Do you want the lightest camera that takes the best pictures?
Finding the best hiking camera is like hunting for a unicorn – it’s frustrating.
So keep it simple! I’m going to make this as easy as possible for you:
The best camera for backpacking is your smartphone. Here’s why:
- It’s the lightest solution, since you probably carry it anyway.
- It’s the cheapest solution, since you already own one.
- Finally, you already know how to use it.
Phones have great cameras that are more than adequate for most needs.
Here’s what you’ll find on this page:
You probably didn’t come here to be told about the virtues of cell phones, so let’s talk about real cameras!
I’ll talk about the specific qualities I look for in a camera for hiking and backpacking.
Next I have a few notes on my personal angle in writing this article (Basically this is not a website where “our team” acquires 50 different cameras to test out… it’s just me).
Finally, I list the Top 10 cameras. If you want to cut straight to it without any more of my blabber, I’ve compiled the list into a chart.
Thru-hiking, mountaineering, canyoneering, and whitewater rafting are considered throughout the text.
But first, let’s look at what some of the pros are using!
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 leading photographer and director, 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)
On assignment for National Geographic, photographer and filmmaker Peter McBride backpacked the length of the Grand Canyon. This endeavor over trail-less terrain is no small feat, surpassing the rigors that most of us endure on thru-hikes of the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.
McBride started with a big setup with multiple cameras and lenses, but like most of us on 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 below.
The rest of us: Alex Maier (FIGURE IT OUT ON THE HAYDUKE TRAIL)
Upstart Alex Maier has had an impressive level of success with his 2019 documentary Figure it Out on the Hayduke Trail. Though increasingly popular, the “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 in itself. Not only did Maier complete the trek, but most impressively, he shot loads of presentable footage along the way, focusing on the psychological lessons gleaned from thru-hiking.
What is “best” for hiking?
Different users have different criteria to rank what is best, 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 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
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 weight. It can be frustrating shopping online for hiking cameras, because sources only tend to list the “body only” weight of a camera. 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 generally don’t recommend more than 105mm for backpacking, and I think even that much is pushing the envelope.
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.
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.
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.
What does weather sealed mean?
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 “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 into the control buttons.
To sum it up, think of “weather-sealed” as equivalent to “water-resistant,” but not “water-proof.”
A note about Waterproof, Shockproof, Steamroller-proof, etc.
The best waterproof camera on the market is the Olympus Tough TG-6, though my personal feelings on the camera are “meh.” I had one of these Olympus cameras 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.
You don’t need a truly waterproof camera for backpacking anyway… unless you’re an absolute mindless terror of a destroyer-of-nice-things. On the other hand, if you’re a pro looking to level-up your game for some rugged activities like canyoneering, mountaineering, rafting, etc., be sure to see the bonus #11 item on my list.
While we’re on the subject, the GoPro series of cameras is worthy of your consideration. The latest model is the Hero 8. These cameras are 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.
Cost: What’s a good cheap camera for outdoor photography?
Some great, affordable cameras are on my list for beginners. My top picks in this category are the Nikon D3500($450) and Sony RX100($400). Depending on how serious you plan to get with your photography, it may be worth your while to dive into the Sony mirrorless ecosystem with the a6000 ($650).
If you’re really on a budget, search on Amazon for refurbished and “international” versions of these models.
How and Why 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 ought to mention that my photos have been published in four separate issues of Backpacker Magazine. You can also see my hiking experience on the about page. I suspect that many blogs on this subject are culled from the top results on Google… 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.
You won’t find any Canon cameras on my list. I’ve tried a number of their products over the years and simply have never grown to like them. After using Nikon for so long, the Canon controls feel far from intuitive. The image quality and color rendering never looks quite right to me, either. I bet I could be persuaded differently, but for now that’s where I stand.
TOP 10 CAMERAS
Remember, the 10 cameras detailed below can be seen in one fell swoop on this chart.
I couldn’t resist the urge to put the Sony A7R IV 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 one of two full frame cameras on this list, and boasts a whopping 61 megapixels. It also happens to be one of the heaviest cameras here (2lbs, 6oz with lens).
It’s likely too heavy for your thru-hike, but if photography is a main goal for your day hikes and short backpacking trips then the A7R IV is impossible to beat. If you consider that the images rival the Nikon D850 and that the D850 weighs in at over four pounds, the Sony A7R IIV is certainly like a dream.
In August of 2018 Nikon finally introduced their answer to Sony’s dominance in this category with the Nikon Z7. At about $4,000 you can save some money with this option, but I feel as though Sony has been in the mirrorless game for much longer and Nikon is still catching up.
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.
This bridges the gap between Sony’s a6000 series and its top-of-the-line A7R III. 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 2020 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 A7II is an affordable way to up your game.
PROS: Full Frame power at an exceptional weight and cost.
CONS: Still a little too heavy for thru-hiking.
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 a super light DLSR! 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.
Mirrorless cameras are relentlessly moving to take over. Most of us think that the now-classic DSLR will soon be extinct, but I still like the feel of a larger camera in my hands. I’ll be the first to admit this is an old-fashioned preference.
For full disclosure, I’m currently using a Nikon D5600 as my go-to DSLR. After a lot of wear and tear it was time to replace my D5500, and I opted for the newest model. The vital specs in it are the same 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 D7200) in a lighter, smaller package with more battery power and a very attractive price.
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 a great value
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).
When considered against the a6000 and a6500, 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.
In February of 2019 Sony released the new a6400. This release puzzles me for several reasons:
- There are very few improvements, which are nominal at best. Most notably there’s a rotating touch screen, higher ISO capability, a timelapse option, and bluetooth. Deeper ISO is marginally significant, but the rest is superfluous. Where’s the meat?
- The A-sixty-FIVE-hundred (a6500) was released back in October of 2016. Why are we counting backwards???
- Obviously they want to keep pumping out new models, but since the original a6000 is still such a best-seller, there isn’t much of reason for this.
Fujifilm is a close 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 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 paved the way for Sony to take over the mirrorless camera 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 D5200 is probably for you. Just be aware that the amazing “ease of use” comes with a significant trade-off. At 2 pounds and 10 ounces (with the 18-140 lens) this is the heaviest camera on this list, though you can nominally cut the weight with a shorter lens.
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 an 18-55 lens. The 18-140mm, however, comes here as a bundle with a nice zoom.
PROS: Maximum external controls, good image quality, great battery life, weather-sealed, 4k video
CONS: Too heavy for thru-hiking
This is essentially the same camera as the X-T30… but with a larger more natural grip, faster shutter speed, wider range of bracketing, additional memory card slot, and added weather sealing to the tune of an additional 6 ounces and 600 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 VII). 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 unassuming 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 difficult to fully immerse yourself socially and get candid shots with a big DSLR or mirrorless camera always dangling from your neck.
PROS: Lightweight, Inexpensive, and discreet.
CONS: Everything else.
Bonus #11 Underwater Housing
For general backpacking I do not think a waterproof (or even weather-sealed) camera is necessary, but sometimes you may want to get into something gnarly where it becomes a true priority. Most folks in this situation pick up an Olympus Tough or GoPro camera and call it good.
If you have the extra cash and truly want your photos to stand out in extreme shooting conditions, a waterproof housing is the often-overlooked solution. The good news is that Sea Frogs covers several of the Sony cameras I’ve listed here, like the Alpha 6000 series and RX100 series.
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 your favorite cameras for hiking and backpacking?