You’ve seen the YouTube videos — guys in flying squirrel suits slipping through cracks in a cliff, surfers braving mammoth waves, downhill mountain bikers biting the dust and so much more. Most videos like these are captured with small, durable, hands-free action-sports cameras that can be strapped to a helmet, surfboard, bike, etc.
These cams have become smaller and more powerful than ever and are capable of taking video good enough for professional movies and TV. Whether you’re looking to chronicle your troop’s trip to Philmont Scout Ranch or show off your skateboarding skills, an action cam is the ticket. The Gear Guy is here to fill you in on the stuff you need to know and the cameras you should consider.
What you need to know
Size and weight
Action cams are designed to be worn on a helmet or mounted to equipment, so size and weight are key. Go with the smallest, lightest model you can afford.
Field of view
Most action cams shoot wide-angle video. Just how wide is noted in degrees (for example, 160 degrees). The larger the number, the wider and larger the field of view and the more action you’ll be able to capture.
In general, the better the video quality, the more expensive the camera. If you’ll just be watching your videos on your computer or smartphone, you don’t need a camera that captures super- high-quality video. Right now, 4K (or Ultra High Definition) is the highest resolution possible on an action cam. 1080p and 720p are considered high definition, and 480p is good enough for TV broadcast. So a cam with 720p or 480p should be plenty good enough for most of your needs.
Water-resistant and weatherproof
It’s important to pick a camera that can stand up to the weather. Some action cams are water-resistant on their own, while others require a special waterproof case called a “housing” to be waterproof. If you’ll just be in the rain and snow, one of the cams that doesn’t require an extra housing might be the best bet. If you’ll be shooting underwater, you need one with a waterproof housin
Video vs. still photos
Action cams specialize in shooting videos. Although they can also capture still photos, don’t expect super-high-quality images. The quality of photos is indicated by the number of megapixels (MP). In general, the more MP, the sharper and clearer the photos. If your main goal is to shoot photos, then you’re better off with
a traditional digital camera instead of an action video camera.
Think about how you’ll want to mount your camera. Going to be doing lots of mountain biking? Make sure you budget for an additional bike mount. Some cameras come with a couple of mounts, but additional ones cost extra. Of course, with a little imagination and a handful of zip ties, you can mount your camera to just about anything.
Even the camera with the longest battery life will last only a few hours, so if you’re on a multiday backpacking trip, you’ll need to buy additional rechargeable batteries or a solar charging device.
Many action cams have Wi-Fi networking built in so you can easily zap your videos from your camera straight to YouTube, for example. Some let you control your camera from a smartphone.
All action cams record videos onto small removable memory cards. Most cams use tiny microSD cards, while some still use postage stamp–size SD cards. Either way, buy a couple of extra memory cards so you’ll have plenty of space for your videos. All cards are sized in gigabytes (GB). The higher the GB number, the more space you’ll have —
and the more expensive the card will be.
GoPro – HERO3+ Black Edition ($400; gopro.com)
There’s a reason you see all the best extreme athletes using this camera: It works really well. It has up to a 170-degree field of view with 4K, 1080p, plus 12 MP photos; has built-in Wi-Fi; and with its waterproof case, it can go to 131 feet deep. Weight: 2.6 ounces. The entry-level HERO3 White Edition ($200) with 1080p, 5 MP photos and built-in Wi-Fi is a great starter cam.
Garmin – VIRB Elite ($400; garmin.com)
The VIRB is slightly bigger and heavier than most, but it’s also probably the most full-featured cam here with some of the sharpest video. It has a 146-degree field of view, shoots 1080p video and 16 MP photos, and can capture both at the same time. It also has built-in Wi-Fi, GPS, an accelerometer, a barometric altimeter, and is waterproof to 3 feet without the case and to 150 feet with the case. Weight: 7.2 ounces.
Polaroid – Cube ($100; polaroid.com)
The most affordable and smallest cam here, the Cube shoots 1080p with 6 MP photos while providing a 124-degree field of view. It’s waterproof to a depth of 6 feet, shockproof and has a built-in magnet that lets you attach it to anything metal. Weight: 1.7 ounces.
Sony – POV Action Cam ($300; sony.com)
The POV Action Cam is one of the most compact and lightest here. With a 170-degree field of view, it records 1080p video plus 13.5 MP photos, and comes with built-in Wi-Fi and GPS. It’s also waterproof to 16 feet inside the case. Weight: 2.4 ounces.
JVC – GC-XA2 Adixxion ($300; adixxion.jvc.com)
One of the most durable cams here, the Adixxion is waterproof to 16 feet, dust- and freeze-resistant, and shockproof enough to handle a drop from 6.5 feet. It shoots 1080p video and 8 MP photos with a 160-degree field of view, plus it has a handy 1.5-inch color screen for reviewing your shots. Weight: 4.8 ounces.
iON – Air Pro 3 Wi-Fi ($350; usa.ioncamera.com)
This sleek cam with a 160-degree field of view shoots 1080p video and 12 MP photos, has built-in Wi-Fi and is waterproof to 49 feet without a separate housing. Weight: 5 ounces. A stripped-down version, the iON Air Pro Wi-Fi Lite, is $200.
IronX – DXG 5G9V HD ($250; ironxcam.com)
One of the most affordable cams here, we saw this IronX camcorder on sale online for as low as $164. You get 1080p, 170-degree field of view, 5 MP photos, with a waterproof case that’s good down to 180 feet. Weight: 2.4 ounces.