Do you want the lightest camera that takes the best pictures?
Searching for the best hiking camera is like hunting for a unicorn.
So keep it simple! I’m going to make this as easy as possible for you:
Your smartphone is the best camera for backpacking.
- It’s the lightest solution, since you probably carry it anyway.
- It’s the cheapest solution, since you already own one.
- It’s the quickest solution, since there’s no learning curve.
Phones have great cameras that are more than adequate for most needs, but you probably didn’t come here for the virtues of cell phones…
So let’s talk about real cameras!
Here’s what you’ll find on this page:
First you’ll see my top picks for each category, with notes about the methodology behind these listings.
Next you’ll see the breakdown of the cameras in each category.
Then I show what was used to shoot recent, popular films like Figure it Out on the Hayduke Trail.
Finally, I’ll talk about the specific qualities I look for in a camera for hiking and backpacking, and the angle behind my picks. (Basically this is not a website where “our team” acquires 50 different cameras to test out… it’s just me). Think of it like as more of personal wish-list.
First, the Quick & Dirty List:
What’s “best” in a hiking camera means something different to everyone, so I’ve divided the list into 4 categories. Here’s the categories, with the top pick for each:
BEST FULL FRAME: Sony a7R IV $3,700
BEST SEMI-PRO: Sony Alpha A6600 $1,800
BEST COMPACT: Sony RX100 VII $1,300
BEST BUDGET: GoPro Hero 9 $400 (waterproof + rugged)
BEST PHONE: Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max
I’m a Nikon user at heart and wish they’d win at least one of the categories, but can’t deny that Sony is running the board in 2021.
BEST TRAVEL CAMERA FOR THRU HIKING
The best camera for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, for example, is too subjective. The individual needs of thru-hikers are too diverse – choose what’s best for you from the other sub-categories.
As stated at the beginning of the article, most thru-hikers will be best served by using a cell phone. If you have money to burn for a thru-hiking camera, I’d recommend investing it in an upgrade for your phone, with a focus on the camera and memory features.
BEST TRAVEL CAMERA FOR BEGINNERS
What’s best for beginners is a moot category. Even the high end cameras have some version of an AUTO setting that anyone can use to get started.
What’s best for a beginner entirely depends on the individual’s budget and aspirations.
Overview on Methodology
A full frame camera takes the best pictures, and semi-pro cameras are the next-best.
Waterproof, Compact, and Budget categories are listed for those that take priority in these features. A couple of DSLRs are also listed, but I feel this category is becoming irrelevant for most hikers and backpackers.
The ultimate goal is to get the best quality out of the smallest and lightest package, creating a predisposition to mirrorless cameras. This article tends to focus on a backpacker’s needs, considering the full spectrum of day-hiking to thru-hiking.
Mountaineering, canyoneering, and whitewater rafting are also considered throughout the text.
THE BEST CAMERAS FOR HIKING AND BACKPACKING
Here’s the full break down of cameras. For your convenience I’ve also created a handy chart that you can filter based on weight, cost, etc.
Full Frame Cameras
Full frame cameras are the cream of the crop. This class of camera comes with the largest sensors and the best of everything – the best lenses, the most controls, the widest range of aperture, etc.
In 2021 it’s going to be difficult for a professional to be taken seriously without a full-frame setup. A National Geographic photographer wouldn’t be caught dead without one.
In the past I used DSLR cameras for backpacking, but now I’ve reverted to a cell phone until I can cough up the money for a full frame mirrorless camera. Otherwise, it’s not worth it to me to invest in a more expensive camera.
Sony a7R IV 24-70mm Zeiss lens, $3,700
WEIGHT: 24.5oz body, 38oz w/ 24-70 lens SENSOR: 61mp, full frame BATTERY: 670 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 10fps, ISO 100-32000, 5760k dot viewfinder, tilt screen, image stabilization
The Sony A7R IV is my dream camera. If money were no object, this is the camera I would buy. It’s the very best you can get in a reasonably-sized package, and rivals the best DSLRs out there (like the Nikon D850). Check out the specs – there isn’t much more to be said in this regard.
It does come with a few caveats. First of all, with a weight 2.25 pounds, this is going to be too heavy for 99% of thru hikers. This is a camera for backpackers that do shorter trips and and take their photography very seriously.
