New Additions to Our Carry-On Packing List: The Switch from DSLR to Mirrorless Camera, iPad, Tieks & More

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We’ve been living out of a small carry-on sized backpack each for nearly four years. It contains all our worldly belongings and everything we need to live and work around the world. We love the simplicity of travelling with just hand luggage, the convenience of skipping baggage collection queues and airline fees, and the peace of mind knowing that our bags are always with us. It has been so long that we can’t imagine living any other way—more stuff just seems unnecessary.

We have made a few changes to our packing list since we published our latest list back in February, some of which have made it even easier to travel with just one small backpack each.

Most of the latest batch of packing list changes took place this summer in the US (which has the best prices for technology) and the UK.

Camera —from DSLR to Mirrorless

Erin with Olympus OMD EM5 and Pansonic 20mm lens

Erin with her Olympus OMD EM5 and Pansonic 20mm lens

The biggest change I made was moving from a digital SLR to a mirrorless camera. Technically this is a downgrade and I made the decision in my never-ending pursuit to travel lighter as mirrorless cameras are much smaller than DSLRs. In actuality my new camera, an Olympus OM-D EM-5 is better in most ways than my seven year old Canon 400D. Mirrorless cameras have come a long way in recent years and the OM-D EM-5 has received rave reviews and convinced many photographers to give up their bulky gear.

I swapped my Canon 400D DSLR and Tamron 18-200mm lens for the Olympus OM-D EM-5 with the 14-42mm kit lens and Panasonic 20mm f1.7 pancake lens. I have lost out on the telephoto end but I decided I wasn’t using it enough to justify the weight. I have gained a much larger aperture with the 20mm prime lens, better for low light and blurring backgrounds.

SLR vs Mirrorless Cameras

My old DSLR (left) and new mirrorless camera and lenses (right)

As my new camera is smaller I also got rid of my much loved compact Canon Powershot s95 which I used for video and when I didn’t want to lug around the big camera. I have actually missed this more than the DSLR as there are still a few occasions when I want a camera that can fit in my pocket but is higher quality than the iPhone 5 (which we use a lot more now).

Pros

  • Size and weight saving – Although I had one of the smaller DSLRs I have still saved 33% of my previous gear weight (now it’s a total of 636g) and it fits more easily inside my carry-on backpack (I travel with my gear in a camera shoulder bag placed inside my backpack). When I’m carrying the camera around my neck all day it’s barely noticeable.
  • Higher ISO – My new set up is much better in low light. I went from having a maximum ISO 1600 in the old Canon to up to ISO 25,600 with the Olympus. I have actually used ISO 6400 photos on this site.
  • Image Stabilisation – The OM-D EM-5’s excellent 5-axis image stabilisation means I can hand hold the camera at surprisingly low shutter speeds. Paired with the fast Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens, which is tiny and only weighs 100g, it’s a great low light combo and one I love for food photography.
  • Tilting OLED screen – I didn’t even have a live preview screen on the 400D so this is a big plus. Being able to tilt it vertically allows for a greater range of shooting angles.
  • Touch screen focusing – Selecting the area to focus on with one touch is really useful.
  • Range of lenses – It’s part of the Panasonic and Olympus Micro Four Thirds system which offers the biggest range of mirrorless lenses.
Yi Peng Lantern Release in Chiang Mai taken with my OM-D EM-5 at ISO 3200.

Yi Peng Lantern Release in Chiang Mai taken with my OM-D EM-5 at ISO 3200.

Wilted spinach salad at Greens, San Francisco

Taking advantage of the 20mm’s shallow depth of field

Vernal Falls, Yosemite in summer

Vernal Falls in Yosemite hand held at 1/5 shutter speed

Cons

  • Cost – Mirrorless cameras are more expensive than entry level DSLRs. When I bought it in July the OM-D EM-5 was $999 with the kit lens. The just released new version OM-D EM-1 is even more expensive at $1399 body only.
  • Electronic viewfinder – This takes a bit of adjustment coming from a DSLR but I quickly got used to it and now switch between the viewfinder and live preview screen.
  • Learning Curve – Coming from an older model Canon it was quite a learning curve to get used to the many many settings and customisable buttons on the OM-D EM-5. I still haven’t made my way through the epic manual yet. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you know some photography basics already.

So far my experience with the Olympus OM-D EM-5 has been excellent and I haven’t regretted giving up my DSLR at all. I think mirrorless cameras are the perfect compromise for travellers between photo quality and weight.

Also see the Twenty Years Hence review of the Olympus OM-D EM-5 for travel or for more detail the DP Review’s writeup. If you want to compare your current camera to a potential new purchase then Snapsort is great.

