What to Pack on an African Safari
By Philip Briggs | Updated June 14, 2021
One of the trickiest aspects of preparing for any trip is packing. Even more so for first-time safarigoers, who’ll be traveling in unfamiliar conditions, and often have little idea of what they will and won’t need. Here we address some of the issues you might want to think about when you pack for your African safari.
Although suitcases have their advantages, I prefer a waterproof duffel bag that is easily slung over a shoulder or squeezed into a suitable gap in a car or plane. A day pack or camera bag for game drives is also useful. If you’ll be taking light aircrafts between reserves, many carriers impose a 15kg (33lb) limit per passenger, which can be problematic for serious photographers (some book a second seat to get around it).
Make sure your passport is current and that you organize all required visas in good time. Check what if any vaccinations are required for the specific destination you’re visiting. It’s a good idea to email scans and/or details of your passport, visa, flights, insurance, and other paperwork to yourself and to a friend at home.
Clothing comprises the bulk of most people’s luggage, so carry plenty of lightweight T-shirts, shorts, and so on. Contrary to expectations, many safari destinations can be cold at night, so bring long trousers, a couple of sweatshirts or jumpers, and some sort of windbreaker. Military-style camouflage is best avoided. On a walking safari, go for neutral brown, green, and khaki rather than bright colors. Staying at budget or midrange lodges, organizing laundry can be a hassle, so pack a change of T-shirt and underwear for every day you’re on safari. By contrast, many more upmarket camps – particularly those catering to a fly-in clientele – offer free laundry, in which case four or five outfit changes should suffice.
Even on basic camping safaris, the operator should provide tents, sleeping bags, and bedrolls or mattresses, but safest to check this in advance.
It’s a good idea to wear covered shoes for protection against thorns, insect bites, and so forth. Unless perhaps you’ve booked onto a dedicated foot safari, heavyweight hiking or walking boots are overkill. My go-to safari footwear these days is trail-running shoes, which are lightweight, cool and comfortable, but good for genuinely demanding activities such as chimp or gorilla tracking. I also carry solid flip-flops for situations where covered shoes are unnecessary.
Bring charging cables for your smartphone, tablet, kindle, laptop, and/or camera. Electric sockets are often different from those in Europe or the USA, so bring a universal adapter and whatever converters you might require. Many camps and lodges only have solar power, and charging facilities may be restricted to reception or other communal areas, so ensure everything is fully charged when you set off, and carry a power bank as a backup.
Camera and accessories
Many safarigoers are content to use their mobile phone as a camera, which saves a lot of cost and hassle. More serious photographers will want to bring an SLR camera and suitable lenses. For general wildlife shots, a 200-400 or similar zoom is your most useful all-rounder, but 28-70 is better for scenery, 70-200 for showing animals in their environment, and 500 or 600 for birds. In addition to a bespoke camera bag, think about carrying a pillowcase to cover your camera on dusty drives. Expect to shoot off several hundred photos daily, so bring spare batteries, plenty of storage cards, and possibly a laptop and external drive for backing up. Depending on the quality of your camera’s image stabilizing, a beanbag is recommended for shooting at high magnification and/or in low light.
It’s tempting to be dictatorial and say that one simply shouldn’t go on safari without binoculars. These will allow you to get a much better view of colorful birds and distant mammals, and can also be used to scan for wildlife at elevated viewpoints or to look more closely at the dazzling African night sky. For most purposes, compact 8×32 or bulkier 8×40 binoculars will do the trick, but dedicated birdwatchers should go for a higher magnification, e.g. 10×40, 10×50, or 12×50.
Many field guides are now available as space-saving apps. Kingdon and Stuarts’ guides to African mammals are both excellent. For birds, Roberts Birds of Southern Africa is the first choice for South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe but the eGuide to Birds of East Africa is more useful in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, or Rwanda.
You can expect a lot of exposure to the tropical sun over the course of a safari. Bring a good hat, ideally with a full brim, and SPF 50+ sunscreen for your face, ears, neck, and arms. Sunglasses are easily lost or broken on safari, so bring a spare.
All safari lodges provide basic toiletries, so there’s no need to bring soap, shampoo, or moisturizer unless you’ll be camping. Carry wet wipes and sanitizer for game drives.
Most lodges have a medical box, so no need to pack for every eventuality. However, it is vital that you carry enough of any prescription or other necessary meds (including anti-malarial drugs) to last the trip. You might also carry a basic medical kit containing the likes of aspirin/paracetamol, antihistamine, antibiotic cream, band-aids, after-sun lotion, and lip balm. For insect repellent, a roll-on or stick is more convenient than a spray or lotion. If you wear glasses, bring a spare set. Contact lens users may find that the dusty dry safari conditions irritate their eyes, so carry glasses as a backup.
Cash and credit cards
MasterCard and Visa are widely recognized in most countries, but few places accept other credit and debit cards. Larger towns will have ATMs where you can draw local currency, but not so villages, national parks, and other reserves. Card usage in South Africa is almost as ubiquitous as in Europe or North America, but elsewhere you should expect to pay cash for meals, drinks, souvenirs, and anything else bought at an outlet other than your lodge or hotel. Tips and gratuities are best paid in cash – local currency is preferred in southern Africa but US dollars are equally acceptable in East Africa. Even if you have a Visa or MasterCard, our recommendation would be to carry up to US$500 in tip-friendly denominations as a backup.
Mobile phone coverage and internet connections can be unreliable outside of urban areas. Practically all lodges and camps offer free Wi-Fi, but in many cases it is very slow and access is limited to communal areas. If you need an internet connection for work or other reasons, it’s worth buying a local SIM card and data bundle upon arrival in the country. Even then, do warn any anxious loved ones that you may be out of touch for the duration, so they mustn’t worry if they don’t hear from you.
Accommodation in most safari camps and lodges has good lighting, so the torch on your mobile phone should suffice. A good head torch will be useful on an old-style camping safari.