Our ultimate Africa packing list: what to pack (and what to leave behind)
Not sure what on earth to pack for your epic Africa trip? Our Africa packing list has you absolutely covered, from backpacks and all the essentials, to your safari clothes to the overland gear you simply can't forget.
You’ve seen the pictures: men and women clothed head to toe in khaki, binoculars slung around their neck, looking as if they’re embarking on an 1800’s anthropological expedition.
Except they aren’t. They’re embarking on an African safari, and it’s 2018.
The truth is, you don’t have to look like Attenborough to visit Africa (although he is an idol of ours); you can leave the khaki and utility pockets at home and still survive.
We've spent a total of 9 months travelling around Central and Southern Africa between us. We've traversed mountains topped with glaciers, gone trekking with mountain gorillas, dipped our toes in pristine waters and white sand beaches, meandered along the Okavango Delta in a traditional Mokoro dugout boat, climbed sand dunes the size of mountains, and safaried through some of the most richly diverse wildlife plains imaginable.
What we're trying to say is; we're pretty sure that our experiences on the continent qualify us in some way to talk about what you do - and definitely don't - need to pack in your bag before your own epic African adventure.
What many travellers don't realise about Africa travel is that the continent is hugely diverse, with climatic differences that many struggle to comprehend (like, freezing nights and glacial mountain summits vs arid, blazing deserts and near tropical paradises kind of difference!). For the average traveller, that means a decent amount of pre-trip research, and depending on your itinerary, a range of different gear and clothes to suit.
That's exactly why we've shared our ultimate Africa packing list, so you can chill with lions and zebras and giraffes (oh my!) Attenborough style; with all the right gear, and without appearing like you’ve just stepped straight off the set of Out of Africa.
our africa packing list | essential items you need in your backpack
AFRICA TRAVEL PACKING TIPS
Before getting into the specifics of what to take on your epic Africa adventure, here are a few packing tips to keep in mind:
- When it comes to packing your clothes, keep in mind that most African nations are still quite conservative in the way they dress. We absolutely encourage you to be respectful of the local culture and people whose home you're travelling through, and bring longer bottoms along (girls, generally down to the knee is best), and cover up cleavage. If you're sticking to major cities you'll probably find this is slightly more relaxed - but who ever came to Africa to hang out in its cities?!
- Don't pack your best clothes. The days can be hot, the roads long and dusty, and try as hard as you might, you'll just always seem to end up covered in sweat and dust that doesn't seem to budge. Opt for casual, comfortable basics you can afford to part with if need be.
- That said, always have one 'nice', clean outfit ready to pull out of your bag. Locals take a lot of pride in their appearance, and showing up to a restaurant, bar, or someone's house looking grubby or overly casual is a sign of disrespect.
- Lots of blogs will tell you that jeans are a terrible idea - but Mim actually wore an old pair of hers almost every day on our travels with no issues (except getting them a little dusty and dirty!). The trick is to wear soft, comfortable jeans that will dry quickly. Alternatively, loose-fitting cotton or linen pants (like elephant pants) are the perfect option.
- Layers upon layers upon layers. Temperatures across Africa fluctuate greatly, even day-to-day. Mornings and evenings can get down to freezing (yes, really), while days can be hot and sunny. Pack, and dress, in a way that you can throw on more layers as the mercury drops and strip off as the heat of the day begins to take over.
- Less is more. This is one place you don't want to overpack for. Leave the full wardrobe at home and bring enough lightweight, breathable clothing that packs down small for 4-5 days and just wash them (you'll always be able to find somewhere to wash your clothes regularly).
africa packing list: the luggage essentials
Travel in Africa is a dusty, intrepid affair, and your luggage is likely to take quite the beating on your travels there, which is why we absolutely recommend travelling with a backpack here rather than a roller bag or suitcase.
The ground is often super uneven (even when paved), you'll generally have to walk quite a way from point A to point B, and if you're travelling independently like we did, trust us when we say it's far easier to squish your bag into an overcrowded bus/on the roof of said bus than it is to try and ram a hard case with wheels on board. Investing in a good quality backpack that's lightweight, durable, and supportive of your back is the best decision you'll make (after choosing to travel Africa in the first place!).
