Thru-Hike Camera Review

The camera that I primarily used on my 2013 AT thru-hike was the:

  • Sony NEX-5N with the 18-55mm/ f3.5-5.6 OSS lens.
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Separate Flash
  • Weight: 1lb 2 oz
  • Charger: 3 oz
  • MSRP: $699.99
Sunset in the White Mountains caputured with my Sony Nex5N

Sunset in the White Mountains (Sony Nex5N)

Overall thru-hike review: 9/10. It was a bit heavy by thru-hiking standards (weight: 7/10), but seemed to be the perfect compromise between the much bigger, heavier, and more expensive DSLRs and the smaller (but poorer photo-quality) standard point-and-shoots. I was a little concerned about how it well it would do when faced with the brutal treatment and conditions I knew I was bound to subject it to on the trail, but it held up impressively well (ruggedness: 10/10). I carried that camera from Georgia to Maine and used it every day! The battery life was also really good. If I used it exclusively for pictures it easily lasted me 5-7 days between recharges, using it for video sucked up much more battery, but was not the way that I usually used the camera (battery life: 9/10). I had only two complaints about it on the trail, 1) I didn’t feel comfortable using it in the heavy rains that I experienced fairly often (waterproofness: 6/10) and 2) the 18-55 lens didn’t give me enough zoom to take good, high quality photos of the wildlife that I encountered along the trail (zoom: 7/10). Overall I loved the Sony Nex, it was easy to use, relatively convenient, and allowed me to take the kinds of photos that I wanted to document my trip with (Check out the series of photobooks, Parts 1-5: Walk it Off that I made after returning from the trail, they pair the photos I took with the Sony Nex-5N with the blog posts that I made for the same days).

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In addition to the Sony Nex-5N, I also used my cell phone as a camera:

  • iPhone 4S
  • Weight: 6.4 oz
  • MSRP: $450

Overall thru-hike review as a camera: 6/10. The iPhone was convenient for taking pictures and sharing them on my blog and on facebook whenever I got to town (10/10). The size of the phone and the fact that I used it for multiple purposes also made it incredibly convenient (10/10). Some of the downsides to using my cell phone as my camera were that the photo-quality wasn’t nearly as good as the Sony Nex (5/10), and it took a long time to boot up if I had it powered down (5/10). Leaving my cell phone in airplane mode allowed for better response time, but drained my cell phone battery more quickly (6/10). If it was raining and I wanted to take a picture, I used my cell phone camera. The only technical problem that I had with the iPhone was early in the trip (my first week in Georgia) when I discovered that it didn’t power down correctly, which drained the cell phone battery really quickly. After contacting Verizon, they sent a replacement phone to my next maildrop. The replacement phone lasted me for the rest of the trip to Maine. Overall thru-hike review of the iPhone 4S as a phone: 10/10. Though my iPhone didn’t get great reception everywhere on the AT, it had good coverage for most of the tip (typically much better coverage than other providers). Keeping the phone in airplane mode, I was able to use it as a quick and easy camera without draining the battery too much. I also used it to send and receive text messages and to write my blog posts from town. I even used it as an mp3 player occasionally when my radio died. Overall it stood up to the wear and tear of the trail and functioned admirably.

Which Camera should I use for the PCT?

Cedar Waxwing (Canon Powershot)

Cedar Waxwing taken with the Canon Powershot

When I returned from the AT, I wished my camera had been better at taking wildlife pictures so I experimented with a camera with more zoom. Over the winter I tested out the:

  • Canon Powershot SX50 HS
  • 32 GB SD Card
  • Built in lenses and flash
  • Weight: 1lb 6.4 oz
  • Charger: 2.8 oz
  • MSRP: $429.99

Overall thru-hike review: 6/10. What I found was that the Canon Powershot was really good at taking pictures of birds, and was, in many ways, superior to SONY Nex 5N for this purpose. The image quality wasn’t as good as what I’d grown used to with the Sony Nex, but the zoom and image stabilization for the Powershot were definitely impressive. If I wanted to take pictures of anything other than birds (people inside with low light, or landscapes), my SONY NEX 5N was better, hands down. A downside that I anticipate with the Powershot as a camera for thru-hiking is the number of moving parts and fancy electronics involved with all autofocus the camera. Knowing me the camera would get damp and covered in dirt and grit like the Sony Nex did, and I’m not sure that it could withstand the kinds of abuse that I put my cameras through on backpacking treks). The battery life for the Powershot also didn’t seem to be as good as it was for the Sony Nex 5N. Overall backyard birding review: 10/10. Even though I wasn’t convinced that this was the camera to take on the trail with me, it is definitely an awesome little camera and does an amazing job when it comes to taking pictures of stationary birds in good light, even when they are far away! Check out the book that I made with all the fun bird pictures I took over the winter:

WinterWildlife

Final decision for PCT:

Ultimately I have decided to go with the Sony Nex 5N for my upcoming PCT thru-hike. Since my biggest complaint about it was the lack of zoom, someone helped me fix that glitch by giving me a new lens:

  • Sony 55-210mm f/4.5-6.3 Telephoto lens
  • Weight: 12.8 oz
  • MSRP: $349.99

This new lens gives me the added zoom that I’m looking for, so hopefully I’ll gett even better wildlife pictures on the PCT than I did on the AT. I found that trying to exclusively use the telephoto lens was annoying for pictures of scenery and people so I splurged on a small wide angle lens for the camera as well:

  • Sony 16mm f/2.8
  • Weight: 2 oz
  • MSRP: $249.99

Between these two lenses I hope that the Sony NEX 5N will meet all of my needs as I hike the PCT. A definite downside is that my camera gear has gotten heavier between my AT hike and my PCT hike. The total weight of all of my camera gear (including chargers, lenses, and camera body) is now:

  • 1 lb, 12.8 oz

Making my camera gear a rival for the heaviest thing in my pack!

