Trying to figure out what is the best way to carry a pro camera when hiking has been one of the most frustrating aspects about incorporating photography into my nature-based adventures. I’ve got the sore neck and shoulders, the rubbing marks, and even a chronically annoying tender shoulder blade issue to prove it. I’ve also got cracked lenses, zoom lenses that jam, and kits that have been exposed to water. And all these ailments can be traced back to how I’ve unsuccessfully carried my cameras on my past hikes and adventure travels.
Indeed, this has been one of my biggest pet peeves even going back since early 2006 when I finally started to ditch the old point-and-shoot cameras for the more professional digital SLR ones.
I’ll be the first to admit that even to this day, I still haven’t found a camera carrying system or solution that totally suits me while hiking and traveling abroad. After all, I primarily hike in varied conditions, especially in or around water since I chase waterfalls a lot.
That said, over these years, I have settled on a relatively cheap system that came from years of trial-and-error. Yet, I’m still on the lookout for something that addresses all the major issues, which I’ll discuss in-depth in this article.
While I have a feeling that maybe my pain points are very particular, at the same time, I also have a gut feeling that my grievances are not that uncommon either…
Why Do I Care About Camera Carrying Systems Or Solutions?
I care about how I carry a professional or semi-pro camera when hiking because it is both heavy and fragile. While one can argue whether carrying such cameras is necessary, that’s a totally different topic.
I’ll just straight up say right now that iPhones still can’t do the job that professional cameras can. That said, the smart phones continue to close the gap while pro camera vendors seem to rest on their laurels.
Anyways, using professional and semi-professional cameras presents a series of challenges and pain points that I’d have to overcome if I insist on the speed and image quality that I’d get from them.
Avoiding Chronic Discomfort and Ailments
Even though mirrorless cameras may help with the bulk and weight of the camera’s body, the lenses still dictate image quality, speed, and zoom (among other things). In fact, more of than not, the lens comprises the majority of bulk and weight of the entire camera.
In my experiences, my semi-pro cameras came in as light as the Sony Alpha7 3 Mirrorless Camera with 24-105mm F4 G OSS Lens at 3 lbs 1.9 oz. On the other hand, my Canon EOS 70D with EF 70-200mm 1:4 L Lens weighed 3 lbs 8.6 oz.
So carrying around this much weight (not to mention how fragile they are) while hiking and carrying other things in a day pack (like water, rain gear, food, first-aid, etc.) for several hours becomes cumbersome.
Over time, this results in chronic discomfort and ailments, which ultimately impact my ability to hike and sightsee (i.e. the very activity I enjoy doing in the first place)!
So the camera carrying system or solution would have to minimize the pain of carrying around such cameras by redistributing its weight to a part of the body that’s better equipped to handle such loads.
Failure to recognize and remedy these issues leads to most of the chronic discomfort that make the experience less enjoyable, and even worse, it can be debilitating over time.
Avoiding Missing Precious Moments
I’ve learned that I typically don’t get a second chance at fleeting moments that I want to capture on my camera.
Therefore, the speed at which I can both access the camera and be ready to shoot is a critical consideration in a camera carrying system.
If it takes too long to access the camera, be in position to take that shot, and then finally click the shutter, well that moment may have already passed by!
Therefore, I care about the best way to carry my camera when hiking in order to access the camera quickly so I don’t miss those rare moments.
Every time I have to take a shot, I certainly don’t want to fumble through a bag, pick out a lense, detach the current lens, put on the new lens, and put the old lens back into the bag.
And do all this before taking that shot! That takes way too much time.
When I’ve been hiking for several hours, having to go through that tedious routine makes me not want to bother taking pictures, which would further cause me to miss those precious moments that I can’t get back!
Avoiding Equipment Damage or Loss
Another key aspect that I look for in a camera carrying solution is its ability to protect the expensive camera and lenses.
No carrying system can 100% prevent damage, but we’re talking about the carrying system’s ability to reduce that likelihood of damage.
