Best Cameras for Hiking and Backpacking
Best Cameras for Hiking and Backpacking
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 up to full-frame digital SLRs. Quality compact cameras for hiking start at 8 ounces. DSLRs with a landscape lens start at around 27 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, a nice option in 2015 is the Olympus TG-3 (8.7 oz.). This camera features a f/2.0 lens, giving it the best low light performance of any rugged camera, along with the Ricoh WG-4, as well as features like GPS and 1080p Full HD Video. You can find better value and performance in the point-and-shoot category below, but the Olympus TG-3 is a feature-packed rugged camera that you won’t have to worry about in the outdoors.
Best Point-and-Shoots for Hiking
For recreational hikers and photographers, a point-and-shoot is a great camera 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.
One of our favorite point-and-shoot cameras for hiking is the Panasonic Lumix LX7 (10.5 oz.). This advanced compact features a Leica lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.4, meaning that it offers exceptional low light performance—perfect for those epic sunrises and sunsets. The Lumix LX7 also shoots fast at up to 11 frames per second and comes equipped with features like Full HD 1080p video and in-camera HDR. Interesting, the price of this camera was hovering around $300 for much of last year but recently rose to nearly $400. We like the LX7 a lot more in the $300 range, so keep an eye out for price drops as the LX8 is rumored to hit the market this summer.
For hikers on a budget, a nice bargain basement option is the Canon PowerShot S110 (6.1 oz.). Canon's S90–S120 models have been very popular over the years, and the S110 will blow your $600 iPhone out of the water in terms of image quality (not to mention it’s much less of a financial liability on an outdoor trip). With a 1/1.7" CMOS image sensor and 24-120mm zoom lens, not to mention a significant price drop from it’s original $300 MSRP, the S110 is a quality pocket camera for the outdoors. For more features, the Canon SX700 HS (9.5 oz.) has a whopping 30x digital zoom and Full 1080p HD video capability, a rarity for a camera in this price range.
The Sony RX100 III (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, and RAW capability, it’s an excellent—albeit pricey—option for hikers. There are, however, two reasons why we don’t have it higher on this list. The first is cost—$800 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). Second, the RX100 III lens has a zoom equivalent of 28-100mm, slightly less wide than the LX7 (24mm). For those looking to save, the older RX100 II and RX100 don’t have features like a pop-up electronic viewfinder or built-in Wi-Fi but are very similar in terms of image quality.
The most intriguing point-and-shoot on the list is lesser known but a terrific option: the Ricoh GR (8.2 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 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 has steadily been priced at $800 but recently dropped in price to below $600 ($200 cheaper than the RX100 III). For hiking and backpacking, we like the features that Sony offers but prefer the huge image sensor on the Ricoh GR. A number of professional landscape photographers carry this camera for hiking and with good reason.
Best Mirrorless Cameras for Hiking
Mirrorless interchangeable-lens 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.
Sony is leading the charge in compact mirrorless cameras, and a good budget option for hikers is the Sony Alpha a5000 (9.5 oz.). This camera has an APS-C image sensor and will far outperform most point-and-shoots, but still is relatively inexpensive and lightweight. A few downsides of staying in this relatively low price range are that the camera doesn’t have a ton of features (no electronic viewfinder, for example), the 16-50mm kit lens isn’t very impressive optically, and you don’t get weather sealing on the camera. Accordingly, at $600 and under we would still opt for the Ricoh GR above for hiking. You’ll need to spend more for quality lenses for the a5000 (the Sigma 19mm f/2.8, for example, is a decent lens) and that brings the total price up to around $600, the same price as the GR. The a5000 has been replaced by the newer Alpha a5100, but for hiking we prefer to save with the older model and have less liability on the trail.
The hiking camera options improve dramatically for those willing to spend over $600, 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 (17.5 oz.) and OM-D E-M5 (15 oz.). The EM-1 is the newest version and one of our favorite mirrorless cameras of 2015. 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 older OM-D EM-5 is cheaper and lighter. Both are excellent cameras and rated as dustproof, splashproof, and freezeproof - ideal for hiking.
In 2014 Fujifilm came to the plate in a big way with the release of the X-T1. Fujifilm cameras are known for the truest color rendition on the market, but many of their older cameras were finicky in terms of firmware and lens options. The X-T1 is the whole package and the camera we often carry on our day-to-day adventures. The X-T1 is weather sealed, offers a number of advanced features, and has a more classic feel than the offerings from brands like Sony. A great option for hiking and the outdoors is the X-T1 kit with the 18-135mm lens, which also is weather resistant (the 18-55mm kit lens is not).
At the high end of the mirrorless camera spectrum is the impressive Sony A7 series of full-frame mirrorless cameras. If you’re looking for professional-grade image quality in a lightweight set-up, these are the cameras that many top pros have in their bag as they hike and shoot outdoors. The new Sony a7 II offers excellent image quality while tipping the scales at just 19.6 ounces, and it costs just below $2,000 with the 24-70mm kit lens. For those who want higher resolution, the Sony a7R has a 36.4-megapixel image sensor. And the Sony a7S is only 12.2 megapixels but shoots 4K video. It’s true that the full-frame lens options from Sony are still limited but the number is increasingly steadily.
Best 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 15 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 EOS Rebel SL1 is one of the smallest and lightest DSLRs ever made, weighing 14.4 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 D5300 (16.9 oz.) and Canon Rebel T5i (20.5 oz.), which offer more features in slightly heavier camera bodies.
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 D7100 (27 oz.) is Nikon’s leading APS-C format camera, and compared to cheaper Nikon DSLRs like the D3300 above, the D7100 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 EOS 70D (26.6 oz.), an outstanding camera in its own right. Compared to the Nikon D7100, Canon 70D has a flip-out screen for video and built-in Wi-Fi, but also a less sophisticated autofocus.
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.
The two top full-frame DSLRs in the world are the Nikon D810 (26.5 oz.) and Canon EOS 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.
Editor’s Note: 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 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.
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