African Safari Packing List
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What to Pack for an African Safari
Packing for a continent and experience you know little about can be daunting. Are there certain colors that attract lions? What footwear are you supposed to wear? Are there going to be shops for buying anything accidentally left at home? Don't get too hung up on what to pack. Keep it simple. On most African safaris, it's going to be hot, so think about lightweight clothes and good sun protection. Safari landscapes are also dusty; that's why people prefer neutral colors. These classic bush colors help you blend into the wild on walking safaris and other activities outside the safari vehicle. Temperatures can drop at night, so a good sweater is also important. But while Africa doesn't have the same range of shops and brands as at home, it does sell almost everything you could need for a safari. Your guide will know exactly where to go if anything is missing from your bag.
Packing for an African Safari
Tropical Indian Ocean island? European city break? Skiing in the Swiss Alps? Many vacation destinations are easy to pack for. You've got enough travel experience to pack accordingly. But Africa? Safari on the savannah? Stuffing the suitcase for a safari adventure can be intimidating, and many online packing guides complicate matters with a seemingly endless list of essential items. This can be challenging when you're confronted with the luggage weight restrictions of micro flights to remote destinations. Here's what to consider when you're packing.
The Importance of Trying to Pack Light
Going on safari usually means traveling between different destinations and staying in a variety of lodges and camps. You're likely to be hopping between parks every two or three days and could sometimes visit four or five safari destinations in a single trip. So everything you bring from home is going to be accompanying you. While international airlines have large luggage allowances, there's not quite as much space on a micro plane. The small planes that aerially connect safari destinations try to be flexible. If there's space on the plane, then the luggage can come. But if all the seats are taken they are likely to impose a 15kg (32lb) luggage allowance. More weight simply wouldn't fit. Likewise, safari vehicles are spacious, but that space can get eaten up if you're traveling with multiple suitcases.
Two Reasons It's Easy to Pack Light for an African Safari
While names like the Serengeti or the Kalahari can sound as foreign as Middle Earth, Africa isn't the primitive continent that most people preconceive. There are shops. There are shopping malls. You will find major international brands. And there are ample places to buy all the essential items for a safari. Think about it: if there's anywhere you can buy safari clothes it's in the towns next to a safari destination. Most safari itineraries will involve a layover in one of Africa's entry cities, good places to stock up anything you're missing. Furthermore, you'll have a chance to meet your guide and ask any specific questions about the current conditions in the parks you're visiting. After hitting the road, it might be a week before you pass through another town or even a village. So the guide will usually subtly make sure that there's nothing missing from your suitcase.
In most of the Western world, hand washing clothes is something reserved for a wardrobe's delicate items. It's generally something for expensive clothes taken to the dry cleaners. In Africa, hand washing is a privilege extended to every shirt or pair of socks. The majority of safari lodges provide a laundry service and in many upmarket lodges, it's something that's included in your package. Clothes are hand-washed and then dry in the sun, something that respects the landscape's limited water and electricity. With this service, you don't necessarily need a new outfit for every day. Furthermore, it's hardly the place for a fashion carousel when there's millions of wild mammals and just a handful of other people.
The Standard African Safari Packing List
For a quick snapshot, the following would be a standard packing list for anyone going on an African safari. These items are listed in order of importance.
- High-SPF sunscreen and a sunhat.
- Comfortable lightweight clothes of neutral colors.
- Comfortable closed shoes.
- A light fleece or sweater for the evenings.
- Insect repellent.
That's it. There's no magical list that runs into pages and pages. Focus on being comfortable and remember that while you're heading into the wilderness, you are on a fully-guided experience.
The majority of Africa's safari destinations have hot and sometimes challenging climates. These infertile landscapes haven't been tamed by man and continue to the realm of the savannah specialists: predatory cats, grazers, tree-bashing elephants, rumbustious hippos. Many provide this wilderness feel because they're completely unsuitable for growing crops or sustaining large human populations. At the same time, these dry desert-like climates can drop surprisingly cold at night, with the temperature not rising again until the morning sun floats above the landscape. Driving in an open safari vehicle at dawn can be chilly, with the guide is wrapped up in a wooly hat and thick coat. Two hours later everyone is back down to just a t-shirt.
Ideas About Clothes to Pack
These challenging climates mean that practicality and comfort should be at the heart of any safari packing. It's not a place for uncomfortable fabrics, heavy clothes, or cult fashion. Think about packing:
- Lightweight, breathable fabrics.
- Comfortable clothes for a long journey in a safari vehicle.
- Long sleeves (arms and legs) to prevent sunburn and protect the skin from insects.
- Something warm for the evenings.
There's no exact rule about what to wear or what to bring. Some useful items are a lightweight fleece, windbreaker, and a pashmina or scarf for women to cover their arms. But everyone is different, so pack according to what you are comfortable in. Temperatures will vary dependent on your destination. Consistent across most of Africa is the intensity of a very fierce sun, one that's dangerous for anyone thinking about sunbathing.
