Hiking and backpacking requires a lightweight and durable camera that captures great images. Depending on your budget, the options abound in categories from compact point-and-shoots and mirrorless cameras to full-frame digital SLRs. Quality point-and-shoots for hiking start at just under 8 ounces. Mirrorless cameras start at around 12 ounces for the camera body while DSLRs start at 13 ounces. It’s not overly difficult to keep your camera protected from the elements with a simple dry bag, but weather-sealed cameras are available both in the “tough” category and on higher-end mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.
Our Take on Rugged Cameras
A number of “tough” or “rugged” cameras are on the market and tout being waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof or crushproof. The piece of mind of not worrying about your camera has value, but these models are expensive and the internal components (the image sensor in particular) are on par with much cheaper point-and-shoots. Rugged cameras are great for activities with serious exposure to the elements such as surfing, rafting, skiing, or rock climbing. For hiking, we prefer to carry a higher-performance, lower-cost camera and protect it inside a small dry sack (or even a Ziploc bag or two).
If you do want a rugged camera for hiking and other outdoor pursuits, a nice option is the Olympus Tough TG-870 (7.8 oz.). The camera has a wide 21-105mm lens for landscape shots and is dustproof, waterproof (down to 50 feet), and can withstand cold temperatures. Weaknesses of the TG-870 are its small image sensor and marginal low light performance, but you can step up to the pricier Olympus Tough TG-4 for a fast f/2.0 lens and improved ISO sensitivity. All in all, you can find better performance and value with the point-and-shoots below, but rugged cameras do afford you the luxury of not having to worry about your gear in the outdoors.
Point-and-Shoots for Hiking
For recreational hikers and photographers, point-and-shoot cameras are great for keeping your pack light and still capturing good images. It’s hard to match the image quality of a mirrorless camera or DSLR (see below), but point-and-shoots continue to advance with larger image sensors, more megapixels, and more features. They also are the lightest and cheapest cameras on the market.
In terms of point-and-shoots for hiking, the conversation starts with Sony’s highly successful RX100 series. The latest version, the Sony RX100 IV (10.3 oz.), is consistently rated on this site and others as one of the best point-and-shoots on the market. With an extra large sensor, a high-quality Carl Zeiss lens, 4K video, and RAW capability, it’s an excellent—albeit pricey—option for hikers. But nearly $950 is a lot to spend for a point-and-shoot, especially for heavy outdoor use (with proper care damage is unlikely but always a possibility). For those looking to save, the original Sony RX100 is a great value. It doesn’t have an electronic viewfinder, 4K video, or built-in Wi-Fi, but is very similar to the RX100 IV in terms of image quality and less than half the price. Keep in mind that the RX100 has a different zoom range at 28-100mm instead of 24-70mm on the IV.
The most intriguing point-and-shoot on the list is lesser known but a terrific option: the Ricoh GR II (7.8 ounces). Most notable is its huge APS-C image sensor, the same size as most DSLRs (veteran photographers know that the sensor is much more important than megapixels in producing great images). This Ricoh GR II has a fixed focal length lens (no zoom) equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm camera, which is ideal for hiking and the outdoors. And the cherry on top: the GR II has steadily been priced at $700 but recently dropped in price to below $600 (about $350 cheaper than the RX100 IV). For hiking and backpacking, we like the features that Sony offers but prefer the huge image sensor on the GR II. A number of professional landscape photographers carry this camera for hiking and with good reason.
We are super excited about the June release of the Nikon DL 18-50 (12.8 oz.). Companies like Sony and Canon have dominated the headlines with their high-end point-and-shoots, but Nikon has come on strong in 2016. The new DL series consists of three premium compact cameras at varying focal lengths and with seriously impressive specs. For outdoor photographers, the DL 18-50 is a dream: it has a true pro-grade wide-angle lens for landscape shots that is equivalent to 18-50mm on a 35mm camera. In addition, you get a fast maximum aperture of f/1.8-2.8 and a Nano Crystal Coat to prevent ghosting and flare. Instead of competitors like the RX100 IV at 24mm and Ricoh GR II at 28mm, the Nikon DL 18-50 goes considerably wider at 18mm and we love that capability.
|Olympus Tough TG-870||$229||7.8 oz.||16||28.5 sq. mm||21-105mm|
|Olympus Tough TG-4||$329||8.7 oz.||16||28.5 sq. mm||25-100mm|
|Sony RX100 IV||$948||10.3 oz.||20.1||116 sq. mm||24-70mm|
|Sony RX100||$428||10.3 oz.||20.1||116 sq. mm||28-100mm|
|Ricoh GR II||$570||7.8 oz.||16.2||366 sq. mm||28mm|
|Nikon DL 18-50||$847||12.8 oz.||20.8||116 sq. mm||18-50mm|
Mirrorless Cameras for Hiking
Mirrorless cameras offer DSLR-like image sensors in compact bodies—they are larger than point-and-shoots but smaller than DSLRs. This is an intriguing option for hikers who want professional-grade photos without the bulk. Many professional landscape photographers we know have made the switch to mirrorless due to the smaller size and lower weight, but keep in mind that the cost of these cameras is similar to a DSLR if not slightly higher.
