Whether you’re driving across the country to finally hike that classic mountain range that’s been on your mind for years or simply on the way to your local trailhead, perhaps nothing can get you ready for the hike like the perfect song or hiking playlist. And hey, there’s nothing else to really do in the car anyway. On the flipside, it could be argued that nothing is more annoying than getting the latest pop song – that you happened to hear on the radio right before locking the car - stuck in your head for that otherwise perfect week long backpacking trip. Listening to our own music collection is a much safer bet; tune into the radio with caution. Thus I’m sure we’ve all found a few favorite hiking tracks over the years.
If we took hiking out of the equation and made this a pure list with the outdoors aside, this list would without a doubt look a bit different, but hey, this is TrailGroove. Including songs of a newer generation would certainly mix up the list a bit further as well, but this will be a “classic” list of songs that have stood the test of time and that have been around for at least 30+ years or so. Lastly in the criteria department, they also have to be good songs, not just thrown in because they describe the act of walking. (Worthy of a separate post, however!) Thus while I doubt hiking had much to do with the writing of any of the songs on this list, I find them relatable to hiking and to the outdoors. Here’s the list and the why:
Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding, 1967
It’s 2000 miles I’ve roamed
Just to make this dock my home
Now I'm just gonna sit at the dock of a bay
Watching the tide roll away
With very similar themes to Watching the Wheels below, Dock of the Bay, one of the most popular songs of all time on a list of any type, is to me the definition of the search and journey to a better place, returning to a simpler existence, and that finding that satisfaction with the simpler things in life; very similar themes to hiking and the wilderness. I don’t plan many hikes to many bays save for a few exceptions, but the song translates to any locale quite easily. Watching the sunrise from a convenient log on the 5th day of a wilderness backpacking trip with a hot cup of coffee in hand, I can’t help but think of this one.
Watching the Wheels – John Lennon, 1981
I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go
Before launching TrailGroove and what now seems like long ago, I worked in a corporate job staring at a computer all day under fluorescent lights stuck in a cubicle. Other than a walk during lunch, my only respites were weekends and once a year, week or so long backpacking trips…somewhere. Vacation requests elicited a couple predictable responses: “Why would you want to walk that far?” “Can you check your email daily?” Luckily, I found the answer to the age-old question on one of those trips deep into the Wind River Range: If you’re in the middle of the mountains and a corporate emergency takes place, it turns out that no, it actually doesn’t make a noise.
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin, 1971
There's a feeling a get
When I look to the West
And my spirit is crying for leaving
Taking things very literally, unless you're driving the top of Pike's Peak to start your hike, every trip into the mountains starts with a climb. This classic tune from Zeppelin starts with a contemplative tone, but steadily builds to leave you ready to tackle any mountain climb as you wonder just what Jimmy and Robert really meant with this collection of metaphorical lyrics. And it’s not uncommon for that classic and unmistakable intro to play in my mind as I start the climb to the top of one of those ominous, offtrail high mountain passes with peaks shrouded among the clouds.
Band on the Run – Paul McCartney and Wings, 1973
Well the night was falling as the desert world
Began to settle down
In the town they’re searching for us everywhere
But we never will be found
Band on the Run exhibits the need to escape to a simpler existence and the success of subsequently doing so, which are lyrically woven throughout the song. While I’m pretty sure Paul wasn’t talking about hiking here, when you’re stuck in a situation where you can’t hike and this song comes up, the similarities become quite apparent.
Learning to Fly – Pink Floyd, 1987
There's no sensation to compare with this
A state of bliss
While Pink Floyd is undoubtedly one of the best bands of all time...let's be honest...many of their songs aren't exactly uplifting. But David Gilmour was always a bit more positive. Learning to Fly features an upbeat tempo and inspirational and hopeful lyrics. And no matter how long you've been hiking, there's always another journey out there and more to learn with each step. Although this could be stretching the classic prerequisite a bit, the most recent song on this list was released 30 years ago.
A Forest – The Cure, 1980
It’s always the same
I’m running towards nothing
Again and again and again and again
This isn’t the most easy going and comforting song out there, but that’s kind of the point. With a haunting intro and lyrics that begin to tell of a chaotic sequence of events this one always reminds me of backpacking since I watched Cookie and Paul’s CDT video, where it was featured on the soundtrack. If you’ve ever stumbled down an offtrail route after dark on a first trip in unfamiliar terrain, hoping your compass bearing was correct as you pick your way through deadfall by the light of a fading headlamp as rain begins to fall, you know the feeling.
Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles, 1969
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it’s feel like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right
If you’ve ever been on a multi-day hike through cold, wet, and unrelenting weather in the mountains, sleeping bag steadily losing loft and the chill setting in just a bit further each day, I can think of no better song to hum out loud as you brew a hot cup of coffee and the sun begins to finally peek through those grey clouds for the first time in days. A song that’s upbeat, uplifting with seasonal themes, and literally could not contain more positivity can certainly hit the spot most all the time in the wilderness.
Take Me Home, Country Roads – John Denver, 1971
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Rocky Mountain High of course is another contender from John Denver, but from my standpoint Country Roads is a more enjoyable listen. Country Roads offers up a theme of getting off the beaten path and connecting with the natural world, and of course many of us are at home, or find ourselves a second home, out on the trail. Wilderness Trail, Take me Home? Either way this is a great hiking – or driving to the trailhead – song.
A Horse with No Name – America, 1971
The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound
You just have to include this one on the list. No matter where your journey may take you, if you’re on a journey this is your song. Telling a story and with a distinct beginning, middle, and end along with a tempo that matches a quick hiking pace surprisingly well, if you tend to get songs stuck in your head before a trip and are almost to the trailhead to start a multi-day trip, this is never a bad choice to listen to last.
Heart of Gold - Neil Young, 1972
I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
This short and sweet song from Neil Young is sure to play throughout your head on repeat if it's the last song you play in the car before hitting the trail, but that might not be such a bad thing. Invoking themes of searching for our own intangibles, whatever those may be and with a heavy dose of searching and travel themes throughout, this song is great inspiration and a perfect mental soundtrack as you shoulder your pack and hike past that wilderness boundary sign.
Kodachrome – Paul Simon, 1973
I've got a Nikon Camera
I love to take photographs
So mamma, don't take my Kodachrome away
Hiking and photography go hand in hand, and this not so subtly rebellious and powerful, yet uplifting song continually invokes the colors of nature as they might be captured on Kodak's famous Kodachrome film, reminding a hiker of those blissful lackadaisical summer hikes where you can't seem to make any miles as you're forced to stop every few feet to capture a new quintessential summer scene. Hiking at its finest.
Nothing can set the tune of a trip like a great soundtrack on the way to the trailhead, or cement a recent hike in your memory on that necessitated trip to the nearest place with a hot meal and cold beverage once the trip is over. And while I don’t listen to music during a hike, I’ll likely have a song stuck in my mind, and often one of those listed above, out on the trail.