Therefore, the carrying system must provide some degree of padding so the camera has less of a chance of damage from blunt trauma, especially against rocks or other hard surfaces frequently encountered on hikes.
The carrying solution must also protect the camera and lens against water coming from rain, mist, or even unforeseen things like wet vegetation and splash (from a pool or stream crossing).
After all, the camera is pretty much disabled once water gets into its intricate system of electronics. Even weatherproofing seals can only do so much to prevent that situation.
The carrying system must also be sturdy enough to prevent it from bouncing as I walk, scramble, or even run.
Other things I look for in a carrying system involve tethers or straps that help ensure that the camera won’t be gone for good (like at a cliff) if it happens to slip from my hands.
Given the professional camera’s inability to handle water inundation, I am often faced with unexpected water obstacles where I either have to turn back or consider risking irreparable damage to proceed.
If the camera carrying bag happens to be waterproof, that would enable me to get past these obstacles and thus open up the possibilities of capturing more moments that otherwise wouldn’t be possible or too risky.
What Are The Commercially Viable Solutions So Far That I Have Considered?
Over the years, I’ve employed a variety of schemes to address carrying the camera.
Below are some of the ways that I’ve either bought and tried or at least considered, and the pros and cons of each of these camera carrying solutions.
Default Neck Strap
This is the most common solution mostly because just about every mirrorless or DSLR camera purchased comes with this neck strap.
- Hands Free
- No extra cost
- Leaves camera unprotected
- Gets in the way
- Twists and Tangles
Until recently, I’ve put up with leaving this strap attached to the camera body just in case I needed to have it draped around my neck so I can handle another camera. This is quite a common occurrence, especially since people often ask to have their picture taken.
I also keep it draped around my neck or wrapped around my wrist if I’m near a dropoff and need that extra assurance that I won’t lose it forever.
Tamrac Extreme Series Padded Waist Bag
We possess the Tamrac Extreme Series Padded Waist Bag because Julie insisted that we buy and use it. We even had a fight about this as I was skeptical about using it back when we started looking for solutions to our camera carrying problem in 2006.
- Accommodates Multiple Lenses
- Lots of configurable pockets and compartments
- Weight on the hip and legs
- Slow to be ready to shoot
- More suited for studio/wedding photography than hiking
Sure enough, we paid money at Samy’s Camera (I forget how much, but it wasn’t cheap) for this waist bag.
However, I’ve still never used it since its purchase and we’ve never returned it.
While this type of bag seems to have gravitated towards a more backpack-hip-pack-dual-purpose design, it’s just not suitable to the quick-access and agility that I demand when hiking and traveling.
Tamrac 5627 Holster Bag
The Tamrac 5627 Holster Bag is the bag that I still use to this day because it’s quite possibly the closest thing to the perfect holster camera bag that I’ve ever used.
- Flip-top buckle fastener for quick access
- Loop for hip belt attachment (good weight distribution)
- Pockets for memory/cleaners/spare batteries, etc.
- Fits pro camera body with zoom lens and lens hood attached (quick access)
- Discontinued (but definitely NOT obsolete)
- Metal clips not that durable
- Neither waterproof nor that water resistant
- Fraying materials and stitching (maybe nit due to old age)
- Can collect and put dust on camera lens
I find it a real shame that this bag has been discontinued because Tamrac’s newer models have taken steps backwards from what this bag did right.
So I refuse to spend money on inferior products and am often on the lookout to try to buy time until they or some competitor bring back all the things that made the Tamrac 5627 holster bag so great.
Cotton CCS G3 Strapshot Holster Attachment
Julie bought me the Cotton Carrier CCS G3 Strapshot Holster Attachment thinking that it might be useful considering how my Tamrac 5627 holster bag carrying scheme is being forced into obsolescence.
So this was the first solution we’ve tried to employ assuming the quick camera access feature from the Tamrac 5627 bag would no longer be viable.
