Every summer has the potential to be an unforgettable one, but it’s up to us to get off our butts and make that a reality. Whether it’s in the mountains or underwater, there are adventures to be had all over the map.
But to look back on these days fondly — and clearly — you best be equipped with an action camera. Small, rugged, and always at the ready, these easy-to-use shooters can capture everything from breathtaking shipwreck dives to heart-stopping downhill runs, all without fiddling with your smartphone’s delicate touchscreen.
With plenty of action cameras on the market, there are good choices for every activity. Here are our picks for recording your favorite pursuits.
Made to Move:
Practically synonymous with “action camera,” GoPro is the first choice of extreme athletes and amateur thrill-seekers alike. And the company’s newest first-person-shooter, the GoPro HERO 4 Session, is sure to be a must-wear among these show-offs, too. 50% smaller and 40% lighter than the previous HERO 4 models (which were already impossibly tiny), this $399 cube-shaped camera has a 170-degree lens to gobble down all your death-defying feats in 60-frame-per-second, 1080p, high-definition style. Or, if you’re into slow motion shots, the 720p, 100-frames-per-second mode will reveal every wide-eyed, panic inducting detail.
With built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, the Session’s clips will be ready to share via your smartphone in no time. And it’s even waterproof up to 10 meters — but if you’re taking it to the beach, you better invest in the floating case, because a camera this action-packed surely doesn’t float.
Liked for Hikes
Able to withstand more cold (14°F) and bigger drops (6.5 feet) than you’re likely to face this summer (we hope), the $199 Pentax WG-M1 is one tough cookie. Dominated by an array of large, easy-to-press buttons, the camera’s dust-proof casing is great for a dirty day on the trails. Easy to clip onto the shoulder straps of a backpack, it’s ideal for hanging around until you’ve found something worth recording. Then its 14 megapixel CMOS sensor can gobble up all that amazing imagery.
With a 160-degree lens, it can capture widescreen 1080p video, and its rechargeable Lithium-ion battery will shoot for 150 minutes before throwing in the towel. And the WG-M1’s 1.5-inch LCD display can give you a peek at what you’re recording, so you know if you’ve got a dazzling vista or a solar flare until you reposition your shot.
Speed Freak Favorite
Adrenaline junkies and data wonks have one shocking thing in common: numbers. And to make the most of their highlight reels, daredevils can use the information and video recorded by the Garmin Virb cameras to amass their own collection of personal records. Able to calculate how fast, how far, and how heart-pounding the memories they’re recording are, the GPS-enabled $299 Virb X and $399 Verb XE action cameras are great for mounting on your body, board, or bike to create a true first person adventure flick.
With Ant+ connectivity, the camera can connect to a heart rate monitor, and with an onboard accelerometer it can keep track of how quickly you’re hurtling down a hill, through the air, or anywhere in between. Then, once the clips are collected, with Wi-Fi capabilities, the cameras can stream your media over to your smartphone for instant playback. So what’s the difference between the two? Speed versus more speed — the X shoots in 1080p at 30 frames per second, while the XE doubles the density at 60 frames per second.
Big for Stump Jumpers
Life moves pretty fast when you’re on a bike. To make sure you’re taking it all in, you’ll need a camera as quick as the Tom Tom Bandit. Like the Garmin Virb, this action cam comes from a GPS lineage, and because of that it’s loaded with built-in sensors able to detect speed, G-force, Altitude, Rotation, and even heartbeats (with the help of a third-party, Bluetooth chest strap).
But the canister-style camera is begging to be strapped onto some handlebars, making it an excellent choice for mountain bikers. Able to film up to three hours of video up to 4K quality, the Bandit has a pair of ingenious features that are sure to keep riders on their toes. First, the camera’s cable-free charging solution involves plugging the device’s “batt-stick” directly into a USB port (great if you happen to be toting an iPhone charger around). And second, the accompanying app’s shake-to-edit option lets users simply jiggle their phone to automatically create a montage of your best highlights of the day, all ready for posting online. The Bandit is available for $399.99 in the U.S.
Scuba Divers’ Buddy
When you’re under water, “keep it simple, stupid” is a good motto to live by, especially because when you’re battling nitrogen narcosis. The $199 Contour Roam3, with its straightforward controls, makes for an excellent diving buddy — especially because it’s waterproof to 33 feet without any extra protection or casing. Great for mounting on a dive mask (or other places), the Roam3’s lens rotates 270 degrees to make sure the camera is always even. And though the action cam lacks a screen (part of what makes it waterproof), it has a laser level to make sure your shots are on the up-and-up.
With a 3.5-hour battery, it will last in the drink longer than you will, but with no Wi-Fi-connectivity, you have to plug it into a laptop to liberate your 1080p videos. But the controls are what might save your life — or at least not scramble your brain. Just press the button to take a five megapixel photo, or hold it down to begin shooting video. That’s it!
Capturing on the Cheap
Having the latest and greatest specs is good and all, but why spend $400 when you can collect the same memories for a fraction of the price? The entry-level GoPro HERO is an excellent starter action camera, especially at its $129 price. For this cost, you not only get a small, 3.9-ounce, sturdy camera that can record in 30-frame-per-second 1080p high definition video, but it’s also compatible with the company’s line of mounts and cases. And since it won’t make as big a dent in your wallet, you’ll have more cash for other adventure gear, from water skis to scuba gear.