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(The Gear Loop) - The act of hiking into the wilderness is a joy in itself, but surely it’s better if you capture that glorious sunrise, foggy vista or snow-capped mountain via one of the best compact digital cameras?

Technology has moved on at such a pace that many camera manufacturers are cramming insane sensors, crystal clear viewfinders and professional-grade features into truly tiny packages. The resulting imagery can be good enough to hang on a wall in a gallery.

Omer Salom Loijt/UnsplashThe best compact cameras for hiking: lifestyle photo 1

We’ve been testing various systems over the past few months, selecting our favourites based on their size (small enough to shove into a pocket or backpack), the features they offer and their suitability for outdoors and landscape photography in general.

With that in mind, we’ve attempted to include a variety of compact camera systems, from those with smaller 1-inch sensors to the much more powerful full-frame units. The same goes for the lens mount system, as we felt some will want the freedom to swap lenses, while others will enjoy the simplicity of a fixed system.

So read on if you’re bored of your action camera and are in the market for a small, lightweight snapper that can withstand the elements and snare those magical outdoor moments with minimal fuss.

The best compact cameras for hiking

SonyThe best compact cameras for hiking: product photo 5

Sony Alpha 7C

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For

  • Impossibly small and light
  • Sony’s powerful image processing
  • Can capture 4K video

Against

  • Body alone is very expensive
  • Lots of menu diving
  • Do you really need a full-frame sensor?

Sony has seemingly achieved the impossible with the Alpha 7C, cramming the sort of technology found in its flagship mirrorless cameras into a body that is only 124mm (5 inches) wide and weighs just 509g with a battery and memory card in place.

But the reason we placed this at the very top of the list (despite its heft price tag) is the fact users get to plunder Sony’s vast E-mount lens line-up, meaning users can snare the gloriously wide FE 14mm F1.8 GM lens for epic landscape shots. 

Better still, Sony’s range of impressive zoom lenses means no scenario is off limits for shooting. With a 24.2MP resolution, 10fps shooting rate and super accurate auto focus, this is one powerful device that saves on overall space. 

Perhaps the only downside of such a diminutive package is that lots of functions aren’t mapped to physical buttons, so there’s a fair bit of menu diving to explore to achieve the shots you want.

FujifilmThe best compact cameras for hiking: product photo 3

Fujifilm X100V

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For

  • Beautifully made & robust
  • LCD touchscreen
  • Excellent focus

Against

  • 23mm fixed lens may not be wide enough
  • Lacks zoom functionality

Fuji’s X-Series range of cameras might look like it hails from yesteryear, but there’s a serious amount of modern technology crammed into that analogue body. We love the way plenty of functionality, such as a physical aperture ring, is mapped to old-school buttons and the X100V is arguably the smallest example of this way of thinking.

With 24.3MP to play with and an advanced APS-C sensor built in, the X100V is capable of shooting some truly astounding imagery. This is aided by a quad-core X-Processor 4 that rapidly processes images after shooting and a new AF system that’s much quicker to create pin sharp shots.

It’s also fantastically small and can easily be shoved inside a waterproof jacket, although we found the fixed lens to be a slight issue when trying to capture really wide scenery.

LeicaThe best compact cameras for hiking: product photo 2

Leica M11

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For

  • Advanced Rangefinder full-frame sensor
  • 64GB of internal memory
  • Plays nice with Apple products

Against

  • The price
  • Lacks video
  • Everything costs extra

For photography enthusiasts, very little comes close to Leica technology when it comes to colour profiles and image processing abilities. The monstrously expensive M11 represents the pinnacle of Leica’s compact camera tech and this clever package features the most advanced Rangefinder image resolution out there.

It allows users to shoot at 18MP, 36MP or 60MP for improved workflow and smaller file sizes, while a new electronic shutter means users can work with up to 1/16,000sec shutter speed. That’s insanity.

Internal memory makes image back-up a doddle, while is 540g overall weight means it’s a fantastic camera to pack away. Alas, the body alone costs a fortune and a decent wide-angled zoom lens effectively doubles the package price. If you’re venturing off the beaten path, make sure you have good insurance.

CanonThe best compact cameras for hiking: product photo 4

Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II

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For

  • Great price
  • Wide angle zoom lens
  • Great for simple video

Against

  • Only shoots film in HD
  • 1-inch CMOS sensor 
  • Doesn’t enjoy extreme conditions

When it comes to simplicity, very little comes close to Canon’s fantastic PowerShot compact system, as it includes everything you need to create DSLR-style shots without the added weight and bulk.

The 1-inch sensor might lack behind many rivals on this page, but the f/1.8-2.8 Canon lens is incredibly versatile, offering 8.8-36.8mm focal lengths with 4.2X optical zoom and 8.4X digital zoom.

Alas, the fixed aperture does limit creative control somewhat but this remains one of the simplest ways to capture great shots and then wirelessly sync them to other devices. The fact the lens neatly stows into the body saves space in the pack, too.

PanasonicThe best compact cameras for hiking: product photo 1

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ100EB

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For

  • Crisp Leica lens
  • 4K video functions
  • It’s tiny and light

Against

  • Sensor not the best
  • Limited aperture adjustment
  • Small viewfinder

When it comes to pocketability, very little can compete with the tiny, lightweight TZ100 from Panasonic’s excellent Lumix range. Panasonic pretty much invented the compact digital travel camera and this surprisingly affordable number is great for those short on space.

Granted, the modest f/2.8-5.9 maximum aperture makes experimenting with shallow depths of field very difficult, but Panasonic now offers a 4K Post Focus mode, which essentially allows you to pick a focal point after taking a shot. It works pretty well, in a just-about-convincing iPhone Portrait mode sort of way.

The fact it doesn’t have built-in GPs could also be an issue for travel enthusiasts, as this is essential for geo-tagging shots, but Panasonic has a solution. When connected to a smartphone, a GPS log is created via the Panasonic Image App.

Its diminutive size makes handling quite fiddly, as buttons and viewfinder are small, but it packs a powerful punch. The image quality is great, auto focus is fast and easy, the zoom range impressive and performance in a multitude of conditions impressive. 

Ursa Bavcar/UnsplashThe best compact cameras for hiking: lifestyle photo 2

What to look for in a compact camera for hiking

Decide on your preferred photography style

In general, epic vistas and beautiful landscapes require a wider lens, while those doing plenty of shooting at dusk or nighttime will want a fast lens, a low aperture and high quality ISO handling to capture as much of the scene as possible without it looking grainy. Unfortunately, bagging all of those facets gets expensive, so it tends to be a balancing act between features and budget.

How big is your kit bag?

Some folk will want to travel as light as possible, therefore will want the smallest and lightest cameras out there. These tend to be compact systems, which are now fantastic, but will never quite compete with those full-frame, interchangeable lens models in terms of image quality.

So again, it’s a tough compromise between the quality of the final image you have in mind and the amount of room you can dedicate to camera kit in your pockets or backpack.

Weather-proofing 

Not all cameras are made the same and some are sealed from the weather and occasional downpour better than others. Take a look at the steps manufacturers are taking to create cameras that are resistance to weather and dust. Fujifilm offers an AR-X100 adapter ring and a PRF-49 protection filter for its X100V camera, for example. 

Ease of use

Most of the cameras featured on this list are aimed at enthusiasts or those with a good level of experience in photography. Although most modern digital cameras will assist users through the process, these aren’t really sold as "point-and-click" options, simply due to the number of advanced features they offer. 

Writing by Leon Poultney.