How to pack for your African Safari
Handy tips for putting together the perfect safari bag
A guide to everything you need on your African adventure
You’ve booked your African safari with Stanley Safaris and are already counting the days to your departure, but the task of packing for the safari of a lifetime is looming and you have the challenge of having to pack lightly for all of those small plane rides between camps! So, what stays and what goes
If there’s one thing, we’ve picked up over years of taking guests from all over the world on safari, it’s that packing the perfect safari bag is an art that’s rarely mastered on your first trip. Especially when the vagaries of travel bag size and weight allowances on various planes and airlines are factored in.
Understanding what to bring with you and what to leave behind is key to success, and even the most seasoned safari veterans occasionally need help and handy hacks to make the process of packing easier to deal with.
So here are some rough guidelines to happy packing!
Get to grips with geography
Understanding what to expect from the climate in your various destinations is the foundation phase of safari packing 101. We’re always happy to help answer any questions you might have, but as a rule of thumb (or several thumbs) the following applies:
East and Central Africa generally have a tropical, equatorial climate which means that there aren’t really the same seasonal changes you’d expect to find in the northern or southern hemispheres. This means the temperatures are fairly steady but are affected by altitude more than actual seasonal changes.
When it comes to altitude, the higher you are the colder it’s going to be in the early mornings and evenings. Kenya, for example, ranges in elevation from sea-level at its coast to high plateaus that are more than 2,000m above sea-level. It also has mountain ranges that soar up to just over 5,000m, creating microclimates in the process.
Topography also plays a role – dense, mountainous rain forests such as those found in Uganda, Rwanda, Congo and the Central African Republic are more humid and wet year-round than the wide-open plains and savannahs of Kenya and Tanzania which experience distinct rainy and dry seasons. The main rainy season is generally from April to early June, followed by a dry season that lasts until September. A second rainy season typically kicks in from October to December.
Southern Africa experiences distinct seasonal changes that are generally the direct opposite to those found in the northern hemisphere. Spring is between September and November, summer from December to February, autumn (fall) from March to May and winter from June to August.
The annual rains generally take place from November onwards and are at their peak from December to March. This is when it’s hot and humid but also when birding is at its peak, thanks to the influx of summer migrant species.
Spring and summer are the warmest seasons, but autumn and winter largely experience lovely warm, sunny days but chilly to very cold nights.
When people think of Africa, they automatically think it is going to be hot everywhere they go, and this often catches people out when they get here. Some of the best game viewing is during our winter months as this is when it is driest, but it is also the coldest time of the year to be in Southern Africa. Made up of the Kalahari Sands, countries like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa can get exceptionally cold in winter, especially for those early morning game drives on an open safari vehicle. So make sure you pack warm, layered clothing that can be removed as the sun warms things up.
Luggage, luggage, luggage
Your choice of bag is going to make all the difference when it comes to packing successfully for your African safari. It needs to be light in weight, soft enough to be able to be squished into the tiny holds of aircraft that sometimes look like you may have to literally pour yourself into them and tough enough to cope with being manhandled by baggage handlers.
Top of the list of bags that meet these criteria is the trusty old duffel. Duffels are great because they give you all the room you need, easy access and are the perfect shape – being compact and easy to handle. When choosing a duffel-type bag, the most important thing is to find out what it weighs empty.
Go for the lightest bag you can to give you maximum carrying capacity for those tight weight limits on small planes between camps and lodges. Weight restrictions can vary depending on the aircraft being used and the airline in question, but they can be anything from 12kg (26lbs) to 20kg (44lbs), including hand luggage and camera equipment. Most international airlines only allow 20kg for economy class luggage. We will always tell you what the weight restrictions are in advance, so you know what to expect.
It’s sometimes best to avoid bags with built-in retractable handles and wheels as the added weight of these detracts from the overall weight limit, meaning that you’ll have to pack less!
Then, check that the zips can be locked, either with a padlock or cable tie. Concealed zips are first choice because this protects them from the often rough baggage handling process at airports and prevents them from getting damaged or broken. Try to avoid bags with lots of straps or loose bits that could get caught in luggage conveyor belts or other bags.
Check the straps and make a judgement call on their strength – they need to be strong enough to withstand the journey and give you the option of carrying by hand or over the shoulder.
The whole bag needs to be tough – it’s got to make it through international, regional and local airports where people will literally be throwing it around, then it’s going to bump around on the back of a safari vehicle, boat or other form of transport from remote airstrips to your lodge or camp. For this reason, a weatherproof or weather resistant bag is always a good idea if you can find one!
A big no-no when planning what luggage to take, is to bring a hard-shell suitcase. Getting these between safari camps in light aircraft is impossible and you will be asked to repack your bags into either black-plastic bags or into a duffel bag supplied by the airline.
Time to pack!
Everyone has their own hacks and tips for the best way to pack a bag. These are ours:
Go for light, easily layered clothing: Choose items you can layer up for cooler early mornings and evenings, subtracting or adding them as the temperature warms up or cools down. Early morning and afternoon/evening game drives in open safari vehicles can be chilly, even in the middle of summer!
We recommend the following basics:
Three or four tee-shirts
A couple of long-sleeved shirts
Two or three pairs of shorts and/or cargo pants
Two pairs of long trousers
A lightweight windbreaker or weatherproof jacket
A couple of lightweight jerseys
A pashmina (ladies)
Closed walking shoes
Rugged sandals/open walking shoes
Lightweight fleece or puffer jacket
Beanie hat, scarf and gloves
Thermal under garments
Go for a mix-and-match approach to get maximum wear out of your clothes and remember that all lodges offer laundry services so you can easily recycle everything.
Please note that in some African countries it is not culturally acceptable to submit smalls/underwear to the laundry and you will be provided with washing powder in your bathroom to enable you to wash these yourself.
Choose neutral, cool colors: Khaki is king, followed by beige, cream, taupe, greys and browns. White is a no-no on game activities as it can make you stand out, but it’s sometimes nice to wear around camp. Just remember it’s going to get dirty quickly. Black can attract insects like tsetse flies and also absorbs heat. Blues work as long as you go for muted shades.
Toiletries and cosmetics, etc: All lodges and camps offer great in-house amenities like shampoo, body wash, soap and body lotion so you don’t have to pack these. But as most people like to bring their own brands with them, just distil them into small containers that will provide enough for the trip. Don’t forget to pack any medicines you’ll need and to bring copy prescriptions for any scheduled drugs you may require.
Pack your toiletries etc in a waterproof bag in your check-in luggage to avoid falling foul of liquid restrictions for carry-on luggage. A handy tip is to either double bag the toiletry bag or put it in a plastic shopping bag so that if there are any leakages during travel, they are contained.
Once you have selected your items, it’s a good idea to lay them out somewhere flat, be it the floor, a dining room table or your bed. Organize them into separate piles and then decide how you are going to pack them to best use the space you have available.
You can opt for packing cells, which are available from most high street outdoors stores. This enables you to pack your separate piles into small mesh bags that can easily be arranged in your bag, making packing and unpacking multiple times easy.
If you choose the traditional way of packing, one trick is to roll each item as tightly as possible and stack them neatly in the bag to prevent creasing and too much moving around during transit. Put shoes into resealable “Ziploc” style plastic bags (or recycle plastic shopping bags) to protect your clothing and put them in the bottom of your bag, or around the edges to help maintain a good shape. Evenly distribute heavier items for easier carrying.