In that vein, this could be too much camera. I don’t necessarily mean too much money (yeah, that too), but too much resolution. At a whopping 61 megapixels, your photos are going to take up a lot of hard drive space and you’re going to need an equally impressive amount of RAM in your computer to process the images.
You’ll notice I opted to list the Zeiss lens rather than the higher quality G Master. This is to save weight for the purposes of hiking and backpacking.
Nikon Z7 II NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens, $3,600
WEIGHT: 25oz body, 42oz w/ 24-70 lens SENSOR: 46mp, full frame BATTERY: 420 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 10fps, ISO 64-25600, 3690k dot viewfinder, tilt screen, image stabilization
Nikon and Canon made the best DSLR cameras for decades. After mirrorless cameras were first introduced in 2008, Sony took the lead in developing the technology to the point that their products surpassed the traditional manufacturers.
The Z7II is Nikon’s latest release in the charge to catch up. It looks like a mighty fine camera and is certainly a better option than an equivalent DSLR. At over 2.5 pounds, however, it’s even heavier than the Sony listed above, and again probably too much camera for most backpackers.
Still, Nikon loyalists are rejoicing in this lineup. The earlier version of this is simply the Z7, which weighs in at one ounce lighter.
Sony a7 III 24-70mm Zeiss lens, $2,400
WEIGHT: 23oz body, 38oz w/ 24-70 lens SENSOR: 26mp, full frame BATTERY: 250 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 5fps, ISO 100-40000, 2360k dot viewfinder
The A7 III bridges the gap between Sony’s a6000 series and its top-of-the-line A7R IV. The most attractive quality here is that you get a full frame camera at an exceptional weight and cost.
This is your best bet if you’re looking for a fast track into the realm of pro photography. Of course every pro will tell you it’s not about the camera, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a serious professional using anything less than a full frame setup.
Going full frame is a sign that you’re committed to your work, especially in 2021 with an army of iPhone cameras stomping around the world. A National Geographic photographer wouldn’t be caught dead without a full frame camera, so the A7III is an affordable way to up your game.
AN AWESOME BUDGET OPTION: The old version of this camera (the A7II) sells at $1,600 for an amazing value. Unless you value video, the only major sacrifice here seems to be its lower battery life.
Canon EOS RP RF 24-105mm STM lens, $1,300
WEIGHT: 17oz body, 21oz w/ 24-105 lens SENSOR: 46mp, full frame BATTERY: 420 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 10fps, ISO 64-25600, 3690k dot viewfinder
Readers of the earlier versions of this article will be shocked to find a (gasp!) Canon camera on 2021’s list, but the EOS RP has certainly piqued my curiosity. After years of catching some grief for my preference toward Sony and Nikon, I finally found a good reason to list a Canon camera here.
The reason? It’s the most affordable full-frame mirrorless camera that money can buy (for a new camera, at least). If you’re on a tight budget but still determined to go full-frame, this here is a shining specimen. Personally, however, I’d probably spend a little extra and spring for the Sony A7II.
Remember, with the exception of having some fun and learning the ropes, it’s my opinion that there’s little need to upgrade from a cell phone unless you go full frame.
Semi Pro Cameras
For the purposes of this article, a “semi-pro” camera has a smaller sensor than a full frame camera, but still has a removable lens. For the last few years, this class of camera was most common among hikers and backpackers dedicated to good photography. The Sony a6000, for example, was especially popular for a long time.
It’s my opinion that the quality of some cell phones is beginning to catch up with even this grade of camera. However, I think many photographers will still get better results by using one of these setups, especially when it comes to low-light shooting and a desire for more control over your settings.
Furthermore, these picks get you accustomed to using a “real,” camera, so you’re more prepared when you choose to upgrade.
Sony Alpha A6600 18-135mm lens, $1,800
WEIGHT: 18oz body, 29oz w/ 18-135 lens SENSOR: 24 MP, 23.5mm BATTERY: 810 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 11fps, ISO 100-32000, 2360k dot viewfinder, tilt screen, image stabilization
Released in August of 2019, the Sony a6600 is still the latest and greatest tool in Sony’s a6000 lineup. The series has been a fan favorite of backpackers for nearly a decade, and the a6600 most notably offers an impressive battery life and in-camera image stabilization. You can also conveniently tap the screen to choose your focus point (simple as cell phone).
