Those of us who enjoy photography and hiking have probably at one time or another lugged a big ass tripod out into the wilderness. Ok, so it probably wasn’t like the kit that Ansel had to carry up in the Sierra to support his large format cameras, but even in modern times our full sized tripods simply don’t fit well into a lightweight pack loadout. In this article we’ll ask the question “why carry a tripod” as well as take a survey of the market options that could appeal to the light minded hiker.
Why Carry a Tripod
The primary purpose of a tripod is to support the camera and eliminate camera shake. This is helpful for using slow shutter speeds, long exposure shots, time lapses, self portraits with a remote, and using telephoto lenses (where small movements of the camera have a more pronounced impact on motion blur in the photo). The addition of various types of heads to the tripod can assist with making stitched panoramic photos and smooth panning for shooting video. These latter two options are sort of niche areas for which there are pretty much no substitutes besides having the gear to make it happen – we’re not going to cover those. Also, using telephoto lenses is not something most hikers will be doing, due to the size and weight of those lenses, so again we’ll skip over that subject.
So, let’s talk about shutter speeds and long exposures. We usually want to keep our camera’s ISO near its base setting to reduce noise in the image. As the light starts to fade that can be a challenge; shutter speeds slow down to the point that we probably can’t hand hold the camera any longer and expect a nice, crisp image. At this point some type of support is needed, hence we reach for the tripod.
If you’ve seen photos of moving water that looks like flowing silk, you can be sure that the camera was supported (on something) and a slow shutter speed was used. Shooting people with slow shutter speeds is possible, but some motion blur should be expected, even if the camera doesn’t move, they definitely will! A tripod will certainly help though and make those classic shots around the campfire that much better. Camera support is an important tool to have and there are ways to do it without lugging along the kitchen sink.
Aside from a few interesting products we’ll later discuss, there are alternatives to using a tripod though none are a perfect substitute.
- Bean Bag: A small bean bag set on a rock can help steady a camera against movements introduced by either the photographer or the wind. This could be viable for overnight hiking trips… cook up them beans at the end of the trip and have em for dinner!
- Rock or Log: Placing the camera on a rock or log can work just fine, but it’s usually a bit of a hassle finding one that’s “just right” when setting up for the shot.
- Guyline Trick: Attach a length of guyline to the camera strap clip or tripod socket, step on the opposite end and pull it taut. This is an old trick that helps eliminate camera shake but don’t expect it to work for long exposures.
- Image Stabilization: Some cameras and/or lenses have image stabilization systems that can get you back 1-3 stops. A “stop” in photography terms, is a doubling or halving of exposure setting. So a camera with 2 stops of stabilization would be expected to produce and image taken a 1/30 sec (tricky to hand hold) that looks as if it was taken at 1/120 sec… so that’s (1/30)/2/2. That’s a much easier shutter speed to hand hold, but again image stabilization isn’t helpful for long exposures and has limited usefulness once the shutter speed is substantially slow.
A Survey of Lightweight Tripods and Tripod-Like Products
There are waaaay too many lightweight tripods to list individually. I’m going to pick just a few, based on my “knowledge of the realm”. Aside from those, the rest of these are pretty much all that I know of, so if I forgot your favorite please make sure to leave a comment and let me know!
All images copyright to their respective owners…
2.2 lbs (legs only) | $575
Gitzo’s lightest and smallest set of legs. Has a max height of 45/58 inches (latter with center column extended). Collapses to under 17 inches. Supports up to 15.4 pounds. Yeah… it’s pricey as are all things Gitzo, but they’re considered the gold standard of tripods and will be as rigid and light, if not more so than any comparable offerings (the comparable Slik tripod legs weigh nearly 6 lbs). These are just the legs, so some sort of head needs to be affixed. An important point to bear in mind regarding the manufacturer’s “supported weight” spec, it’s somewhat theoretical and should be taken with a grain of salt. Approaching the max supported weight is not a great idea, mainly because tripods tend to become less stable at that point.
1.7 lbs (legs only) | $360
Feisol is a sort of a Gitzo knock off – but they’re well made. I own their previous lightest tripod (from my days with an SLR) and can attest that they’re a very decent value in the bottom of the “high end” product range. Max height of 38/53 inches (latter with center column extended). Collapses to under 17 inches. Supports up to 17.6 lbs. Also a pricey option, but just to provide an alterantive to the Gitzo legs. This is just a set of legs and still requires some type of head to be affixed.