Sony still is leading the charge in mirrorless camera systems, and our top pick for hikers is the Sony Alpha a6300 (14.8 oz). We know a number of professionals that carry this camera or its predecessor as a lightweight option for serious excursions into the backcountry. Most importantly, the a6300 has an APS-C image sensor that will far outperform a point-and-shoots but the camera is lighter and more compact than a DSLR. It doesn’t have an electronic viewfinder and the 16-50mm kit lens isn’t very impressive (you’ll need to spend more for quality lenses), but the a6300 takes great stills, shoots 4K video, and focuses as well as any mirrorless camera on the market.
With the recent release of the a6300, the older Sony Alpha a6000 is selling at a significant discount. The sacrifices of going with the older model include no weather sealing, which can be very helpful for outdoor photography, no 4K video, and inferior but still good autofocus. If those features don’t merit spending hundreds of dollars more, we recommend grabbing the older version.
The hiking camera options improve dramatically for those willing to spend more, including the addition of weather sealing. For outstanding image quality and protection from the elements, take a serious look at the Olympus OM-D E-M1. The EM-1 is the newest version and one of our favorite mirrorless cameras. Compared to its predecessor, the Olympus OM-D E-M5, the OM-D E-M1 comes with improved autofocus, a larger viewfinder, faster shutter speed, and almost all of the features that made the E-M5 such a hit. For those looking to save, the smaller OM-D EM-5 Mark II is cheaper and lighter. Both are excellent cameras and rated as dustproof, splashproof, and freezeproof - ideal for hiking. Pair them with the 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro (24-80mm equivalent) and you've got yourself a serious outdoor set-up.
A couple of years ago Fujifilm re-invented itself in a big way with the release of the X-T1 (we were one of the first in line to get it). With Fujifilm cameras you get the truest color rendition on the market and the X-T1 is the whole package: it shoots fantastic images, is weather sealed, and has a more classic feel than the offerings from brands like Sony. However, for hiking and backpacking a great option is the Fujifilm X-T10, a trimmed-down version of the X-T1 that weighs just 13.5 ounces for the body. Again, you don’t get weather sealing on the cheaper version but the image quality is very similar, the camera costs a good deal less, and it’s smaller.
At the top end of the mirrorless spectrum is Sony’s impressive a7 series. These sleek full-frame mirrorless cameras offer professional-grade image quality in lightweight set-ups, and many top pros have made the switch for outdoor photography. Leading the pack is the new Sony a7R II, which features a 42.4-megapixel back-illuminated image sensor, 4K video capability, and built-in image stabilization, all while weighing just 22.1 ounces for the camera body. In addition, the weather sealing and ergonomics of the camera have been improved over the older a7R, including a reinforced mount that can handle larger lenses. If money was no issue and you could have one camera for hiking and backpacking, the a7R II would be it. It’s true that the full-frame lens options from Sony are still limited but the number is increasingly steadily.
|Mirrorless Camera||Price||Weight||MP||Sensor Size||Weather Resistance|
|Sony Alpha a6300||$998||14.3 oz.||24.2||366 sq. mm||Yes|
|Sony Alpha a6000||$498||12.2 oz.||24.3||366 sq. mm||No|
|Olympus OM-D E-M1||$899||17.5 oz.||16.3||225 sq. mm||Yes|
|Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II||$999||15 oz.||14.4||225 sq. mm||Yes|
|FujiFilm X-T1||$1,299||15.5 oz.||16.3||366 sq. mm||Yes|
|Fujifilm X-T10||$799||13.5 oz.||16.3||366 sq. mm||No|
|Sony a7R II||$3,198||22.1 oz.||42.4||864 sq. mm||Yes|
Digital SLRs for Hiking
Digital SLRs are the heaviest of all digital cameras, but they also have the best components and widest selection of lenses. For hiking, the lightest DSLRs like the Canon SL1 weigh around 13 ounces for the camera body, while full-frame options like the Nikon D750 weigh 26.5 ounces for the camera body. You definitely are making a sacrifice in choosing a DSLR for hiking in terms of weight and bulk, but it may be worth it for the image quality and use off the trail.
For entry-level DSLRs, both Nikon and Canon recently have released lightweight models that can compete with mirrorless. The 24.2-megapixel Nikon D3300 weighs only 15.4 ounces for the camera body, and the 18-55mm VR II kit lens has been trimmed down by about 20%. From Canon, the Rebel SL1 is one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs ever made, weighing 13.1 ounces without a lens. Neither model is weather sealed, but both offer excellent image quality and easy-to-use functionality from two of the best in the business. A step up from those cameras is the Nikon D5500 (14.8 oz.) and Canon Rebel T6s (19.9 oz.), which offer more in the way of features but cost more too.
