Figuring out the best cameras for hiking can be a confusing process and often comes down to personal choice. However, having the right equipment and skills will enable you to take photos that stand the test of time and help you remember your trips.
You don’t need to go out and spend thousands of dollars on a camera to take great hiking photos. With the tips and recommendations below, you can capture great shots with your smartphone. Or, if you’re looking to upgrade then I’ll help you select a camera that suits your hiking needs.
I’ll cover three major camera types, breaking down the pros and cons of each and giving you my top recommendations. I’ll also cover tripods and accessories and then give you some tips for great hiking photos and videos.
- Smartphone Cameras
- Compact Cameras
- Full Frame Cameras
- What about Gopro?
- Tripods and Accessories
- Photography and Video Tips for Great Hiking Photos and Epic Video
Smartphone Camera Photography
If you want great hiking photos without spending a lot of money, I recommend using your smartphone camera. This also avoids carrying the extra weight of a dedicated camera.
Does that mean that a smartphone is the best camera for hiking? Not necessarily.
Pro’s of Smartphone Cameras
- Lightweight and you’re probably carrying one when you’re hiking
- Simple and easy to use without any real photography knowledge
- You already own one so don’t need to spend more money
Con’s of Smartphone Cameras
- Smartphone cameras can’t yet compete with dedicated cameras
Taken on a Smartphone by @vilaplanet
For ultralight backpacking or thru-hiking, a smartphone camera is hard to beat.
You don’t have to carry any extra weight or make expensive purchases. But you don’t have the same level of control as a dedicated camera. You can gain some control back with third-party photography apps. These let you change aperture, shutter speed, etc.
And, by applying some of the tips at the end of this post you’ll be able to capture great hiking photos.
The Best Smartphone Cameras for Hiking
Apple Option – iPhone XS
Weight – 6.24 Oz
The iPhone XS takes amazing still images. It also has the ability to shoot 4K video footage at 60fps (something no other current phone can do).
The rear has two cameras, one for wide-angle shots and the other is a telephoto or “zoom” lens. An update to the camera sensor means improved low light images over previous models.
The price is high but hey it’s Apple
(Interpret that however, you want)
Android Option – Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus
Weight – 5.5 Oz
It can’t compete with the iPhone XS for video (it’s still great), but the S10 Plus has the most advanced photo capabilities of any smartphone.
It has three rear-facing cameras. One with a variable aperture, one telephoto lens, and an ultra-wide lens. Great for groupies on the tops of mountains.
This trio of lenses gives the S10 versatility to shoot in all conditions and produce great results.
Compact Camera Photography
So you want to step up your photography game?
If you’re willing to carry some extra weight and spend some money, then a compact camera may be best for you. I’m grouping together point and shoot cameras, APS-C cameras and any cameras that don’t have a full-frame sensor.
To massively simplify things, a point and shoot camera has a non-interchangeable lens that zooms in and out electronically. They are the easiest to use, the lightest and the most compact.
APS-C and Micro Four Third cameras have functionality similar to DSLRs and full-frame sensor mirrorless cameras, including interchangeable lenses. The sensor size is smaller than a full-frame camera. This means they are lighter and smaller but image quality and low light performance isnt quite as good.
Sony RX100 – One of the Best Compact Camera’s for Hiking
Pro’s of Compact Cameras
- The ability to take full control over all aspects of the camera AKA great hiking photos
- Lightweight and compact, compared to full-frame cameras
Con’s of Compact Cameras
- Smaller sensor size doesn’t capture as much light and “information” as a full-frame camera
There is a learning curve to using these cameras and getting the most out of them.
But, stepping up to one of the cameras below will improve your trail photography. They are also a great entry point for beginners.
Best Compact Cameras for Hiking
Sony RX100 V
Weight – 9.6 Oz
The 20.1-megapixel sensor of the RX100 V makes for great image quality and some of the best video capability in its class.
The lens has a focal range of 24-70mm with a fast variable aperture of F1.8-2.8.
It has a pop-up viewfinder making composing images much easier. It also has a built-in ND filter to block out unwanted light in bright situations. Its small size means it easily fits in a hip-belt pocket. If you want more reach from a camera the RX100 VI zooms all the way out to 200mm, albeit with fewer features
My fiancee has owned an RX100 for years and loves it.
Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II
Weight – 13.8 Oz
If you’re willing to carry something bulkier and heavier for added features, the Olympus is a great option.
It’s one of the lightest and most compact cameras in its category and has excellent autofocus and image quality.
The real game-changer here though is interchangeable lenses. It works with over 70 lenses in the micro four-thirds lineup.
