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The Best Lightweight Hiking, Backpacking, And Travel Cameras of 2016

Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses

Moving away from a heavy DSLR was a difficult transition for me as I began to adopt a more lightweight backpacking gear list a few years ago. Clothing, food, warmth, and comfort were all easy to sacrifice, as I knew I’d have them at home as soon as I returned from my trips. Photography was different though, for most trips there is no going back. You can’t recreate a sunset or simulate the spontaneous movement of wildlife. My first attempt to go ultra-light failed pretty badly when I tried to shoot exclusively with my iPhone 4S on Camino de Santiago in 2012. The pictures were fine for Instagram and thumbnails online, but anything larger than 5×7 prints or web thumbnails just came out poorly. It was here I began my search for the perfect balance of weight, cost, and image quality. After looking at smaller crop-sensor DSLRs, point-and-shoots, and mirror-less options, I knew that I wanted the flexibility of an interchangeable lens system and manual shooting options on the largest sensor I could afford.

When I began my search for a lightweight backpacking and travel camera in 2012, the pickings were pretty slim, and many cameras that were available had limited lens offerings. Fast forward to 2016 and the market is now flush with capable shooters, all capable of being paired with a lineup of lenses to match any shooters preferences.

I won’t be doing in depth reviews or spec analysis, just recommendations with my reasons. For an in depth look at each camera’s specs, I suggest looking at DPreview.com or CameraLabs.com.

**You can support Trail to Peak by purchasing any of these cameras with the links provided below.**

For my list of top cameras I’ll break it down into the following categories and provide lens suggestions if available.

  • Full Frame Mirrorless
  • APS-C Mirrorless
  • Four Thirds Mirrorless
  • Action Camera
  • Point And Shoot
  • Smart Phone
  • Best Smart Phone Apps
  • Recommended Software
  • Best Camera Accessories

For those of you who are unfamiliar, take a look below at this image of sensor sizes to get an understanding of what some of these categories refer to. When it comes to image quality sensor size is king. Don’t be fooled by marketing claims of megapixels. For years, camera manufacturers jacked up megapixel counts for marketing purposes even when it had no bearing on increasing image quality. In many cases, it resulted in noisy harsh images, especially those shot in low light at high ISO. I’m not saying that megapixels aren’t important. They are. The extra detail for a landscape can make all the difference. Keep in mind though that the pixel size of a 24 mp full frame and an 8 mp 4/3 won’t be too far off.

Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses
Sensor Sizes

Full Frame Mirrorless: Sony Alpha a7II

When it comes to full frame mirrorless cameras, look no further than Sony. They are the top dog in this market for good reason. This market started with Sony releasing the A7, and has quickly grown to a pretty sizable offering of cameras. When it comes to image quality, you’re not going to do better than packing a full frame sensor into a lightweight body. This is the most expensive camera option on this list, but you’re going to get incredible image quality for what you’re buying.

Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses Sony A7RII
Sony A7RII

Pros: 5 axis in body stabilization, solid metal build quality with weather resistance, fast autofocus, full frame 24.3mp sensor, shoots RAW, electric viewfinder and quality LCD,

Cons: Expensive compared to APS-C, more expensive lenses than APS-C, slightly larger and heavier than other options.

Similar options:

Lens Options:


APS-C Mirrorless: Sony A6300

If you’re looking for great images without the cost of purchasing a full frame mirrorless camera, a crop sensor APS-C camera is a great option. The APS-C sized sensor cameras are a few hundred dollars less than full frame, and the lens options are usually about half the price of their full frame equivalents. This is why I think the APS-C is the best value for hikers, backpackers, and travelers. I have been shooting with a Sony a6000 since 2014 and absolutely love it. You can see my review here. Sony has a new version of the a6000 in the a6300, and in my opinion, it’s the best camera for those looking to go lightweight.

Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses Sony A7RII Sony a6300
Sony a6300

Pros: Lighting fast autofocus, 4k video, weather sealed body, super sharp images, affordable

Cons: Less pro control when compared to upper level Sony A7 models

Similar Options:

  • Sony A6000 – Older model with less tech, almost half the price of a6300
  • Sony A5100 – Cheaper, no viewfinder

Lens Options:


Four Thirds Mirrorless: Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Alongside Sony, Olympus has to be given a lot of credit for helping revolutionize the camera industry with mirrorless cameras. The Olympus cameras come with a 4/3 sensor which is smaller than the Sony APS-C. Still, Olympus cameras deliver big time when it comes to image quality. The Olympus 4/3 series of cameras is also the most stylish in my opinion. The designers at Olympus have found a way to pack a ton of great tech into a svelte vintage looking body.

Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II
Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

Pros: 5 axis image stabilization, electronic viewfinder, looks great, fast autofocus

Cons: 4/3 sensor with 16MP

Similar Options:

Lens Options:


Action Camera: GoPro Hero4 Black

GoPro is a name that is synonymous with capturing epic adventure footage. A lot of this has to do with the fact that they were one of the first companies to corner the niche market. With the explosion of online video sharing, anyone can share footage at anytime. Most of this begins and ends with cellphone footage, but for those of us who like to push the envelope, GoPros come in handy. GoPros are waterproof when used with their casing, the durable, and they can be purchased with an infinite number of mounts. Just looking at a quick browse on Amazon, I see bike mounts, car mounts, dog mounts, chest mounts, and head mounts. The newest versions of the GoPro shoot 4K video which allows for some nice cropping and stabilization in post processing. You can also pair your GoPro with your phone as a secondary monitor.

