Any thru-hiker will tell you there’s nothing quite like getting out into the wilderness for weeks or months on end, communing with nature and reconnecting to our true selves, but the reality is it’s a time-consuming endeavor. It requires dedication and sacrifice, and is probably going to conflict with at least one other aspect of your life.
For me, that aspect was music. Music is my other passion, and it always used to take a hit when I was on long backpacking trips. Ironically, my creative inspiration seems to peak after I’ve been immersed in nature for a couple weeks, but I never had an instrument to express myself musically in these fleeting moments. Musical instruments don’t exactly adhere to the ultralight backpacking gear list. Or so I thought.
Before I set off to hike the Long Trail, I decided to remedy my predicament, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of options for musical instruments that won’t completely wreck an ultralight base weight.
Ukulele (or Mandolin)
This is Loretta, my backpacking instrument of choice. She’s a pink, plastic ukulele that weighs in at 1lb and set me back all of 50 dollars. She doesn't rust, is completely waterproof and virtually indestructible. Plastic doesn’t fluctuate with the elements as wood does so there’s very little chance of her delaminating or coming apart. I wanted something that could stand up to the typical abuse that I put the rest of my gear through. I often forget she’s strapped to the side of my pack before carelessly tossing it on the ground, and so far she’s stood the durability test. I’ve hauled Loretta on my pack for over 800 miles!
I could have kept Loretta as a ukulele but…I don’t know how to play the Ukulele. I’m a mandolin player by trade. So I ordered the appropriately gauged strings, made a slight modification to the scale length, tuned it to GDAE and voile — I now have an ultralight mandolin to play while I’m on trail!
Perhaps stringed instruments aren’t for you. Maybe you fancy yourself more as a wayfaring cowboy out alone on the range, or a traveling delta blues musician chugging away to the rhythm of a freight train. If either of these sound like the romantic vibe you’re going for, then the harmonica might be the perfect ultralight instrument for you.
Harmonicas are delightfully American, timeless, and I would go as far as to say the most classic traveling instrument there is. It fits conveniently into the back pocket of your Levi’s (or DCF fanny pack) and is nearly indestructible. Its playability may fluctuate a little with the changing weather, but for the most part you don’t have to worry about it. If you are worried, get a cheap harmonica.
Another benefit of the harmonica is how accessible it is to beginners or even non-musicians. It doesn’t take a ton of technique, and every harmonica only contains the notes for the key it’s tuned to; or in other words, it’s impossible to play a “wrong” note. Just start huffing and puffing away on that thing and you’ll be sounding like Dylan in no time!
Another iconic sound of the great American west is the wooden flute. Flutes originate from many different parts of the world, but I’ve always loved the Native American style, especially in nature. Something about the sound is so beautifully visceral. It calms the mind, body, and spirit in a way that no other instrument seems to do. I think it’s perfectly suited for backpacking or being in nature in general.
The Native American flute certainly isn’t the only style of flute for backpacking. Flutes seem to come in an infinite variety of styles and materials. Another interesting one is the pan flute, which consists of multiple pipes cut at different lengths. Each pipe sings a different pitch as you blow across its opening, so there is no fingering involved. The pan flute is definitely more accessible, requiring less skill to play than one with finger holes.
Maybe you’re not a wind or a stringed instrument player, but more of a percussive one. The thumb piano originated from Africa, and is another extremely accessible and fun instrument to play. Like the harmonica, it’s usually tuned to a specific scale, so you can’t really play a “wrong” note. It’s basically a hollow wooden box equipped with metal keys cut to various lengths that you flick with your thumbs. Each key creates a different pitch. Thumb pianos also come in a wide range of sizes so you can choose one that best compliments your base weight.
If you’re a keyboard player, this one's for you. The notes are laid out linearly like a piano, so it should look pretty familiar already and you can find one that is tuned to a western major scale like we’re used to in the states, or something a little more exotic! The thumb piano makes a beautiful, woody sound not unlike a marimba — at a fraction of the weight. After you’re done plunking away on your thumb piano for the night, enjoy the bonus of beating all your friends in thumb wars with your new strong, limber thumbs!
And last but not least (unless you’re talking about weight, in which case it is the least) the jaw harp. Perhaps you’re embarking on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike and none of the instruments I’ve mentioned so far are giving you the authentic Appalachian mojo you’re searching for. Well look no further, my friend.
The jaw harp originated in China and is found in cultural music all around the world, but as an American, the “boing-boing” sound of this instrument harkens back to traditional mountain music resonating from the hollows of Appalachia. You’ve probably heard it either solo or accompanied by a banjo or fiddle.
The harp is played by using your mouth cavity as a sound chamber and flicking a reed on the instrument. You can then change the size of your mouth cavity to affect the pitch. It’s actually a lot easier than it sounds and it makes a super funky authentic Appalachian sound!
BONUS: Ultra-Heavy Standup Bass
Weight: a whole heck of a lot!
We readily admit a standup bass doesn't typically make the ultralight instrument cut, so let's call this one more of a 'challenge' than a suggestion ... tag @garagegrown in a picture or video or you hauling an ultra-heavy instrument down the trail ... and we'll find some swag to throw your way in exchange for the laugh!
Now get out there and make some big music with your new ultralight instrument! Don’t let your passion for music fall by the wayside while you’re out there chasing your passion for the outdoors!
Have you carried any of these ultralight musical instruments on your pack? How about any others that didn't make this list? Leave a comment below!