A Northerner in the South

To resupply I have to get into town somehow. My first experience with this was getting a ride into Helen, GA. A local guy by the name of TJ offers to give folks rides into town for a small fee.

I was hiking with Spirit Bear at the time and he’d arranged for the ride. As we hiked into the gap we saw TJ with his beat up white pickup truck and a bunch of other hikers milling around trying to figure out how to get into town to resupply. We loaded our stuff into the truck and a couple of hikers got into the back. As Spirit Bear and I crawled into the front seat a fist fight broke out between two backpackers (brothers) and one asked if he could get into the back of the truck to get the heck out of there.

After he piles in TJ starts the truck and tries to pull out of the parking lot. After it stalls three times we finally are on the road heading into town. I notice that there is a skeleton hung from the rearview mirror and a gator on the dash. I’m a bit afraid the passenger door might fly open so I’m holding it closed with one hand and leaning towards the inside of the truck just in case.

“Where you from?” TJ asks me in a thick Georgian accent after Spirit Bear says he’s from Atlanta.

“Boston I say,” admittedly full of pride in my city and state after having gone through the recent terrorist ordeal.

“Hrmph,” is the reply, and then, presumably jokingly, though I wasn’t completely sure, “We don’t take none too kindly to Yankees ’round here.”

I replied without even thinking, “We don’t either, we’re Red Sox fans where I’m from!”

Gruff laughter follows from TJ and Spirit Bear. Then TJ asked us to yell at the guys in the back to let them know not to lean against the tailgate, it’s popped open before.

And then the rains came (Days 9-12)

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I made it through Georgia without getting poison ivy! I crossed into North Carolina a couple days ago and met a southbound thru-hiker right at the state line. It’s possible that he was more excited about crossing the line than I was, but it turns out that getting through the first state feels like a big deal. I’ll have to get to Maine to see how crossing into the last state compares.

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I had one beautiful day of hiking in North Carolina before the rain rolled in. I hiked all day yesterday in the middle of a cloud that sometimes poured on me and sometimes just dripped. Last night I opted to sleep in a shelter (even though my tent did keep me dry during the storm the previous evening), which was pretty full of folks with the same idea. Walking through the misty tunnels of rhododendron and fields of trillium was kind of cool though. Also, it seems that newts come out with the rain. My favorite thing about the rain so far is that It means I don’t have to worry about stepping on copperheads sunning themselves in the trail. The rain and mist continued today, but should dissipate by tomorrow I think.

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Bear Bags (Days 7&8)

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Hanging a good bear bag definitely felt like a lot of work last night. The biggest problem was finding a suitable branch to hang it from. The branches that were thick enough and far enough from the trunk seemed to be 50 ft up, the ones that were 20-30 ft up seemed too small and scraggly. If I saw a branch that I thought would work, the ground beneath it and around it was covered in poison ivy. Also, the poison ivy grows up the trunks of the trees. Eventually as the sun set I gave up and just picked a branch and decided to make it work. It turns out the trunk of the tree was covered in poison ivy, but so far so good… No itching. The result is pictured above and I think it’s quite beautiful.

Even with all of the mountains and elevation of the last couple of days the trail has been pretty nice. The bluettes along the trail and the temperatures are making it feel like summer already.

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I’m amazed by all of the trillium along the trail. I’m used to thinking of them as rare, and I heard that the ones like those we have at home are relatively rare here too, but the pink and the white trillium are incredibly pervasive here. I’ve walked across hillsides completely covered with them.

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I encountered a section hiker, Spirit Bear, and have ventured into town with him to resupply and get mail drops. So far all of the people we’ve met have been vey helpful and supportive, especially the folks at Betty’s Country Store in Helen, GA. I’m looking forward to getting back on the trail tomorrow with a new iPhone that actually powers down when I tell it to.

Other things I ran into on the trail today include: 3 turkeys, trillium (whire, pink, and purple), wild orange azaleas, lady slippers, and purple orchids (galeorchis spectabilis).

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Scarlet Tanagers (Days 5&6)

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I’m not big into birding, but I appreciate the variety of songs and colors of the birds that I encounter. Yesterday I saw a particularly spectacular bird (a scarlet tanager), which has a brilliant red body offset with dark black wings. As I kept hiking I saw more and more of them (a total of 8 different tanagers). I found that if I disturbed one by the trail, it would slowly try to circle around me as it waited for me to move. Though they came pretty close to me, I was never quick enough to get a picture of one with my phone.

I spent a cozy night curled up in my tent last night and ended up getting a very early start this morning (the people camping near me were having a loud conversation at 5:45 am). I managed to pack up and hit the trail by 7 am and had hiked five miles by 9 am. The early morning sun managed to make everything look beautiful (even the poison ivy). I think that this may mean that I’ve become a morning person again.

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