Tieks

My Lilac Tieks

My Lilac Tieks

Update 2017: Read my detailed Tieks review about my new favourite ballet flats after four years of travelling with them. 

After about a year of travelling I added a pair of ballet flats in addition to my hiking shoes and sports sandals. I needed something dressier and flats are great for every occasion, go with everything and don’t take up much space in your bag. I’ve been through a number of pairs in the past three years as they tend to fall apart quite quickly given the rugged conditions I often wear them in. One problem I have is that with every new pair I get, without fail, I have to go through a painful week-long breaking in period where the shoes rub my feet so much that they bleed and I use dozens of plasters until they soften up.

So when Tieks gave me the opportunity to try out a pair of their ballet flats I was really excited as I had heard they were the most comfortable flats available, and fold in half so they can be packed easily.

Tieks come in an astounding range of styles and colours. I originally wanted to try the vegan fabric flats but they were sold out for months so I went for a matte leather pair in my favourite purple. They arrived in a beautiful box that made it feel like Christmas. I’ve been wearing them for five months now and love them.

Lilac Tieks and box

My Lilac Tieks and the pretty box they arrived in

Pros

  • No breaking in period – They are the only pair of flats I’ve ever worn that have fitted me perfectly right away, no blisters, no cuts.
  • Super comfortable – Tieks are made from soft, quality Italian leather that moulds to your feet. All flats I’ve worn before have flimsy soles that make walking on cobbled and unpaved streets painful. Tieks have cushioned non-skid rubber soles (in their signature turquoise) that feel bouncy and have stood up to everything from dirt paths in Thailand, a vineyard hike in California, and many hours on cobbled streets in Italy. I can wear them all day long and my feet feel fine.
  • Portable – They fold in half and are compressed in their own compact pouch so take up less room in your bag.
  • Attractive – My Tieks are ideal when I want something smarter than my sandals. They are the only pair of shoes I’ve owned in years that I’ve received multiple compliments for.
  • Durable – Despite being folded up constantly, stuffed in my bag, and worn in all kinds of situations they are still going strong after five months.
Erin in her Tieks

Erin in her Tieks

Cons

  • Expensive – The Lilac Classics I have cost US$175.
  • Scuffing – The toes and heels of my shoes have scuffed a little after a few months of wear. This isn’t very noticeable and I do wear them in some rough situations.
  • Tight at first – My Tieks felt a little tight at first but after a few days they were fine. You might want to consider going up a size. If you are unsure you can exchange sizes for free and Tieks lets you keep both pairs while you decide which fits best.
  • Shipping internationally costs – Delivery is only free within the US but they do ship internationally for a fee.

After five months of travelling on three continents with my Tieks, I wouldn’t want to be without them and think they are ideal for travellers. They are pricey but as we own so little we value quality over quantity and although I received a complimentary pair I would buy my next pair as I think having a quality pair of shoes ideal for travel is worth it.

Update: In 2014 I got a new pair of vegan Tieks which I like even more (Tieks replaced them for free because of the scuffing). Read more about my new Tieks

iPad Mini

Simon drawing on the iPad Mini

Simon drawing on the iPad Mini

The new camera and Tieks were replacement items in our backpacks but one new addition was an iPad Mini. It’s not something we strictly needed and I was against the purchase but technology geek Simon insisted, and I must admit I can now see its advantages. It doesn’t do anything that our other gear (laptops, Kindles, iPhone) doesn’t do but it is more convenient.

Pros

  • Watching films on buses – Much more convenient than a laptop and the battery life is better—on a recent overnight bus trip we watched six hours of video and only used up 50% of our battery life. Ideal for easing the pain of long bus journeys.
  • Drawing – Simon also bought a Wacom Bamboo stylus and uses it to sketch ideas on the iPad using the Sketchbook Pro app.
  • Language Learning – When I was learning French and revising my Italian I loved using the free Duolingo app on the iPad. There was more space than on the iPhone screen but I could still practice when we were out and about, and I preferred the interface to the web version.
  • Illustrated Books – We love our Kindles but they aren’t the best for coloured and illustrated books. Comics, guidebooks, and cookbooks all work better on the iPad. There are also books that take advantage of the technology and incorporate video and other interactive elements.
  • Replacing laptops – While we couldn’t work full time on the iPad, it’s nice to be able to leave the laptops behind when we go away on short side trips but still have a device for watching films and browsing the web.
  • Development – As we’re developing apps, it’s good to have two iOS devices to test things like iCloud and Peer-to-Peer connection.