- Attaches to existing day pack or backpack
- Allows for hands-free carrying of camera
- Tether for drop protection
- Comes with Hand/Wrist Strap
- Sturdy (won’t let camera bounce while in motion)
- Uneven weight distribution (on one strap over shoulder)
- Awkward to detach and/or remove camera
- Expensive for what you get
- Camera unprotected when mounted
- Need to pay for attachment to work with quick release tripod plate
- Velcro attachment will age/wear over time
I’ve ultimately settled on committing to use this system, but I’m finding that the holster attachment is not as useful as the nearly $80 price would justify.
However, I did find the wrist strap to be a handy throw-in to this product.
I also found the drop-proof tether to be useful.
That said, the tether is not long enough to allow me to extend my arms to shoot through the LCD. Shooting in this manner is necessary, especially when a crowd of people stand in front of me while I still need to take a shot.
As I continued my search for a possible replacement for the discontinued Tamrac 5627 holster bag solution, I have looked heavily into the Cotton Carrier Harness as well as the Think Tank Photo Digital Holster Harness.
The Cotton Carrier Harness is a military-style vest that allows the camera to be mounted directly on a chest plate on the harness itself. Thus, it won’t work with attempting to protect the camera with a camera bag while mounted.
Meanwhile, the Think Tank Photo Digital Holster Harness allows for their camera holster bags to be attached such that it sits square in the lower chest or upper abdomen. However, it may not work with other holster bags.
In my mind, both solutions have the following things I liked and didn’t like in common.
- Centers weight distribution to mid-chest
- Quick access
- Weight still over shoulders and not on hips and legs (i.e. the strongest parts of the body)
- May not play well with day pack and/or backpack (due to wearing multiple straps simultaneously)
- Pricey (note that cheaper harnesses will allow camera to swing and bounce)
- May not be necessary (if system of camera or bag straps/clips can already mate with existing day packs or backpacks such that camera is securely centered at lower chest or upper belly)
For these reasons, I still haven’t committed to any of these harnesses.
How Have I Managed To Solve My Camera Carrying Problems Right Now?
I have ultimately settled on a solution with the Tamrac 5627 holster bag attached to the hip belt of my day pack or internal frame backpack with its sling strap across my body and over one shoulder.
The over-the-shoulder strap stays on to ensure the bag (and camera) remain on me if I ever have to unbuckle my hip belt (e.g. to heed nature’s call) as well as to keep the strap from dangling or getting in the way.
Meanwhile, the hip belt attachment ensures that the weight of the camera and lens sit on my hips and legs thereby relieving my shoulders and neck from this burden.
Moreover, the flip top buckle allows me to access the camera with attached lens very quickly. As a hack, I generally leave the bag unzipped to further speed up camera access.
However, that hack also introduces the small likelihood that the camera and attached lens might squeeze through the openings during use (it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I did have a couple of close calls).
Nevertheless, this flip top buckle is something that I’ve noticed bag makers are removing in their designs, and yet it’s the very thing I look for in order to get that quick access that zipper-only solutions can’t match (not to mention zippers breaking and snagging).
By itself, this solution has served me well for at least over 14 years, but it does have its shortcomings.
For example, I have frequently held the camera in hand (and out of the bag) for prolonged periods of time just so that I’m ready to take a photo at any moment.
However, my right hand would get sore if I unconsciously did this for several hours.
In order to mitigate this issue, I have also attached the Cotton CCS G3 Strapshot Holster to the right strap of my day pack or frame backpack.
This allows me to free up my hand or even carry two cameras (one attached to the Cotton while another is in the holster bag).
I can argue that I probably don’t really need the Cotton solution, but at least its detachable tether does give me the added piece of mind in the event that I do happen to drop the camera.
However, that included tether also limits how much I can extend my arms to take a shot by looking at the LCD instead of the eyepiece or viewfinder.
