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Backpacking is a fantastic way to get to breathtaking views that most people won’t get a chance to see. There are a number of ways that you can take advantage of that. Perhaps the easiest is to just take in the sights while you are there and hope to remember them.
Let’s be honest though, you want a camera to help preserve these memories. The next question becomes should I go backpacking with a DSLR or is my phone good enough?
That’s a tough one to answer and really you are the only one that can make the call. I’ll discuss some reasons that you might want to take a phone or a point and shoot, but there are some strong reasons to bring a full DSLR with you. For starter’s, it is quicker.
When you turn on a DSLR it is ready to shoot, this is great for those fleeting glimpses of nature. Additionally, it offers you a lot more control, if you are only going to get one shot at a photo you don’t want the auto settings to goof it up. Also, shooting in a RAW format gives you the option to fix a lot of errors with a shot after you get home.
But there are definitely some challenges that come with hiking with a camera. It will add weight, you’ll need to keep it safe while still being able to get to it and it really only does the one thing. Over the course of the article, I’ll go over some solutions to these as well as a few things that you might want to have with you. So, without further delay, let’s dive in.
Best gear for backpacking with a DSLR
1. Carrying solutions
If you are taking gear with you for hike photography, you have to do a bit of a balancing act. Most modern DSLRs are built to stand up to frequent use, however rocks, dust, water, wildlife and falls are still the enemy of your camera. You’ll need to come up with ways of protecting your camera from each of these as you head out on your trip.
The first thing that I will do when planning a trip is getting the details on where I’m going and what I’ll be dealing with. This might sound obvious but let that planning that you are already doing guide your camera preparations as well. Heading to a desert might mean less concern about getting wet but dust being more of an issue and so forth.
In addition to protecting your camera, you need it easy to get to. When a bear wanders across your trail you don’t want to have to drop your pack and dig into the middle of it to get your camera out and ready. There are a number of different solutions here. You can go with either a camera strap or a bag. Some companies are now also making a camera clip to keep your camera ready to use.
Your primary options for carrying your DSLR while hiking or backpacking are as follows and I will go over a few of them more in detail:
- a camera backpack
- camera strap
- a camera harness
- camera clip
- an insert into your current backpack
A good backpack
Clearly, everyone will have a different answer when asked what is the best camera backpack for hiking? Some of this will clearly go with the nature of your trip. If you intend to hike into an area, make a base camp and then do a series of day hikes, then perhaps something like the Lowepro Flipside camera backpack might be the best option. This style gives you a safe place to carry your camera and some of the related gear plus a few snacks and some water. It’s a very popular option on Amazon.
For a through hiker a daypack might not be practical, so you might want to look at a toploader camera bag. These can be found in sizes that can handle any of the top camera brands with a range of lens attached. This will allow you to have everything ready and we’ve found a number of methods for attaching your bag to the hip belt on your backpack.
This keeps your camera within an arm’s length and ready for when nature presents itself. Here’s another great option on Amazon from Lowepro.
A quality strap
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that the standard camera strap isn’t a great option for hiking with a DSLR. Just tossing this around your neck will keep the camera readily available, but it will swing, bounce and become annoying. Luckily, when you go looking for a camera strap for hiking you have a number of options. Here is one across the body option on Amazon with great reviews and is recommended for hiking.
One style of camera strap for hiking is the across the chest style. There is a single strap that is worn across the chest (put on prior to donning your pack) and it connects to the camera at a single point. Some companies will attach with the tripod screw, others will have a clip to use on one of the strap lugs. Either way, your camera now dangles closer to upside down with the lens pointing at you more than pointing away and toward danger.
For a different option, you can look into a camera harness. These will normally consist of two straps that will connect to the camera and hold it more securely to you. This keeps the camera from bouncing all over with the movement of your body while you walk but allow it to be right there at the ready should you need it.
Finally, a few speciality companies are making a backpack camera strap. These are designed to replace the neck strap, but instead of your wearing them they attach directly to your pack. One thing to remember if you go this route is that you’ll want to detach your camera prior to trying to take your pack off.
Peak Design Capture Clip
For a different solution to camera storage, you’ll want to look into some of the offerings from Peak Design. A very popular carry solution, the Peak Design Capture Clip comes at the problem from a whole new angle. It gives you a tripod style foot that attaches to your camera with the traditional screw and then gives you a clip that you can attach just about anywhere you have some fabric.