Cons

  • Expensive – The 16GB iPad Mini WiFi cost $329 (now $299) and that’s the cheapest model.
  • Inessential – The iPad is a luxury. It’s nice to have but we don’t really need it (Simon disagrees) and it’s an extra thing to carry.
  • 16GB fills up fast – If you are filling your iPad up with films then 16GB is not a huge amount of space and a bigger, more expensive model would be better.

If you are considering an iPad then we think the new iPad Mini Retina is ideal for travel—we’ve never wanted a bigger screen size and the Mini is lighter but, other than the screen size, is identical in specs to the iPad Air. If you are travelling without working online or wanting to edit photos then you could even consider taking the iPad Mini instead of a laptop.

For those of you like us who do need a laptop then whether to get an iPad or not depends on how much space you have and how much you think you’ll use it. It’s likely that if you get one you’ll discover uses for it that you never knew you needed.

Clothes

As you’d expect with owning approximately 10 items of clothing they get worn out pretty quickly so we usually change the majority of our wardrobe once a year when we’re back visiting family in the UK. We aren’t shopping fans and find it quicker and easier to shop there as we are familiar with the sizes and where to go. Occasionally if the situation gets desperate we’ll pick up new items around the world as needed.

Reversible Skirt

This summer in the US and the UK we replaced a lot of our clothes. One of my favourite new items is a reversible skirt with a different pattern on each side. It was a happy accident as I didn’t realise it was reversible when I picked it out in the shop, but as I only travel with one skirt getting two for the price/space of one is perfect for me.

Erin and her reversible skirt

1 skirt, 2 outfits

Sports Gear

For the last year I have been running on the road, and recently as we’ve settled for a few months have started yoga classes too. Although I started running with the board shorts, vest top, and trail running shoes I had already, I have finally bought a sports bra. I also bought a pair of capri pants for yoga but I don’t know if I’ll take them with me when we hit the road again.

When you are travelling long term with just carry-on luggage it’s important to constantly assess what’s in your bag. Are there things you are no longer using that you could get rid of? Is there a smaller/lighter alternative? Our packing list is always evolving but one thing that stays the same is that every item has to earn its place.

For full details of exactly what’s in our backpacks see our carry-on packing list and our 2014 update including new technology and clothes and shoes.

Note: As always we get a tiny affiliate commission if you buy something from Amazon using our links. We get paid in vouchers so thanks for keeping me stocked with travel reads for my Kindle!

Are you planning your next adventure? See our Travel Resources page for our favourite tools and gear to help you plan the perfect trip. 

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41 Comments (4 pingbacks)

  1. I just bought my first pair of Tieks. What a wonderful experience. I had trouble picking a color and my first pick was too dark. Tieks customer service was spectacular and suggested several colors for me to review. I picked one and was offered an exchange, all postage paid and priority mail, without an additional charge to my credit card. I just have to return one of the pairs within 2 weeks. They fit beautifully and take up no space. Thank you Erin for the referral, my shoe wardrobe is complete for our upcoming nomadic life starting in December in South Africa and Namibia!!!

    Reply

    • Hi Kathleen, I’m so glad they worked out for you. I agree that the Tieks customer service is exceptional—I’ve only had good experiences.

      South Africa is a great place to start your nomadic life—how exciting!

      Reply

  2. This post was the answer to my Googling prayers. Are you still happy with the camera choice? Any info you could provide would be so much appreciated. I’ve read so many reviews. I can hardly focus. But no one really addressed my quality v. weight concerns like you did! And your photos are brilliant! Obviously, that’s the skill of the person USING the equipment, but the point is that not having a DSLR does not seem to be holding you back. Do you sell your photos as well?

    I’m really hoping you have time to answer this, and thanks for your blog. It’s brilliant, and I’m so happy I stumbled on it!

    Reply

    • I am very happy with my mirrorless. In fact I think it’s better than my SLR. Many other travellers and serious photographers are switching to mirrorless and I don’t think quality is an issue at all anymore.

      Reply

  3. You 2 are amazing! I am soaking up every word & idea! I have also downsized my camera to an Olympus & would like to know what bag/case you put the camera & all its bits & pieces in when u put it in your backpack. I assume it is easy to get at when you have to go through airport security? Would love to see a photo of your backpack open, but fully packed, to see where everything goes! Thank you so much for your interesting articles.

    Reply

  4. After dropping my DSLR in the Konglor caves in Laos and in effect completely destroying the camera I too made the switch to mirrorless with a simpler Olympus model. Really loving the mirrorless camera, even more so than the DSLR! So nice that it’s lighter too and more compact!

    Reply

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