Luckily, while cleaning out the garage one day, we happened to stumble across a longer, sturdier, unused tether. Honestly, I know not from where that tether came from, but I’ll take whatever little victory I can get given how all the costs on camera gear easily add up! It looks simple enough to find it sold on Amazon or eBay, or even as an included strap in some camera kits.
Indeed, this “re-discovered” tether is long enough to let me stretch out my arms completely to take a shot through the Sony Mirrorless’ LCD. At the same time, the tether is still short enough to prevent the camera from striking the ground if I drop it while standing up.
That said, this tether’s clips still may not mate with some camera bodies like my Canon EOS 70D, which has a thinner ring that this clip won’t loop through (though it would have to mate a less sturdier strap loop).
So this tweaked rig has become the permanent tether that I now use to mate with the Cotton Carrier G3 Strapshot attachment as well as my precious Sony Alpha7 3 Mirrorless camera body (thus the Cotton Carrier did serve to provide this extra bit of security).
Who Is My Camera Carrying Solution (Or Search For It) For?
My way of carrying a pro camera when hiking is pretty much for day hikers or overnight backpackers needing to spend more time in the outdoors and sometimes away from the established trails.
I also think my scheme has served me well in my international travels in both crowded urban environments (where my holster bag becomes an over-the-shoulder bag) as well as international hikes.
It’s also compact enough to fit into my day pack if carry-on restrictions call for say only having my day pack (with camera in holster bag) and a laptop bag.
Both of these things I definitely wouldn’t want to be checking in given the risk of theft as well as damage from rough handling by baggage handlers.
In any case, even my camera carrying system has shortcomings like it’s not waterproof and it’s also not future proof.
While the former can be solved with a dry bag (which would finally allow me to get past water obstacles where I’d have no choice but to get wet to proceed), the latter is a big sore spot for me.
After all, the Tamrac 5627 being discontinued by Tamrac shouldn’t be an issue, but its newer versions of the product took steps backwards from what Tamrac did right.
Even competing holster camera bags have not done what the Tamrac 5627 did well. For example, I haven’t seen a holster bag in 2020 that had all of the following features at the same time:
- the quick flip top buckle fastener for easy and fast camera access
- the loop attachment for hip belt attachment for weight distribution on hips and legs
- the size that fits a Canon EOS DSLR with an 18-200mm zoom lens attached with lens hood so the camera’s ready to shoot
- the pockets for spare memory, batteries, and lens cloths or sponges
- the compact shape so it doesn’t get in the way of hiking
Indeed, I almost feel like every solution out there primarily caters to professional photographers who make a living in weddings, studios, or in fine art landscape photography.
However, the outdoor adventurer, traveler, and/or hiker is like a forgotten market only incidentally catered to with ancillary features from the aforementioned markets (since they are likely to spend more on camera gear).
And that’s the biggest reason why I’ve been really frustrated and disappointed with the camera solutions on the market right now.
Final Thoughts / Conclusion?
Finding the best way to carry a pro camera when hiking has been both frustrating and elusive.
Granted, the needs of one photographer may be completely different from a different photographer.
Thus, I’ve concluded that the perfect solution either doesn’t exist, or the companies serving this market haven’t met or no longer desires to meet the demands that a hiker and adventurer like myself require.
I’m well aware that my solution that I’ve settled upon won’t last for the long term given the way that camera carrying systems have evolved so far to keep taking steps backwards away from what works in the field.
So it puts even more pressure on people like myself to find a solution that suits such needs while dealing with the shortcomings that the commercial products seem to force upon us.
In theory, finding the best camera carrying solution shouldn’t be this difficult and frustrating, and it’s making me reconsider whether I should still commit to shooting with these heavy and bulky professional cameras anymore.
Yet I’m still torn at the benefits that these cameras buy me over settling for iPhones which are improving, but still don’t do the job in my mind when it comes to nature photography (especially regarding what I encounter in my adventures).
As a result, my endless search for the best way to carry the camera while hiking continues…