being run over by a biker or ATV. One of the best places to do so is anytime you complete a long, straight stretch of trail. In these places, you’ll be able to see quite a distance behind you, and therefore see potential hazards much earlier than you would at other times.
- Hike with a dog. Hiking with a dog while wearing earbuds can be a bit of a double-edged sword, depending on a number of factors. Your dog is more likely to notice things like predators or people approaching you from behind, but you must also ensure that nobody slams into you or your dog. But having Fido accompany you is likely a net positive for your safety.
- Wear a single earbud. This certainly reduces the rock-and-roll factor quite a bit, but it will allow you to continue to hear the outside world well and therefore keep you safer. If you’re listening to spoken word content, you may not mind doing so at all.
- Keeping the volume reasonable. Look, I’m as guilty as anyone here – I like to ROCK when I’m listening to music (even if I’m listening to very chill music). But keeping the volume at a non-deafening level will help you continue to hear some things around you.
- Scan the canopy as you’re walking. You won’t always see or notice potential overhead hazards in advance, but by scanning the trees just ahead of you on the trail, you can try to avoid obviously dangerous trees or those laden with heavy fruit.
There you have it – some of the most important things hikers should consider when trying to decide whether or not to wear earbuds while hiking.
But these are just our thoughts, and you may have other ideas to share. We’d love to hear them! Let us know if you hike with a soundtrack or just listen to the birds and breeze. Have you changed your mind over time? Do you bounce back and forth between both approaches?
Sound off in the comments below!