The 18-135mm lens listed here provides a powerful zoom at a reasonable cost, overshadowing the economical kit lenses I’ve otherwise chosen to list. Before you spring for this camera, however, it’s important to compare it closely with the a6400 (listed below), which uses the same sensor in a smaller and lighter package.
Nikon Z50 16-50mm lens, $1000
WEIGHT: 14oz body, 19oz w/ 16-50 lens SENSOR: 21 MP, 23.5mm BATTERY: 320 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 11fps, ISO 100- 51200, 2360k dot viewfinder, tilt screen
The Nikon Z50 is a fantastic mid-range camera that certainly gives the Sony a6000 series a run for its money. Nikon loyalists will rejoice to experience the brand’s superb color rendering in this tight and affordable package.
I’d personally be temped to pick this up as an affordable means of simply enjoying the experience of backpacking with a real camera again. It looks as though the results would be similar to those I’d grown accustomed to love in the Nikon D5600, my last go-to camera before I simplified my life by downgrading to a cell phone.
Fujifilm X-T30 18-55mm lens, $1,200
WEIGHT: 14oz body, 24oz w/ 16-50 lens SENSOR: 26 MP, 23.5mm BATTERY: 380 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 20fps, ISO 160-12800, 2360k dot viewfinder, tilt screen
Prior to Nikon’s entry in the space, Fujifilm was the closest runner-up to Sony in the mirrorless revolution. Of all the cameras in their lineup, the X-T30 makes the most sense for hikers. This Fuji X-T30 is comparable to the Sony a6500 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, and the look and feel of a film camera. Fuji’s color rendering is known to be the 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.
Sony Alpha A6400 16-50mm lens, $1000
WEIGHT: 14oz body, 18oz w/ 16-50 lens SENSOR: 24 MP, 23.5mm BATTERY: 410 shots MORE: weather-sealed, 4k video, 11fps, ISO 100-32000, 2359k dot viewfinder, tilt screen
The a6400 is probably the best choice for backpackers that have their eye on this lineup from Sony. If I had $1,000 or less to spend on a camera, I think this would be the one. I’d be tempted to go for its competitor from Nikon, the Z50 (above), but this wins for its longer battery life and entrance to the Sony ecosystem (since I’d ultimately want something from the pricy A7R series).
A QUICK COMPARISON OF THE A6000 LINEUP:
The original Sony a6000 is the camera that first blew away the competition in the mirrorless camera revolution. The a6100 is the shiniest and newest comparable camera, featuring a touch screen that rotates, increased battery life, and more.
The older a6400, however, is basically the same camera as the a6100, but with added weather sealing and a sharper viewfinder.
The top of the lineup a6600 adds in-camera image stabilization and impressive battery power, but with more weight.
For those of you that insist on more than a cell phone but still want the smallest and lightest package, here’s a couple options.
Sony RX100 VII $1,300
WEIGHT: 10.5oz ZOOM LENS: 24-200mm SENSOR: 20 MP, 13.2mm BATTERY: 260 shots MORE: 4k video, 20fps, ISO 125-12800, 2360k dot viewfinder, tilt screen, image stabilization
Despite numerous upgrades since the original RX100 in 2012, Sony has only made marginal improvements on the camera. Don’t let that sway you, though, because this mostly falls under old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s only so much you can do to improve a pocket camera in 2021.
Most notable in the latest iteration is an extra 100mm of zoom, coupled with an electronic viewfinder and a rotating touchscreen. Earlier versions of the camera will provide very similar images, however, as the entire series is built around an identical sensor and similar lenses. You may even get better battery life from an older model, like the RX100 III.
Ricoh GR III $880
WEIGHT: 9oz LENS: 28mm prime SENSOR: 24 MP, 23.5mm BATTERY: 260 shots MORE: 4k video, 20fps, ISO 100-102400, image stabilization
The Ricoh GR lineup is most notable for providing the best image sensor to size/weight ration on the market. In other words, this is the lightest camera you can find with a large (23.5 x 15.6 mm) sensor. And as we all know, sensor size is very important. Size matters.