In the “prosumer” or enthusiast DSLR category comes weather sealing, an important consideration for those who spend a significant amount of time outdoors. The Nikon D7200 (27 oz.) is Nikon’s leading APS-C format camera, and compared to cheaper Nikon DSLRs like the D3300 above, it shoots faster, has a more advanced autofocus, performs better in low light, and is weather sealed. Canon’s leading APS-C format camera is the 20.2-megapixel Canon 7D Mark II (32.1 oz.), an outstanding camera in its own right. Compared to the Nikon D7200, the 7D Mark II is heavier but boasts the best autofocus and fastest shooting at 10 fps of any crop-frame DSLR.
For those who want image quality to rival the professionals, full-frame DSLRs are the cream of the crop. Designed to appeal to a broader base of consumers, a new class of "budget" full-frame DSLRs has emerged, including the Nikon D750 (26.4 oz.) and Canon EOS 6D (26.8 oz.). Both are weather sealed and offer excellent image quality at a relatively low price point for full-frame cameras. Again, the carrying weight here in heavier than we prefer but these are terrific cameras overall.
Two of the top full-frame cameras in the world are the Nikon D810 (26.5 oz.) and Canon 5D Mark III (33.5 oz.). The Nikon D810 wins in megapixels (36.4 vs. 22.3 on the Mark III), but the difference will not become apparent unless you are making large prints. For hiking, both cameras are very heavy even without lenses or a camera bag, but many who want top-of-the-line image quality are willing to carry the extra weight. We’ve carried these full-frame cameras many times on hikes and backpacking trips but are transitioning to lighter full-frame mirrorless options like the Sony a7R II.
In terms of resolution for still photography, Canon took a huge step forward with the recent release of the Canon 5DS R (29.8 oz.). Most impressive is the 50.6 megapixels of resolution, which surpasses the 5D Mark III by 28.3 megapixels and tops the Nikon D810 by 14.5 megapixels. Video shooters should keep in mind that this camera is designed primarily for still photography without video-centric features like headphone sockets or an HDMI output. It’s also heavy for our taste at nearly 30 ounces, although it’s lighter than the 5D Mark III and Nikon D810. These issues aside, the 5DS R will produce the highest resolution stills of any DSLR on the market.
|Digital SLR||Price||Weight||MP||Sensor Size||Weather Resistance|
|Nikon D3300||$397||15.2 oz.||24.2||366 sq. mm||No|
|Canon Rebel SL1||$499||13.1 oz.||18||328 sq. mm||No|
|Nikon D5500||$697||14.8 oz.||24.2||366 sq. mm||No|
|Canon Rebel T6s||$849||19.9 oz.||24.2||332 sq. mm||No|
|Nikon D7200||$1,047||23.8 oz.||24.2||366 sq. mm||Yes|
|Canon 7D Mark II||$1,499||32.1 oz.||20.2||328 sq. mm||Yes|
|Nikon D810||$2,797||26.5 oz.||36.3||861 sq. mm||Yes|
|Canon 5D Mark III||$2,499||33.5 oz.||22.3||864 sq. mm||Yes|
|Canon 5DS R||$3,599||29.8 oz.||50.6||864 sq. mm||Yes|
Finding the Ideal Focal Length for Hiking
Assuming most hiking photos are of the landscape variety, we think that 18mm to 24mm is the optimal focal length range. Anything wider and you’ll need a big, open expanse and strategic use of foreground (the header photo for this article was shot at 14mm and has both characteristics, but ultra-wide-angle photography has a high degree of difficulty). For most outdoor shots, 18mm, 21mm and 24mm are ideal focal lengths. As you move narrower and you’ll start to lose the dramatic openness that makes landscape shots so appealing.
With all of this in mind, lens selection can be tricky. You’ll notice that many point-and-shoots in this article are 24mm, 25mm or 28mm at the wide end. That can do the trick, but in a perfect world we prefer something like the Nikon DL 18-50 for more wide-angle versatility. When buying lenses for your mirrorless camera or DSLR, make sure to find the 35mm equivalent. For example, Nikon’s standard 18-55mm kit lens is equivalent to 27-82.5mm on a 35mm camera, so you’re pressing its wide-angle capability (not to mention most zoom lenses don’t perform their best at their widest focal length). For more information including matching lenses to specific camera models, see our lens reviews.
More Sage Advice
An old saying in photography is, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” When choosing a camera for hiking, make sure to pick an option that will be accessible. Professional photographers are willing to stop and take the time to take out their DSLR or mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera for a shoot, but having a complicated set-up can equate to fewer photos (and therefore fewer good photos).
Optimally you have a camera like the Ricoh GR II in a side pocket or hip belt, and a more serious DSLR or mirrorless camera in your backpack. That way you don’t miss the fleeting photo opportunities but can unpack the heavy artillery for epic shots or when you’re already stopped. Regardless of your hiking camera choice, make sure to have it accessible enough that you’re using it. The best photos often aren’t anticipated.