Spoiler: There isn’t one perfect backpack for hiking with your camera, sorry!
However, below I outline how we have obviously adapted to successfully hike many miles with our gear to photograph hundreds of elopements all over the world despite the industry not producing a single backpack we will stand by 100%. The truth is—everyone’s body, physical preferences, and financial situation is different. As with any tool, you can accomplish your goals with the bare minimum, and you might experience an improvement by investing in something new. Ultimately it is up to you to determine what you need, though there are quite a few basic things to look for when deciding which backpack will get the job done for you.
When figuring out the best hiking camera backpack for you, first look to what has already been working for you in the past and see if it’s possible to adapt your current bags to be more camera-friendly. If you’re already a hiker, you probably have a daypack that carries your 10 Essentials and has proven itself to be comfortable over many miles. Admittedly, no day hike I’ve ever done required quite as much weight as my camera gear, and those additional pounds might push the hyper-minimalist daypacks beyond their capabilities. If you need to get a new pack, or you need to make adjustments to your current pack, we’ve included suggestions below!
HOW TO PREPARE FOR A HIKING ELOPEMENT
Hiking elopements combine our experience as hikers with our experience as wedding photographers. Years in both worlds as a professional and a hobbyist have led us to a solid system for successfully, and enjoyably, photographing hundreds of elopements outdoors in all environments.
If you’re going to be hiking for more than a couple hours, you’ll need the space to bring extra water and food, plus the 10 Essentials. The essentials are a list of safety equipment all hikers should carry with them when venturing outside, and I take it very seriously that I’m also responsible for informing my couples on how to be safe in the environment that I’m leading them into. A hiking backpack that can handle all of these things is one of the most important tools an elopement photographer can invest in, and it’s a decision very personal to each wearer. Without a proper pack, it’ll be that much harder to be truly prepared for the inevitable surprises that nature brings.
We send out tons of resources for our couples before they go on a hiking elopement, but what about photographers? How can you better prepare yourself to successfully photograph a hiking elopement? Well, we can give you advice we’ve found to be super helpful after photographing hundreds of elopements all over the world—many of the tips are applicable to elopements anywhere:
Give Yourself Time
One hour per mile—that’s my rule of thumb for a stress-free, not-rushed hiking elopement. Of course, there can be times when you need to give yourself more time and often you’ll hike faster. But, this is the minimum amount of time I’ll book a couple for. If it’s a six-mile hike, we’re going with a six-hour session so there’s time for the ceremony and we aren’t rushed to get anywhere.
Bring the Proper Gear
Below, I’ll go over what’s always in my bags when I leave for a hiking elopement. These lists are the essentials applicable to every elopement & often there are things that’ll change here and there based on the couple, the location & the season.
Hike For Fun
If you want to photograph hiking elopements, you should probably go on hikes even when you don’t have a couple! Enjoy getting outdoors and prepare yourself both physically and mentally to handle the effort of lugging gear on your back up a mountain.
I firmly believe the best tool for a job will do no good if you haven’t learned how to use it, so even the best-equipped hiking camera backpack won’t feel right if you haven’t adjusted it to perfectly fit your body. You’ll also need to pack it correctly so that that weight is properly distributed for comfort and mobility.
Prepare by doing—get outside, test out different systems, and choose what feels right for you. Feel free to pick and choose from the suggestions below, because ultimately we’re all creatures of habit who enjoy our comfort zones—what feels right for us might not fit your style at all. While we’ve tested dozens of systems to come to these conclusions, there are always new products on the market, and we love hearing how you’ve found a way to show your couples an incredible time outdoors!
If you have a hiking backpack that you LOVE, and you want to make it more camera-friendly for hiking elopements, check out this tutorial on how I rigged my daypack to become the ultimate hiking camera harness/holster.
OUR CAMERA BAG SETUP
For the sake of total transparency, I have four different bag situations for hiking elopements. First, there are my travel bags to get me to the elopement location—either by car or plane. Second, I have a daypack bag for all-day hiking elopements. Third, I have a backpacking bag for multi-day elopements. Finally, I have a minimalist situation for very short hikes.
As I said already, there isn’t one solution that works 100% of the time, and I honestly don’t think there ever will be. Each of the couples we work with are unique, and each of their elopements challenges us to adventure in a new way – it makes sense that the gear would change slightly to adjust for those differences!
