For 2018 it may come as no surprise that my favorite cameras for hiking and backpacking still fall within the Nikon lineup of DSLRs.
Several mirrorless cameras have made it onto the list too. This technology has come a long way, but when you add lenses and consider how all cameras across the board are becoming more lightweight, the pros of having a good DSLR (Like superior battery performance and an optical viewfinder) still seem to outweigh the minimal extra bulk… for now. Eventually I believe that the best cameras for hiking and backpacking will all be mirrorless, but not quite yet.
Different users have different criteria to rank what is “best,” even among the subset of hiking and travel. Weight is of utmost concern for some, whereas others are willing to carry a couple of extra pounds to achieve the very best image quality.
Personally I try to hit the sweet spot of what is manageable – I’m willing to carry a reasonable amount of weight to get best possible image quality.
I tend to look at 5 main criteria to judge if a camera is good for backpacking:
- image quality
- weight and bulk
- battery life
- ease of use
- weather sealing
Image quality is the element that’s the ultimate judge of all good cameras – a mystical blend of sensor size, resolution, color rendition, ISO performance, and handheld vibration reduction. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to fuss with a tripod in the midst of a 1,000-mile backpacking trip.
Weight and bulk are obviously paramount. Backpackers judge everything in terms of ounces, so you won’t see any high-end DSLRs on the list, like the Nikon D850.
Lenses play a huge role. It can be frustrating shopping online for the best hiking cameras because sources only tend to list the “body only” weight of a camera. Here I’ve done all of the work for you in selecting an ideal lens for backpacking and calculating the total weight in the table at the end of the article. I’ve chosen the best all-purposes lenses with weight and bulk in mind. I like to use a zoom lens, but if you can go without one, then you can cut down on some weight and improve image quality by substituting a nice prime lens.
Ease of Use – are the controls intuitive? Is it easy to make the camera do what I want? Does it quickly power up, focus, and shut down? My hiking companions get frustrated if I take too much time fiddling with my camera.
Weather sealing is nice a nice feature, but I’ve gone for so long without it that I don’t rank it especially high among my criteria. “Weather sealed” does not mean waterproof – there is a difference. Waterproof cameras can be fully submerged whereas “weather sealed” usually only has a metal body (Often magnesium alloy) to help protect the interior and keep moisture, sand, and grit from working their way underneath the control buttons.
The best waterproof camera on the market is the Olympus Tough TG-5, though my personal feelings on the camera are “meh.” I had not only one, but two of these Olympus cameras fail me on a whitewater rafting trip in December (My and my girlfriend’s TG-4s), and the image quality isn’t to-die-for in the first place. You don’t need a truly waterproof camera for backpacking anyway… unless you’re an absolute mindless terror of a destroyer-of-nice-things.
Since an article like this is only as good as its source, you may want to check out my post that lists all of the cameras I’ve ever owned. To be honest, I haven’t used many of the “best” cameras I list here. Rather than extensive hands-on use, the majority of these conclusions are based on comments from my peers, hours of research, and years of experience. Think of it as more of a personal wish-list.
Near the end of the article I’ve created a handy table to compare all of the side-by-side specifications. The specs are all factory listings, with the exception of “image quality” and “ease of use.” These are entirely subjective ratings that I’ve assigned on a scale of one through five. For example, “ease of use” relies on the presence of an optical or electronic viewfinder, external controls, and intuitive menus.
Speaking of “ease of use,” you won’t find any CANON cameras on my list. I’ve tried a number of Canons over the years and simply have never grown to like them. Their controls always feel like I’m working “against the grain,” but most importantly, the image quality and color rendering always feels “off.” I bet I could be persuaded differently, but for now that’s where I stand.
I couldn’t resist the urge to put the Sony AR7 III at the top of this list. At over $5000 (Including a lens) this falls more into a “dream camera” category… but it sure is dreamy! This is the best mirrorless camera on the market today – a full frame professional-grade camera that rivals the best DSLRs out there, like the Nikon D850. It’s the only full frame camera on this list, and boasts a whopping 42.4 megapixels… but it also happens to be the heaviest camera here (2lbs, 6oz with lens). It’s certainly too heavy for a thru-hike, but if photography is a main goal for your day hikes and short backpacking trips then the AR7 III is impossible to beat. Plus if you consider that the images rival the Nikon D850 and that the D850 weighs in at over four pounds, the Sony A7R III is certainly like a dream.
PROS: Amazing professional-grade images in a relatively compact package – one of the best cameras that money can buy.
CONS: …lots of money to buy it, too heavy for thru-hiking, and too heavy for most conscientious backpackers – it weighs more than most 1-man tents and sleeping bags.
Even if I had all the money in the world, this would likely still be one of my top choices for a backpacking camera. Why? Because it’s super light! Any backpacker worth his salt knows that ounces count. Besides, I’ve been using Nikons for so long that they’ve become second nature to me. Muscle memory.
For full disclosure, I’m currently using a Nikon D5600. After a lot of wear and tear it was time to replace my D5500, and I opted for the newest model. As far as all the vital specs are concerned, it’s the same camera as the D5500… but I mistakenly believed that the newest model should be inherently “better.” Besides, as such a junkie I couldn’t resist being curious about the latest release.
My conclusion is that for a $100+ price difference (and an ever-so-slightly heavier body), the D5600 isn’t worth the extra cash. Go with the D5500.
PROS: Lightweight (For a DSLR), good image quality, great battery life, optical viewfinder, simple controls
CONS: No weather sealing
This is billed as an “entry level” DSLR (So is the D5500), but don’t let this camera fool you. It shares the same sensor as the rest of the Nikon lineup listed here (including the $1,000+ D7200) in a lighter, smaller package with more battery power and a very attractive price point. This is basically the same camera as the D5500 above, but it lacks some bells and whistles – the D5500 has a fully articulating touch screen, time lapse recording, a higher dynamic range, better low light performance, and more focus points than this D3400.