Our Africa backpack recommendations:
Mim travelled with the Osprey Wayfarer 70L (in black). It also has a zip-off day pack with an ipad sleeve, which was perfect for days when we just needed a small daypack. The Wayfarer is a slightly older model - so check out the Osprey Farpoint series for updated versions! Other great options are the Osprey Aether AG 60 Hiking Pack and the North Face Women's Terra 55L.
Mark has the Osprey FarPoint 80L and loves it - particularly as someone with a bad back! It doesn't come with a day pack, but there's a zip divider to separate some of the bag compartments for easier access. Another great option is the Osprey Porter 65L.
Some days, you just want to be able to head out the door and not drag your backpack (ie your whole life) you. But throwing your phone and wallet in your pockets can be a little risky, and you'll probably want a decent day pack to stash some snacks and a bottle of water if you're out for the whole day.
Africa packing list recommendation:
On the days we wanted to pop out and leave our huge backpacks with everything in them behind), we relied on Mim's zip-off Osprey daypack and our trusty Herschel Supply Co. backpack. We found it perfect for day trips, city exploring, as carry on, and it even came with us on our 2 night Mokoro safari in the Okavango Delta!
If you're looking for a day pack with a little more support (ie. for a multi-day hike), we've since purchased the Fjallraven Abisko Hike 35L daypack and it's been pretty bloody brilliant on all our adventures since.
If you're not already using them, packing cubes are going to change. your. freaking. life.
There's nothing worse than having to dig through your bag for that one jumper or sock you're pretty sure was about halfway down the pack the last time you saw it. This is where packing cubes help you compartmentalise all your stuff, like clothes, undies, and even all your cables and electronics. We use them for literally everything in our bag, and it's the one area of our lives we can safely say we're the crazy organised types.
WATERPROOF COMPRESSION SACKS
One step up from the packing cube is the humble waterproof compression sack. These guys are one part water protection, one part vacc-seal bag, all parts luggage saviour; invaluable for keeping our clothes dry during our Mokoro ride in the Okavango, gifting us extra space when we were struggling to fit our clothes in our backpack, and protecting our gear from both the ferocious spray of Vic Falls or an unexpected petrol leaking incident on a bus somewhere between Malawi and Zambia.
Sea to Summit's dry bag range. We buy them in a range of sizes to suit clothes, electronics, camera gear etc.
AFRICA PACKING LIST: the TRAVEL essentials
Travel insurance is as essential to travel as buying a plane ticket, backpack or accommodation. You simply shouldn’t leave home without it. If you need any convincing, read our guide to travel insurance - which also happens to include Mark's tale of being bitten by a snake in rural Malawi! His story is proof that the unexpected really does happen.
There are many great travel insurance providers in the marketplace, and you should also do your research to find the best deal for you and your gear, however we personally travel with World Nomads. Search for your own quote below:
REUSABLE WATER CANTEEN
Carrying a reusable water bottle is a great way to avoid contributing to the 200 billion plastic bottles used each year, but in some places (particularly outside main cities) the tap water simply isn’t clean or safe enough to drink.
Our Africa packing list recommendation for these times is the Water to Go bottle.
Water-To-Go is an all-in-one device: a reusable water bottle meets incredibly powerful filter device (designed by NASA!), which removes 99.9% of all nasties from any water source you fill it up at. Muddy river or contaminated tap water? No problems! Order yours here, and get 15% off with our special code: TCW15
Probably one of the most underrated items in any Africa backpacker's arsenal; the trusty headlamp has helped us navigate up Kilimanjaro in the dark, find our way back to our tent in the middle of the desert, and come in handy when digging through our bags to find a teeny tiny lost object. Also be sure to pack some extra batteries.
Lip balm is one of the first things we tell people to pack when they ask us what to pack for Africa. Always keep one on you to protect against the dry African air, the wind in your face on safari, and the insane amount of dust during dry season. One with SPF (like this Banana Boat SPF 50 version) is even better!
It doesn't take long for that relentless African sun to do some real damage, particularly if you've spent your whole day in the back of a safari jeep or exploring Vic Falls. Pack a decent sunscreen (minimum SPF 30, but ideally SPF 50), and keep your skin healthy and burn-free. We actually found it pretty hard to track down a quality sunscreen that didn't cost a fortune in these parts, so we'd definitely recommend bringing enough for your whole trip from home.
Your peepers will be staring across safari plains in the blazing midday sun for days on end - protect them from damage with a good pair of polarised sunnies.
