As a photographer and ultralight hiking enthusiast I am often met with the challenge of figuring out how to capture the content that I love to create while making sure that I am not tipping the scales in the direction of a pack weight that is unmanageable to carry over long distances. Before I postponed my 2020 PCT thru hike I had spent many weeks figuring out a system that I felt could accomplish these two things without too much compromise one way or another. After all I would be carrying them 2,650 miles, so in this instance each decision felt very critical.
I think that when you decide to carry additional photography or video equipment in your pack, you can no longer consider yourself to be an ultralight backpacker. This however doesn’t mean you can’t still be pretty darn light if you make the right gear choices. For me, the joy I get from telling my stories through photos and videos along the way far exceeds the weight penalty from carrying a few extra pieces of equipment in my pack. I’ve never once regretted having a camera with me to capture a memory.
That being said, I’d like to share with you what I decided to carry with me on my PCT thru-hike that hasn’t happened ... yet!
Before we dive in, I’d like to note that my PCT kit isn’t a cinematic one. It’s more geared toward vlog-style storytelling and still photography at the lightest weight-to-quality ratio I could afford, knowing that whatever equipment is being used will most likely receive quite a bit of damage along the way.
There were many factors that weighed into the decision around what camera to use for my PCT Photo/Video Kit. I ended up choosing the Sony RX100 V. Below is a list of the camera’s features that I like as well as some of the downfalls.
What I like:
It has a 1.0 inch CMOS Sensor, 20.1 MP (which creates a large enough file size to create considerably larger prints).
- The lens is an equivalent to a 24-70mm f1.4-2.8 which means it is relatively capable in low light situations (made with high quality Carl Zeiss glass). This is what some would consider to be a “fast” lens. ISO sensitivity becomes unusable for me above 800 ISO.
It shoots 24fps with a lightning fast 315-point Auto Focus system. In other words, it tracks moving subjects very well (this feature is extremely impressive to me for such a small camera).
It has an articulating screen with an 180-degree angle for “selfie” style filming and timer photos, which is very helpful when filming yourself.
- The weight is 10.6 ounces on my scale including a battery and memory card.
The body is made from metal and has a durable feel.
It features Optical Steadyshot image stabilization (not the best but better than nothing and still no replacement for a stabilizing gimbal).
It has built-in ND filters which are helpful for filming in bright sunlight (will probably add external ND as well).
The sensor stays clean because you are not using interchangeable lenses.
120fps in 1080p recording slow mo.
In my opinion this camera has the best image quality for a pocket camera on the market in its price range.
It has a small pop-up electronic viewfinder (call me old school but it makes me feel like I’m actually taking a photo when I hold the camera to my face).
What I Dislike:
There’s no audio input for external microphone recording (sound recording on this camera is not reliable for quality recording).
You are limited to the focal range of the fixed lens.
There are no interchangeable lenses.
The battery life is insufficient, to say the least. Additional batteries need to be carried.
Small form factor in my larger hands (not a deal breaker, definitely a weight saver).
The cost of picking up this camera used is around $300-$500 dollars, which is still pretty expensive for a used camera. It originally retailed closer to $1,000 but newer. generations have come out.
- Color science just isn’t as good as Canon’s in my humble opinion (harder to color grade).
Overall, for me, the Sony RX 100 V gives me what I feel to be the most bang for my buck while keeping my weight to a minimum. As mentioned above, there are new models of RX VI and RX VII which have come out in recent years. However I do not feel like the cost to buy the newer models is worth it for what you receive, as I would consider them to be small updates. The one exception being that the RX100 VII has an audio input. Similarly, I would recommend anyone interested in the Sony RX 100 V to look at the previous models of the camera for very similar quality at more affordable prices. The RX100 IV is still a really comparable camera with the same sensor.
For the PCT my second mode of capture will be similar to what generally everyone will be carrying with them as well. Before I leave I will be purchasing the Apple iPhone 11 Pro which I have tested and have been extremely impressed with.
Two features I really appreciate about the phone are that it has three lenses including a wide angle lens, and it can shoot 4k in selfie mode. Generally, in the past versions of iPhones, the selfie mode recording was a much lesser quality than the front facing cameras. For vlogging style filming I think this is a critical update.
Its handheld footage is also the most stable I have seen on any mobile phone to date. You are essentially carrying a computer in your pocket with this phone, allowing you to edit and share stories from the trail. I’m usually not the type of person that needs the latest greatest phone but these new additions to the iPhone made it an attractive choice. The iPhone 11 Pro is a content creators Swiss Army knife.