This means that any strap on your pack becomes a camera mounting point. The beauty of this is that since the camera isn’t on a strap its not swaying, but since it isn’t in a bag you don’t have to pull it out.
If you have a heavier camera you might also consider the Peak Design Capture Pro. This one is a top loader clip that is made to be hung from a belt. It is better at handling some of the heavier cameras out there, especially if you have a longer lens in place. Due to the design, it can work well on the hip belt of a pack to ensure that you are seconds away from capturing your next picture.
2. Best lenses for wildlife photography
Which lens to bring is always something that photographers will debate over. That debate only gets more intense when you are looking to take them on your next backpacking trip. A lot of this will depend on things like being willing to change lenses out in the environment, how much weight you are willing to allow for your lenses and your shooting style.
The easiest answer of all is to just bring the kit lens that came with your camera body. These lenses are normally packaged with the body as they are good all-around lenses. While some might only cover 18 -55 mm many companies now pair something closer to an 18 – 300 mm in their kits.
This gets you some wide-angle coverage as well as taking you out into telephoto lens range to bring the wildlife closer in. These aren’t generally the fastest lenses out there, but it also means that you don’t need to swap out lenses when that fleeting moment of beauty comes.
Another option is the nifty fifty. You can track down a 50 mm lens to go with just about any camera body on earth and they are solid choices. Being a prime lens there is no zoom feature to gum up with dust, they are fairly short and light. Some people will use their 50 mm for everything. The one major downside is that you are set for a single focal length. If you want to zoom in or zoom out you will be using your feet to accomplish the task.
I think that the three-lens solution might be the best answer. Now starting out this means that you will need to carry multiple lenses and swap them as needed, but the weight and time cost aren’t all that much. First, you’ll want something that gives you good wide-angle performance. This is somewhere in the 16 – 35 mm range. This will stand out when you reach the edge of a cliff and want to capture the wide-open landscape before you. This will probably be something around 30 – 100 mm and can be your go-to lens.
With most backpacking along forest trails, you don’t need to always have a wide shot and you can only see so far, so a telephoto isn’t always needed. This will give you solid middle of the road lens to pop off a few shots as they come up. Lastly, a telephoto lens, somewhere along the lines of a 70 – 300 mm will allow you to get in close to wildlife while staying a safe distance.
When considering the lenses that you will take you’ll want to think about their maximum aperture. This is listed as something like f4 on the lens and tells you how wide the lens will open and how much light it can let in. The smaller the aperture number the larger the opening and the quicker the picture you can take.
If you really need to freeze the action, you’ll want something like f2.8. In reality, staying somewhere in the f4 range is probably good enough for most daylight shots while camping. As an added bonus a larger aperture number will generally also mean a lighter lens.
3. Best lightweight tripods for backpacking
Nature shots are great, and it is wonderful to capture the epic views that you will come across on your travels, but at some point, you’ll want to be in the picture. It might be the hero shot on the top of the peak or just a few pictures of you and your buddies at your campsite.
For that, you’ll need to have a way to steady your camera while you take the picture. Sometimes you can find a well-placed flat rock or a bend in a tree branch that works just right, but many times you’ll need to have a backpacking tripod.
A full-sized tripod is just too big and bulky, but there are two major types of tripod that would be at home on your next backpacking journey. The first is a shrunken down version of a tripod, it could be as beefy as one of the offerings from ZOMEi or it could be a minimalist option like those from Pedco. The other path to consider is that of the Gorillapod that lets you position the legs as you need to form to the terrain or wrap around objects that you come across.
Either of the styles will require some thought from you. Most will have a foot that screws into the port on the bottom of your DSLR, so you can get a good connection, but you’ll have to think about the weight that it can handle. You don’t want to be lining up for your shot only to find that your camera (including the lens) is too heavy for the tripod that you have with you.
Also, take a little bit of time and think about the feet for your tripod. Some will have a spike to dig into the ground and others might just have a rubber foot. Spikes are great for dirt, but if you are in a rockier area the rubber feet might be a better option for you.
4. Other gear
There are tons upon tons of gear that you can bring whenever you are backpacking with a DSLR. While a good deal of it can be very useful, you’ll want to ask, is this worth the weight? There are a few other items that you might want to consider adding to your pack.
The first is a remote trigger for your camera. Most modern DSLRs have the ability to be triggered remotely. This allows you to set up a group shot with everyone and not have to run to beat the timer. But you can also use it for some astrophotography or just setting up your camera as a photo trap to try and get shots of wildlife.
Another piece of kit that you need to consider are some lens filters. When it comes to the best lens filter for the outdoors there are three that you need to know about. The first is the UV filter. This one helps filter out the UV light that can produce haze in your landscape shots. As an added benefit it keeps the glass of the lens free from dust and smudges if left attached.
The next is a circular polarizer. This one acts like your sunglasses and will help remove glare from reflective surfaces. The last is a neutral density filter. This one will make things darker than it would otherwise appear. While the might not sound overly helpful, it can be a lifesaver on a bright day, especially if you want to do a longer exposure.
Tips for keeping your camera dry while backpacking
No matter what DSLR you end up bringing with you, it isn’t going to do well with the wet. Most modern options are sealed fairly well against dust (so long as you don’t change lenses). Some of the camera companies have come out with DSLRs that they claim is water resistant. You have to remember that you need every port properly sealed to get that level of water protection, but it still isn’t rated for downpours.
There are plenty of solutions for keeping your camera dry. They range from the homemade of wrapping your camera in a shopping bag to some more commercial options. No matter where you are going in addition to having a waterproof case to store your camera in a few rain sleeves tend to be a good investment. These are inexpensive and generic enough to work with just about any model of DSLR. They are placed over the camera and lens to keep the rain off. While they do well for that, they aren’t the best choice for water coming from below.
There are higher quality rain protectors that will wrap totally around the camera with some hand holes. This style of solution is a better option if you are expecting rain with wind or splashes from below. These can still be found somewhat inexpensively, but each tends to be crafted for a particular camera body and length of lens.
If you will be dealing with even more water, there are various bags and cases that can be used to secure your camera. The upside is that some are even rated to take a DSLR SCUBA diving, but it means that you won’t easily be able to swap out lenses. Also, the more water protection the more dialed in the solution will be to a certain camera body and lens combination.
Backpacking with a DSLR vs using an iPhone
We’ve gone over a number of methods to make sure that your DSLR is safe while on the trail. We’ve called out a number of reasons why you might want to take your DSLR with you. But at the end of the day, a DSLR is not the right choice for every trip. You have to face it, they are bulky, heavy and expensive.
They are only going to be able to take pictures or video and they generally call for bringing other gear along too. All of this is compounded by the fact that since most of us have a smartphone, you are probably already bringing a fairly decent camera with you anyway.
Smartphone cameras have come a long way, they don’t give you as much control and they can take a while to boot up, but most likely you are going to carry with you anyway. And if you are going on a rather long trip perhaps a couple extra pairs of socks are a better use for the room in your pack. Or maybe you are an ultra-light hiker and are working to shave off as much weight as possible.
Phones can lose battery quickly while searching for signal while you are in the backcountry, so you may want to consider an external battery pack for recharging. One cool option, since you will be in the backcountry for days at a time, is a solar powered charger like this one on Amazon.
Another option is the point and shoot. These cameras can be a lot simpler to use if you are just getting started and tend not to frighten people if you hand it to them and ask for them to take a shot of you. They can be rather small and lightweight, so they make a natural choice for a solid hiking camera. I personally own a Sony A6000 Mirrorless Camera, it’s not quite the quality you get from a DSLR but it takes up much less room in your backpack and is an overall great little camera.
Does that answer every possible question about backpacking with a DSLR? No, but whole books could be written on the subject. This should give you a solid starting point. Like anything else in backpacking and photography, a lot will be dependent on your particular style and plans. You need to consider quite a bit, and this should help keep in focus the key points for taking your camera out on the trail. The final question is one to you, what gear do you take on your excursions?
Lastly, don’t forget to bring plenty of batteries and memory cards for your trip. When it comes to memory cards some people will argue that a couple large cards will do you. Others will say that it is a better option to go with slightly smaller cards and take more. The thought is that if one card fails you won’t lose all your pictures from the trip.