1.7 lbs (legs & ballhead) | $80
The Slik brand comes to mind when thinking of good-budget level tripods. A much more friendly price point for everyday people. Max height of 32/43 inches. Collapses to under 14 inches. Supports up to 4.5 lbs. This one can’t support as much as the sets above, however today’s lightweight mirrorless cameras don’t weigh anywhere near this weight limit and it provides a good working height.
9 oz (legs & ballhead) | $40
A cool idea modeled after avalanche probe design; the legs have a shock cord running through them and “snap” into place when flung out. I’ve never seen one of these in person and would love to check one out; I have my doubts about their rigidity but I could be wrong. Max height 28 inches, collapses to 9 inches. Supports up to 3 lbs.
6.7 oz | $25
The MTPixi is a simple little tripod which is similar in size and weight of the Gorilla Pod below, however does away with the flexible legs which are not to everyone’s taste. These legs have a 1/4″ threaded post so the camera can attach directly (or a mini ballhead can be affixed). Extends to about 5 1/2 inches, does not collapse but of course it’s small. Supports 1.4 lbs.
6.4 oz | $25
I own one of these and use it as my primary tripod for hikes. The size works well my mirrorless camera setup. The max height is only about 10 inches, but it can cling to branches and other things (which may or may not be available of course). It doesn’t really collapse, but it’s small enough already. Supports 2.2 lbs. It has it’s own proprietary ballhead and quick release clamp which are included. After a couple years of use, the quick release seems to have been broken, I need to follow up with Joby…
4.2 oz | $20
Having previously owned this little tripod I would say it has more weaknesses than strengths. Yes it’s small, light, and inexpensive… but it’s also not very sturdy, doesn’t feature much adjustability, and can topple forward somewhat easily when the camera is front-heavy due to the lens mounted on it. The max height is about 5 inches, when collapsed it’s about 7 inches long. Supports 4.2 lbs.
5.4 oz (with accessory leg) | $50
The TrailPix mounts to the tips of 2 trekking poles and uses a third accessory pole for the final leg of the tripod. It’s also available with 3 legs for those who don’t use trekking poles. The height is subject to which poles one uses, but generally it’s going to be around 48 inches or under. The max recommended load is 4 lbs.
0.2 oz | $22
The A-Pod can turn a single trekking pole into a monopod by slipping over the tip using it’s clamp-like design. It can support up to 16 oz approximately, so it’s ideal for point and shoot type cameras. By rigging up 3 or more guylines, the A-Pod can be turned into a sort of tripod.
0.4 oz | $14
One of the lightest options here, the StickPic turns a trekking pole into a quick monopod (not a tripod). Available in 3 sizes to fit just about any trekking pole on the market. This is best used for very small cameras, such as point and shoot types. By rigging up some guylines creatively, one could turn this into a sort of tripod. (photo courtesy of backpacker.com)
0.7 oz | $11
The Trek Mount takes a different approach to turning a trekking pole into a monopod. This time it straps to the handle rather than the tip. Meant for small cameras, such as point and shoot types. I don’t know if I’d trust rigging this one as a tripod and walking away from it, but looks fine enough for a quick monopod.
0.2 oz | $15
The GG Lightrek is designed specifically for GG LT4 poles, but they’re a popular trekking pole so I thought it would be fair to include it as a reminder to those who use the LT4′s. The Lightrek is a quick monopod solution. Similar to the A-Pod and Stick Pic, it can be rigged up as a tripod using guylines, unlike those however it does not have a universal fit.
Simply being a thing to which the camera is attached does not a good tripod make (channeling my inner Yoda). When looking at the comparable size of a GorillaPod vs. a tripod like the Slik Mini, they’re both about the same size collapsed… yet the Slik weighs nearly 1.5 lbs more! Of course the Slik can extend to normal working heights, whereas the GorillaPod cannot. When it comes to the solutions that use trekking poles, well they’re not my cup of tea even though they’re super light. The times of the day when I might want a tripod (early morning, evening, night) I’m using them to pitch my shelter and while walking along I can’t afford the time to get out stakes and guylines to create a makeshift tripod for a selfie – but I can understand why someone who refuses to carry any sort of “real tripod” could be interested in one of these… having something is better than nothin, and at these miniscule weights, why not?
At the end of the day, a good tripod needs to do a few things, and should do them well. It should keep the camera steady, even in a breeze. It should have enough adjustability to make setting up your shot fairly straight forward. It should be as quick and easy to setup as possible. It should be convenient to use. And, for hiking it should be as light as you can get away with. Lightweight tripods, and especially the non-traditional options listed above make compromises in one way or another. Such first-world problems, eh? There’s no “best” choice, only what works best for you! Hike It. Like It.