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Thin-Fish Expedition Packing

Save Space, Cut Weight by Packing Smarter

Okay, so you're heading out on a long kayaking expedition but you need to cram a lot of gear in your hull. Even if your kayak has oversized hatches and more cargo space than a Winnebago, you don't want to pack any more weight or bulk than necessary. Cutting the fat and increasing the versatility of your equipment will enable you to paddle in style, camp in comfort, and pack up with ease. Don't waste hours of daylight cramming the kitchen sink through your hatches or rummaging through your hull for missing gear. Instead, go "thin-fish" and actually enjoy your next adventure.

So what is "thin-fish" packing? Simple. It's a packing philosophy and a way of life. It's the amphibious kayaker's equivalent to ultralight hiking, but adapted to suit the unique needs and logistics of kayaking. Essentially, it means finding small, light, versatile gear that provides comfort, safety, and convenience without taking up unnecessary space or adding unwanted pounds. Find out how to downsize the core components of your expedition gear by reading further.

The Thin-Fish Criteria

It's important to realize that the thin-fish approach to expedition packing is not the same as the ultralight hiker's obsession with shaving ounces. Where kayaks are concerned, saving weight is not nearly so crucial as saving space. Why? Because kayakers don't actually have to carry the weight except when beaching, launching, or portaging their kayaks. The rest of the time, the kayak does all the heavy-lifting. The more important issue is space, and this is why the thin-fish philosophy emphasizes the packability and versatility of gear above all else. Although the hull of a sea kayak can be quite large, it's still surprising how quickly you can fill it up. To save space, you need to find small, packable equipment that can be used for a variety of purposes, in a variety of conditions.

To simplify matters, the thin-fish philosophy can be summed up in terms of five prioritized factors to be considered before purchasing or packing along any piece of expedition gear. In order of importance, these factors are: packability, versatility, reliability, convenience, and weight. Thus, when deciding between several similar pieces of equipment, priority should be given to the smallest, most versatile, most dependable, simplest, and lightest option—preferably in that order. Let's take a closer look at the benefits of each factor.


Small, packable gear fits in the hull better and leaves more space for food or ease of packing: Why waste hours cramming dry bags into your hull if better planning can make packing and unpacking a snap? Thin-fish equipment stows easily and is easy to access when needed.


Versatile gear can be used for a variety of tasks, enabling you to cut the fat by leaving superfluous items behind: Why carry a tent, a tarp, an exposure bag, a rain poncho, and a visual distress streamer if just one or two carefully-selected items can do the work of all of these?


Reliable gear is less likely to fail you in demandingconditions: There's no benefit to having the lightest shelter on the market if it can't stand up against a stiff breeze or keep out a hard rain. Reliable gear means a safer, more enjoyable expedition with fewer worries.


Convenient gear is more user-friendly, which means you're more likely to use it: Owning the most powerful camp stove on the market won't do you any good if it seems like too much of a hassle to unpack it and set it up. Useful gear should never feel like a chore to use.


The lighter your gear, the more flexible you can be in terms of how heavy you choose to pack your kayak. You can always add weight, but it's hard to reduce weight if you have heavy gear to begin with. If you paddle shallow rivers, light gear will help reduce draft, increase maneuverability, and minimize how often you "bottom out." It will also facilitate easier portages in portage-likely areas. If you need to increase weight for long-distance, open-water travel, you can always add concentrated pounds in the form of smooth stones, greater food stores, or additional creature comforts. Nevertheless, thin-fish packers keep their weight options open by starting out light.

Needs-Based Prioritization: Applying the Philosophy

Thin-fish-worthy equipment strives to strike the best blend of all of these characteristics. Deciding what equipment truly warrants thin-fish approval is one part science, two parts art, and three parts creative thinking. The thin-fish packer starts the thinking process at the needs end of the gear-packing equation ("What needs will I encounter during the expedition?") rather than at the gear end ("What gear is available on the market?"). In other words, you identify the basic needs of any expedition and work backwards to find the gear which can best fill these needs based on the five thin-fish criteria. Confused? No problem. Let me walk you through some of the major expedition needs and my thin-fish solution to each.


