How to Choose the Best Camera Gear for a Thru-Hike

Hey all! For those of you who don’t know me, the name is Koty, AKA Trash Panda. Over the past three years I have spent my time as what you might call an adventure enthusiast. Traveling to remote parts of the country, backpacking the entire Appalachian Trail, and this year heading out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail means that I am constantly on the go. During this time I have harnessed my skills as a photographer, testing many photography products as well as working with clients and brands along the way. I also produce prints, photobooks, and have a photo on tour with the ATC.

Some of the most common questions I see in the world of backpacking revolve around documenting one’s hike. There are several methods for going about this. One can choose to film, vlog, photograph, blog, journal, or a combination of the aforementioned. Personally, I photograph and write about my journeys. For my upcoming PCT thru-hike attempt, I will be adding vlogging to the mix. In prepping my gear for the trail, I decided to share with all of you how one can photograph a thru-hike while staying in the ultralight/lightweight backpacking realm. Yes, that’s right, you can have a ten-pound base weight and still capture professional quality photographs.

First, there are five important questions to ask yourself

1) What type of photographer are you?

2) What level of commitment do you have?

3) What kind of budget do you have?

4) What kind of quality do you desire?

5) What kind of weight are you willing to carry?

Second, which category/tier do you fall under?

1) Memory Lover

  • This is your everyday hiker.
  • You simply wish to snap photos of your hike for personal enjoyment and sharing.
  • $0 – $1,000.
  • You desire decent quality photographs.
  • You are not willing to carry added weight.
  • Simplistic.

For this tier of photographer, I suggest none other than a good quality cell phone. While it is true that today’s cellular devices are surpassing point and shoot cameras, they are still nowhere near professional quality. That being said, you can shoot amazing pictures to share with family, friends, and even on blogs. 

The newest iPhones, Galaxy, and Pixel smartphones provide the most bang for your buck. Everything you need to accomplish technology based task can be accomplished on this one device. 

Communication, trail navigation, taking photographs, recording video, journaling your hike, blogging, entertainment, and much more.

As an added bonus, you can download an app such as Lightroom to give your photos the look you desire. You can also find many adaptive lenses for smartphones. Personally, I do not use them. I only use Lightroom in adding character to my photographs.

My Pick: iPhone XR, the best photo quality I have experienced in a phone yet

2) Hobbyist

  • You take photos for personal enjoyment, sharing, small/medium prints, online publishing, etc.
  • You don’t mind putting a little effort into getting the shot and sorting/editing photos.
  • $500-$1,500.
  • You desire excellent quality.
  • Ten ounces+ in added weight.
  • A great balance of quality and weight.

This is the category most photographers fall into. You want that extra quality, like to get a little technical, and want to show off those impressive photos.

There are two paths you can take when choosing your system: a high-quality point and shoot or the entry/midlevel interchangeable lens camera.

For a point and shoot camera, I recommend something like a Sony RX100 series camera. Canon, Panasonic, and others offer similar options. They produce great quality photographs without too much added weight and bulk. Ten ounces or so. It can also fit in your pocket. Also, don’t let the term “point and shoot” fool you. This littler camera can be quite the powerhouse if you learn to use all of its settings and functions. 

For an interchangeable lens camera, I recommend something like the Sony a6300 series cameras. Again, other brands have similar options, but I find Sony to be superior for what I do. With these cameras you will get another bump in quality, along with the option to bring the lens/lenses that best fit your style. The downside is you start to tack on more weight. Depending on your lens choice you could easily be over one, two, or even three pounds. That being said, you can produce wall hanging, magazine publishing quality photographs. 

On my 2017 hike of the Appalachian Trail, I carried a Nikon D5500 and 18-140mm lens. It was my first interchangeable lens camera. Looking back, I would have preferred a lighter, higher quality setup, but my budget did not allow for any such upgrade. In the end, I self-published a photography book and have a photo on tour that was on display in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.

My Pick: Sony RX 100 series. The quality to weight-and-bulk ratio can’t be beat

3) Professional 

  • You intend to make money off your photographs, publish works, and create large prints, and you need the best you can carry. 
  • You prefer to get technical, use manual settings, and shoot in raw format.
  • You don’t mind spending months post-trail sorting and editing photos.
  • $2,000+
  • Two pounds+ in added weight.
  • You trade the best quality for a weight penalty.

You know if you are in the category. Photography is more than a hobby. You intend to have your work on display, published, and/or make money. Sure, you can purchase this tier as a hobbyist, but it defeats the purpose of owning this level of equipment if you never intend to have your work seen.