TRAVEL CAMERA BAGS
A lightweight but durable bag is something you’re going to need for getting all your gear to a destination! This is the bag for when you’re not hiking for a single elopement, but maybe you’re flying somewhere, and want to be as efficient as possible while not caring as much about how comfortable it is to hike in this bag. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll repack your gear into either a daypack or a more minimalist setup for the shoot itself. The lightweight travel bag I use (again, not for hiking) is my F-stop Ultralight bag.
A lot of travel bags that are camera-specific are super heavy. They are the cases with hard shells, and often wheels for getting through airports. But, I actually find those heavy-duty features to be more of a hindrance than a benefit. More than half the time I’m getting out of my car on a dirt or gravel road, which makes the wheels a nuisance. The additional weight just simply doesn’t make up for the few moments when wheels or a hard case come in handy—so I prefer to prioritize a lightweight travel bag over one that can take a beating.
BACKPACKING CAMERA BAG
I have an Osprey backpacking backpack, rigged to work as a dual camera harness/holster, which is what I use when an elopement involves camping out overnight. This is the bag I bring with me when we want to reach our destination the night before, just to be sure we’re there when alpenglow hits the mountains early in the morning. Or this is the pack I’ll use if we’re hiking out for a sunset elopement and staying late for star photos (which you can learn more about how to take here), which means we won’t be hiking back until the next morning. There are plenty of reasons to camp out overnight either the day before or the night of your elopement. Whatever backpacking bag you already have can be rigged in my DIY style to become a camera harness/holster.
HIKING CAMERA BACKPACK
This is my most commonly-used camera backpack. I’ve rigged my favorite Gregory 30 liter daypack to be a dual camera harness/holster. This is the bag I bring with me when hiking more than a couple miles out to the elopement location. Aside from camera gear, I’ll also be packing the 10 Essentials for safety, as well as the gear I’ve learned to bring just in case after years of photographing elopements. Whatever daypack you already have and love can be fashioned into a camera backpack. If you don’t already have a daypack, get fitted for one so that you can be sure you’re carrying weight evenly across your hips for comfort.
MINIMALIST HIKING BAG
When an elopement isn’t going to be a super long hike and I want to take a lot of photographs along the trail itself, I’ll pack my camera gear using my dual camera harness and a shootsac. This minimalist situation is what I use if the hike is short enough a couple is wearing their wedding attire up and down the trail—usually two miles or less. For longer trails, we often all hike up in hiking clothes, and the couple will change into their attire at the top, which means we’re all more focused on the hike than stopping for photos along the way. When I’m using this minimalist setup, it’s a situation where we aren’t focused solely on reaching the destination—the whole hike is the shoot.
5 BEST CAMERA BACKPACKS FOR HIKING
At Adventure Instead, we’ve all outfitted our hiking backpacks to support our camera gear. Of course, there are camera backpacks on the market that are marketed for more hiking and adventurous exploration—both options have their pros and cons. Whichever style you choose to go with, the most important thing is that you get a bag that fits well. These suggestions are a place to start but it’s important you get fitted, try the bags on with weight, and ultimately choose the option that works best for your body.
Maddie’s favorite – Gregory Zulu 30 Pack
Best for shorter torsos: Gregory Jade 28 Pack
Best hydration daypack: Osprey Skimmer 28 Pack
Best narrow pack: Deuter Futura 30 Pack
Best for organizing lenses: F-stop Lotus 32
Best for winter elopements: Lowepro Powder Backpack 500 AW
Best for minimalist summer hikes: Atlas Athlete 40 Pack
THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN CHOOSING A CAMERA BACKPACK FOR HIKING
Most of the time, a lighter pack is going to be better. Your camera gear is already so heavy by itself—you don’t want to be lugging around an extra dozen pounds just because your bag is heavy! However, you’ll want to find the perfect balance between lightweight and durability. Don’t sacrifice thick shoulder or hip straps to lose a few ounces—keep the extra padding where it’ll help.
A lot of heavy-duty camera bags made for travel have hard shells or even rollers—this isn’t necessary. Unless you’re getting on a plane and checking your gear in the cargo hold, you don’t need that level of protection. For hikes, of course, you should do what you can to prevent gear jostling around or getting damaged, but there are lightweight ways to do this.
If you looked at my camera bag tutorial, you’ll see that most of the weight of the camera gear sits on my hips. In fact, you should be able to comfortably wear your pack and barely have the shoulder straps touching you but still feel secure. The heaviest things in your pack should be lower and closer to your spine. A central, low center of gravity will make a huge difference in your posture and ability to stave off fatigue.