Oh, and it’s cheaper than the RX100 5 listed above.
Full Frame Camera Photography
If you’re willing to shell out some cash and carry a heavy camera (like me), then a full-frame mirrorless camera may be right for you.
They have unmatched image quality for great hiking photos and shoot professional-level video.
Traditional DSLR’s are amazing but are too bulky and heavier for hiking.
Pro’s of Full Frame Cameras
- The best image and video quality
- Full frame sensor captures a lot of light and more “information” than smaller sensor cameras
Con’s of Full Frame Cameras
- They are not light and they are not cheap!
Ultralight backpacking is a passion of mine and there are many articles on this site to lower the weight of you’re pack.
Yet, camera gear is one area that I go heavy on. I try to minimize my pack weight in other ways to be able to carry the camera gear I want to have with me.
Photography and videography is a passion of mine and one of the ways I earn a living. If you just want to take great shots for friends and family then a smartphone or a compact camera may be better for you.
A full-frame camera will take it to the next level though.
Taken on the Sony A7R2 by Yours Truly
Sony A7 Series – The Best Full Frame Cameras for Hiking?
Sony revolutionized the market when they released their “a series” cameras. They offer similar capabilities to DSLR’s (and some features DSLR’s don’t have), in a lighter, less bulky package. Making them great for lightweight hiking trips.
It’s in the name, mirrorless cameras don’t have the same weight and bulk of a DSLR because they don’t use a mirror.
They do however have full-frame sensors. With Sony’s sensors being not notoriously capable in low light situations.
There are several models to choose from in the line depending on your budget and what you’re priorities are.
My Current Camera – The Sony A7R2
The Best Sony Mirrorless Camera for Photos
Weight – 23.2 Oz
The Sony A7RIV was released in mid-2019 as a follow up to the A7Riii
The A7RIV has a 61-megapixel sensor compared to its predecessors 42-megapixels. It has a lightweight body (compared to a DSLR) and access to an ever-growing collection of lenses.
The Sony A7RIV has improved autofocus capabilities, battery life, and dynamic range. It has two memory card slots, touchscreen capabilities, and great ergonomics.
My primary camera is the A7Rii and its image quality and capabilities have changed the way I look at photography and video. It’s almost 5 years old now though and the extra features of the A7RIV have me feeling a little jealous.
The Best Sony Mirrorless Camera for Video
Sony A7S ii
Weight – 22.1 Oz
The A7RIV above shoots high-quality video but the A7Sii is one of the best cameras for hiking if your primary focus is video.
The A7Sii has a sensor with 12 megapixels which helps its video performance in low light. The ISO of the A7Sii can be pushed much higher and maintain better video results and makes it an extremely popular camera for those that focus on video.
The A7Sii is long overdue an upgrade and hopefully, spring/summer 2020 will see the release of the A7SIV.
A Word on Lenses
If you’re considering a full-frame camera (or any camera with interchangeable lenses), the lens choice is a critical factor. It’s one of the best reasons for choosing that type of camera.
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into too much depth on lens choice.
That said, I own several different lenses, but for hiking, I usually carry a zoom lens that covers a wide focal range. Specifically the Sony E mount 24mm-105mm F4.
This lens produces beautiful images and is very versatile. It’s bulky, it’s heavy but it’s better than carrying multiple lenses in my opinion.
If you have a smaller sensor camera, then carrying a couple of different lenses becomes a lot more viable. These lenses weigh much less.
What about Gopro?
I own a GoPro and I love it for Scuba Diving or other water-based adventures. Rarely do I bring it on a hiking trip though.
I’ll usually bring just one camera and so want it to be a versatile camera that lets me take full control over the settings and the results I get.
GoPro cameras are great for wet adventures or when you want something small, light and easy to use. I just prefer to have more control over my results.
Mini Tripods and Accessories
So now we’ve looked at some of the best cameras for hiking it’s time to look at some accessories.
I won’t talk about essential accessories such as spare batteries, charging cables and SD cards. All I’ll say Is buy high-quality SD cards and plenty of them. For most people using the camera on their phone or a compact camera, it’s not necessary to carry any accessories. This will just add more weight to your pack.
Many people, myself included carry a few select accessories to help capture great photos and videos on the trail.
The Best Mini Tripod
I don’t advise carrying a full-size tripod for hiking unless you absolutely need one. Or you’re going on a shorter trip and can handle the extra weight.
With the long trails I’m usually hiking I compromise and carry a mini tripod. It helps me with low light photography and stable video.
There are two options I recommend.
