My family hikes, we camp, we fish, we snowboard. As a photographer, that leaves me with some choices to make if I want to take pictures or video of our adventures.

Vacations, particularly outdoor, active ones, can provide some of the most vivid family memories, but can also be some of the most difficult to photograph. Several different types of device try to fit the bill but which is best for you?

Your mirrorless camera may be pretty compact to travel with, but can it film your kid’s first trip down a waterslide? Your DSLR may claim to be weather sealed but are you willing to risk pulling your $3000 camera+lens combo out to take a ski chairlift photo? Even if you are willing to trust it, are you willing to carry that kit with you all day?

In 2018, there’s no reason to let that keep you from being able to record those moments in your life. There are more options than ever for water, shockproof / freezeproof cameras that can survive life’s more demanding adventures. I’m talking about cameras that can survive a rainstorm or a day at the beach or sledding hill. Something compact and easy to travel with that you don’t have to worry about (and won’t cost thousands to replace) if clumsy Uncle Fred drops it into the hotel pool. Let's look at the options:

Action cameras

Small, tough and able to capture wide-angle video, Action cameras are especially good for capturing the spirit and experience of action activities.

Since the introduction of the GoPro HD in 2009, action cameras have become almost a required accessory for outdoor adventures. Once the sole domain of those who jumped off of cliffs or surfed on 20 foot waves, these days GoPros are used for everything from 'Hot Wheels' tracks in the backyard to Formula 1 races across the globe. From a child's first wobbly bike ride to mountain bikers who throw themselves down cliffs. If you are on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, It’s highly likely that you see video from these cameras virtually every time you look at your feed.

While not expressly listed as shockproof or freezeproof, action cameras have a pretty proven track record.

It’s easy to see why action cameras have become so popular. They are tough, small, offer very good video quality, and can be mounted literally anywhere. Their super wide lenses give them a unique field-of-view that both suits, and has become de-rigueur for, recording 'cool' adventures. 4K video, image stabilization, and even Raw image shooting options are common. The newer camera designs from GoPro (Hero6, Hero5, Session) offer 10 meters / 33 feet of waterproofing while still offering clear audio out of the water and an optional external case extends this depth to 60m / 196ft.

These cameras are far better when mounted on a helmet, handlebar, or selfie stick than they are used handheld.

While not expressly listed as shockproof or freezeproof, action cameras have a pretty proven track record. Googling 'GoPro survives fall' or 'GoPro Everest' should give more than enough examples to convince most skeptics. Most offer Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity and many have apps that allow for remote control via smartphone. Finally, it is hard to deny just how much kids love these cameras. The days of youngsters being thrilled by the apparent magic of a smartphone or a digital camera are probably over. But for whatever reason, when you hand a kid a GoPro, they just go nuts with it. You’ll get some of the most fascinating and genuine footage of children you’ve ever seen. It is both unique and heartwarming.

There's something unobtrusive about an action camera that can help candidly capture natural behavior.

However, it can be frustrating trying to use an action camera for still images. JPEG quality, color science, and even operational speed can feel like they lag behind dedicated still camera makers. Manual controls are near non-existent, and those that do exist are frequently hidden behind screen/button taps and menus. With no zoom or interchangeable lenses, your field-of-view is limited to super-wide or cropped 'medium' and 'narrow' options, limiting both flexibility and quality. And as cool as that super-wide view is, you probably won’t be surprised to hear how easy it is to get your fingers in the way if you are shooting handheld.

These cameras are far better when mounted on a helmet, handlebar, or selfie stick than they are used handheld, particularly given their size and lack of physical controls.

Waterproof P&S cameras

There are times when those 'freezeproof' ratings start to seem pertinent.

The waterproof point-and-shoot camera has been around for many years, as 1994’s film-based Canon Sure Shot A1 can attest. But as with most P&S cameras, the digital revolution brought a whole new level of usefulness to these tough little cameras. However, unlike most P&S cameras, the waterproof segment continues to thrive and evolve even in the age of smartphones.

