seven expedition game changers

Every now and then a game changing piece of kit comes along that simply makes you question how the hell expeditions survived before its inception. Kit that allows us to go further and for longer, feeling stronger and travelling lighter. Collectively, our expedition leaders have been taking teams into the wild, and beyond comfort zones for decades and this is the kit which allows them to do it.

These aren’t lightweight campfire gimmicks, this is the tried and tested, dependable kit we put to the test time and again on expeditions and the reasons why we continue to use them.

Assembling kit onto rafts on expedition in Gabon

1. MRS Packrafts

There’s no better tool to explore unchartered waters than the humble packraft. While there’s a few on the market, our expeditions are outfitted by the MRS rafts with a range of rafts from sub 1kg light backpacking boats to fully featured whitewater double packrafts. On our Gabon trips we used the 3kg-light, high performance MRS Alligator 2S.  Lightweight and about as versatile as it gets – at home in challenging whitewater or loaded with bikes and backpacks, they’re also extremely packable. Rolled down, they’re small enough to fit in your backpack and weighing in around 2kg, they’re lighter than most two man tents. The ease at which they can be deflated, rolled and stowed, makes them a no-brainer for mixed-activity exploration.

“In a packraft, there are simply no obstacles to your progress that can’t be surmounted,” explains Expedition Leader Paul Taylor, who has led Secret Compass packrafting teams to descend Sierra Leone’s Moa river as well as  world-first packraft descents of Gabon’s DjiDji and Invindo rivers. “If the river is deemed too dangerous, portage around. If it’s a large section of river, put on your walking boots and spend a day on the trail.”

2. Garmin InReach Unit

Absolutely essential for most of our expeditions, Garmin’s handheld two way satellite communications device makes it possible to stay in touch even in the remotest locations. Whether it be confirming location, a change of plans or reporting an injury within the team, the InReach units ensure that in expedition we keep contact with our 24 hour Operations Room. They’re lightweight, hold a great battery life and working on the Iridium satellite constellation, boast unmatched global coverage. The latest and greatest versions have integrated Garmin’s GPS systems for basic navigation and way-marking functionality, making them an essential workhorse in the Secret Compass communications pack and sitting well alongside our other satellite systems such as Satellite Phones and GPS units.

“The InReach units have been a real revolution in making satellite comms easy and fast,” tells Secret Compass Operations Manager Bryony Balen. “You don’t always need an expensive voice call on a satellite phone so the Garmin units come into their own for sending quick updates and pre-set messages. Gone are the days of laboriously typing out letter-by-letter texts, now you can hook a unit up to your mobile phone and type away. Our Operations team appreciate the online mapping tracking which makes it easy to monitor multiple expeditions in some of the world’s far-flung corners and we’re pretty excited about the latest ‘Garmin DeLorme inReach Mini’ device which came out this month.”

This is camp deep in Panama's Darien Gap

3. Hennessy Hammocks

Wild camping will forever be at the heart of adventure. It opens the door for exploration, ensures plans stay open-ended and immerses you in nature. Chances are you’ll be self-supported too so for extended trips, keeping weight minimal is vital.

A self-contained cocoon elevated off the ground, the Hennessy Hammock is designed with all these features in mind. They’re simple, versatile and capable of completely changing how you sleep on expedition, particularly in a jungle environment or where you’d rather be off the ground. As long as there are trees to tie up to, you’re good to go. We use them wherever we can, whether on expedition in the Darien Gap or on our adventure weekends in the Brecon Beacons.

“The Hennessy Hammock is the Land Rover Defender of hammocks,” explains jungle expert and Secret Compass Expedition Leader Rick Morales. “They’re tough, dependable, comfortable, and easy to set up while still being lightweight and able to compress into a small bulk when packed away. They also offer good protection from the elements and from biting or stinging insects, as well as offering good ventilation, which means they’re really well suited for the jungle.”

Lightweight, warm and sustaining, dehydrated meals from Expedition Foods are perfect for mountaineering expeditions

4. Expedition Foods, dehydrated meals

On foot, bike or raft, for extended self-supported missions, nailing your food plan couldn’t be more integral. You’ll be burning a massive amount of calories in desperate need of replacement but with potentially no local food source en route, packing your own sustenance for multiple days can feel a lot like attaching a lead weight to your pack.

That’s where these little beauties come in. With a dry weight of around 150g and capable of packing up to 1000 calories, the calorie to weight ratio won’t weigh you dowb. You’ll just need to add a little hot water and voila – a warm meal filled with all the good stuff to keep you on track (and a handy hot water bottle while it cooks!). And while food in a little orange packet may not have quite the appeal as freshly made food, dehydrated expedition ration packs have come a long way in terms of taste and texture. In our books, made in the UK, Expedition Foods are up there with the best of ’em.

“During long days of trekking, sustaining yourself without over-loading your pack can be a fine balance to strike,” explains Secret Compass Expedition Leader Lachlan Bucknall. “De-hydrated expedition meals are a good weight saving option and taste pretty good too.”

5. MSR Gravity Filter

Another absolute essential is of course hydration. You don’t need us to explain the importance of water but anyone who has spent anytime self-supported will relate to the struggle of carrying sufficient water for multi-day trips. Needless to say, the weight and space it consumes adds up quick, so the ability to top up from a water source confident it won’t make you ill is another game-changer in our minds. MSR’s Gravity Filter is designed with groups in mind, filtering up to a litre of water every 60 seconds and powered by gravity alone – no tiring physical exertions after a long day on the hill here!

“The Gravity Filters are great, basically because once you’ve hooked them up, you can leave them to work while you get on with packing up camp or preparing food,” says Secret Compass founder Tom Bodkin. “They’ll also screw directly into a bottle and can be really easily backflushed, so if need be you can clean them while you’re still out on the hill.”

6. Therm-a-rest NeoAir sleeping mats

The latest and greatest in inflatable sleeping mats are ridiculously small, lightweight and surprisingly comfortable so there’s really no excuse for a bad night’s sleep. About the size of a 500ml sports water bottle, finding space for the Therm-a-rest Neo-Air Xlite in your pack is no longer a concern and with an inflated thickness in excess of 6cm, the lumps and bumps which once kept you up awake are a distant memory. Great for slotting into a bivvy bag, rolling out in your tent or even on the hill for a stolen half hour’s kip or as part of your emergency kit.

“While some people are put off by the crinkly surface of the NeoAir range of sleeping mats, the space and weight they save is well worth the trade-off,” says Secret Compass Content Manager, Chris Hunt. “Replacing an old ProLite with a NeoAir has transformed my pack for overnight missions and actually it blows up to be a fair bit thicker too for a comfortable nights sleep.”

Duffle bags packed and ready to fly to Iraqi Kurdistan for a summit attempt

7. Expedition Duffle Bags

Yes a duffle bag is just a large bag, but a good one is game changing. Capable of protecting its contents with commendable loyalty, unflinchingly taking the scrapes, drops and straight up beatings of expedition, we find the Mountain Equipment duffles easy to pack, well built and strong as you like, making them indispensable for adventure and a bit of kit you’ll value for a long time to come. Oh and they come up to 140ltr, so even the least space conscious packers will find ample space.

“I’ve got one of the Mountain Equipment 100 litre bags which has been my go-to bag for all of my extended trips,” says Secret Compass Community Manager, Rea McGown. “I can fit everything I need in it including a flat packed Osprey Aura rucksack. I’ve given it a beating over the past five years including trips to Kenya, Canada, Greenland and the US and it’s proved really robust and waterproof. They also seem to be constantly on discount with Cotswold Outdoors.”