Start speaking "ultralight lingo" with Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and the conversation quickly turns to shelters. More specifically, the classic debate over which is better—tarps or tents—is bound to surface. On one hand, tarp advocates cite the astonishing weight and space savings of tarps over tents; on the other hand, tent advocates insist that the creature comforts of a tent—specifically, the floor and the bug netting—are well worth the extra bulk. In truth, they're both right. The ideal shelter would be impervious to rain, wind, bugs, ground moisture, and dirt, yet pack as small as a cantalope and weigh less than 3 pounds. Obviously, few shelters could live up to such rigorous criteria. We won't discuss the subtle nuts and bolts of the gazillion different shelters that are available on the market. (We still haven't even mentioned the controversial jungle hammock option!) Our point is simply that, no matter what shelter you choose, some degree of compromise is inevitable—or is it?

MSR Missing Link

MSR Missing Link

Enter the MSR Missing Link: a shelter that lives up to its name as the "missing link" between the light weight and low bulk of a tarp and the superior livability of a tent. Sized to serve as a cozy two-person shelter, the Missing Link is a pole-less, three-pound, 37 sq. ft., single-wall tent made out of ultralight siliconized ripstop nylon. The whole shelter packs down to about the size of a loaf of bread (small enough to fit inside a 10-liter dry bag) and can be set up with guy-lines, trekking poles, or a two-piece kayak paddle. This makes it ideal for solo paddlers who appreciate a little extra living space with no extra bulk, or for paddling partners who know each other well enough to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder without squirming. Since it is a single-wall tent, the Missing Link does involve a few additional moisture-related hassles than a double-wall tent, but if space is at a premium, you won't find a more packable and versatile fully-enclosed shelter. Read my review of the Missing Link for more information.

MSR Hubba Hubba

MSR Hubba Hubba

If single-wall, tension-dependent shelters are not your cup of tea, another superb thin-fish shelter is the MSR Hubba Hubba: a single-pole, double-wall, ultra-ventilated tent that will provide spacious shelter for one or cozy comfort for two. At 29 sq. ft. and 4 lbs. 6 oz., the Hubba Hubba offers 32% less room and weighs 50% more than the Missing Link; yet the Hubba Hubba is still impressively spacious, light, and packable (barely bulkier than the Missing Link, allowing for pole length). Where it outperforms the Missing Link is in the convenience category: The Hubba Hubba sets up in less than a minute, and its design provides superb headroom at every corner of the tent instead of the steep-sloping walls which typically hinder the livability of tents this light. The tent body is 90% mesh for extreme ventilation, with two doors for convenient entry or exit, and the well-designed rainfly will keep out the weather without cutting off your airflow. As a free-standing shelter, there's no need to worry about finding firm ground to anchor your stakes. Finally, because the Hubba Hubba is a double-wall tent, it involves fewer condensation hassles than single-wall tents, and allows you to pack the rainfly separately (to keep the tent body dry after a storm). For these reasons, the Hubba Hubba has become my tent of choice. Read my review of the MSR Hubba Hubba for more information.

Sleeping Bags

If you don't already own a top-of-the-line sleeping bag, upgrading your bag could be the simplest way to significantly reduce bulk and shave a pound or two off your total gear weight. Obviously, the thin-fish philosophy favors down-filled mummy-style bags because they tend to pack noticeably smaller than even the best synthetic bags. However, the minimal extra bulk of a high-end synthetic mummy bag may be offset by its increased versatility. When down-filled bags get wet, they lose virtually all of their insulating ability. For this reason they must be carefully guarded from moisture of any kind. This means not only storing them in a reliable dry bag, but also taking care not to climb into them wet. A synthetic bag, on the other hand, will continue to insulate relatively well even when damp. In rescue situations, therefore, a synthetic bag may be more useful as a quick remedy for a paddler who is suffering from hypothermia and badly in need of a quick warm-up. More than likely, a hypothermia victim will never need warmth so badly that he or she cannot towel off before climbing into a down bag, but if it's a rainy day and you don't have time to set up a shelter, the superior wet-weather insulating properties of synthetics give them an obvious advantage. In the end, either type of bag (down or synthetic) will get the job done, so we still recommend choosing the more packable bag. For a more thorough discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of down or synthetic bags, read my article Sleeping Bags, Pads, and Liners.

Marmot Arroyo

By thin-fish criteria, the Marmot Arroyo is probably one of the best sleeping bag choices on the market. With fluffy, 800-fill down and an amazingly water-repellant, breathable shell, the Arroyo manages to blend outstanding comfort and warmth with excellent weather-resistance, superb packability, and the best-designed mummy hood on the market. At 1 lb. 8 oz., the lightweight Arroyo stuffs easily into a 10-liter dry bag and takes up less space in the hull than a standard loaf of bread. Some paddlers may even be able to stow it in the extra space between the foot pegs and the front bulkhead to save room in the main hatch compartments. With a full-length zipper the Arroyo can be sufficiently vented to provide greater comfort and breathability on warm nights, but when zipped, it will keep you warm all the way down to freezing temperatures.