I recommend none other than the Sony A7 Full Frame series cameras. Again, other brands offer similar products, but I find Sony to be superior across the board. They provide the highest quality possible, while keeping a light, sturdy, weather resistant system.

My Pick

Camera: Sony A7III 

All-around Lens Option: Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4.0 or Sony 24-105mm f4 G

Portrait Lens Option: Sony Zeiss 35mm f2.8 or Sony Zeiss 55mm f1.8

Additional Info for Interchangeable Lens Cameras

Lenses

 

When it comes to lens selection, it depends on your style of photography. If you shoot a wide range of subjects, a zoom lens is your best bet. If you prefer the world of portraiture, a sharp prime lens is your best friend. 

You could arguably get by with one prime lens such as a 35mm prime. Many thru-hikers have. With this lens you could capture sharp environmental portraits of people and still capture landscape shots. Also, depending on the manufacturer this lens could weigh as little as three ounces, whereas my zoom lens weighs nearly 24 ounces.

If you can’t decide on a lens, take a look at camera info for previous photos, if applicable. For example, after looking at camera info for hundreds of photos on my previous camera, I was able to determine that 90% of my shots are taken between 20-35mm and 70-85mm. Based on this information, I am able to conclude that I either need two separate lenses or one all-around lens. One all-around lens is more practical for a thru-hike. The idea is to carry only the gear I need, while keeping weight down. Again, this decision will be based on your own personal style of shooting. 

My Pick: Sony 24-105mm f4.0 G

Filters

As far as filters go, when long distance hiking, you really only need one filter: a circular polarizer. This allows you to remove glare from surfaces such as water/rocks and provides better overall saturation in the sky.

My Pick: Hoya HD3 or Hoya NXT Plus Circular Polarizer

Bringing Your Gear on a Thru-Hike

Camera Storage

If your camera is stowed in your backpack you simply will not use it as often as you like. It needs to be readily accessible and within arm’s reach. 

There are many options available, such as a camera case that attaches to the hip belt of your pack, a waist pack camera case, or the Peak Design capture clip. This is really up to you and you have to find the option that works best for you. I have used all three. In addition, I always carry a gallon-size ziplock as extra protection and place my camera in it when it rains. Be forewarned; there is no protection if you drop or slam the camera into something while using the capture clip.

My Pick: Depends on the hike and weather conditions

Batteries/Charging

I suggest carrying two to three batteries for your camera, depending on how often you shoot. These batteries will weigh next to nothing and can be recharged in town. This means that you don’t need to carry a larger external battery pack since you will only need it for your cellular device. Personally, I find that a total of three batteries will last ten+ days on trail and weigh 1.5 ounces each. Not a bad trade-off. In addition, I carry typically carry an eight-ounce 10,000Mah battery pack to recharge my phone between towns.

Memory and Backup

SD cards can be your friend and your enemy. My advice: do not go out and buy the largest capacity card you can buy. SD cards are known to fail. If you have all your photos on one 128gb SD card and that card fails, well, you just lost everything. I prefer to carry several 32gb cards that hold up to 700 photos each. This way if a card fails I only lose a couple hundred photos rather than thousands. Being on trail for months also brings up the issue of backing up photos. I use an SD card to lightning adapter to download raw files to my iPhone for backup. I can then upload them to the cloud when in town.

Cleaning

A microfiber cleaning cloth can do wonders for keeping your lens/filter clean.

My Camera Gear for My 2019 Pacific Crest Trail Thru-Hike

*This equates to ~4.5 pounds of camera gear in addition to my estimated nine- to ten-pound pack.

I use my iPhone to take photos for blogging and sharing. I will also use it to film/vlog the PCT. My camera is used strictly for professional quality photos. All of which I will not edit until post trail. However, every other night I will go through the photos I have captured and delete ones I do not prefer. This saves space on my SD cards and makes post-trail culling less time-consuming. In addition, I shoot strictly in manual and raw format. 

For the PCT I am considering using a waist pack for camera gear. This will keep my backpack down to nine to ten pounds and keep the added weight of camera gear on my legs rather than my shoulders/back. The weight distribution makes a huge difference. This might sound silly, but after hiking the Appalachian Trail with a 19+ pound pack, sans food and water, filled with four pounds of camera gear, I can tell you I will never do it again. Thru-hiking to an extent needs to be enjoyable and there is nothing enjoyable about 30+ pounds on my back every time I leave town.

