Music and Audiobooks for Better Hiking on the PCT
I didn’t listen to music or other audio for the first 1200 miles of my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. I chugged along in my own head, listening to nature, having arguments with imaginary people, or playing call-and-response with chickadees and hermit thrushes.
By the time I neared mile 1000, I was starting to go out of my mind with loneliness and exhaustion on big hill climbs. Something needed to change.
I looked around me, saw the majority of other hikers using headphones to listen to music, and decided to make a change. By mile 1200, I had acquired all the tools necessary to plug in and listen all day while I hiked — and boy, am I glad I did.
Particularly when I was hiking solo, audio gave me something to focus on while I walked, and, I’m pretty sure, saved my sanity.
In this post, I’ll talk about why I didn’t start with music on the PCT, why I made the change, what gear set-up I used, and what I listened to (including how to get audio books for free, legally).
Why no music?
I enjoy listening to music at home, but I wouldn’t call myself a dedicated music person. I’d had a long-lasting dislike for wearing headphones — they made me feel claustrophobic. Even when I was training for half marathons in 2006 and 2011, I didn’t use headphones & music to relieve the boredom or provide inspiration.
Given my lack of strong attachment to particular music, I didn’t load any onto my iPhone before starting the trail. Heck, I wasn’t even carrying headphones. My plan had been to keep the phone in my pack for emergencies, and I had no solar panel or battery pack to allow for frequent usage.
For the most part, I didn’t miss music in the beginning of the hike. I occasionally wanted to hear particular songs, but I could do so by YouTubing the videos over wifi in town. I liked having the time alone with my thoughts on the trail, and I loved getting to know the sounds of the forest.
The beauty of solitude only lasted 900 miles or so, though, and I eventually hit a wall.
Making the change to headphones & music
I was sitting on a rock before Sonora Pass one day, working on not crying, when Swig from Weed came up the trail. We’d been leap-frogging since Forester Pass, and would continue to do so until Buck’s Lake, making him one of my most consistent hiking companions in California. It had been a brutal few days out of Tuolumne Meadows, mostly because I had thought the hardest parts of the Sierra were behind me.
(Little did I know, the 3rd & 4th steepest parts of the PCT were descents in that section.)
Swig called out, “Well look at that, a Penguin sunning herself in the Sierra!”
It was so cheerful, and friendly — my spirits were raised completely. We got to talking about how hard the last few days had been, and he told me his trick for combatting the blues: music.
He had a solar panel (a Goal Zero that he wasn’t a big fan of), some earbuds, and a lot of music on his phone. He kept one headphone in, and played music on all the big climbs to keep him going steadily.
I was ripe for something to try, and that’s all it took to convince me.
The set-up: solar panel, battery, Spotify, & earbuds
Once I’d decided on getting music, I went all out. As soon as I got to Lake Tahoe, I set up a paid Spotify account ($10 monthly, or ~$30 for the rest of the hike) and started researching tools to have enough power to listen to music for 10+ hours a day.
I checked out other hikers’ gear, and asked for recommendations. People pretty much either had the Suntactics sCharger-5 USB solar charger, or had complaints, so that was an easy choice. After Loveline lent me his mini external battery to charge my phone at Carson Pass, I decided to copy his entire set-up: the Suntactics panel and the Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh External Battery. During the day he would charge the external battery, then charge his phone off the charged battery at night, and he said that let him have full power daily.
I picked up a pair of cheap earbuds at Staples in South Lake Tahoe, and ordered my panel & battery online, to be shipped to Sierra City.
From Sierra City on, I strapped the solar panel onto the top of my ULA Circuit pack every day, and tucked the external battery into the big mesh pocket. I learned quickly not to leave my phone charging in direct sun (the phone overheats and gives scary warning messages), and adjusted to hooking up the phone to the battery once I made camp, to snuggle in my sleeping bag with me as it charged overnight.
I was very pleased with this set-up, and used it for the entire hike. As I mentioned in my small items gear review, I had some headphones problems in Central Washington, so I ended up replacing those. Next time I would plan ahead and get a slightly nicer set of earbuds that allowed me to change or pause the song without using my phone.
Once I was listening to music, I fell into a natural rhythm of hiking through an entire album, then pausing to drink water and check Guthook. I usually got about 2 miles per album; I would break long enough to cue up the next album, but often no more than that. This decrease in long breaks was a big factor in getting my daily mileage up to the point where I could do 30s.
And it felt pretty damn good to realize I could hike uphill for 45+ minutes without stopping. That’s the power of a marching beat and hiker legs, eh?!
On-trail safety & courtesy
I followed my buddy Swig’s lead, and only ever used one earphone while hiking. This meant I got lower sound quality on all my audio, but I found that a better alternative to not being able to hear what was going on around me.
The PCT is a busy trail, particularly near trailheads and day-hike areas, and I wanted to always be able to hear not only wildlife (don’t wanna miss that bear roaring, or the lack of birds singing), but also people trying to pass me or calling for help on the trail.
I wrapped the other headphone cable around my sternum strap to keep it from tangling in branches.
A few times, I used my phone to broadcast music for a group I was hiking with, the rare times I was around people who would admit to liking Britney Spears (love you, Mozzie and Emu!). I made sure not to do this around day-hikers, and did my best to make sure I didn’t blast the ears of any unwilling victims.
My super tasteful audio selection
I loved what I listened to on the trail — and you might hate it. That’s totally fine, go right ahead.
If you’re curious about what I listened to, here’s the deets:
Music choice on the trail (and everywhere) is a matter of personal taste; I found it a fun process to find out what worked for me.
