What Camera Should I Take on My Thru-Hike? How to Choose.

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Gossamer Gear | Oct 16, 2020

By: Steven "Twinkle" Shattuck 

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Seeing a photograph can inspire an entire trip. When you take photos of your own adventures, you may very well inspire others to see the beautiful areas you visit, too. But, what camera is the right one for your next backpacking trip? 

In short, the answer is going to be different for each hiker, based on the intended use.

The easiest choice for the best camera for a backpacking trip is the one on your phone. If you’re simply snapping quick pictures of things you see and people you meet without much ambition to edit or print your photos, this is a great option, and surely your lightest. On many trips, I’m happy with the photos my Google Pixel captures. However, most times, I enjoy having greater capabilities to get the exact shots I want.

If you’re like me, and desire more functionality out of your camera to be able to capture the moment in your style, you’ll likely desire something more than your cell phone.

In my eight years of backpacking with a camera, I’ve now traveled with three different types. All three are the Sony brand, which I’ve continued to use throughout the years due to what I’ve learned in my research and my overall familiarity with Sony products. Below, I cover what makes me keep coming back to each of these cameras, what their best intended uses are, pros and cons of each, and some comparable options from other companies. 

I hope you can use this information to find the right camera for your next thru-hike.

Best Mid-Range Camera for Getting Started with Trail Photography: Sony RX100 Series

A good mid-range camera is the Sony RX100 series. Consider this the first step up from using your phone’s camera, though it’s still a significant step up from even the best camera phones.

There are several variations of this powerful point and shoot camera, and it is what I used on my hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail. It’s light, shoots raw, and can be completely manual. 

I recommend the Rx100 II, and personally would buy one used before spending $750 to $1,200 on a brand-new version of the newer models (currently at VII). The Rx100 II can be found for as little as $200 used.

Pros

  • Small 
  • Lightweight
  • Full manual mode
  • Shoots RAW
  • Good budget camera if found used

Cons

  • Fixed lens
  • Small size makes shooting in manual mode more difficult

Comparable Options

  • Canon G5 series

Best Camera for When You’re Ready to Take Your Trail Photography to the Next Level: Sony a6000 Series

After shooting on the RX100 for several years, I desired an upgrade prior to hiking the Hayduke Trail in 2018. At this time, I was starting to shoot more in manual mode, and wanted to continue to learn more about photography. The next logical step up from a point and shoot, described above, is a cropped sensor, interchangeable camera.

The Sony a6000 series is a cropped sensor (ASP-C) lens that is affordable, light, and allows the use of different lenses. I’ve personally used the Sony a6300, and would purchase that one again if buying today. The Sony a6300 has one large upgrade over the a6000, and that’s weather sealing, which is an important feature to have when taking a camera on the trail. The whole body of this one is much more robust than its predecessor. I took the kit lens on my hike, and got a 20mm pancake lens, as well. 

Similar to the point and shoot option, I recommend looking to buy something used if going this route.

Pros

  • Interchangeable lens
  • Small body and small lenses to pair
  • Lightweight
  • Full manual mode
  • RAW
  • 4k video
  • Good budget camera at this time

Cons

  • Cropped sensor (smaller field of view)
  • Poor battery life in comparison to other options

Comparable Options

  • Fujifilm X series
  • Nikon Z50

Best Camera Upgrade for Making Your Trail Photography Truly Shine: Sony a7iii

After using the Sony a6300 for two years, I desired an upgrade again. The next logical upgrade is to get a full frame mirrorless camera. For the first time, I purchased a brand new camera, as well, the Sony a7iii.  

The upgrade was noticeable, and the investment encouraged me to shoot more. Although I would not recommend this as your first manual/RAW camera, it is a good option for enthusiasts who desire maximum flexibility and full frame.

The two largest upgrades from a backpacking perspective are the increased battery life and in body image stabilization, allowing for slower shutter speeds with handheld use. Though marginal, it does make a difference.  

I’ve used this camera on several weekend to week-long backpacking trips, and have loved the results of the night sky photography with a full frame and wide-angle lens that I could not get from my a6300 setup.

Pros

  • Full frame
  • Best battery life
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Weather sealed
  • Optical image stabilization

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Heaviest of options noted
  • Did I mention it costs more than many people’s full backpacking kit?

Comparable Options

  • Canon EOS R series
  • Nikon Z5

Figuring Out the Best Trail Camera for Your Next Thru-Hike

The best camera for the trail is going to come down to personal preference and what exactly you intend to use it for.

When doing the triple crown, I was primarily concerned with moving quickly and ensuring I had a light pack and could finish the trail within the season. As such, I chose the lightest camera option, the Rx100 II, and was very happy with the photos I got from it. If I’m going on a trip where I need to be moving fast, this is the camera that still goes in my pack. However, if I were to do any of the triple crown trails again, my likely choice would be the a6300, due to its small size and versatility in shooting the night sky and low light situations when compared to the Rx100 II.  

When I did the Hayduke Trail, or the 3 Pass Trek in Nepal, I wasn’t under any pressure to go especially quick, and I wanted to spend more time learning photography. As such, I upgraded to the Sony a6300.

When going on week-long trips, weekend trips, or any time I want to do night sky photography, I now take the a7iii, and it has become my go-to camera. I’ve also seen my knowledge of photography expand greatly with the new camera, as I take it with me on almost all hikes.

Think about what your photography goals are and what your hiking aspirations are when making a selection for the best camera to use on trail. And, remember, it’s ok to start small and work your way up in features as the hobby becomes a bigger passion for you.

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Steven "Twinkle" Shattuck is a Gossamer Gear Brand Ambassador and long distance thru-hiker. Learn more about his adventures on his website and Instagram.