Many of these cameras are not only waterproof, but are rated to be freeze, dust and shockproof. For example, typical specs might be waterproof to 15-30 meters / 50-100 ft, dustproof, crushproof to 100 kgf / 220 lbf, shockproof from 2.1 meters / 7 ft, and freezeproof to -10° / +14° F. While lenses in these cameras are the typical variable aperture midrange zoom that most P&S cameras have, the waterproof versions tend to be a bit faster on the wide end, apertures of F2 or F2.8 aren’t uncommon. And unlike action cameras or smartphones with their fixed lenses and digital zooms, these are true optical zooms that typically offer a 4x-6x range. RAW shooting, 4K video, optical image stabilization and Wi-Fi/bluetooth connectivity are showing up on recent models.

Even if you're not shooting underwater, there are times it's nice to know your camera will withstand a drop.

But perhaps most importantly, these cameras blow the other options out of the water in terms of ergonomics. While their physical controls, shutter buttons, and handgrips won’t win any awards when compared to DSLR or mirrorless cameras, they are miles ahead of a GoPro or iPhone. You can successfully use these cameras with gloves on, with wet hands, or in a location where a fumble would mean losing the camera. Along similar lines, these cameras all have one small feature that is difficult or impossible to find on action cameras or smartphones: a strap loop. While a full neckstrap may be a bit much for a camera like this, a small wrist strap is a worthwhile and compact safety measure. Buoyancy floats can even be attached if you do find yourself out on the water.

These cameras blow the other options out of the water in terms of ergonomics

While these cameras often have more physical controls than other options on this list, they still don’t tend to have very many of them compared to more serious cameras. Camera and shooting settings are still commonly accessed via pressing buttons to scroll through menus. On the other hand, this may not matter because there just aren’t that many manual control options on most point-and-shoot cameras, waterproof or otherwise. Shooting and 'art' modes of limited usefulness are far more likely than shutter or aperture priority options.

Autofocus is improved from the cheap P&S your parents might have had at one point, but it still is going to lag behind any DSLR or mirrorless you are used to. They are also absolutely an additional device to carry with you. Unlike a tiny GoPro or the smartphone that you probably already have with you, a waterproof compact can feel bulky/heavy enough that you know you are having to carry it around.

Smartphones

But a dedicated camera isn't necessarily your only option. What if there was a surprisingly powerful camera that you probably already owned and it was almost always in your pocket or purse? What if this camera also had powerful photo and video editing capabilities and could instantly upload the finished product to the internet and social media? As you’ve probably already guessed, this camera already exists and you probably already own one, a smartphone.

It is becoming more and more common for higher end smartphones to have some level of Ingress Protection rating

It is becoming more and more common for higher end smartphones to have at least some level of IP (Ingress Protection) rating. Typically, they are dustproof and water resistant for up to 30 minutes in water around 1 m / 3.3 ft deep. This means you shouldn’t go snorkeling with any of them, but they will survive dunkings and splashes easily, even without one of the great many 'protector' cases that are available for the flagship handsets. High-resolution 4k video, dual (or even triple) lens options, optical image stabilization, and front/back cameras are all regularly seen on expensive and budget smartphones alike.

Default camera apps are decent, but the real power is using some of the 3rd party apps that give you additional shooting modes, full manual control and the ability to shoot in Raw. Not only can you capture images, but editing programs give you the ability to crop, sharpen, adjust and enhance your photos/video right on your phone. Cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity allow instant uploading to social media or text / email to friends and family.

With an IP-rated smartphone, the selfies don't have to stop when the conditions get more challenging.

Perhaps most importantly, you are almost assuredly going to have a smartphone with you anyway. Whether for communication, navigation, entertainment, and even emergencies, you’ll want your smartphone for all of them while traveling. There is a reason that these days, hardcore outdoor folks often call a mobile phone the 'eleventh essential' on the classic 'ten essentials' survival item list.

