Illustration of people outside reacting to music
Am I within my rights to tell them to turn it off? (Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

What’s the Deal with People Blasting Their Speakers in the Backcountry?

Outside’s ethics guru weighs in on the Great Outdoors Music Debate

Illustration of people outside reacting to music

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Dear Sundog: I was backpacking some 12 miles from pavement when I came upon a pair of hikers blasting music from tiny speakers in their packs. Isn’t this illegal? Am I within my rights to tell them to turn it off? —Wilderness Audio Prohibition

Dear WAP: Back in the day, the problem of doofs rocking out in the woods was confined to front-country campsites, and the playlist was Lynyrd Skynyrd. It caused great ire to Sierra Clubbers gazing piously at the Cassiopeia constellation and the ivory-billed woodpecker, and delivered real ecstasy to the longhairs jamming air guitar and pissing on the fire. Now ultralight gadgets and solar chargers and satellites circling the globe allow the kids to broadcast their goddamn Bon Iver and Lil Nas X from the walls of Yosemite to the glaciers of the Kenai.

Sundog agrees with you—it’s annoying. However, the actual legality of what you encountered depends on where you were. In national parks and designated wilderness areas, amplified music is usually illegal, but remoteness renders the laws nearly impossible to enforce. On less regulated trails, there are generally no prohibitions.

Perhaps the problem of people blasting music in the wilds is akin to people getting fall-down drunk at family reunions: they know they probably shouldn’t do it, they do it anyway, it’s annoying to those around them, and despite generations of experience, no suitable mechanism of prevention or enforcement has evolved.

So is it your place to tell people how to behave? It may work to politely ask them to turn it off. There’s a chance they genuinely didn’t know they were bothering anyone. Equally likely, they are proudly defiant. After all, many come to the backcountry in search of more or less the same thing: freedom from the grids of rules and authorities that constitute modern life.

It’s a familiar deadlock: those who follow the rules are irritated by those who either don’t know them or flout them. Maybe instead of tightening your grip on the silence you desire, WAP, it’s time to rethink what you want—and why.

Sundog reflects upon his time trekking across the Himalayas in Nepal. He walked for two weeks without seeing a car, a situation that would certainly be considered wilderness in the United States. And yet he rarely walked more than a few hours without coming upon a village chock-full of all kinds of things prohibited in American wilderness: homes, teahouses, and shops that sold Tuborg beer and Snickers bars. Along the ancient well-traveled trails trekked many young men with a phone in their shirt pocket cranking some traditional Nepalese music or some Bollywood jingle.

It didn’t bother me. Partly as a visitor in another country, I didn’t have the standing to get offended. But the music also provided a certain charming cultural texture.

So why are we outdoorsy types in the U.S. so fixated on a certain definition of wilderness, one that excludes certain emblems of modernity, like amplified music and hot dog stands and bicycles and chainsaws, but allows GPS units, mobile phones, and of course any music listened to on earphones? In certain desert wildernesses, we find the great paradox: high-tech butane cookstoves are allowed, while the most primitive form of cooking—a campfire—is banned.

The emerging pattern is that we ban the items thought to have a detrimental effect on other people, either by making noise or scarring the rocks with ash or forcing them to hear Cardi B (which, by the way, Sundog enjoys in the privacy of his own mobile home). In other words, wilderness designation is not scientific or ecological so much as it is cultural, based on a set of values that humans agreed to protect. These values were articulated by the likes of Thoreau and Muir and then codified by the U.S. Congress in the Wilderness Act of 1964.

But in the years since the law’s passage, wilderness has come to mean, in many minds, the natural order of things, indeed a morally pure and righteous Eden, separate from the corrupt cities with their immoral boom boxes and motorized contraptions. History may find this schism as preposterous as we now find, for example, the Amish insistence that buttons are good but zippers are evil, or that horse-drawn carriages are the work of God while horseless carriages are the devil’s business.

In his landmark essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon called wilderness “profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” More recently, the Blackfeet ethnobotanist Rosalyn LaPier has pointed out that areas called wilderness, thought to be pristine and untouched by humans, were in fact inhabited by Native people for some 30,000 years. Images of “wild” mountains and rivers, she writes, “do not reflect the ‘untamed’ natural world, but instead the exact opposite, places that Indigenous people have managed and cultivated in sustainable ways to continue to be utilized for generations.”

Back to the music: Sundog’s first instinct was to answer your question by inserting his own version of the Luddite Exception. I think it’s fine to make as much nonelectric music as you want in the backcountry: drums, flutes, mandolins, voices raised in song. Whether animals are less bothered by an acoustic performance than an amplified recording of an acoustic performance, I can’t say for sure. But I know that animals have peacefully coexisted with music-making humans for hundreds of thousands of years, and I don’t believe the spike in extinctions in the age of fossil fuels and electricity is caused by didgeridoos.

Nonetheless, I must concede my own hypocrisy here, that my preferences are just that, and not based in higher ethical standards.

So, there is no easy solution for these ruffians encroaching on your desire for solitude. If it riles you to the point of madness, it’s worth looking inward, at what causes you to believe that the only way to connect with nature is aloneness in so-called wilderness. Whose land is it, anyway, and how did you come to believe that an unpeopled landscape exists for your own solitude?

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