GoPro Hero Black Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses
GoPro Hero Black

Pros: Portable, light, durable, waterproof, 4k video, community of producers

Cons: Poor 12MP still images, poor low light performance, poor battery life, no native viewfinder or touch display

Similar Options:

  • GoPro Hero4 Silver – less expensive, only 2k video, comes with touch display
  • GoPro Hero Session – Cheapest option, only 1440k, only 8MP stills, no display, smallest and most compact camera option

Point And Shoot: Canon PowerShot G7 X

As I began planning to put this camera list together, I was hesitant to add point and shoots. Why? This is the fastest dying segment of the camera market due to the emergence of smart phones. Smart phone cameras do almost everything a point and shoot can do, and in some cases do it better. I can’t really think of too many situations where I would take a point and shoot over a smart phone. It makes sense to get a mirrorless camera, as the photo quality and manual controls will blow a smart phone camera out of the water. The only time I can think one would need a point and shoot is if they don’t have new smart phone, or just prefer the standalone features of a camera decoupled from a phone experience.

The Canon PowerShot G7 X is a great camera having said all of that.  It has a 1 inch 20.2 MP sensor which is larger than just about any other point and shoot. This is why I think it’s worth putting on this list. 

Canon PowerShot G7 X Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses
Canon PowerShot G7 X

 

Pros: Large sensor for point and shoot, compact, portable, 1.8 lens with 24-100 zoom, great manual controls

Cons: Fixed lens, smallish sensor

Similar Options:


Smart Phones: iPhone 6S Plus

For hikers, backpackers, and travelers looking to go lightweight, there is no better option than a smartphone. A smartphone can be your camera, video recorder, GPS system, computer, and phone, while providing the ability to share all of this content immediately. Smartphones also give the user the ability to edit photos and access post-processing software right away. Although the image quality may not be as good as a mirrorless APS-C of full frame, there is no denying the versatility of a great smartphone.

iphone 6S Plus Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses
iPhone 6S Plus

The reason I choose the iPhone 6S Plus as the top smartphone is due to it’s excellent build quality, ability to use domestic and international cell networks, wide range of great apps, optical image stabilization and a really good in-house camera app.

Pros: OIS, Apps, camera internal processing, available unlocked, build quality

Cons: Expensive

Similar Options:


Smart Phone Apps

Everybody has a favorite list of smartphone apps that they use while hiking, backpacking, and traveling. Here are some of my favorites:

  • WordPress
  • All Trails
  • Strava
  • Earthmate (For My InReach Satellite)
  • Google Photos
  • Snapseed (Where I edit my phone photos)
  • Instagram
  • Sony Play Memories (transfer from a6000 to my phone)

Recommended Software: Adobe Lightroom 6

I do all of my photo editing in Lightroom. This is one of the most popular software packages for photographers, pro and novice alike. The great thing about Lightroom is that you can use it as a quick and simple editing tool, or get deep into the mechanics of it and really go to work. If you plan on taking photos, you’ll wan’t to get post processing software. Look no further than Lightroom.

Adobe Lightroom 6 iphone 6S Plus Best Hiking Backpacking Travel Lightweight Cameras Lenses
Adobe Lightroom 6

Recommended Camera Travel Accessories


I’m Drew, creator of Trail to Peak. Trail to Peak brings content to life on the web through breath-taking photography and captivating video. I launched Trail to Peak in 2014 with a goal to inspire readers to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors. I have traveled to 19 countries, walked Camino de Santiago, hiked the John Muir Trail, trekked through the Andes of Peru, and am constantly seeking new adventures in my home state of California. Joining me on my weekly adventures is my partner, Julia, our son, Owen, and our two goldendoodles, Isla and Lilly.

24 comments on “The Best Lightweight Hiking, Backpacking, And Travel Cameras of 2016

  1. Nice post. LOVE my Olympus OM-D-EM1! I love having it with me in the backcountry. Solid battery life. I made it ten days around Rainier with a main camera battery, and the battery expansion grip.I am looking forward to investing in Lightroom. As a serious enthusiast, the OM-D, plus two lenses, backpacking tripod (ultra-pod 2 check it out), and travel pouch, set me back on cash, so Lightroom will have to wait. Olympus has a decent photo editing software included with the camera, so at least there is something.

    • Great to hear you love the OM-D-EM1. That battery life sounds incredible. Your setup sounds just about perfect for capturing things out on the trail.

  2. I think I have the lowest Olympus camera. It works fine for me but still want a better one though. Maybe once my blog picks up traffic I’ll buy one. Thanks for the info Drew!

    • Good call. Your pics look good. I’ve had the same a6000 for a few years now, but am very interested in the a6300 and a7RII.

