Updated on March 2, 2016
I don’t care what anyone says: I really do need my DSLR camera when hiking through the backcountry. That’s right, NEED it.
If I’m not carrying that thing with me on a backpacking trek, I’ll be fretting over all the killer shots I’ve missed. My tool of choice used to be a relatively Old School Olympus E-410 four-thirds camera, which in 2010 was the smallest, most light-weight DSLR around.
But recently (February, 2016), I decided to upgrade my camera gear. And I was blown away by all the all options out there for trek-worthy photography equipment.
So I recruited the advice of a photojournalist I used to work with back in my newspaper days to build this list of the best cameras for backpacking.
What camera did I finally settle on? I’ll get to that shortly. But first…
This article contains three sections:
If you’re in the market for a new light-weight, tough-as-hell digital camera, check these out.
Best Point & Shoot Cameras for Backpacking & Hiking
Maybe you’re not into tweaking f-stops and bouncing the flash to get just the right exposure. Maybe you just want to take a bloody picture to stick on Instagram or something — without having to worry about your precious equipment breaking all the time. Fair enough. Here are three compact, point-and-shoot style cameras that are waterproof, shockproof and even crushproof to a point.
Pentax/Ricoh has a strong reputation for creating tough cameras (you’ll see them pop up a few times in this list) and the WG-5 keeps that tradition going strong. This little number, which has a pretty cool aggressive look to it, packs 16 megapixels and comes with a 35mm lens.
This camera doesn’t come with quite as many cool perks, like maps or a landmark database, as some of its similarly priced competitors, but it does include a neat backlit LCD screen on the front of the camera that can display the altitude or barometric pressure. The camera also features six LED lights to shine down on your subject, which makes this little number great for macro photography. But some folks who bought this camera did complain that the mage quality was lacking at higher ISOs.
I also liked that it came with a carabiner strap, so it’s easier to carry around when pounding the trail.
You can pick up a Rioch WG-5 for about $270.
- Shockproof from 2.2m (7 feet)
- Waterproof to 14m (46 feet)
- Crushproof to 100 kg (220 pounds)
- Freezeproof to -10C (14 Fahrenheit)
I’m a fan of Olympus cameras. My ancient (in tech years) E-410 camera served me well, even though it certainly wasn’t marketed as a tough shooter. The Olympus TG-4, however, is designed to endure. This camera makes its appearance after the TG-3 impressed loads of critics with a rugged exterior and simple-to-use interface.
The TG-4 is the industry’s first-ever ultra-tough waterproof compact camera that can shoot RAW files. And that means you’ll get maximum image quality, especially if you like to do timed exposures. And with plenty of cool accessories now available for this little number, such as float straps and telephoto conversion lenses, Olympus’ TG-4 series retains its title as one of the toughest small shooters on the marketer.
Just like its predecessor did, I think this camera will capture its fair share of awards from photography geeks this year.
You can grab the Olympus TG-4 for about $380 at Amazon.
- Shockproof from 2.5 m (7 feet)
- Waterproof to 15m (50 feet)
- Crushproof to 100 kg (220 pounds)
- Freeze proof to -10C (14 Fahrenheit)
This one perhaps isn’t quite as tough of the two badgers mentioned above — it’s not crush-proof, for example — but since it’s a bit less than many of its competitors this is a nice budget-friendly unit. The AW130 is an update to Nikon’s popular AW120 — both cameras actually look pretty much the same. However, the latest model does come with a few extra perks.
The grip on the right-hand side of the AW 130 is more aggressive, so finger-slip is minimized. Plus Nikon boosted how deep the camera can go underwater — from 59 feet in last year’s model, to 98 feet this year. With ample onboard gadgetry, like a global map and a digital compass, this is a great little camera worth checking out.
You can get the Nikon COOLPIX AW130 for about $290.
- Waterproof to 30m (98 feet)
- Shockproof from 2m (6.5 feet)
- Freezeproof to -10C (14 Fahrenheit)
Best Mirrorless Cameras for Backpacking & Hiking
It’s all about balance. This category of cameras are for folks who want to get crisp, eye-popping shots but aren’t keen on lugging around a big-ass SLR camera with a half-foot zoom lens.
Mirrorless cameras are great for hiking and backpacking because of their smaller size and lower weight. But the reduced girth won’t bring you any price cuts — expect to pay as much for a mirrorless camera as you would for a DSLR.
All three of these cameras are super-small but ultra-powerful.
This is the world’s first waterproof digital camera with interchangeable lens. It’s been around for some time now, however, and there has been some murmurs of Nikon releasing an AW2. But for now, this is the only model.
The headline feature for this camera is being waterproof to 49 feet. That pretty appealing for someone like me, who lives on the in a place where torrential downpours are the norm six months of the year.
This feature also makes it an awesome addition to any hardcore snorkeler or scuba-diver’s gear list. There’s even a pop-up flash that works underwater. It also has a super-fast burst shooting model and auto-focus.
The downside is the cost: Amazon lists the Nikon AW1 at about $800.
I almost didn’t put this one on here. Not because it isn’t worthy of the list (quite the, opposite, actually).
