If you are reading this article you probably have a camera already – you don’t need to buy a new one. Don’t spend £1000+ to save a kilogram on your back; that’s crazy when you are starting out!
With that out the way let’s look at the factors you should consider when selecting a camera setup for backpacking.
Resolution, Dynamic Range and High ISO performance
Don’t stress too much about image quality. Yes, it matters, but there is far too much emphasis placed on the output – the image – without considering usage. Any Digital SLR or Compact System Camera (mirrorless camera) is going to be great. Enjoying your photography is far far more important unless you are a professional. Even then it’s highly debatable whether image quality is worth worrying about anymore. I have never had an old image taken on my Canon 20D or Canon 5D (original) rejected by anyone and I still use those images today. Modern cameras are much better across the board.
Reliability and Durability
If you’re backpacking for number of days you need a camera that isn’t going to fail half way through. My Sony A7RII has alarming ‘hiccups’ where the camera crashes or the memory card database has to be rebuilt. It’s no fun in the middle of nowhere. I sent back a Sony RX100IV (high end compact) because the lens protector kept getting stuck.
I often hike with my camera either around my neck or attached to a Peak Design clip. Naturally I’ve fallen a couple of times and my camera has taken the occasional bump on a passing tree. After years of use I’ve never had a problem with my Canon cameras and I suspect the same would be true of Nikon. These cameras are heavy, but they are professional tools built to last. (The same sadly can not be said of lenses, which have required professional realignment on a few occasions now!)
Start up time, shutter lag, menus, customisation options, buttons and ergonomics all play into how effectively you can operate your camera. In my experience SLRs, particularly those from Canon and Nikon, have a lead here. These factors matter more to me than image quality. Content is king – if you miss the shot it doesn’t matter how good your camera is! If you plan to skip the hiking shots and just set up methodically on a tripod then speed may be less of a concern, but some of my best shots have come “off the hip”.
It’s tempting to compare the weight of cameras and pick the lightest one; after all you already have plenty to carry. However it is the weight of the camera SYSTEM that really matters. Often lenses for smaller mirrorless full frame cameras can weigh as much or more than their digital SLR equivalents. If your camera and lenses together are going to weigh around 3kg does a 200g weight saving on the camera body really make a difference? That said if you do spend your time looking at system weights across brands then you might find that a Micro 4/3rds system weighs as little has half of a Nikon D850 based set up. That might save you 1.5kg, a noticeable difference, particularly if you are smaller or less active.
Mirrorless cameras get through batteries much faster than Digital SLRs. The capacity of the battery itself is smaller but perhaps more significantly, if you forget to power the camera off the LCD will stay on until ‘auto power off’. With my A7RII I need to be rigorous about turning the camera off but then if I see a fleeting image I have to wait a couple of seconds for the camera to power on again. This kind of delay won’t matter to most photographers but it bothers me, particularly when taking hiking images. (see the Power section below for my advice on batteries)
If you can face it I would restrict yourself to just two lenses – a wide angle zoom and a telephoto zoom. For most photographers this will offer maximum flexibility for a sensible weight. I’d aim for a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm (or equivalent for a crop sensor). You might also consider stopping the gap with a lightweight 50mm prime which can produce beautiful hiking shots.
Several top manufacturers offer premium f2.8 and f4 versions of their zooms. There can be a massive weight difference so ask yourself whether you really need that extra stop of light! For wide-angle shots of the stars a 16-35 f2.8 is certainly a big advantage (although star stacking can be a great fix), but otherwise there really is no reason to buy the heavier and more expensive lenses. If you really want to go light a 24-70mm or 24-105mm zoom is an excellent single lens option.
For some having just a 16-35 and 70-200 at your disposal might seem like a restriction. If you are used to carrying around an additional 14mm, 24mm Tilt-Shift, 24-70mm and 1.4x converter then it’s a big change. However with these two lenses you can realistically cover 14-300mm with a mixture of panorama stitching and/or cropping (ideally with super-resolution techniques!)
On the subject of lens hoods, I don’t take them with me. Their main purpose is to stop light hitting the front element when the light source is out of frame. You can use your hand to do the same job on the rare occasion that this is a problem! This saves a small amount of weight and bulk.
A polariser is essential. Personally I would suggest buying one for each of your lenses. They can cut through haze, darken blue skies, remove reflections and enhance rainbows. A 6 or 10-stop neutral density filter can also be nice to ‘smooth’ water or clouds in midday sun – just please don’t overdo it or use it as an excuse for bad composition!
