“What in the world do people pack when they go to Africa? Where do I start? What is essential and what should I leave behind?”
This was my question before I went to Africa for the first time, heading to South Africa with a backpack full of denim shorts and tank tops, kind of clueless about what was and wasn’t cool to wear there.
It turned out that in most of Southern Africa, people dressed just like where I’m from in California – it’s all about fashion, feeling comfortable, and keeping it laid back.
In Africa, you’ll see all kinds of interesting fashion decisions. I have to laugh to myself a little bit each time I travel there and see foreigners like me decked out head to toe in beige and olive green safari gear. They’ve got the vests, the hats, and the pants that zip off at the knee.
Honestly, what do they think they’re going to need that for? You’re not even allowed to get out of the safari vehicles when in the wildlife areas, because of, you know, lions, hippos, and buffalo.
While you can most certainly make the safari chic work for you by opting for the more stylish and modern cousins of the original, it’s also totally fine to go for the same cute clothes you’d wear at home, while keeping a few general rules in mind:
- Don’t bring anything that is expensive or that you really love. That tends to be the general rule I employ for traveling anywhere. You might lose some, stain some in that red African dirt, and the tough washboard-and-scrub washing methods are going to age them quickly.
- Keep modesty in mind, especially in parts of East Africa, like Tanzania and Zanzibar, and in Morocco and the surroundings where it’s a Muslim majority.
- Bring some cute and nice-looking clothing, but above all, keep practicality in mind.
- Quick- drying clothing is your friend, because the rainy season in Africa is for real.
My Africa Clothing Picks:
- 4-5 tank tops (click here for the ‘chubby unicorns need <3 too’ tank for $10)
- 2-3 lightweight shirts that cover upper arms and shoulders (I love this dinosaur one). More if you’re traveling in conservative places.
- Sandals or flip flops (mine are made out of yoga mat material)
- Hiking boots (if you plan on hiking or gorilla trekking):
- 1 pair of comfortable everyday shoes (I brought stylish boots but sneakers could also work)
- Several pairs of socks
- 1 lightweight dress or long skirt:
- At least a week’s worth of undies, or more
- At least one sports bra and one regular bra
- 1 lightweight rain jacket (or a heavier jacket if you’ll be spending time in the mountains and trekking)
- Several pairs of lightweight pants – harem pants and trekking pants or yoga pants
- 2-3 pairs of shorts
- 1-2 bathing suits
- 1 hat to cover your face from the sun (I love my rainbow unicorn hat)
Other Essentials: Bags, Toiletries, Camping equipment
Each time I travel to Africa, I tend to bring my Pacsafe 55L backpack with me. It’s lined with Exomesh which makes it slash-proof, the zippers lock, and it has RFID-blocking technology so that theives can’t ‘bump into’ me and scan my credit card and passport info.
I make myself the least attractive target that way.
I also lock up my belongings in my Pacsafe wire mesh bag protector. Unless your room has a safe, use this to lock your things up. It’s very common to have money or items stolen in Africa. Sadly, it’s often pressure from local mobsters on the people working in the hotels, or desperation given how low the wages are in most of Africa.
There are a few more absolute essentials that you should bring from home that you will struggle to find in Africa, with the exception of South Africa and major cities like Nairobi, Kigali, and Lusaka:
If you’re camping, I highly recommend the following:
- MSR tent meant for heavy wind and rain and footprint
- light, blow up sleeping mat
- light sleeping bag
- Bonus: I was really happy I brought my hammock
Immunizations and meds:
You might be surprised to find that in major cities in Africa, like Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi, and surely plenty of others, immunizations and anti-malarial pills are way cheaper and often don’t require a prescription. I always buy my anti-malarials on the ground (though it’s important to take them before you will be exposed, so plan ahead).
Also, if you’ll be traveling to Cape Town, leave a little room in your bag to do some shopping. The local designers there are talented and have access to super cool fabrics, and the exchange rate, at least right now, is in your favor if on the Euro, Dollar, and GBP.
I got custom shoes and these adorable shorts for way less than I would have at home:
Keep in mind, Africa is huge, and this list is meant for those traveling through the southern and eastern countries with some suggestions for the far north as well.
If you’re just sticking to South Africa, modesty isn’t a big concern and staples like hair products and sunscreen are easy to replace, but as you head more north and east, expect things to get a lot more lean and basic and you may be shocked at how difficult it is to find things that are totally common back home. Plan ahead and you’ll have a blast!
Enjoy the beautiful adventure in comfort and style, and not in head-to-toe beige safari gear!
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