  3. My pack keeps getting heavier every year- more gear and better camera equipment! I’m saving this for when it is time to go lighter.

  4. Nice! We also recommend the Nikon AW100 Waterproof camera series. They’re very sturdy, simple to use, and reliable. We have been using ours for four years!

  5. Okay – I’m a real camera novice doing a walk around the country and I want to better capture videos of interviews I’m conducting plus scenery. I’m looking for the lightest quality camera that can be head-mounted. Would you suggest the GoPro Hero4 Silver or other? And what essential xtras should I consider as I will have little capability to download for months at a time?

    I’m so lost in this search. Any suggestions are very much appreciated. THANK YOU!

    • Hello Paula. If you’re looking for something you can mount to your head, a GoPro is your best bet. The other cameras will have much better image quality, but none will be as versatile as the GoPro. Don’t plan on using the stills for wall prints though. The video and stills for web use will be more than adequate. Get yourself a bunch of storage cards if you won’t be able to download photos for months at a time.

  6. I’m stuck 😉 I have the Sony A7rII but with the 16-35 it weighs just about 1.2 kilos. I found it to be a bit too heavy when doing mountain trekking. I’m happy to purchase another camera but it would need to be lighter and also have excellent image quality. I’d like your opinion please. Thanks in advance.

    • Hello Sue. Thanks for the question. I was actually in your exact situation not too long ago. I’ve had the Sony a6000 with Sony 10-18mm lens for some time now. I wanted to upgrade to a full frame, and was shopping around for your exact setup. The a6000 with 10-18mm comes in at about 600g, so half of the A7rII with 16-35. The time is coming for me to replace the a6000, but instead of a full frame I think I’ll go with the new a6500. As much as I’d love the full frame for those night sky shots, sunsets, and mountain landscapes, that extra 600g is costly on the trail. I’ve tried pairing the a6000 with some other crop sensor glass, but the 10-18mm is my only choice when going wide. The pancake 16mm and 20mm were serviceable, but nothing special. The 35mm and 50mm were really nice, but not very good for trekking. I also shoot with the Rokinon 12mm f/2. It’s a nice lens, but requires full manual controls. Coming from a full frame with the 16-35mm, it’s going to be tough to match image quality, but the a6500 with 10-18mm should get you close, and save a bit of weight.

      Taken with the a6000 and 10-18mm: https://trailtopeak.com/2016/06/13/30-photos-that-will-make-you-want-to-hike-the-john-muir-trail/

  7. Thanks very much for your suggestion, I have lots to think about and luckily I have time to decide 🙂

    • Time is always good! It always takes me weeks and sometimes months to decide on gear 🙂 There is nothing worse than having to make a big decision on gear with an impending deadline.

  8. CorteOnCamera

    Everest Base Camp is happening next April – I already use Canon 7d with lots of different lenses. Checking out the weight of your suggested Sony Alpha a 7II, plus 55-210 lens, plus spare battery, total weight is around 1.514kgs which is only slightly less than similar set up with Canon. Trying to trek with minimum weight is paramount but so is my photography. I’ve been searching for a real lightweight alternative but haven’t come up with anything yet. Have I missed something?

    • Trekking with a full camera setup is tough. I only trek with a wide angle, and keep the rest of my lenses at home. I miss some shots I’d like to capture, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. I hike with a crop sensor though. Hiking with a full frame is going to add weight with the extra size and magnesium allow body. I’d say the only way to cut a lot of weight is to move away from full frame, but then you’ll notice a difference in image quality in low light, and some of the more expansive landscapes. It’s a tough gear selection conundrum for me as well. I tend to go with less weight over image quality and lens options though.

      • CorteOnCamera

        Hmmm, so I think you’re saying that there’s really no compact light weight alternative that’s going to satisfy my need for reduced weight without compromising image quality. I’m not sure just my wide angle will suffice though. Thank you for your response. I’ve a little more time to increase my strength and endurance and a hubby to convince to be my camera camel once again.

      • haha! It’s always nice to have a camera camel!

  9. thrilled I found this – my son and I are about to head out on an AT thru-hike at the end of Feb and I am going back and forth on camera gear – I love my Nikon D7000 and Tokina 11-16mm lens because I prefer landscape shots when I am out but there is no way I can carry my DSLR while on the thru-hike. Been driving myself nuts between the Sony a6300 or a6500 with something like the Sony 10-18 which would come out roughly to 1.5 lbs…or going with the Sony a 7ii full frame with the 28-70mm which comes out to 1.97 lb. I just keep going back and forth – would love to hear your opinion

    • That’s a tough call. The A6300/6500 and 10-18mm make for a great combination. The full frame a7ii is a nice upgrade, but is a little heavier. I really like it paired with the 16-35mm, but that lens is expensive! I travel with the the a6000 and 10-18mm, and have very rarely wished I had a full frame with me.

      • thanks so much for the reply – I have been drooling over the Vario lens but definitely not in the budget 🙂 Really appreciated your input!

  10. I happened upon your blog today (November 27th, 2017). I really enjoyed your honest and comprehensive review of the Sony 28mm F/2.0 and the Delorme InTouch SE.

    Keep up the good work.

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