After roughly 4,500 miles of thru hiking over the course of the last year and a half, I still haven't found the perfect system for carrying a camera of any sort, but I think I'm finally getting close. I've used three different cameras, now having carried them three different ways, with multiple different lenses throughout those miles, so I figure I'll share some insight on what I carried, how it worked out, and what I'll be doing differently for the 5,000 miles I hope to hike this upcoming year.
Just like hikers with their gear, photographers have their preference for camera equipment which makes this entire subject subjective to each person, but nonetheless, the points I'll be bringing up are all extremely applicable to each brand of camera, whether it be Sony, Nikon, Canon, etc...
I think really the first question you need to ask yourself before deciding which camera to buy for backpacking or thru hiking is, "What do I want to take photos of?". Really, without answering this question, none of this information I'm about to write will help you. Do you want to shoot portraits, strictly landscapes, videos, time lapse, astro, or everything? Once you've decided want you want to take photos of, start scrolling. Specs, weight, capability, and of course, PRICE, will determine which route you want to take and what will suit you best.
What cameras I've used over the course of 4,500 miles:
- GoPro Hero 4 Session
- Sony RX100iii
- Sony a6000 w/ Sigma 19mm f/2.8, Sony CZ 16-70mm f/4
Lets start with the GoPro Hero 4 Session:
Arguably the easiest camera to operate, carry, and charge, the GoPro Hero 4 Session is an action sport camera that is perfect for mounting to trekking poles, strapping onto your shoulder straps, or even mounting on your head. It's just about 4oz or so, charges off a mini USB cable, and really does take some decent videos but not so decent photos as it only has an 8mp camera.The camera boasts a 2 hour recording time off of one charge, is waterproof right out of the package up to 10m, and is fairly easing to use as it has a one touch button design. One button literally controls 95% of the camera. It's an easy piece of equipment to use and get good at using. I carried this camera for a little over 300 miles on the AT last year, and I sent it home because I was primarily using it as a backup/second camera for short videos.
Personally, I like GoPros for exactly what they should be intended for. Capturing videos where you normally wouldn't think to capture them. Putting them in places they shouldn't be. Getting the real 'point of view' aspect of whatever endeavor you're doing. They are really an immersive camera that works well for what it is. Now if you're leaning towards a GoPro and your budget is a little higher, definitely take the step up and either get a new model or an older model 'Black' edition. These little cameras can record 4k depending on the model and can actually offer a decent MP camera if you want to spend the money. If you're a professional, aspiring, or any sort of photographer, I highly doubt you will be totally impressed with the camera, but for a thru hiker looking cut oz's anywhere possible, it's actually quite a good option!
I dont think they sell the 4 Session anymore, but the 5 is an improved version.
Next let's take a look at the Sony a6000:
The a6000 by Sony is a lightweight, mirrorless, versatile camera that makes for an excellent option to carry on trail during a thru hike or backpacking trip. This camera has been my work horse for both on trail and off trail photography since I bought my first a6000 back in Feb. of 2016, right before my thru hike of the AT. The a6000 is an interchangeable lens camera, meaning that you can buy new lenses as you see fit to attach to the body itself.
The CMOS APSC sensor boasts 24.3 MP, allowing you to blow up prints to a larger size, recover shadows and highlights well, and making for good image quality. Coming in at 16.5oz with the kit lens and batteries, it's a MUCH lighter option to carrying a DSLR or the likes thereof. As well as having a high quality sensor that produces amazing images, it's capable of recording in 1080 at a multitude of different frame rates, allowing for a pretty solid video set up for vlogging or making trail videos.
I carried this camera along the entire Appalachian Trail, and around 1,000 miles this year on the Continental Divide Trail. Last year on the AT I paired the camera with the Sigma 19mm f/2.8 lens.
I had never had a real camera before, and prior to last year I had only ever used my iPhone to take photos on trail, so I was excited to get out on the trail and put the camera and lens through the ringer. I don't want to delve to deep into lenses and glass, but the Sigma is a decent quality lens for the price. It allowed me to capture everything I wanted and more without adding too much weight to the camera. I really, really love this set up, or a set up similar to this for on trail photography. Like I said, the weight to quality ratio is off the charts, but also compared to a GoPro, the options and abilities of this camera are endless. Between having multiple options for lenses and focal lengths, a higher quality sensor with ability to make large prints, and honestly just having a 'real' feeling camera, I made the decision to send the GoPro home last year. I just wasn't using it enough to justify carrying both the a6000 and the GoPro. Then again, I was primarily focused on photography and stills, not video.
When I was deciding on what to carry this year for the CDT, I knew that I wanted a little bit more versatile of a lens. Although I love the Sigma I carried last year, I found myself looking for a longer focal length with a bit more versatility. I started poking around at other lenses and ended up settling on the Carl Zeiss 16-70mm f/4 lens.
It had a much longer focal length, was a bit heavier, but is much higher quality glass. I picked a use one up on eBay and hit the CDT. This lens not only gave me an even wider FOV, but also gave me a much longer focal length. I was able to take photos of the mountains in a much different way than the previous year, and I absolutely loved having the extra range of the lens. Using a new lens day in and day out requires a little bit of learning, especially when you're shooting with a focal length you've never used, but after about a week or so, I felt like I was producing the best images of my career.