I wasn’t about to include the Sony a7II because it’s so incredibly expensive at over $3,000 for the body alone — and personally, I would be too focused on accidently wrecking the camera to enjoy the trek.
Why the high pricetag? The image quality is reported to be absolutely divine. It features a 42.4 mega-pixel image sensor that uses BSI CMOS technology. The weather-sealed magnesium alloy body might ease your fears of breakage. It’s a tough camera, afterall.
There’s just tremendous amount of power and technology stuffed into this camera. You can shoot video in 4K using the full-frame sensor and the autofocus has been refined tremendously.
The Sony a7II has been praised by loads of camera critics (both trekkers and non-trekkers). So if money is no object for you, this lavish unit will serve you well on the trail. All for a mere $3,200 — camera body only.
This little weather-sealed camera has earned ample kudos from pro-shooters. And it shows why mirrorless cameras are getting a lot of attention from outdoor photographers.
The FujiFilm X-T1 performs ultra-quick, taking just a split-second to start up and snap off a shot. And the resulting image quality is brilliant thanks to the 16MP X-Trans CMOS II sensor and EXR Image Processor II found in all high-end Fuji cameras.
One of the most impressive features is the built-in movement prediction algorithms programmed into the camera, which means that the X-T1 can follow subjects that move at speeds of up to 40km/h. Add to that a newly refined autofocus system and you’re able to snap beautifully crisp action shots quite easily.
Much like the Sony a7R II, this camera squeezes a lot of power into a small size. But the price is quite a bit lower. You can get the FujiFilm X-T1 on Amazon for $1,399.00 with the XF 18-55mm lens.
With a retro design that pays homage to Olympus’s OM film cameras, this mirrorless camera offers far more than nostalgia.
The beauty of the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II comes down to balance. As a mid-range shooter, the blend of performance, weather-resistance and responsive control gives you a lot of power at a decent price.
An improved 5-axis image stabilization system gives you a level of quality that’s comparable to full-frame sensors. It also combined many of the best features of its predecessor — the EM1 — such as a large, detailed viewfinder and great built-in WiFi.
This camera really does show how mirrorless has evolved over the past few years. And if you’re into trekking, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is an all-round camera certainly worth checking out. It’ll run youabout $900 for the camera body.
Best DSLR Cameras for Backpacking & Hiking
OK, now we’re getting into the big guns.
More trekkers seem to be shying away from using DSLRs because of the extra weight and bulk. And I get that. But I still believe that the added performance you get from these cameras is worth it.
Also, some DSLRs are far better suited to hiking and backpacking than others. I wouldn’t recommend getting any DSLR for trekking unless:
1) It’s weather-sealed
2) It’s compact
3) It’s (relatively) lightweight
And that’s on top of delivering stellar image quality and responsiveness. Here are my top picks:
This is the smallest, most affordable weather-sealed DSLR you can buy.
The K-S2’s compact size is perfect for trekking. But this diminutive camera hides loads lot of power. The AA-filterless 20 mega-pixel sensor delivers crisp image quality and performs surprisingly well in low-light.
It also includes a viewfinder that gives you 100% coverage — pretty rare at this price point — in addition to a variable-angle, swing-out LCD screen.
The weather-sealing is very impressive. I got my K-S2 practically drenched when I was hit by a sudden blizzard while hiking, and the thing kept shooting just fine (I’ve actually seen a couple YouTube videos of guys dunking theirs in a river — not that I recommend doing that).
It’s a tad heavy at about 30 ounces and the video quality is just so-so. But overall, this tougher little DSLR is great buy for just $510 with the 18-50mm kit lens.
Yup, another beautiful Pentax. Compared to the KS-2, this model is geared more for the professional shooter.
It has a weather-sealed magnesium alloy body for even better durability, however, that bumps the overall weight up to almost 44 ounces. That’s getting a little on the heavier side for trekking — although the body is still compact.
The razor-sharp 27-point autofocusing system, combined with image stabilization, makes this camera fantastic for wildlife photography in particular.
Image quality is brilliant. It features a new PRIME III image processor and a APS-C sized image sensor that fits in 50% more pixels to boost resolution.
The K-3 also boasts an industry-first: a selectable low-pass filtering that lets you choose whether ultimate resolution or resistance to moiré is more important for each shot.
You can get a Pentax K-3 for around $860 on Amazon.
This is an super-quick shooter with a highly advanced autofocus system.The D7200’s build is pretty compact for its size, which makes it easy to carry on the trail, plus it weighs in at a reasonable 24 ounces.
But the real beauty of this camera is the image quality. It uses an Active D-Lighting feature that helps maintain details in shadows — that’s pretty handy when shooting outside in tricky lighting situations.
Unfortunately, the LCD screen doesn’t rotate or tilt. Not a deal-breaker, but it’s definite “nice-to-have” in my books.
But overall, this is an advanced amateur camera that’s more capable on a trek. You can get the camera body for about $1,100 on Amazon.
Looking for a tough bag to haul your camera in?
Check out this review of the best camera backpacks for hiking.