Many photographers are very attached to their graduated neutral density filters, some even choose to backpack with them. My personal recommendation is to leave these at home. Bracket your images and ‘Merge to HDR’ in Lightroom – it’s much easier than messing around with filters in the field and you can save 500g or more. The processing side used to be quite difficult, now it is easy.
Bring more memory than you could possibly need. That’s all there is too it!
Tripods and Ballheads
A good carbon fibre tripod makes a lot of difference when you are backpacking. It’s the one bit of kit that you should spend money on early on, even before cameras and lenses. A good tripod will last many years. When I started backpacking Gitzo were the only real option but now there are a whole host of tripod manufacturers offering cheaper carbon fibre models. The ultimate tripod for backpacking is still the Gitzo ‘1 series’ traveller – I have the G1545T. My second choice would be Sirui, their tripods are just as good and only a little heavier, have a look at the T-2204X. Aim at a tripod that is 1 – 1.5kg. Don’t go too light or it will be useless in wind. One issue with Gitzo Tripods is there continued reliance on magnesium alloy castings which corrode easily once the paint coating has gone. I had a tripod leg snap with 5 days left of a Greenland backpacking trip. Sirui, RRS and many other brands use machined aluminium which is far better in this respect and less brittle at only a small weight increase.
I’d recommend a ball head for backpacking and again there are lot of great options now that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I use an RRS BH-40 and I would suggest looking for something of a similar or slightly smaller size and weight. The Sirui ballheads are again very nice and much cheaper!
Camera Pouches and ICUs
(Unbelievably!) The most regular kit question I am asked is: ‘How do you store your camera kit in your backpack when hiking?’ – there are two answers.
One option is to use an Internal Camera Unit (ICU). This is a light padded case that would fit all your camera gear. It can be removed from your backpack ‘as one’ so you have all your gear in one place. You will have to find an ICU that is small enough to fit comfortably in your backpack or you are going to have packing issues! In my experience this method uses too much pack capacity for longer trips but otherwise it works great. I also occasionally hike with an additional lightweight backpack like the Exped Summit Lite 25. The ICU I use fits inside this creating a fantastic system for longer walks from camp, you can even rig it with cord to carry a lightweight tripod.
The second option is to store your lenses and camera in separate padded pouches. This is the method I use most commonly. I’m often taking two camera systems with me so I can shoot time-lapse and stills simultaneously. This puts packing space at a premium and separate pouches allow better packing efficiency it seems. When its raining a lot I slot all my camera gear into a dry bag.
If you are backpacking for a week or more then it’s tempting to think that you need a few camera batteries and a solar panel/power bank. In my experience it is much better to carry fully charged camera batteries. It’s the more expensive choice but also the lightest and most reliable. Manufacturers original batteries are (in my experience of Sony and Canon) generally better performing but more importantly far more reliable. I would rather have five original canon batteries than ten 3rd party batteries. Its really important to me that I KNOW how much battery power I have left as I come to the end of a trip. With my 5DSR I take one battery per day, with my A7RII I take 2-3 batteries per day depending on whether I am shooting video.
Unless I was hiking in guaranteed sunshine I wouldn’t consider solar powered charging – it’s a massive faff and for the weight of a solar charger you can carry quite a few extra batteries.
Bring a Allen Key (Hex Key) for your camera brackets. Gitzo tripods also need Torx Keys to tighten the legs. Lens cloths and lens wipes keep your lenses in check. Particularly obsessive photographers might want to hike with a sensor cleaning kit or rocket blower, but I think that’s overkill!
For clarity here is my preferred backpacking setup and a weight breakdown.
- Canon 5DSR with mounted 16-35 F4L IS, battery and RRS L-bracket – no lens hood – 1697g
- Canon 70-200 F4L IS, Canon bag – no lens hood – 843g
- Canon 50mm F1.8 “nifty fifty” – 135g
- Gitzo GT1545T with baseplate removed – 1045g
- RRS BH-40 Ballhead with Lever Release – 477g
- Tamrac Camera Pouch – 257g
- Batteries x6 at 77g each – 462g
- Memory cards (0.5TB) in pouch – 56g
- Filters – 77mm and 67mm polariser, 77mm 6-stop ND – 150g
- Lens cloths and tools – 70g
- Total Weight: 5.19kg
This is a full SLR setup so it should be entirely possible to get the weight below 5kg for and mirrorless or 4/3rds setup. Nikon D850 based setups are usually a little heavier because the equivalent lenses are heavier across the board.
When I am shooting time-lapse I carry a lot more batteries, an additional A7RII and a custom designed time-lapse slider and associated electronics. This approximately doubles the total weight.
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of weights and specs when choosing a backpacking camera system then check out Matt Payne’s excellent blog and tool here: