One of the most common questions I get from new mountaineers is what camera to take into the alpine. After all, who doesn’t want to catch a photo of the sun breaking over nearby peaks or snap a panorama from the summit?
As a photographer myself, I’ve spent a lot of time trying out different camera systems on hiking and climbing trips. To be sure, a camera and lens adds weight to my already heavy pack. But every time I’ve left my camera at home and relied on my smartphone to take photos, I’ve ended up kicking myself for not having something more powerful on hand when a unique moment came and went.
In this guide, I’ll show you the 8 best cameras for hiking and mountaineering based on my experiences. I’ll also explain my thinking around how to choose a camera for the mountains and cover the accessories you need with you.
My Review Process
In addition to being a mountaineer, I’m also a professional outdoor photographer—and I blend the two disciplines as much as possible. My photography company, Wandering Sole Studios, focuses on climbers in action and mountain landscapes, and it’s also where I document a lot of my adventures in Washington’s North Cascades.
I’ve tried out everything from point-and-shoots to mirrorless cameras to pro-level DSLRs in the backcountry. I know what features are important for taking photos in the mountains and what makes the best cameras stand out from the competition. Based on my experience, I’ll guide you through why each camera on my list is worth carrying on your next adventure.
The Sony A6600 is my top pick for hiking and mountaineering. Sony have included absolutely everything you could need in this mirrorless camera and its compact size and weight make it perfect for extended trips in the alpine.
The A6600 features Sony’s 24.2-megapixel APS-C (crop frame) sensor, which has been a mainstay for Sony for years and can be found in any A6000-series camera. The A6600 has a fully weatherproof body and a high capacity battery. It also offers 11 frames per second (fps) burst shooting, which is especially useful for shooting skiing, mountain running, and other high-speed adventures.
What really pushes the A6600 over the top for me is its video capabilities. This camera can shoot 4K video at 60 fps or full HD video in 120 fps slow-motion. For Hollywood-quality productions, it even offers S-Log gamma profiles. I rarely use all these video tools, but it’s nice knowing you can produce virtually any kind of media with this one camera.
Personally, I think mirrorless cameras are the way to go for mountaineering. So my runner-up camera is Olympus’ current top-end mirrorless model, the OM-D E-M5 Mark III. It’s offered at a more reasonable price than the Sony A6600 and offers overall similar functionality. It also weighs just 14.6 oz.
The 20.4-megapixel crop frame sensor offers great low-light performance. Olympus has added five-axis body image stabilization, which is a huge help when you’re snapping photos with one hand mid-climb. You can shoot motion at up to 10 fps and video at resolution up to 4K.
The biggest thing holding back the OM-D E-M5 is that the camera body isn’t fully weatherproof. That’s not a dealbreaker for me, but it does mean you need to be a little more careful when shooting in the rain or snow. On the plus side, the OM-D E-M5 has a more intuitive design than the A6600 and Olympus did a great job making the camera settings easy to navigate.
I’ll be upfront about how I feel about DSLRs for mountaineering: I don’t think they’re the best choice. They’re bulky, heavy, and expensive compared to mirrorless and point-and-shoot cameras. However, they do offer a wider range of lens options and they’re still the gold standard among professional photographers.
If you think a DSLR is right for you, I recommend the Nikon D7500. It’s Nikon’s top-of-the-line APS-C camera and it produces sharp, beautiful images. Nikon has literally hundreds of lenses to choose from, and it’s easy to find budget-friendly lenses from Sigma and Tamron that will fit the D7500.
The camera weighs in at 1.4 lbs before you add a lens, so it’s a lot to carry. However, the large size makes it a lot easier to use with mountaineering gloves on and Nikon’s button design is extremely intuitive. I also like the tilting LCD touchscreen control, which offers a lot of versatility when you’re shooting.
Importantly, the D7500 is also one of the cheapest DSLRs in Nikon’s lineup to offer full 4K video and support for timelapsing. The body is also fully weatherproof, which isn’t the case for most entry-level DSLRs.
I already know what you’re thinking. “A point-and-shoot that costs more than a mirrorless camera?!” But this isn’t just any point-and-shoot. The RX100 is absolutely packed with high-end features that rival those of the A6600. Yet it weighs in at a scant 10.7 oz.
The best thing about the RX100 is the lens, which is made by Zeiss. It telescopes out of the body to offer an effective zoom range from 24-200mm—a range that I usually use two or three lenses to cover with a mirrorless camera or DSLR. The 20.1-megapixel, 1-inch CMOS sensor is enormous for a point-and-shoot camera and offers stunning image quality.
The RX100 also incorporates Sony’s phase detection autofocus technology and can track moving subjects. Continuous shooting up to 20 fps is supported, as is slow-motion video shot at 120 fps. Leaving nothing out, the RX100 is even capable of shooting 4K video.
The only complaint I have about this camera is that it’s not weather sealed. Since it’s so small, though, I just toss it in a Ziploc when it starts raining.
I converted from Canon to Sony when the A7 line launched in 2013, and I’ve never looked back. That’s because Sony’s top-of-the-line cameras just keep getting better. The A7 IV, the latest camera in this series, features a 33-megapixel full-frame sensor, unbelievable low-light performance, and ultra-fast autofocusing thanks to a 759-point phase detection system.
The A7 IV has everything you could need for a professional shoot in the mountains, including dual memory card slots. It also features 4K video recording at 60 fps and a whopping 15 stops of dynamic range in S-Log mode.
The only drawback to the A7 IV is that continuous shooting is limited to 10 fps. This is slower than the A6600, although I’ve found it’s still fast enough to capture skiing.
Notably, Sony has been hard at work in recent years developing more lenses for its full-frame cameras in the A7 series. You won’t have any problem finding prime lenses, zoom lenses, and macro lenses for this camera.
If you’re looking to shave as much weight as possible from your photography kit, I recommend the Canon EOS M200. This camera weighs just 10.5 ounces, and you can keep the total weight under a pound with a lightweight prime lens. Despite the low weight, you get a 24.1-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor that provides extremely good image clarity and dynamic range.
In many ways, the M200 feels like a point-and-shoot with added flexibility thanks to its interchangeable lens system. The camera is easy to use, even with gloves on, and the 3-inch tilt angle touchscreen LCD is helpful for high or low shots. Since it’s a Canon, the range of lens choices is massive.
Another nice thing about this camera is that it supports USB charging. So, it’s easy to keep the battery charged on longer trips without carrying an external charger.
If you’re on a tight budget, the Panasonic Lumix packs a lot of functionality for its low price. This point-and-shoot camera has a 20.3-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor. While that’s small compared to the one-inch sensor in the Sony RX100, it still delivers solid image quality and performs admirably for astrophotography.
The standout feature of this camera is the integrated Leica lens. It offers a zoom range equivalent to 24-720mm, allowing you to zoom in on faraway peaks or even try out wildlife photography. A built-in image stabilization system helps keep your images crisp when you’re shooting handheld.
Another neat feature that’s really helpful in the mountains is focus stacking. The Lumix DC-ZS70 automatically captures multiple images when you click the shutter, so you can adjust the depth of field in your image after the fact.
The camera weighs just 11.4 oz, so you’ll hardly notice the extra weight in your pocket while climbing.
If you’re worried about dropping your camera—a real concern!—then a rugged camera like the Olympus Tough TG-6 can offer some peace of mind. The TG-6 is designed to withstand being banged on rocks and is fully sealed against dust and moisture. It can also handle extremely cold conditions, which is an advantage in the mountains. Really, you’d have to go out of your way to do any damage to this camera.
The TG-6 doesn’t offer quite the same range of features as some of the other cameras I reviewed. The integrated lens only offers a 25-100mm zoom range. In addition, the 12-megapixel sensor seems to have missed out on the trend of ever-increasing pixels.
Still, this camera does have plenty of tricks up its sleeve. It’s capable of shooting 4K video at 30 fps or HD video at 120 fps. It also has a built-in timelapse mode and offers an ISO range up to 12,800, which puts astrophotography within the camera’s reach.
Why Not Use a Smartphone Camera?
Before I dive into my top camera picks, let’s talk for a second about smartphone cameras. Frankly, they’re great—and they keep getting better. I’m routinely blown away by how good smartphone cameras can be at capturing climbing scenes, especially when the light is right.
Plus, you’re probably already carrying your phone for navigation (and emergencies). So, you get the advantage of a great camera without adding any extra gear to your pack. On trips where my plan is to go fast and light, I’ll often stick to using my phone to take photos.
The downside to smartphone cameras is that they’re not all that flexible. Yes, many new phones have multiple lenses, but you still can’t really zoom without losing image quality. That means it’s hard to get those dramatic, up-close photos of a climber in action. For that, you’ll need a camera with interchangeable lenses or, at the very least, optical zoom.
More important, smartphone cameras can’t match up to DSLRs or mirrorless cameras when it comes to the quality of the image sensor. Sunrise and sunset shots typically come out dark around the foreground and overexposed around the sky. On sunny days, smartphones can have a hard time dealing with shadows.
Ultimately, whether you need a smartphone or a dedicated camera comes down to what you want to achieve with your photography. If you just want to bring some photos home from the mountains, then a smartphone will do the trick. If you want to take your photography to the next level and capture all the drama of your trip, then you’ll need a camera.
Camera Accessories for Hiking & Mountaineering
To really elevate your photography, it helps to add a few accessories to your camera. Here are some of the main items I’d recommend.
If you opt for a mirrorless or DSLR, you’ll need to purchase one or more lenses to go with your camera body. For hiking and mountaineering, I prefer to have one lens that can do everything well rather than multiple highly specialized lenses. Unless I’m on a professional shoot, I’m not changing lenses in the field.
With that in mind, I suggest starting out with a 24-105mm lens or a 24-200mm lens. These give you plenty of zoom range and don’t weigh a ton.
The cheapest improvement you can possibly make to your photos is to add a circular polarizer to your lens. This eliminates glare from snow and water, and makes clouds in the sky look a little crisper.
Importantly, a polarizing filter also protects the front element of your lens from damage. If you don’t want to use a polarizer, a UV filter can protect against scratches and only costs a few dollars.
If I’m headed on a multi-day trip and have some extra space in my pack, I love bringing along a tripod. A tripod is absolutely essential for astrophotography, and it can dramatically improve the quality of your sunrise and sunset photos, too.
Of course, tripods add a fair amount of weight, especially if you need to support a mirrorless camera or DSLR. So they’re not something I bring on every trip.
A waterproof cover is one of the simplest, but most important accessories you can carry with you. Your adventure doesn’t stop just because it starts raining or snowing, and sometimes those conditions can make for the most dramatic photos.
Personally, I use the Shell camera cover from Peak Design and think it does a great job in wet conditions. For those on a budget, you can improvise a rain jacket for your camera using a Ziploc bag.
Even if your camera body is fully weather resistant, it’s worth using a cover when weather comes on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much moisture to break a $1,000 camera.
A camera bag isn’t essential, but it can help protect your camera when it’s inside your mountaineering backpack. I like camera bags that fit tightly and take up as little room as possible. I’ve also used socks to cover lenses so they don’t get scratched.
What to Look for in a Camera for Hiking & Mountaineering
Wondering what’s most important when choosing a camera for mountaineering? I’ll explain the main features I look at and why they’re important.
Sensor Size & Performance
In terms of camera “performance,” almost nothing matters more than the image sensor. While manufacturers tout the number of megapixels that a camera offers, what really matters is how big the image sensor is. Larger sensors have bigger pixels, each of which picks up more light. That translates into amazing image quality, especially in low-light conditions around sunset and at night.
Of course, having a bigger sensor means you’ll need a bigger camera. So there is a trade-off between size, weight, and camera performance. Generally, I like APS-C cameras because they strike a nice balance for most outdoor photographers.
Lens Options & Zoom
If you opt for a mirrorless or DSLR camera, you can easily swap lenses at will. With a compact camera, though, you’re stuck with the integrated lens—so it’s important to make sure that lens is what you need.
Key things to consider include the quality of the lens glass and the effective zoom range. More zoom range is a good thing, but keep in mind that a point-and-shoot camera may lose sharpness at either end of its zoom range.
Durability and Weatherproofing
Being in the mountains can be hard on your camera. After you spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on photography gear, no one wants to break a camera or a lens. If you’re like me and have a lot of money invested in your photography equipment, it’s a good idea to look into a camera-specific insurance policy.
Short of insurance, weather sealing is the best way to protect your camera in the alpine. Weather sealed camera bodies aren’t 100% effective at keeping out dust and moisture, but they will hold up in a light drizzle. Most of the cameras I reviewed are fully sealed, but to some extent this remains a feature that’s only found on top-of-the-line cameras.
As with all types of mountaineering, weight is a huge consideration when choosing a camera. If carrying around a pro-level DSLR was easy, everyone would do it and there’d be no need for point-and-shoot cameras at all.
In reality, weight is often my number one concern when choosing which camera and lenses to take on a trip. This is where lightweight APS-C sensor cameras and advanced point-and-shoot models like the Sony RX100 VII stand out. If you do opt for a camera with changeable lenses, be sure to factor the weight of the lens into your plans.
Bringing a camera along on your next hiking or mountaineering trip is a great way to document your adventure and share stories with friends.
If you want professional-quality photos and have room in your budget, I highly recommend the Sony A6600. It offers a fully weatherproof body, 11 fps continuous shooting, 4K video, and more.
For those on a tighter budget, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III offers many of the same features as the A6600, but isn’t weather sealed. For going fast and light with something more capable than your smartphone camera, check out the Sony RX100 VII.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.