FIRST AID KIT
Yep, we're those people who always travel with a first-aid kit in our backpacks just in case. But out here, in the wild, vast spaces of Africa (like Namibia, where we drove through the desert for days without seeing another soul), it really does pay to have a well-stocked medical kit in your possession.
Either make one up yourself, or purchase one pre-made (like this one).
A good pocket knife (we have this one from Victorinox) is an absolute essential for your Africa backpack. Cutting into larger-than-life avocadoes or juicy mangoes by the side of the road. A Sunset beer bottle opener. A saviour when the hostel kitchen doesn't have a decent knife and you're trying to cook dinner; its uses are plenty and varied.
Malaria-carrying mozzies, vicious parasite-carrying Tsetse flies; there are lots of insects you just don't want buzzing around you on safari in Africa. Insect repellent is your BFF here!
Essential for locking up your gear in the hostel lockers, keeping your bag safe on long bus rides, and generally just adding a layer of protection to your luggage. We always travel with a combination lock rather than one with keys (they're too easy to lose!)
AFRICA TRAVEL GUIDES
Internet can be patchy throughout the region, which means two things; websites aren’t generally up to date, and you probably won’t be able to access them anyway. A trusty Lonely Planet guide will get you a long, long way, plus they're full of interesting little pieces of insider info that make for solid bus reading!
Our Africa travel guide recommendation:
- Africa (general) Lonely Planet - covering Egypt, Tanzania, Morocco, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Cabo Verde and more
- East Africa Lonely Planet - covering Uganda, Kenya, Rwana, Burundi
- Southern Africa Lonely Planet - covering South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland (now eSwatini), Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi
- West Africa Lonely Planet - covering Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania.
Africa packing list: THE CLOTHES
When it comes to what clothes to pack for Africa, focus on lightweight, breathable fabrics that are quick-drying and can be washed easily by hand.
Also, as tempting as it is to pack your super cute outfits, this is a place where a fine layer of dust seems to eternally cover everything, and the demands of travel here mean that most clothing gets pretty ruined by the end of your trip (almost all of our clothes had at least one hole by the end of our 4 months in the region!). Except for the key essentials, like a warm down jacket, bring the clothes you don't care too much about and could happily wear with the intention of destroying them.
STURDY CLOSED TOE SHOES OR HIKING BOOTS
After the essentials above, a sturdy pair of shoes is super important for protecting your feet on your Africa travels, particularly if you're planning to go hiking, head out on safari (particularly a walking safari!), or go trekking with gorillas. They'll keep your feet dust-free and safe against potential nasties, like snakes or scorpions (ick).
Mark travelled with the SCARPA Men's R-Evolution GTX on two separate backpacking trips through Africa, and they also took him up Mt Kilimanjaro with no issues either. Other great options are the Columbia Cascade Pass Waterproof boot (super light), and the Merrell Moab 2.
The North Face Hedgehog Hike II boots carried Mim up Kilimanjaro (and the Annapurna circuit - though that's a story for another day!), through walking safaris in the Okavango Delta, and are also comfy enough to wear on travel days without feeling too heavy. Other great options are the Columbia Newton Ridge and the KEEN Terradorra
AROUND THE CAMP SHOES / FLIP FLOPS
These are a godsend when you just want to chill out in your safari camp without having to stomp around in heavy boots (or you're just not doing any overly strenuous exploring today). We'd recommend a trusty pair of light sneakers and pair of flip flops and to see you through. We travelled with a pair of Havaianas each, a pair of Converse (Mark) and Nike Roshes (Mim).
3-4 LIGHT COTTON T-SHIRTS
Avoid super bright colours (especially for safaris), blue (it attracts TseTse flies), and also bear in mind that white is likely to become insanely dirty, very quickly. Neutral colours are perfect, and you'll practically live in these so take 3-4.
1 LONG SLEEVED SHIRT
A long sleeved linen or cotton button up shirt can be the perfect cover up for those times when you need something a little more respectful, or to protect against those pesky mosquitoes (and the cold!) at night.
2 PAIRS HIKING PANTS AND/OR JEANS
This one comes down to personal preference; lots of people prefer to take light long hiking pants with them and we've listed our recommendations for these below. Personally both of us found travelling in jeans totally fine, and wouldn't invest in hiking pants unless we were planning to go on a mountain hike (i.e. Kilimanjaro) during our travels. Mim also had a pair of sports leggings, which she basically lived in!
If you're absolutely keen to go down the hiking pants route, the Columbia Silver Ridge and prAna men's Bronson pant are great options for men, while the Columbia Women's Full Leg Roll-Up Aruba Pant can be rolled up to capri length on hot days for women! prAna also have a fab range of women's hiking pants (the Halle or Briann), and their leggings are super comfy.
2 PAIRS SHORTS
You'll basically live in these for the entirety of your trip. Lightweight, breathable sport shorts are perfect for outdoor activities like rafting or hiking, while a casual pair will see you through the rest of the time.
A WOOLEN JUMPER OR FLEECE
This obviously depends on the time of year you're travelling to Africa, but in winter the nights are honestly bitterly cold. This is particularly true around the desert areas, where the temperature plummets to about 0 degrees as soon as the sun sets. Pack at least one decent woolen jumper or fleece to keep you snug. Our fleece recommendations are:
The North Face Women's Glacier 1/4 Zip - the best zip up fleece for a chilly evening around a campfire.
We can't emphasise the need to have warm clothes with you for evenings enough! We always take our down jackets because they're super lightweight, very warm, and pack down easily in a little compression sack and can be thrown in a daypack if need be.
North Face Nuptse 700-fill Down Jacket. Mark travelled up Kilimanjaro (where it was -10c and a blizzard up the top!) and through the Namibian Desert with this jacket and it's never let him down.
North Face Nuptse Down Jacket (womens) - the same as above but cut for women.
If you are traveling during the rainy season, you definintely won't want to be without a rain jacket. Lightweight and waterproof, this can be thrown in the bottom of your daypack for those unexpected downpours. Also perfect if you're going trekking!
The North Face Resolve rain jacket - waterproof, breathable, stowable hood.
The North Face Venture rain jacket - wind and waterproof and breathable too!
Africa packing list: the essential accessories
A SUN HAT
You don't want the wide-brimmed kind you see in safari photos - you'll spend more time chasing after it when the wind blows it off your head that you will being comfortable and protected! Opt for a snug-fitting baseball cap instead.
Again, this depends on the time of year you're visiting. Summer trips will absolutely not need these, but in winter you'll want one for the chilly evenings and mornings in the safari truck.
Sorry to sound like your mum - but don't forget to pack enough clean undies, socks, and thick socks to wear hiking! This also includes decent thermal layers if you're travelling during winter.
Hostel pools, white-wafter rafting down rivers, freshwater lakes - there are plenty of opportunities to throw on your swimming costume and enjoy a refreshing swim. Be sure to pack your swimmers!
Pack all those essential toiletries you just can't live without and bring them with you to Africa, as you'll soon discover that it's nigh on impossible for find all your favourite deodorants or hair or skincare products here.
Ladies, this also applies to female hygiene products: bring your essentials from home, or risk not having anything at all (tampons are virtually non-existent).
Keeping your toiletries as eco-friendly is also super important here, as many places don't have adequate rubbish disposal systems (burning off plastic is super common). Some of our favourite plastic-free toiletries that are always in our bag are:
- Bamboo toothbrush
- Shampoo bar
- Conditioner bar
- MoonCup - seriously gals, Mim just switched to this and it's an absolute game-changer. Better for you, better for the planet.
- Rosehip oil - great moisturiser all-rounder without oodles of plastic packaging.
- Tea tree oil - powerful natural antiseptic oil
Note: Always pack spare toilet paper in your daypack.
I repeat: ALWAYS. PACK. SPARE. TOILET. PAPER. On the off-chance that a public toilet has it, you’ll generally have to hand over a princely sum for a mere square of the stuff. Best to be safe, and it also doubles up as napkins, tissues, etc!
PLASTIC-FREE TRAVEL: OUR ECO-FRIENDLY TRAVEL PACKING GUIDE
AFRICA PACKING LIST: overland and safari gear packing ideas
This is the stuff that will keep you going on your overland trip through Africa, no matter whether you're campervan-ing, camping, or relaxing in a beautiful lodge!
We have a confession to make here, although we camped our way through the majority of the continent, we actually didn't travel through Africa with a tent - and boy, do we wish we had. Instead, we hired one when staying at campsites, and spent the rest of our time either in hostel dorms, budget guesthouses or one night, in a luxury lodge in the middle of Sossusvlei that cost our entire month's budget because there was no free accommodation and we just weren't keen to sleep in our car on a -1c evening.