I did a combination of picking music I already liked, trying out new stuff I was curious about, and getting recommendations from audiophiles in my life. It fell into two basic categories (** indicate music I think is particularly great for hiking):
Upbeat music: for climbing hills, or keeping going when tired — anytime I wanted to march to a fast regular beat
- Britney Spears, Femme Fatale **
- Cher Lloyd, Sorry I’m Late **
- Calvin Harris, 18 Months **
- Chromeo, White Women **
- Ke$ha, Animal **
- Duck Sauce, Quack
- Mika, The Origin of Love
- Muse, Black Holes and Revelations ** and The Resistance
- The Faint, Danse Macabre
- Metric, Fantasies **
- Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
- Katy Perry, Teenage Dream
- New Pornographers, Electric Version
- Ratatat, Ratatat and Classics **
- Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line
- Robyn, Body Talk **
- David Guetta, anything with Rihanna or Sia **
Pretty/Sad music: for easy listening, flat stretches, chill mornings, calm evenings
- a selection from the Nashville (tv show) soundtrack **
- this was ~80% of what I listened to for a couple hundred miles. SO GOOD.
- Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago **
- The National, Boxer ** and High Violet
- Fleetwood Mac, Rumours **
- The Civil Wars, Barton Hollow **
- Gary Allen, Greatest Hits
- Imogen Heap, Speak for Yourself
- Kacey Musgraves, Same Trailer Different Park
- Maggie Rose, Cut to Impress
- Leonard Cohen, The Essential Leonard Cohen **
- The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs
- Of Monsters & Men, My Head is an Animal **
- Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous
- Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend ** and Contra
- Sia, We are Born
- Tegan & Sarah, Heartthrob
Eventually, I wearied of listening to 45 minute chunks of music, and tried out the next most popular audio on the trail: podcasts. I’d never listened to podcasts at home, so I picked up a few recommendations and listened to those:
- Dan Carlin, Hardcore History
- super interesting, super dense, a little goes a long way
- Dan Savage, Savage Lovecast
- the audio counterpart to Dan Savage’s column; if you’re not a reader of the column, uh, be aware that this is quite explicit. sexually.
While I enjoyed these podcasts, particularly Savage Lovecast, I found myself rarely choosing to listen to them. That’s probably because around the same time, I discovered…
Audio books (free!)
I had been checking out e-books from my home public library for the entire duration of the trip, but didn’t make the leap to audio books until I got to Oregon. At that point, I was starting to get a little tired of just music all day, every day, and realized that I could download entire books to listen to.
If you’re not already familiar with your public library’s digital media selection, go educate yourself! Public libraries are wonderful resources for thru-hikers — how else can you get books anytime you have wifi, from anywhere in the world, for free?! Audio books can be quite pricey to purchase (~$40 on Amazon), so it’s not a trivial matter to have access to a wide selection for free.
If you haven’t done so already, you can access these books by getting a library card, downloading the OverDrive app on your phone (iOS, Android, Windows), find your local library in the app and adding it to your phone, and saving your library card number in the app. If you have multiple library cards, you can set up multiple libraries for extra selection.
Once you’ve got the library & card number in your phone, you’re set for the rest of the hike. Each library has different limits on how many books you can have out (mine allow 5-7 at a time per library), but generally it’s enough to get from one town to the next, no problem.
It takes time and bandwidth to download audio files, so it’s best to do so over wifi. If there’s no or poor wifi (*shakes fist at the Snoqualmie Pass motel*), be prepared to incur extra data charges. I found it worth it. YMMV.
Beware downloading errors: One thing you should also know is that it is possible for a file to download incompletely. If this happens, you’ll be listening to a book, days from town, when suddenly it skips forward and you lose whole chapters or sections. It’s like finding the pages ripped out of a book, but hey, at least you’re free to spit out some truly foul expletives ’cause hey, you’re in the wilderness and no one will hear you.
This happened to me twice on the trail, so I recommend you check the size of the downloaded files before leaving town. Each book usually has 10-25 sections, and they should all be approximately the same size, except for perhaps the last one. If any section looks significantly different in size, I recommend deleting it and downloading it again.
I didn’t try out any paid services like Audible, and would love to hear from readers who have experience with those. Worth it? Tell us in the comments.
Here’s what I listened to:
- Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
- excellent book, great narrator, my favorite new fantasy read in years
- Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World
- not the best book, more of a “hey, when else will I read this” choice, but suitably entertaining
- Robert Jordan, The Great Hunt
- … see above
At some point in Washington, I calculated that, if each book were as long as the first one (24 hours of audio) I wouldn’t have time to finish listening to the entire 14 book Wheel of Time series on the trail, even if I listened every minute I was hiking. This made the hike seem shorter, which gave me comfort. As you see above, though, I didn’t even make it through Book 2…
At the end of the day
I loved having audio to listen to on the trail. Between my dance albums, slow sweet music, raunchy podcasts, and alternately stellar and cheesy fantasy novels, I always had something to keep me moving forward and motivated.
While I occasionally missed hearing more of the bird song and nature noises on the trail, in the end, I needed something more to keep going all 2660 miles, and I am very glad that I found that in audio.
Now, in my off-trail life, I find myself listening to entire albums more often than pre-trail. I think having all those hours of focused music appreciation, particularly in nature, really opened me up to listening more actively to tunes, and I’ve found myself enjoying different artists, or familiar artists in new ways.
I’m always happy to get new hiking music recommendations, so if you have any favorite hiking music or other audio, please share it in the comments!