The convenience factor of using a smartphone as your vacation/adventure camera is high, but the drawbacks may be even higher. There is simply no getting around the fact that the ergonomics of these devices as cameras are simply awful. They are thin, slippery, and without any sort of handgrip or strap options. A shattered screen from a two foot drop on the pool deck or a tumble down a thousand foot cliff is just one small stumble away. Almost everyone you know has dropped their phone with dry hands, so how much worse is that likely to be with wet hands or gloves? And, as most of us know, using a touchscreen with gloves or wet hands can be impossible, which just exacerbates the ergonomics issue.

A lack of zoom may be a drawback but chances are you'll have a smartphone with you at key moments.

Battery life is frequently a problem with phones, and constantly filming and photographing will only make this worse, which may leave you without communication or data capabilities at a crucial moment. Most important of all is the fact that if something happens to your phone, you are likely losing a lot more personal data than just a few images. Dropping and breaking your GoPro is a good way to have a bad day, but dropping and breaking your iPhone X could leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere if you were relying on its GPS to get you home. Not to mention the fact that you’d be out over $1000: that’s going to hurt no matter who you are.

If you are going the smartphone route, it might be worth looking into some of the extreme protection cases form companies such as LifeProof or OtterBox.

Conclusion

So, which to choose? That depends on what sort of vacation/adventure you see yourself taking.

If you are looking for still image capability, a waterproof point and shoot camera will probably prove the most versatile. With their optical zooms and physical controls, they easily best the other options for still images. 4k video and image stabilization means that they're not slouches in the video department as well. Equally at home capturing everything from a flower in a tropical rainstorm to rock climbing in a national park, they really are a jack of all trades. I take mine anytime I want to shoot still images, might want the option for video, and require protection from water/drops/freezing/etc.

Rugged, waterproof cameras aren't only useful for underwater shooting.

More action-orientated adventures are probably better suited to the video and perspective that action cams offer. Will you be skiing, sailing, paragliding, mountain biking or anything like that? For me, I’m mostly likely to pull out the GoPro when I’m snowboarding. A video with that wide field-of-view just does the best job of capturing that memory for me. Additionally, any trip that includes children is a strong point for these cameras as well. As you can see from the waterslide video above, even a day poolside with a GoPro can capture some pretty fun kid moments.

Finally, let’s face it, you’ll likely have your cell phone in your pocket no matter where you go. In 2018, most of us are so addicted to the connectivity that these devices offer, we’re unlikely to leave them home. But can they be a vacation camera for you? If you are going to be somewhere with good cell coverage and with a low level of risk, then yes. Seeing the Smithsonian, visiting the beach, taking a train across Europe or dropping into an oyster shack for lunch? The still and video options of today’s smartphones will serve you well. Pick up a model with a decent IP rating and you can even enjoy some protection from splashes and sand. Just make sure you don’t drop it and leave yourself stranded somewhere!

The Olympus Tough TG-5 is one of the few rugged cameras that lets you shoot Raw, which is useful for making the most of those images shot in difficult conditions.

But if I was only going to carry one on a vacation or adventure, I would still choose the waterproof P&S option (probably the Olympus Tough TG-5 in my case). It is the best of the bunch as far ease/quality of still photos, has the ability to shoot Raw, does a great job with video, offers a few physical controls, has a usable and reasonably fast zoom lens, is freeze/drop/waterproof, includes Wi-Fi connectivity, and can be found for under $400.

I’ve gone fishing, snowboarding, snorkeling, camping, traveling, and splashing at the local pool with mine. It’s survived, kids, grandfathers, drops, kicks, falls, bouncing across river rocks, careening down waterslides and generally being ridden hard and put away (literally) wet. It’s yet to let me down.

The Olympus Tough TG-5 is the camera we recommend as best camera in our Waterproof Camera buying guide.