With that said, it has a major drawback – its lack of a zoom lens, with a fixed 28mm equivalent in its place. This can be justified, of course, by the sharp resolution in such a small camera with the ability to crop out your desired frame.
I don’t think a waterproof (or even a weather-sealed) camera is necessary for backpacking. With that said, some environments are especially gnarly – like those found in canyoneering, alpine mountaineering, and whitewater rafting. Most folks in this situation pick up an Olympus Tough or GoPro camera.
If you have the extra cash and truly want your photos to stand out in extreme shooting conditions, a waterproof housing can be an amazing solution. Sea Frogs housings cover many of the Sony cameras I’ve listed throughout this article.
GoPro Hero 9 $400
GoPro cameras have a reputation as being great for those guys that drop out of helicopters onto snowy mountaintops with skis and proceed to do jumps and backflips and such, so most people don’t recognize that they can take great still images, too.
A GoPro is a great budget choice that you won’t have to worry about dropping in a puddle of mud. Best of all, if you ever choose to upgrade to “real” camera, the GoPro will still be there in your toolbox when you get that opportunity to go whitewater rafting down the Grand Canyon. I own one.
Olympus Tough TG-6 $330
The Olympus Tough series is a virtual institution in the realm of waterproof compact cameras. This has long been the best choice for someone wanting something in the shockproof realm with more versatility than a GoPro.
It includes options like the ability to dial up aperture priority, a strong macro mode, and even RAW shooting.
Backpacking Cameras Rated by Budget
Let’s turn the dial to “budget-priority” 🙂
If I had $1,500 to spend, my first choice would be the Sony a6400, a camera which has not been previously mentioned. The 18-135mm lens brings a lot of versatility and dials in the cost at $1,300.
My ultimate goal is to move up to the Sony A7R lineup, so this is a good way to get started in Sony’s ecosystem. Overall this camera packs a lot of power in a small package, and I feel it’s the best deal for me under $1,500.
For under $1,000 I’d still pick up the a6400 mentioned in the more expensive category above, but this time with the 16-50mm kit lens.
The Nikon Z50 is also tempting at this price, but I’d strongly consider the extra weight and bulk of a good DSLR in the Nikon D5600 (a camera I already own). Most hikers, however, will prefer the smaller package of the Z50.
If I had $500 or less to spend on a camera, I’d spend it on GoPro Hero 9. This isn’t exactly a traditional camera, but that’s the point. A GoPro is something that I own in addition to a traditional camera for more rugged purposes like whitewater rafting, but it takes great still images, too.
Your other best options are to pick a bulky but light DSLR like the Nikon D3500 or Canon Rebel T7. I’m partial to the Nikon, which is a great starter camera with a lot of powerful options at a great value.
Another way to go is to pick up a used but venerable Sony a6000 mirrorless camera. Sony claims that it’s the best-selling mirrorless camera of all time, and I believe it. Used versions can be found under $500, and this camera will get you familiar with Sony’s mirrorless ecosystem, reducing the learning curve for future upgrades.
3 Cameras Used in Successful Films
Let’s be honest – if you don’t know a lot about cameras and want to get on the fast track to outstanding outdoor photography, it makes sense to simply copy what the pros are doing.
Best of the best: Jimmy Chin (FREE SOLO)
You’ve probably seen the film Free Solo by now, the sweaty-palmed documentary about the not-of-this-world climber, Alex Honnold.
Jimmy Chin, the director and lead photographer, became a star for his excellent work on the film. Free Solo was shot primarily with a Canon EOS C300 Mark II camcorder (4 pounds, body only, $8,000+). The main lens was a CINE-SERVO 50-1000mm T5.0-8.9 EF.
The smart pro: Peter McBride (INTO THE CANYON)
National Geographic photographer (and filmmaker) Peter McBride backpacked the length of the Grand Canyon. This endeavor on terrain void of trails is no small feat, surpassing the rigors that most of us endure on thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
McBride started out with a big setup that involved multiple cameras and lenses. Like most of us on our thru-hikes, he soon realized his kit was too heavy.
The camera that ultimately saw him through the trip was a Sony A7R II (full frame, mirrorless) with a 16-35mm F4 lens. The latest version of this camera, the A7R IV, is the number one choice on my list.