Sleeping Pads

A sleeping pad may sound like a luxury rather than a necessity—certainly, a paddler could survive without one—but a good sleeping pad can be worth its weight in gold during a long expedition. Particularly in cool-weather paddling regions, a sleeping pad will do wonders in insulating you from the ground at night. Usually people consider sandy beaches to be warm and inviting, but sleep on a sandy beach on Lake Superior at night (even during Summer) and you'll soon notice the ground sucking the heat right out of you. That's because your body weight flattens out the insulation along the bottom of your bag, leaving nothing to trap heat and keep you warm on your back. A thin layer of closed-cell foam or an inflated mattress makes all the difference in the world because they resist this flattening effect to hold you higher above the chilly earth. This benefit alone makes a packable mattress worth its bulk, but even better, a sleeping pad can provide a soft place to catch a quick recovery nap on an otherwise rocky and inhospitable shoreline. It can also offer you a dry place to sit, cook, and eat on soggy, rain-soaked ground. Even in tropical climates, when the noon-baked sand is hot enough to fry your skin off, a sleeping pad can make for a welcome insulator. This is not to say a sleeping pad is wholly indispensable, but if you want to keep yourself in peak condition during a long trip, few items can offer more well-earned comfort and utility for less weight and bulk than a sleeping pad. For more information on the benefits and utility of a sleeping pad, read my article Sleeping Bags, Pads, and Liners.

ThermaRest ProLite 4

By thin-fish standards, the 1 lb. 1 oz. ThermaRest ProLite 4 (formerly called the Guidelite, but now lighter and more packable) is the ideal choice for a first-rate, low-bulk sleeping pad. At 1.5 inches thick, it is noticeably more comfortable than the 1-inch thick ProLite 3, yet only negligibly bulkier and heavier. Give it a coat of siliconized waterproofing spray to improve its water-repellancy and it's ready to tackle the harshest conditions nature can dish out. A closed-cell foam pad like the Z-Lite might be a bit more convenient for quick-and-dirty applications (such as to provide a quick seat for lunch) because it doesn't need to be inflated; however, no closed-cell pad can match a self-inflating mattress like the ProLite 4 for packability, and the 3/4" thick Z-Lite is less than ideal for cold-weather camping. If you want the best of both worlds, pack the ProLite 4 to use at camp, but stow a small square of closed cell foam (cut from an old mat) in your day-hatch or behind your seat to use as padding whenever you stop for lunch on wet, cold, or rocky ground.


Okay, this is a tough one. Every expedition needs to be supplemented with nutritious meals, and most meals need to be cooked. But deciding what exactly constitutes the "ultimate" stove in the thin-fish philosophy is delicate business. Here, our major concern is packability versus reliability. In warm weather on shorter trips (less than a week), the decision is simple: Get yourself a butane canister stove. For size and convenience, these stoves can't be beat. In cold weather and on longer trips, however, a white gas stove really shines. If the temperature drops to 40 degrees or colder, most butane stoves will sputter, lose efficiency, or refuse to start. But for white gas stoves, colder temperatures are no problem, which gives them a higher reliability rating by thin-fish standards. On short trips, a butane canister stove will be noticeably less bulky than a white gas stove, but as the length of your trip increases, you'll need to carry more canisters of fuel to keep your stove running, and you'll need to hold on to the empty canisters until you can find a proper place to dispose of them. In contrast, white gas stoves permit you to select from different fuel bottle sizes to suit your specific fuel consumption and packing needs. For example, you can buy a single large bottle that fits behind your seat, or you can buy several smaller bottles that can be wedged in the narrow ends of the bow and stern, where few other pieces of gear will fit. For large paddling groups or extended trips (longer than one week), butane stoves generally lose their space-saving advantage over white gas stoves. By thin-fish standards, therefore, it's best to own two stoves: a butane canister stove for most shorter trips, and a white gas stove for long expeditions. Read my article on The One-Burner Kitchen for more information on the differences between canister and white gas stoves.

MSR Pocket Rocket

For shorter expeditions, the famously diminutive MSR Pocket Rocket is an ultra-compact, featherlight butane canister stove with excellent flame control and enough power to boil a liter of water in 3.5 minutes. The simplicity of this stove is its best feature: With few moving parts and durable all-metal construction, there's little chance for anything to break. (There's also no push-button ignition, but ignitions often fail, and serious expeditioners will pack along a reliable lighter regardless.) Keep the stove, a lighter, and one canister of fuel in your day hatch and it will be easily accessible for quick lunch stops. For convenience and packability, what could be easier?

