Rugged cameras for the backcountry

August 15, 2012

Drop it on a rock. Throw it in the river. Give it to your kids. It won’t break. A whole genre of compact, ultra-durable cameras is built for the abusive conditions of the backcountry and everyday life. Here’s the latest on choosing a rugged, pocket-sized camera tough enough for virtually any adventure.

No camera is truly indestructible, of course, but today’s tough outdoor cameras are designed to withstand some serious abuse. They gain their durability from stronger, heavier materials in the camera body, plus impact-resistant electronics and lens designs. To gauge relative toughness, look for the camera’s “shockproof” rating, the manufacturer-tested distance the camera can be dropped onto any surface without sustaining damage. Most models feature a shockproof rating somewhere between 3 and 7 feet; you generally pay a little more (and concede an extra ounce or two of weight) for maximum strength. Manufacturers sometimes include a “crushproof” rating as well, typically listed in pounds of force. A 200-pound person could stand on many designs without causing damage.

An estimated 380 billion pictures were taken in 2011, nearly four times the number in 2000, or more than 12,000 pictures every second.

Any compact camera built for the outdoors will almost certainly be waterproof and rated to a certain depth. This rating can vary significantly based on the camera (and price), from as little as 3 feet to 40 feet or more. For land-based activities, where the occasional puddle or stream poses the greatest threat to your camera, minimal ratings in this category are generally adequate. If you’re a whitewater kayaker or scuba diver, you probably want to take a closer look. As a bonus, a waterproof design also makes the camera dustproof in gritty environments.

Sized right
Size is one of the most important features to consider. A good outdoor camera must be small enough to keep somewhere that provides you with instant access, whether it’s in a pocket or some other accessory pouch within arm’s reach. Great shots come and go in seconds. With a camera always at the ready, you’ll capitalize on many more great photo opportunities.

The right dimensions, however, vary based on your preferences. How big are your pockets? Make sure the camera fits easily, or consider a camera accessory pouch for your belt or backpack strap. Does the camera feel comfortable in your hand? Tiny cameras can be challenging for photographers with large hands. Go handle a few different sizes at a camera store near you. Note which dimensions you like best, then apply that knowledge to selecting an outdoor camera (which can be hard to find side-by-side for comparison).

Easy to use
A good outdoor camera minimizes the amount of time you have to fiddle with the buttons, menus, or settings. Consider the following questions: Are the buttons easily pushed? What if you’re wearing gloves? Are there one-button shortcuts to common settings, especially white balance and exposure compensation? How’s the glare on the camera screen? (Newer, more expensive organic light-emitting diode [OLED] displays are easier to see in direct sun than liquid crystal display [LCD] screens.) Also consider how the camera performs in low-light conditions, such as in shady forest or at sunset. Look for wide lens apertures (indicated by a low f-stop) to maximize the amount of light the camera lets in. (The best compacts today come in at around f/2.0.)

Author Matt Heid blogs about gear trends at

Nicely featured
As a general rule, most compact outdoor cameras produce good, high-resolution images. (Realize, of course, that you’re shopping for compact size and durability, not the professional image quality of a high-end camera.) Most models also record video, usually in high-definition. Other increasingly common features include fast-burst shooting (multiple frames per second) and an integrated GPS receiver, which tags each photo with its location to allow for geographic sorting or export to a map. When it comes to battery life, precise numbers can be hard to pin down, in part because it depends on many factors, including temperature and how you use your camera (a GPS drains batteries fast). Do look for a super-secure (yet easy-to-open) locking mechanism for both the battery and memory card cover; some models feature a double-lock design for extra safety.

Outdoor cameras range from $150 to $400-plus, depending on features. Lightweight versions weigh 6 ounces or less. Larger, beefier models are an ounce or two heavier; many styles come in under 8 ounces.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.