When you start to add electronics to your kit, normal power demands and consumption begin to rise considerably. Unfortunately, with that increased need comes considerable additional weight. As of now I would never carry any sort of solar charger. In my experience, they just aren’t quite efficient enough to justify the carry and really seem to only trickle charge a battery in the most ideal conditions. What I decided to instead carry in my kit is the RavPower 21000 PD Power Bank (13.26oz) along with the RavPower 30W PD USB-C Power Adapter (3.36oz).
Choosing to use a PD or Power Delivery power bank and wall charger are an overlooked choice that many hikers might miss when preparing for a hike. The power bank will charge much faster with the USB-C than it would from a normal micro USB wall charging cord.
The newer iPhones also have rapid charging when used with a PD wall charger or power bank. When you don’t want to have to spend all day in town recharging your devices, this is a critical time saver. The faster you get things charged, the faster you can get back to hiking, or eating, or hiking while eating, if that’s your thing.
I think it is also important to note two additional things when it comes to power. The first is that having a wall charger with more than one port is critical to an efficient recharge scenario. On my wall charger I can output 30 total watts, 18W through the PD port and 12W through the USB iSmart port.
The second being that choosing a power bank that has charge through capabilities is always a smart move — especially if you end up in a hotel room and want to charge multiple items but only have two ports to charge from. Essentially the ports in your powerbank can be used as additional charging ports. Power will run from the wall charger and charge your devices attached to it while also charging the power bank itself. This way you can run to the store or do laundry and come back to charged devices, without worrying about having to get back to the room to swap things out.
I carry three charging cords with me. One short micro USB cord, one USB-C to USB-C cord, and one USB-C to lightning cord. As previously discussed, USB-C power delivery is much quicker than standard output from regular cords, thus charging your devices faster. Additionally, I also carry one USB-C to USB-A adapter and a USB-C to lightning adapter. This ensures that if my sole iPhone cord goes bad, I will have a backup for charging my iPhone via my USB-C cord with the adapter. It’s a small safety net (0.05 oz) for a critical piece of gear.
In addition to the Power Bank, I carry two extra Sony RX100 V batteries and a lightweight dual charger for them. I carry the dual charger at a 1.2oz weight penalty for two reasons: 1) I can charge two batteries simultaneously, and 2) if I have to leave the batteries charging, I would rather leave a cheap Amazon charger plugged in, and have that get stolen, as opposed to my camera charging in the wall, which would be the other option. For me, it's worth the weight to ensure the efficiency and safety of my gear. If I were to find that I am only charging my camera in hotel rooms, and not in public spaces, I could easily bounce the dual charger ahead or send it home to save the weight.
When you’re filming or photographing yourself, I think it’s important to have some way to mount your camera and phone securely, so they don't go tumbling down a mountain while your back is turned with outstretched arms staring at an epic summit view.
For my ultralight setup I decided to go with the very minimal Pedco UltraPod, which weighs just 1.8 ounces, and a Joby Grip Tight One cell phone mount, which weighs 0.7 ounces. The only way that the UltraPod works with this setup is because I chose to use a lightweight pocket camera. If I were to use a camera mounting system on my shoulder strap, it would require an arca swiss mount. For those of you who are using a more substantial camera, you might want to look into the Pedco Ultrapod II, which can safely hold up to 6lbs.
FILE TRANSFER/ STORAGE/ MANAGEMENT
One of the trickiest parts of this kit is figuring out how to safely transfer, store and manage all the files you are creating while on the trail. This is much simpler for weekend trips than when planning a thru-hike or long hike, especially without carrying a computer or iPad.
My Storage and Transfer Setup:
- Plastic carrying case with 6 SD slots
- 2 x 256gb SanDisk Extreme SD cards
- 2 x 256gb SanDisk Ultra Micro SD cards with adapter
- 1 x 128gb SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card
- Suntrsi TF/SD Card Reader for iPhone using X Disk app
My system is pretty simple. The two 256gb SD cards are used to shoot until they are full. Once a week (or as needed) I back them up using the Suntrsi Card Reader to transfer them to the micro SD cards.
When it’s time to swap them out for new cards from home, I receive a new 256gb card in a resupply box. I then ship a backup copy home in its case to be transferred to a master hard drive with all the media from the trip. I won’t ever send a copy home without a backup still being carried by me (just in case it gets lost or damaged in the mail).
I would be remiss if I didn’t emphasize how much I love the Suntrsi TF/SD card reader. Not only does it allow me to make copies of my SD cards, but it has many other features that I think are quite remarkable for such a small and affordable item. In addition to allowing me to add media that I shot on my Sony Camera to my iPhone (amazing for quick editing or uploading), it also allows for me to transfer or backup my iPhone media to an SD card. This is extremely valuable when you are creating regular content on your phone and don’t have a WiFi connection to back it up into the cloud — especially when you want to keep as much room as possible available on your phone.