Manfrotto Pixi Mini Tripod
Weight – 6.7 Oz
This mini tripod from Manfrotto is a solid little guy that provides a stable base for my camera to shoot video or night photography. It also doubles as a selfie stick/handle for more stable handheld shots.
It’s heavier than the Ultrapod below but the ball head and the locking push button make it quicker and easier to work with.
Using it with my camera setup (see the video at the bottom of the post) is pushing it’s weight limits. I have to be careful when positioning the tripod to ensure it’s stable.
Pedco Ultrapod 2
Weight – 4 Oz
The Ultrapod 2 is the lightest mini tripod on the market. It has a really well thought out design that makes for a lightweight tripod that can support a heavy camera.
In testing, I found it harder to work with than the Manfrotto. You have to screw and unscrew the locking mechanism when adjusting the position.
This won’t be an issue for most people when shooting photography. However, I’m shooting a lot of video on the trail and need a system that works quickly so I can capture the shot before it’s gone.
If you’re dead set on carrying a full-size tripod on the trail check out the Mefoto Backpacker Air. It’s one of the lightest options available and has great reviews.
Safely Carrying your Camera Whilst Hiking
Leaving your camera inside the main compartment of your bag is not an option as you won’t dig it out to shoot photos.
If you’re using a phone or a point and shoot camera, you can put it in a hip belt or shoulder strap pocket of your backpack.
For larger cameras, I have a tried and tested recommendation.
Keyhole Camera Harness
Weight – 3 Oz
I discovered the Keyhole whilst perusing Amazon. I thought it looked gimmicky but I thought I’d give it a try for the low upfront costs.
I fell in love with it.
I used it for the entire duration of my CDT thru-hike and having the camera right there on my chest was a game-changer.
You replace your existing sternum strap on your backpack with the harness of the Keyhole. You then attach the “key” to the tripod mount on your camera and slot it in place. I loop the strap of my camera through the clip for some extra security. But, the camera has never shaken loose, even when scrambling over rugged terrain.
Rode Video Micro
Weight – 1.5 Oz
If you’re passionate about video like me then you’ll know the importance of good audio. The internal mics on most phones and cameras are garbage.
For a simple but effective option, I recommend the RodeVideoMicro.
It can attach to the hot shoe mount of a camera and plugs into the mic input. It has no switches or batteries and is “always-on” so you can’t forget to hit record. They also offer options that plug into your smartphone that will improve the audio.
Weight – 2.4 Oz
For more versatility and to record higher-quality environmental sounds, I use the Zoom H1N dedicated audio recorder.
There is a learning curve with this kind of device but it enables you to record high-quality audio for more serious productions.
Keeping Your Camera Clean and Safe from the Elements
Hiking with expensive camera gear seems a little scary at first. But with these tips, I’ll show you how to keep your camera safe from the elements.
My camera lived on my chest for 2700 miles of the CDT and the most common issue was dust.
I would blow forcefully on the camera to remove as much as possible. For dust or smudges on the lens, I used a lightweight lens pen. I gave my camera a thorough cleaning once home.
Anytime it rained more than a light shower I would immediately put the camera inside my backpack. I’ve talked about using a trash compactor bag to waterproof my hiking gear and would put my camera inside until the rain stopped.
I never had any issues.
Photography and Video Tips for Great Hiking Photos and Epic Video
Learn to Use Your Gear Before You Go Hike
Regardless of whether you’re using a smartphone or a large expensive camera, you need to learn how to use it to its full potential.
If you’re not going to spend the time learning basic techniques then going with a smartphone will be easier and more intuitive.
There are many great websites, books, and youtube videos to help you get started. Learn about the exposure triangle, composition and the specific controls for your camera.
Take a Lot of Photos and Video
Every time I come back from a trip I’m mad at myself for not having shot more content.
Dealing with lots of files can be time-consuming and take up computer storage. But having lots of options to work with is key. Once you’ve invested in the gear then recording media doesn’t cost you anything.
Shooting more is also the best way to improve your skills.
Learn to Edit
If you haven’t shot good photos in the first place then this step will not fix your problems.
However, learning to edit photos and videos is a game-changer. It can take what initially seemed like an “ok” image and make it something amazing. Again, plenty of resources are out there, take the time to learn from them.
I hope that this guide to the best cameras for hiking and the tips therein has helped you make informed decisions. Hopefully, you’re inspired to go out and take some great hiking photos. Remember that it isn’t all necessarily about spending huge amounts of money and carrying a huge camera. Apply some of the tips to your photography and you’ll really reap the rewards.
Drop me a comment to let me know what you think the best cameras for hiking are!
This site contains affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links it helps to support my work here at Pie on the Trail and doesn’t cost you anything extra. Cheers