As always, the best camera is the one you have with you and the one you are most familiar with. Make sure you know how to operate your camera comfortably before hitting the trail. If you choose to purchase an interchangeable lens camera, you should learn how to shoot in manual and in raw format. This is what makes these cameras stand out: The ability to capture a scene exactly how you desire and to turn that raw image into a fantastic piece of work later on. Simply using auto mode on a $1,500 interchangeable lens camera will not result in photographs much different from a $600 point and shoot. So if you prefer to shoot on auto mode, stick with a phone or point and shoot. It’s the practical option.

I would like to state that I am not affiliated with or paid for promotion of any of the aforementioned products. They are simply what I have found to be the best options for staying light and efficient in the backcountry.

If you would like to see what’s in my pack I will be posting another blog before hitting the trail, though I will say one thing now. The rumor that ultralight gear is too expensive is a myth these days. My original gear setup for the AT, like a lot of first time thru-hikers, cost me $2,000 and was nowhere near ultralight. My current setup can be had for under $1,500 and it weighs just at nine pounds. So stick around and check it out next time.

Happy trails,

Trash Panda

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Comments 13

  • Myron : Apr 29th

    Nice review of the options at appropriate ‘levels’! Let us know when you decide what case you’ll be using…

    Happy Trails!

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : Apr 30th

      Thanks! I sure will let you guys know when I know.

      Reply
  • Andy K : Apr 30th

    Thank you for sharing your setup!

    I opted for a 24 MP Nikon D3500 with a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm. I was able to get both on a holiday sale at B&H for under $1,000.

    The camera body is 12.88 oz. with battery and the Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm is another 16.2 oz., so 1 lb, 13 oz. in total.

    The battery life is awesome! it is rated CIPA of 1550 shots, but I find that in common use I get ~1100 shots (RAW/JPEG concurrent) with moderate flash use. I bought a backup battery, but upon reflection; it is not necessary. I have gone two weeks between charges.

    I find that this hits the sweet spot for cost, weight, photo options, and the quality of photos.

    The only downside is video – the D3500 is 1080P max and does not have a flip-up screen or external mic input, so not ideal for vloggers.

    I carry the camera in a ultralight cover at an additional 6.8 oz. – https://www.thinktankphoto.com/products/ultralight-camera-cover-30

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : Apr 30th

      Investing in glass(lenses) is more important than the camera and you sure have picked a great lens. I loved my Nikon set up at the time. Make sure to keep that thing dry since the camera body isn’t dust/weather resistant. A ziplock does wonders. As for battery life. I get about 600 shots out of a battery and will shoot up to 200 photos a day so that is why I carry multiple batteries. Newer smart phones can take great video.

      Reply
  • backwards hat : Apr 30th

    Koty! great article. im looking to upgrade camera set up soon and this was helpful info.

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : Apr 30th

      Thanks! If you have any questions before purchasing feel free to ask!

      Reply
  • Milos : Apr 30th

    Hey, thanks for the info. I am hiking AT this year and taking A6300 with 18-135mm, sometimes I wish i bought RX100, but here we are. Only thing missing is polarizing filter.

    Btw how did you protect your camera during long and heavy rains? Did you just put it into some waterproof pack? Thanks

    Good luck on PCT!

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : Apr 30th

      That’s a good setup. Nice focal range. You could ship yourself one of the Hoya CPLs. It makes a difference with landscape shots.

      As for protection I had a camera case by Osprey that is very similar to Lowepro DSLR cases. It had a strap and attached to my hip belt. I would put my camera inside a ziplock as extra protection during heavy rain.

      Reply
  • Henry : May 6th

    I like the Fuji XT3 or XT3, close to the quality of the Sony A series and the lenses are a lot lighter. Weather resistance is worth it, though not a cure all. A lens that goes wide to 24 mm equivalent will let your pics stand out from all the 28 mm equivalent cell phone pics.

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : May 8th

      The Fuji series are quite nice and I totally agree with you on having a 24 mm lens with wider range than cellular devices. Sometimes I wish I could go a little wider but 24 is good for most of my landscape shots.

      Reply
      • Henry : May 8th

        Me too! Meant XT2 or 3.

        Reply
  • Mark Stanavage : May 7th

    Love my Sony RX100. That being said, wish I’d gone for III instead of II so I could download easier. Wish they’d come out with an environmentally sealed (waterproof) version!!!

    Reply
    • Koty Sapp : May 8th

      It would be nice if they could water seal the RX100 series, but otherwise I think its a fantastic camera.

      Reply

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