When you have your own tent, you have the freedom and flexibility to set up camp just about anywhere. Add to this that even a hired tent at a campsite will often cost you USD $8-10 a night, and having your own little home you can set up yourself is even more appealing.
Trust us, next time we head back to Africa, we're absolutely doing so with tent in tow. Our recommendations are:
The budget tent: Eurohike Tamar 2 Man Tent
The sturdy, splurge tent: The North Face Stormbreak Tent
PORTABLE SOLAR CHARGER
Reliable electricity isn't always something you can find on the road in African countries, so finding a safe and convenient way to keep your gear charged can be a major hassle. Travel with a solar charger and harness the almost ever-present sun on the continent to keep your gear charged instead. We use the Anker Powerport Solar charger, which also has dual USB ports to charge multiple devices, like a phone and a gopro, at the same time.
Avoid being stuck in your hostel or on the road without any cutlery to eat with, and carry a bamboo cutlery set (or at least a spork!) in your daypack so you're always prepared for meal time.
REUSABLE FOOD CONTAINER
These are super useful in cutting down your plastic consumption when you're taking food away from stalls, as well as storing and/or transporting food you've cooked in your hostel kitchen.
We travel with these collapsible food containers and ours came in SUPER handy for storing meals on a 42-hour bus ride from Lilongwe to Johannesburg!
SLEEPING BAG + SLEEPING BAG LINER
If you're heading out on a planned group tour, you'll generally have a sleeping bag provided to you. Always bring a sleeping bag liner (we use these Sea to Summit silk liners) with you to use with hired sleeping bags. They also make for great extra protection if you're staying in a hostel or guesthouse somewhere and you're not too sure how clean the sheets are.
Obviously you'll also need to bring a sleeping bag with you if you're travelling overland or camping independently. We recommend RAB's range of sleeping bags.
A microfiber towel is the perfect saviour when your hostel doesn't have towels or you need something to dry off with after a quick dip.
A GOOD BOOK / KINDLE
Distances are vast and your travel times between destinations here are often pretty lengthy. Add to that a lack of electricity in some areas, limited access to TV screens, and a whole lot of chill out time in between exploring, and you'll want to bring a decent book along with you - or a Kindle loaded with all your faves.
AFRICA PACKING LIST: CAMERA GEAR
The landscapes are epic, the animals are insanely cool, and there's plenty you're going to want to take photos of while you're travelling through Africa.
To check out our full travel photography kit, click here. In the meantime, here are some of the photography essentials you need for Africa:
- Camera, obviously. What type depends on how interested you are in photography. We never travel without our dSLRs (Sony a7riii + Canon 5D Miii).
- Wide angle lens (i.e. 16-35mm) - to capture all those epic landscapes
- Zoom lens like the 70-200mm- to capture all the incredible animals you're going to see on safari. This is essential if you're keen to come back with some killer shots.
- LOTS of SD cards - you'll fill them quickly!
- Weatherproof SD card holder
- Spare batteries
- Lens cleaning kit - dust, wind, and sand will wreak havoc on your lenses!
Africa packing list: WHAT TO PACK FOR long bus rides in Africa
Distances are vast and bus rides long (and often made even longer by delays or breakdowns) on this continent, so you want to be adequately prepared for a long journey! The longest bus ride we had in Africa was 42 hours (we made that mistake so you never have to), and we’re convinced we only survived by having the following handy:
- Meals / snacks that were bought the evening before to keep us well nourished (use your reusable cutlery + containers for this one!).
- Some spare cash for a cheeky roadside samosa or toilet break.
- Warm clothes if your travels are starting early or finishing late. Buses can often get cold and drafty overnight too, so always carry a warm jacket that can double as a blanket.
- A really long, interesting book
- Charged phones or iPods with downloaded playlists and podcasts
- A portable phone charger
- Lots of water. We took over 6L of water with us on our epic bus ride!
- Your sanity, so that you can spend the full two days questioning why you ever let yourself get on a 42 hour bus ride in the first place!
Are you keen to travel through Africa yourself? Or perhaps you've travelled there already and have your own Africa packing list tips to share?
Share your stories in the comments below!