The rest of us: Alex Maier (FIGURE IT OUT ON THE HAYDUKE TRAIL)
Alex Maier found success with his 2019 documentary Figure it Out on the Hayduke Trail. The Hayduke “trail” is an unmarked, 800-mile route through Utah and Arizona.
Getting from one end of this route to the other is a challenging undertaking. Maier completed the trek and shot loads of presentable footage along the way, focusing on the psychological lessons gleaned from thru-hiking.
What’s best for a hiking camera?
Different users have different criteria to rank best cameras, even among the subset of hiking and travel cameras. 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 some extra weight to get the best possible image quality… within reason.
I tend to look at 6 benchmarks to judge if a camera is good for backpacking:
- Image Quality
- Size & Weight
- Battery Life
- Weather Sealing
1) Image Quality
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.
2) Size & Weight
Weight is 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 (If you want the best camera for landscape photography, look no further).
Lenses play a huge role in determining the final size and weight of your camera. It can be frustrating to shop online for backpacking cameras because most sources focus on the “body only” weight. I’ve done all of the work for you on the chart, where I’ve selected an ideal lens for backpacking and calculated the total weight. 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.
For long-distance wildlife shots, you definitely want more than 55mm of zoom… but longer lenses are going to rapidly increase your weight and bulk. I don’t recommend more than 105mm for backpacking, and I think even that much lens is pushing the envelope in practicality.
Are the controls intuitive? Is it easy to make the camera do what I want? Does it quickly power up, focus, and shut down? Your backpacking partners will get frustrated if you spend too much time fiddling with your camera.
If you’re mountaineering or even just wearing gloves on a cold day, it’s important to have a camera that operates easily. The idea is to eliminate the barriers that stand between the moment you envision your photo and the moment you click the shutter.
4) Battery Life
Thru hikers nowadays tend to carry a power bank for recharging our electronics (namely our phones), so battery life isn’t as significant of a factor as it was in the past. However, it’s still something to be considered in the backcountry for obvious reasons, especially if you’re heading out in cold weather.
5) Weather Sealing
Weather sealing is nice a nice feature, but I’ve hiked without it for so long 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 a “weather sealed” camera has a metal body (Often magnesium alloy) to help protect the interior and keep moisture, sand, and grit from working their way into the control buttons.
To sum it up, think of “weather-sealed” as equivalent to “water-resistant,” but not “water-proof.”
My personal feelings on the Olympus camera are “meh.” I had one fail me on a whitewater rafting trip in winter (a TG-4), and the image quality isn’t to-die-for in the first place.
About Waterproof, Shockproof, Steamroller-proof, etc.
You don’t need a truly waterproof camera for backpacking anyway, unless you’re a terror of a destroyer-of-nice-things.
If you’re a pro looking to level-up your game for some rugged activities like canyoneering, mountaineering, or rafting, then I think the way to go is to get a waterproof housing for a higher quality camera.
GoPro cameras are a great consideration. They’re small, light, and take wonderful still images. Obviously GoPro specializes in video, so it’s even more in your favor if you’re trying to be the next big thing on YouTube.
The cost of your camera is an obvious concern, and a strong factor in my tendency to lean toward smartphones nowadays.
For 2021 I personally feel as though I’ve hit a wall in photography until I can afford a really high-end mirrorless camera, so I’ve reverted to using my phone until then.
How did I choose these cameras?
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.
In case you’re wondering why I’m qualified to write this article, I’ll mention that my photos have been published in 4 separate issues of Backpacker Magazine. You can also see a summary of my hiking experience on the about page.
I suspect that many other blogs on the subject are copycats, culled from the top results on Google. Yeah, that’s a pessimistic view, but I’ve seen at least one site where a writer wasn’t shy about paraphrasing my specific words from this page.
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 doesn’t mean squat if your camera is ultimately going to be stowed away in your backpack.
These cameras are worthless if they’re not worn around your neck at all times while hiking!
I don’t believe in a dedicated case (Like something rigged on your shoulder strap), either. By the time you reach in there and power up your camera, you’ll have lost precious time – those few seconds and extra barriers are more of a deterrent than you’d imagine.
Appreciating the present 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 sporadically?
Again, the “best camera” is probably 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 camera are you using on your hikes?
Let me know in the comments below.