SnowPeak GigaPower WG

For long expeditions, the SnowPeak GigaPower WG (White Gas) is a superb thin-fish stove. Although not the most packable white gas stove on the market, its packability is extremely reasonable and its no-priming-needed design offers superb convenience. This makes it quicker, easier, and tidier to use than other comparable white gas stoves. The heating element is surrounded by a built-in windscreen which enables the stove to perform reliably even in windy conditions, and the wide pot supports offer some of the best support available in a camping stove of this size.

Pot & Fry Pan

Unless you need to cook for more than three people, all you need for just about any meal you can dream up is a small 1-liter pot with a lid that can double as a frying pan. Several models are available on the market in heavy-duty stainless steel, mid-weight aluminum, or ultralight titanium. Since titanium doesn't distribute heat very evenly and stainless steel is the heaviest of the bunch, I recommend the middle road: aluminum pots are light and durable. Almost any butane stove (and most white gas stoves) should fold small enough to fit inside the pot, saving valuable packing space. Since there are so many different kinds of pots available, I won't recommend a particular brand. Any set will do as long as it's versatile (fry pan lid) and compact (6" diameter or less, though large expedition parties may require a larger pot).


Unless you enjoy fumbling in the dark in the middle of the night, every camper needs a dependable light source. There are many superb flashlights and lanterns on the market, but savvy thin-fish expeditioners will want to choose a light that is small, versatile, and convenient. A well-designed LED headlamp will satisfy these criteria far better than even the best flashlight or lantern. Why? Because LED headlamps are small, efficient, light, and durable. They are also extremely convenient, freeing up your hands for other activities (like stirring dinner) while the light is strapped to your head or wrist.

Petzl e+LITE Headlamp

Weighing just 27 grams, the waterproof Petzl e+LITE headlamp is the cleverest LED headlamp to come along in a long time. With its fully adjustable elastic strap, the e+LITE can be strapped to your head, wrist, or a variety of stationary objects. (Because of its design, the elastic strap could also be used to apply pressure to an arm, leg, or head wound.) The light can also be separated from its strap and clipped onto a pocket or the brim of a hat. Its ball-jointed head rotates 360 degrees, allowing you to shine light in any direction, from any angle. Although its two CR 2032 lithium batteries (button cell) may be more difficult to find than AA or AAA batteries, they make the e+LITE impressively small and provide 35 hours of light at Maximum burn (or 45 hours at Economy), which should be more than adequate for a two-week foray into the wilderness. The e+LITE also offers a single red LED (to preserve night vision), as well as two blinking modes (one white, one red). The light includes a 10-year guarantee.

Water Filter/Purifier

For expeditions with access to freshwater lakes or rivers, a reliable water filter or purifier is an absolute necessity. There are plenty of filters on the market, but since most of them are relatively similar in size, the main concern is reliability. I strongly recommend ceramic filters because despite their slower filtration rate, they last much longer than paper filters and (more importantly) they are "field maintainable." This means that if they clog, you can disassemble, clean, and reassemble them to resume filtration. On an expedition, that kind of reliability can be critical.

Water filters which filter down to 0.3 microns are sufficient to filter out anything humans need to worry about except viruses (which can slip through even the smallest mechanical filters). Viruses are rarely a concern if you're far from civilization because most animal viruses pose no threat to humans, and most human viruses are found only in water supplies near populated areas. Nonetheless, if there's even a marginal chance your water supply may be contaminated with viruses, be sure to purify it with chemicals as well. Truth be told, the only "foolproof" way to make water absolutely safe (besides boiling) is to use both mechanical filtration and chemical purification. Why? Because chemical treatments are the only sure way to kill the viruses that can slip through mechanical filters, and mechanical filters are the only way to eliminate those tiny-but-hearty organisms (like tapeworm) which chemicals cannot always kill. Thus, contrary to what some manufacturers claim, no one system is wholly effective unless it involves both a mechanical and a chemical step. Read my article on The One-Burner Kitchen for more information about the types and uses of water filters and purifiers.

So what's the perfect thin-fish "foolproof" purification system? I think the best choices both come from MSR: the MSR MiniWorks EX ceramic filter and the innovative MSR MIOX chemical purifier. Using either system is probably sufficient to keep you healthy in all but the rarest of cases, but in this case the additional weight and bulk are so minor (for the MIOX) that I pack both.