Weight distribution is key to safety and health on a long hike. If you’ve ever been backpacking, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, take the time to get professionally fitted to your hiking pack so you aren’t putting unnecessary stress on your back and your body. Your ability to hike long distances for shoots, or even just to hike in general, is going to be directly correlated to the weight distribution of your pack.
Like I said earlier, you need to find the perfect balance for you between durability and weight. The two places to look for extra padding and thick straps are in your hip belt and your shoulder straps. Even though you don’t want much weight on your shoulders, you want to ensure the straps are padded enough to never dig in with a lot of movement. A thick hip belt will save you a lot of pain, but they also often come with pockets. The extra access to hip storage can be extremely nice!
You’ll also want to get a pack with a durable bottom. You’ll likely be setting it down while shooting, and you don’t want ground moisture to soak through and add weight or damage what’s in your bag. Many day packs and backpacking bags have a water-resistant and abrasion-resistant outer shell – at least make sure the bottom of the pack has these features.
Having a lot of weight directly against your back can get really hot and sweaty, which is not only uncomfortable but also a safety issue. Overheating on a hot day can dehydrate you fast, and sweating too much in the winter can leave you susceptible to hypothermia. Not that every hiking elopement will be in such extreme conditions, you should still consider airflow when you pick a pack based on longevity of wear. A structured back, with mesh or some other porous fabric, is going to be a lifesaver on long hikes! No more arriving at the summit and taking off your pack to experience that sudden freeze from wind cooling your sweat.
WHAT’S IN THE BAG?
The trunk of my car is pretty much an REI – Elopement Style. I always have a duffle bag stocked with everything I’ve ever wanted or wished I had present at an elopement. Basically, this is the grab bag for if my couple forgets basically any necessity to be comfortable on their hike. A lot of these things are weather-specific, but after living in Colorado for so many years I know never to assume the weather will be warm ANY month of the year.
Then, I have stocked a more elopement-specific set of gear in my hiking backpack. This changes a little depending on the couple, the location, and the time of year. However, there are a few things that I never hit the trails without.
Things I always have in a duffle in the trunk of my car:
- Fingerless gloves
- Black gloves
- Hats in different colors
- Hand, foot & body warmers
- Leggins in multiple nude colors
- First-aid kit
- Jackets and/or shawls
- Snacks & espresso shots
- Microspikes & yaktracks
- Bug spray
- Rain ponchos
- Rain covers for packs
Things I always bring in my backpack:
- Camera gear: 2 bodies & 4-6 lens, extra batteries, etc.
- Tripod – Gorillapod by Joby
- Emergency kit: antibiotic cream, excedrin, advil, benadryl, dramamine, ginger chews, eye drops, alcohol swabs, bandaids, blister gels, moleskin, hand sanitizer, mini sewing kit, superglue, tissues & toilet paper, lint roller, tide to-go pen, multi tool w/ bottle opener, chapstick, double-sided tape, bobby pins, hairspray, sunscreen, bug repellent wipes, doggy bag, hair ties, dry shampoo, bobby pins, mirror, tweezers & nail clippers.
- Dry sack & cloth for carrying a bouquet
- Rain cover
- Hand, foot & body warmers
- Dual camera harness
- Navigation: maps, compass, GPS
- Layers: jacket, leggings, gloves, etc.
In summary, our favorite hiking camera backpack is simply a hiking backpack outfitted to support your camera gear. If you’re sticking to short hikes, or find that one of the camera-specific backpacks listed above works well for you, that’s great! Everyone on our team has gone the DIY route, and maybe someday an elopement photographer will pair with a backpack brand to develop the ultimate hiking camera backpack—at least, we’ve got our fingers crossed for that day!
No matter what brand of pack you choose, the best one will always be the one you have or the one you can get. If a higher-end hiking bag seems like a major investment and the one you have just won’t cut it, outdoor brands often have incredible seasonal sales—take advantage of that! If you’re an REI member, go to the next Garage Sale or check out their lightly used gear for sale online. Backcountry.com also often has deals on packs, and especially good deals on past-season products. Second-hand online thrift shopping can sometimes produce a gem here and there. Once you know your sizing and preferences, keep your eye out for a deal on a bag that fits those criteria, and then outfit it for your camera using this DIY tutorial.
I hope this has helped you figure out which hiking camera backpack will work best for you. Most importantly, I hope this has helped point you in the right direction to finding your perfect pack!