PROS: More battery life and lighter than the D5500, and an amazing value at under $500
CONS: No weather sealing, more difficult to dig into the menus without a touch screen
The Sony Alpha mirrorless series has a lot of momentum going for it among backpackers, and I think the a6300 hits the sweet spot in the lineup (Other options are the a6000 and a6500, both listed below). Among these options the a6300 has the most battery life and weighs in at a sweet 1lb, 4 ounces with weather sealing and 4k video. It’s the lightest camera listed here that’s weather-sealed. The Nikon DSLRs listed above are heavier, they lack weather sealing and 4k video, and the image quality is similar.
PROS: Lightweight, weather-sealed, good image quality. Good battery life when compared to others of its class.
CONS: Significantly less battery life than a DSLR, and more expensive than comparable DSLRs. Features an electronic viewfinder and zoom lens versus the optical view and mechanical zoom of DSLRs.
Fujifilm is a close runner-up to Sony in the burgeoning mirrorless market. Of all the cameras in their lineup, the X-T20 makes the most sense for hikers. This Fuji X-T20 is comparable to the Sony a6300 (listed above) in almost every way, with the main exception being that the Sony is weather-sealed and this camera is not. I like to say that Fuji is more “hipster friendly” than Sony with better handling, the look and feel of a film camera, and seemingly more fun to use. Fuji’s color rendering is known to be the absolute best for portraits, so this may be the one to go for if you’re a hiker with a young family… or maybe if you’re heading out on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, where the photos of all your newfound friends in all their grimy glory will be paramount.
PROS: Relatively lightweight, fun to use, good image quality, 4k video
CONS: Battery life leaves something to be desired, no weather sealing
The a6000 essentially paved the way for Sony to take over the mirrorless market in hiking and backpacking, and it still reigns as one of the very best choices you can make. If you’re set on going mirrorless but want to keep your costs at a minimum then this is definitely your choice – the value of what you get at this price is unsurpassed in its field. It also happens to be the most lightweight mirrorless camera on this list (16 ounces with kit lens). Need I say more?
PROS: Lightweight, great value, good image quality
CONS: Battery life leaves something to be desired, no weather sealing, no 4k video
If you’re a die-hard DSLR photographer who values the most powerful options to dial-in all of your settings with speed and precision, then the D7200 is probably for you. Just be aware that the amazing “ease of use” comes with a significant trade-off – at 2 pounds and 2 ounces (with the 18-55 lens) this is the second-heaviest camera on this list (Behind the Sony A7R III… and it’s bulkier than the A7R III). I would not want to do a thru-hike with this setup, but it certainly fits the bill for day hikes and short backpacking trips where stunning photography is a primary goal. Ideally you’d want to backpack with only the 18-55 lens… the 70-300mm is a bonus with this kit, and the entire package is a steal at this price. The cost has gone down since the release of the new D7500. The 7500 is slightly lighter but I’d still prefer this 7200 for its higher resolution, higher dynamic range, deeper color depth, and lower cost.
PROS: Maximum external controls, good image quality, great battery life, weather-sealed
CONS: Too heavy for thru-hiking, no 4k video
This is essentially the same camera as the X-T20… but with a slightly longer zoom lens, a larger more natural grip, faster shutter speed, wider range of bracketing, an additional memory card slot, and added weather sealing to the tune of an additional 8 ounces and 900 dollars.
The Sony RX100 is one of the best pocket cameras ever made. With a release date back in 2012 you’d think this little guy would start to show his age, but Sony hasn’t improved very much on the lineup since then (Evidenced in the RX100 V seen below). This is the cheapest and lightest (8 ounces) camera on the list , but don’t be fooled – it still packs a powerful punch with superb images. One of the best things about pocket cameras is how discreet and assuming they may be – an important factor you may want to consider if you do a lot of street photography or plan to spend time overseas. It’s certainly difficult to fully immerse yourself socially and get candid shots with a big DSLR or mirrorless camera dangling from your neck.
PROS: Lightweight, Inexpensive, and DISCREET
CONS: Everything else.
The RX 100 V doesn’t make many strong improvements from its predecessors, with the key exceptions being an added electronic viewfinder and 4k video. The trouble is that an added $550 is quite steep for these features, especially considering this later model is 2 ounces heavier and had less battery life than the original.
The main reason I’ve included it on this is because the RX100 V has an optional underwater housing. Considering the exceptional image quality of the series, this may be the best setup for more extreme activities like whitewater rafting and canyoneering – certainly a step up from the Olympus Tough TG-5.
FINALLY, AN IMPORTANT REMINDER:
The best camera for the job is always the one that you have in your hand! All of these fancy features and hemming and hawing over comparisons don’t mean squat if your camera is ultimately going to be stowed away in your backpack too often.
Life and appreciation of the moment often gets in the way of photography out there in the wilderness, as it should! Bearing this in mind, is it really worth spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a camera that you may only use here and there?
For many hikers, the “best camera” is the one in your smartphone that you likely already own and are much more likely to have accessible when that picture-perfect scene presents itself.
What are your favorite cameras for hiking and backpacking?
|Sony RX100 V||$998||10oz||220||20||13.2x8.8||no||yes||3/5||2/5|
w/ 18-55 lens
w/ 18-55 lens
w/ 18-55 & 70-300
w/ 16-50mm lens
w/ 16-50mm lens
|Sony A7R III|
w/ 24-70mm lens
w/ 16-50mm lens
w/ 18-55mm lens