So how cold does it get? Exactly how hot will it be during the day? This will vary dependent on your destination and the time of year. Two adjacent parks can have very different climates. For example, the nighttime temperature in Ngorongoro's high-altitude crater and the nearby Serengeti plains can vary by 30 degrees. Your safari guide can provide more detailed information on the conditions for your visit. As a general guide, remember that the sun will be intense, and the climate can be challenging. And if you forget something, remember that there's also shops in Africa.
If you're going on safari during the rainy season, then it's rare that you'll get that wet. The rain is generally of the thunderous kind, torrentially unfurling for an hour or less before the skies seductively clear. Regardless of your rain gear, a single moment out in the open could have you completely drenched. When the rains come then, there's not much to do other than find shelter and wait for it to pass. This might be at the lodge or in the safari vehicle. While the locals don't have online weather forecasts, they're wonderfully skilled at glancing at the sky and predicting how long you have before the rain. Such calculations mean it's rare you're caught without shelter regardless of the safari activity. Many locals can even inspect the sky and tell you exactly what day the rains will start. If you're traveling during the wet season, the priorities should be a lightweight rain jacket and something that keeps you dry during a few brief moments in the open, rather than a whole day in the rain.
Why Neutral Colors are Advised for an African Safari
Think safari and the general image is something from a wildlife documentarian, with gray zip-off trousers, khaki safari shirts, and monotone neutral colors. There are two very good reasons for this. Most safari landscapes are dusty environments, especially during the long dry season months. Wildebeest herds are followed by swirls of dust, elephants kick up flumes with every step, and galloping zebras leave faint traces of their path. You'll also be sending shards of dust into the landscape when you drive on the rugged off-road trails. It's impossible to avoid the dust as you're traveling in either an open vehicle or have the roof popped out for game viewing. And dust wears better on neutral colors than vibrant tones.
On a game drive, animals don't see you. They see the safari vehicle. So your choice of colors has no effect on the animal's behavior. But when you enter their realm on a walking, cycling, or horse riding safari, they see you. And bright colors stand out. This alerts animals to your presence, something that's detrimental to getting close to some of the mammals and potentially dangerous when encountering the larger animals. With these non-game drive safari activities, it's advisable to blend into the landscape. After all, lions are the same tone as the dusty savannah and most antelopes blur into their habitat. Safari vehicles are usually a dull green or soft gray, helping them seem less threatening. As you enter the mystical safari realm, it's important to remember you're merely a visitor. Vivid fashionable prints aren't going to impress a giraffe. But being discreet is going help you get closer.
Shoes for an African Safari
The inflight magazine of Tanzanian airline Fastjet ran a satirical article on the types of people found in an African flight. Among them was the western safari-goer, portrayed as wearing identical khaki outfits and huge walking boots, even though the most walking they are likely to do is the five meters from the lodge to the safari vehicle. Of course, walking safaris require something that's robust and comfortable for the bush. But heavy walking boots are only necessary if you're going to be going to be walking. If not, then they can be cumbersome and sweaty, especially when you spend a week in a safari vehicle.
Comfortable closed footwear is recommended. Anything that has your toes on show is an invitation to biting insects and will struggle to keep you warm in the evening. Sneakers, runners, tennis shoes, and gym shoes, are all more than adequate for game drives. Like the clothing, something that's lightweight and breathable is best suited to the environment. If you are going on a walking safari, then stronger footwear advised. The ground is harsh and unforgiving, filled with thorns, rocks, spikes, and other jagged snippets. The tiny insects buzz around at ankle level and any exposed toes could get feasted upon. On a mixed itinerary that includes a short walking safari, then it might not be necessary to pack the big cumbersome walking boots. If walking is a major part of the itinerary, then you'll need to be prepared for the rugged landscape.
What do you Wear in the Evenings on an African Safari?
After the thrill of the day and the drama of the drive comes the elegance of an evening in the bush. A distant herd is illuminated by moonlight, mysterious calls echo from nearby woodland, and there's the a flurry of action at the waterhole. The experience continues long after the designated safari activities. Evening time is always an enchantment, a chance to escape completely into the sights and sounds of nature. It's part of the safari. Eat dinner on a balcony overlooking hippos grazing, sip drinks beside a crackling fire, or look up from the plate to see a giraffe nearby. While many lodges are exclusive and luxurious, they don't have glass chandeliers or policies on what to wear. You're still on safari remember. Unlike a luxury cruise, there's no requirement to dress in a certain way during the evening or when you're in a lodge's restaurant. You might be dining out in the open to maximize the chance of seeing animals or a loud noise might interrupt dinner as an elephant thunders past. This is the wilderness. Not the Ritz.