One of the other features I love about this adapter is that it actually allows you to charge your phone through a built-in lightning port, so that while you are transferring data your phone does not run out of power. This little item is the unsung hero of the entire kit and one that I recommend everyone carry with them at 0.5oz.
Like many creators, I like to keep my camera readily accessible. What I have learned over the years is that if you keep your camera in your bag, it will probably stay in your bag out of pure laziness. If I keep my camera readily available, I am much more likely to take it out and use it.
For this reason, I choose to carry my Sony RX100 V inside a LiteAF Feather Weight DCF Fanny Pack around my waist. The fanny pack has ample room inside it for my camera and ultrapod while still allowing me space to keep my LiteAF DCF Wallet and a few other small items.
I trust the LiteAF brand and have had great experiences with Chris (the owner) over the years. The fanny pack provides great weather protection and carries very comfortably for my body type.
I also carry a quart-sized Ziploc freezer bag to stash the camera in if the weather takes an extreme turn for the worse. In situations where I feel like I could potentially take a spill, I will wrap my camera inside my Appalachian Gear Company beanie for extra padding while I scramble.
Additionally, the remaining cords, cards, and batteries are stashed into another quart-sized Ziploc freezer bag, which is then placed in my LiteAF Diddy Bag. Again, LiteAF is my bag of choice because I know the strict standards that Chris has for the quality of his craftsmanship, and I trust that this ditty bag will last for quite some time.
The first potential add-on for me would be the Lensmate Quick Change Filter adapter with a 52mm ND filter. This solution would be much more useful than using the built in ND filters for filming in bright sunlight while maintaining a f/1.8 to f/2.8 aperture. I will most likely be adding this before heading out.
Additionally, I could see myself adding something like the Rode Lavalier Go Professional Microphone for recording better sound. This would enable high-quality audio to be recorded either into my iPhone or into an external audio recorder.
The last item I could see myself adding to this kit would be a small handheld gimbal for stabilized shooting. In this category, I would look seriously at the DJI Osmo Pocket (which I previously owned and then sold because I didn’t feel like I was using it enough). For you iPhone-only users, I’ve heard great things about the Zhiyun Smooth Q2.
Overall I think this kit is pretty dialed for a beginner to advanced vlogger-style setup. I would like to mention, however, that although this kit is one that currently works for me, in this particular scenario, it is by no means perfect.
The kit lacks the ability to record high-quality audio with carrying additional items. That said, hiking vlog watchers are usually pretty forgiving. I think most understand that the elements generally win the sound recording battle, especially when wind is whipping up a storm.
One way to alleviate this would be to attempt to record audio with your iPhone headphones. The sound quality might be slightly better if you do so.
Another option is to lean on voice over. In my experience, it works really well for telling a hiking story without putting the audience through the awful viewing experience of wind rushing over your microphones consistently.
Choosing what works for you as a hiker and creator is a process that will always continue to evolve. What works for you on one trip might not work on another. As you get more confident with your hiking and your filming, you may choose to upgrade your filmmaking and photography gear to include gimbals, or drones. These are the tools that will begin to make your storytelling much more cinematic and, in turn, help you to stand out as a storyteller.
For me, this first really long thru-hike was about staying light, trying to work within a reasonable budget, and carrying equipment that I wasn’t going to sacrifice to the hiking gods by destroying them. At some point in my adventures, I know I will add my mirrorless setup and a better audio recording solution, but for now, this is what I’m going with.
Lastly, never let what you think to be the limitations of your gear or budget stop you from creating. If a cell phone is all you have for a camera, you can absolutely still capture great memories. The only way you get better at anything is by doing it. I’ve been a professional photographer and video producer for almost 20 years now, and I learn new things every single day.
Happy trails to you, and I hope this brings you a few ideas on how to be creative outdoors!
For a detailed list of my PCT Capture Kit check out my lighterpack links below:
PCT Camera Gear Only — https://lighterpack.com/r/guz2df
Complete PCT Gear List — https://lighterpack.com/r/3e4k21
Luke Pearsall is a Los Angeles/Denver-based Commercial Photographer, Producer and Outdoor Gear Reviewer. His background also includes work as a South American Adventure Tour Guide.
Luke has a diverse background in both film and still photography. His television work includes credits on ABC's LOST and HBO's Entourage, among others. Luke has worked commercially as a director, producer and photographer with brands that include: Land Rover USA, Samsung Mobile USA, Bridgestone Tires and AT&T.
Luke is currently a member of the Lowepro Professional Storytellers Program — a select group chosen by Lowepro to represent its brand globally through photography. Luke’s work primarily focuses on outdoor, adventure and travel-related content creation.
Outdoor Gear Review Website: www.outdoorgeargeeks.com