MSR MiniWorks EX Filter

MSR WaterWorks and MIOX

The MSR Miniworks EX uses a long-lasting, easy-to-clean ceramic filtration element with a carbon core that dramatically improves the taste of even the scummiest, most stagnant water. The newer EX version (released in 2003) incorporates a mechanism called the "air spring accumulator" to create pressure to force water through the ceramic core more quickly. The result is a flow rate not much slower than some paper filters: about one liter per minute. Its rugged high-density plastic construction makes it extremely durable, yet lighter in weight than all-metal pumps. It filters down to 0.3 microns, but is also available in a finer, 0.2 micron version as well (called the WaterWorks EX, which is probably overkill).

MSR MIOX Purifier

The MSR MIOX purifier is one of the most innovative chemical purification devices ever devised. In place of a bottle of chemicals (chlorine, iodine, etc.), the slim MIOX is a battery-powered device slightly larger than a fat Crayola marker. The cap of the device holds granules of rock salt, and below the cap is a tiny reservoir for water. Replace the cap, shake the device ten times to mingle the water with the rock salt, push the button (setting the number of liters you wish to purify: 1/2, 1, 2, or 4), and the batteries pass an electrical current through the brine solution to convert it to a purifying "cocktail" which you dump into your water source. The MIOX makes water safe from most contaminants (including viruses) within 30 minutes, except for Cryptosporidium, which can take up to four hours to kill. The only drawback is that the MIOX is not a filter, so unless you can find clear water to purify (or carry along a companion filter like the MiniWorks EX), you will need to sift scummy water through a coffee filter or a piece of fabric to skim out algae or other untasty sediments.

The Thin-Fish Core: How Small is Small?

thin-fish core

So far, I've covered the "core" of the thin-fish system: a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a shelter, a stove, a pot, a light, and a water filter/purifier. Add your food of choice and you have most of your basic needs covered in an incredibly small package. How small? To give you an idea of the amazing space-saving advantages of thin-fish packing, I've laid out my core gear next to my four-pound miniature Chihuahua. (Clockwise from left: MSR Hubba Hubba, Marmot Arroyo sleeping bag, MSR ProLite 4 pad, MSR WaterWorks EX, MIOX purifier, MSR Pocket Rocket stove, Brunton Helios lighter, Petzl e+LITE headlamp, one-liter aluminum pot.)

That's right, even my dog lives up to my thin-fish philosophy! Most paddlers don't consider a tiny dog to be crucial expedition gear, but Missy fits all the criteria: she's small, lightweight, reliable, well-bred, and very versatile. When an emergency strikes, I can send her for help, use her as a flotation device, or convert her into a highly-nutritious meal. I'm kidding of course. Missy doesn't actually join me on my expeditions. I've only placed her in the picture for size-comparison purposes to help you appreciate just how small the "core" of your thin-fish system can be. Keep in mind that Missy weighs 4.5 pounds and stands barely 9 inches tall. So, for about the same bulk as four miniature Chihuahuas (and the weight of only two), you can own a complete camping system! Total weight is approximately 11 pounds, including the redundant water filters and the heavier Hubba Hubba shelter. All you need to add is food, paddling equipment, emergency essentials, and trip-specific extras.

Emergency Essentials: When a Thin Fish Needs to Get Chubby

Despite all of this talk about "downsizing" and "cutting the fat" with the thin-fish packing philosophy, there is one category of equipment for which the five basic thin-fish criteria are re-prioritized in favor of safety. This category of equipment is known as "emergency essentials," and it includes any equipment which could have a direct bearing on your survival or the survival of your paddling companions. In other words, health and safety concerns always take precedence over the thin-fish obsession with minimalism. Thus, any equipment which falls under the category of emergency essentials should be evaluated primarily according to the reliability and versatility criteria of the thin-fish equation. In short, never skimp on safety just to save a little space or cut a few pounds. Be smart and carry the gear every responsible expeditioner should carry. For a thorough overview of what equipment you ought to bring along, read The Kayaker's Lifeline.

Reader Submissions

RoguePaddler reader and contributor Fred Moore has whittled his summer expedition gear down to an impressively small 14-pound package. Here is what he packs (Counter-clockwise from top-left): Clark North American Jungle Hammock shelter; Ozark Trail 40 deg. F sleeping bag; First Need Deluxe water purifier; Energizer 6 LED headlamp; MSR Whisperlight International stove; MSR Alpine 1 liter pot with lid/frying pan; Light My Fire Spork; and a hooded fleece packed inside a yellow 5-liter stuff sack that doubles as a camp pillow.

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