After a day of safari activities, you will want to shower and change into clean clothes for the evening. Most people like to wear smarter clothes, especially if they've spent the day in a khaki-colored safari outfit. People like to inject some brighter colors, wear a shirt with a collar or a relaxed evening dress. But again, there are no specific requirements. Pack for comfort and remember that mosquitos come out in the evening, so long sleeves help. It is very likely that the temperature will drop significantly during the evening. A lightweight fleece or sweater will be necessary. A thicker or warmer coat might be useful, but lodges also give out blankets or build fires to help keep everyone toasty and warm.
Do you Need Smarter Clothes for the Cities?
Africa's style is far more casual than in Europe or America. You'll find that there is very little standardized fashion and very limited following of trends. People dress how they want to dress, whether that's outrageous colors or shorts and sandals to a fancy restaurant. In Africa's cities, there's certainly a tendency to get away from the safari clothes and wear something more in keeping with the urban landscape. But there are very few high-end establishments with strict rules over what to wear. Celebrated fine-dining restaurants won't be expecting male customers to be wearing polished black shoes and ties. Like every aspect of packing for Africa, think about what you're most comfortable in. If that's a smart shirt, then pack it. If it's some baggy shorts, then you'll still not stand out in the cities.
What to Pack for Specific Activities
Some of Africa's specific activities require a specific packing list. If you're climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, going whale watching off Hermanus, or gorilla trekking in Uganda, then what to pack is going to be very different. But the same basic principles apply. Try to pack light and remain practical. Africa's great natural spectacles are very different to urban landscapes. The more practical you are, the less challenging these landscapes can be. Even taking the cable car up Cape Town's Table Mountain is an activity where what to wear is dictated by climate. The wind whips in, transforming a scorched summer day into a shivery winter afternoon. So those in comfortable trousers are far better equipped than those wearing fashionable skirts.
What Can You Wear on the Beach in Africa?
Africa is relatively liberal, and bathing suits are the norm on beaches. The major consideration isn't cultural, but an appreciation of the sun's power. There's less ozone in the Southern Hemisphere than in the US or Europe. Furthermore, the white nature of the sand makes the beach a prime place to turn red. Tourists are normally incredibly easy to spot all across Africa. They're the ones with bright red necks, random burnt patches across their stomach, or glowing noses. Even if you're used to spending the days on the beach at home, there isn't anywhere in Africa where it's comfortable to sunbathe all day. Many tourists arrive at the beach and spend the first day or two taking in the rays. Then the next three hiding beneath the sun umbrellas or palm trees.
Swimsuits are socially acceptable on the beach but nudity is not. It's also generally not okay to walk through villages and beachside towns in swimwear. This is especially true in Zanzibar and along the Kenyan coast. Sarongs are popular, not least because there's a wonderfully colorful array of them that can be purchased around coastal areas.
Sun protection is probably the most important consideration when packing for an African safari. The sun burns. It scorches landscapes, shrivels waterholes, and leaves many tourists looking an unhealthy tone of rouge. It's not a place for long sessions sunbathing, even when you're on the beach. High factor sunscreen is essential, and factor 30 would be considered a minimum (leave the tanning oils at home). Good sunscreen from reputable brands is also one of the few items that are sometimes difficult to find in African shops. The majority of sunscreen products have an element of whitening, and there's a very limited choice of brands. So buy the brands you know at home. A small pocket-sized high-factor sunscreen is very useful as it ensures you also have sun protection to hand.
Protecting your head from the sun is another essential consideration, especially if you're planning to spend a lot of time outside the safari vehicle. Wide brimmed sun hats are best for keeping the sun off your face. The wider, the better. Fortunately, safari hats are readily available across Africa, and you're likely to pass dozens of shops selling them before you've even left the airport. Also, think about shirts and clothing that covers your arms. Another popular tourist color is the single red arm garnered from traveling in the same place in the safari vehicle for seven days. Lightweight long sleeves are very practical against the sun.
Essential in most destinations, insect repellent is another important consideration when packing. Like sunscreen, Africa's shops only sell a limited variety of brands and products. You won't have the same choice as at home. Small pocket-sized bottles are excellent as they ensure there's repellent available if you see a mosquito buzzing around. Pack what has worked for you in the past. If you're not sure, then there are various options, including lotions, creams, sprays, and mosquito repellent bands. Repellents that leave a sticky visible film on the skin are not advised for safari as they are magnets for dust.
Fluffy slippers, plastic toilet seats, bed sheets... there are many unusual items that end up arriving in tourist suitcases. In the most part, they're unnecessary. Here's are a few you might consider:
- Binoculars – most safari trucks will come with a set of binoculars, but it's nice to bring your own if you have already have them.
- Camera equipment.
- Anti-malarial medication.
- US dollars in cash – US dollars can be exchanged everywhere and are used as de-facto currency across East Africa. A small stash of notes provides peace of mind.