Fast forward to mile 1,000 on the CDT; I've been hiking for 6 hours in a torrential downpour, 40 degree weather, and absolutely no tree cover. My camera is in my Thru Pack inside a ziplock bag. After attempting to run to stay warm during the downpour, I slipped on the trail (really a mud road) and fell into a mud puddle so deep that I came out of it covered in 2" of clay like mud. After that I called it quits for the day, entered my tent, started to get warm and brought the camera out. To my astonishment, the camera turned on then went black. Somehow water had entered the ziplock bag and moisture has seeped into the battery compartment, causing the internals to fry. Unfortunately, the a6000 series is not weather sealed, which means it is a bit fragile compared to other models.
I was all of a sudden on the CDT without a camera and no way to document my trip other than my phone which I wasn't too keen on. I knew that I could afford to buy another a6000, but after talking with Wankles, I decided to once again step outside of my comfort zone, pick up a different camera, and push my creative boundaries with a less capable, smaller camera.
Enter the Sony RX100 m3:
After my Sony a6000 died on the CDT, I immediately ordered the Sony RX100iii. First off, to preface this section, I want to iterate that this camera is a BEAST. Although it is the size of a small, pocket point and shoot camera, it is a fully MANUAL camera with a HELL of a lens on it. The camera boasts a 1" CMOS 20.2 MP sensor, featuring an unbelievably sharp Carl Zeiss 24-70mm f/1.8 lens, and a weight of only 10oz fully loaded.
I picked up this thing after talking with Wankles, but truthfully I was insanely skeptical because of how small it is and the lack of having the ability to swap lenses if need be. I was excited to push my creative boundaries and see what I could produce with a lesser piece of equipment. I was excited to work outside of my comfort zone and in an environment I wasn't familiar. I had never used this camera before and I wasn't sure how it would perform next to my a6000, but I was ready to see what I could do with it.
I immediately was blown away by the design and the functionality of everything about the camera. The electronic viewfinder was incredibly accurate. The camera handles low light EXTREMELY well because of its f/1.8 aperture.
It was easy to use, easy to master, and perfect for backpacking. I was quickly neck deep in the camera, pushing its limits for astrophotography and portraiture. I love the lens that this camera has because of it's ability to produce bokeh, yet also retain sharpness on the edges at f/7.1. I was impressed not only with the image quality, but also the video quality. Because the camera is so light, it's quite easy to get clear, smooth shots without a gimble.
With the RX100, it's small enough to put in your pocket, shoulder strap, or somewhere else that doesn't require a front pack or extra case. It's a strong enough piece of equipment that you can produce amazing results without question.
It replicates the a6000 almost to a T with a high quality lens on it. It's a camera that if you don't plan on or feel the need to buy different lenses, you will be happy with for a long time. I'm so impressed with the camera that I'm not sure if i'll ever carrying anything else while hiking. I just really can't get over how well it performs at every stage. The optics. Functionality. Design. Quality of material and glass. It's so much more than just a small point and shoot camera. It's just about everything I need in a camera for on trail photography.
Not only have I carried 3 different set ups, I've also carried those cameras 3 different ways. For over half of the AT, I used a chest pack which was attached to the shoulder straps where I carried my camera, extra lens, go pro, battery pack, headlamp, and SD cards. It was heavy, burdensome, awkward, and just not efficient at all. When I got to the Lemon Squeezer in NY, I realized that I had to change the way I was carrying my camera before the Whites, otherwise things would get broken and it wouldn't be good.
I then switched to the Peak Design Camera Clip, probably the most innovative way to carry a mirrorless camera or a DSLR. It's a little clip that attaches to the shoulder strap and locks the camera there with a tripod screw mount. It's efficient because it allows you to always have the camera at the ready, and for hiking, it keeps the weight off your chest and back and puts it right on a shoulder. Pretty convenient, I used it for 1200 miles on the AT and loved it, especially when I used a pack that had hip belts. This year when I went UL and switched to no hip belts, I once again made some adjustments. However, if you're carrying a large camera and have a pack with comfy shoulder straps, pick up a Peak Design Camera Clip.
This year on the CDT and LT, I used a new piece of gear from a company called Thru. Pack. I'll be doing a review on this product soon enough, but it's a dyneema grid stop fanny pack that I had custom made to fit my a6000 and use as a shoulder sling. Paired with the comfy strap, it was an extremely efficient way to carry my a6000 this year when I chose to go hipbeltless.
After all of the time I've put on trail with a camera in my hand, I would have to say that the RX100 takes the cake for my favorite. The ease of use, the quality images and lightweight and sleek design make it the PERFECT backpacking camera IMO. Sure, I'm not saying I won't ever carry anything else from here on out, but it's hard to imagine EVER carrying a DSLR, let alone my a6000 again when I could just pocked the RX100 and head out. I am absolutely blown away with some of the photos I captured this year on the CDT and Long Trail. I'm impressed with the battery life, the LCD screen and it's capability for selfie mode. I'm ecstatic about the camera in general. The range on the lens and the aperture make for a perfect all around lens that you wouldn't want to change even if you could.
I think for someone just looking to take videos here and there, a GoPro would be perfect. It doesn't weigh anything hardly, it produces solid videos, is portable and convenient, and is waterproof right out of the gate. However, if you're a still photographer, I would say look elsewhere.
The a6000 will always be my baby, and I know I'll be bringing it out for certain sections of the PCT and CDT next year, but after using the RX100, the size of the a6000 is a bit of a problem that I can easily fix by not carrying it. I love having the a6000 at home, it's undoubtedly the best mirrorless APSC camera on the market, aside from the a6300 and 6500, its successors, but for backpacking, I can't believe I didn't have the RX before.
If you're strictly looking for an all around camera capable of anything, look no further than the Sony RX100 Series. They have 5 different models, all offering different focal lengths, abilities, and designs. The latest two models offer 4k and OSS built in, and the earlier models are just some of the best cameras for their price.