The Definitive Guide to Safari Packing
Jo Piazza - No matter your destination, one of the trickiest parts of travel is always the packing.
There are many schools of thought on how to pack like a pro. There are the carry-on warriors who insist less is more. There are the “more-is-more” folks who argue that the more you pack, the better prepared you are for any adventure that may present itself.
I was chatting recently with world traveler and television personality Andrew Zimmern. I’d always taken him for a carry-on kind of guy but he informed me I was sorely mistaken. He always checks.
“I want to have lots of choices,” the host of Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations told me. “I never want to have to scramble at the last second because I didn’t pack the right gear.”
I’m about to embark on an awesome adventure—a week-long safari through Kenya that will include camping, hiking, horseback riding, camel riding, and probably some swimming and general wading through muck. I happen to enjoy wading through muck.
For two nights I will be living in a tent in the Rekero Camp in the Maasai Mara. We then spend two nights at the Naboisho Camp just outside of the Mara, where we will be trekking on foot and trying our hand at fly camping.
Your safari experience could include horseback riding, hiking, and even camel treks, so be sure to pack for every activity. (Photo: Ol Malo)
From there we head to the Ol’ Malo House for horseback and camel treks with the Samburu Trust in Samburuland.
The very first lesson I learned about packing for a safari is what to pack my safari items in. “A trip like this demands a soft duffle bag. No rigid edges, no wheels, definitely nothing with a hard outer shell,” says Victoria Langmead, the sales manager for Aardvark Safaris, and a very regular visitor to Africa. “Remember, it not only needs to sit comfortably in the hold for your long-haul flight but may also have to be squeezed into the undercarriage of a light aircraft.”
I’ve been obsessed with a Nairobi-made duffel from Sandstorm Kenya since my last trip to Africa, and I promise the locals will approve of this local, sustainable choice.
The key is to pack smart. If you think you need it, bring it. If you have a moment of doubt, leave it at home.
Sunset safari cocktails in the Kalahari. (Photo: Aardvark Safaris)
Shorts — Two pairs … one to wear and a spare while the other is being washed. Many safari camps actually have laundry service and at the very least you will be able to hand wash your items.
Lightweight, quick-dry pants — Two pairs … one to to wear and one to be washed. Ex Officio makes a great convertible pant that goes from pant to shorts in a quick unzip.
A warm fleece — Even though you’re close to the equator, it will get quite cold at night. A good fleece can also double as a pillow on camping trips out in the bush. “Early morning and evening game drives can become quite chilly,” says Jenny Gray, the Africa Product Manger for Intrepid Travel. “One of the really common myths is that Africa never gets cold. Not true. Africa is seasonal, and even after a 25-35 (Celsius) degree day, temperatures can drop quite dramatically at night – especially in deserts or altitude.”
Shirts — Pack two long-sleeve and two short-sleeve shirts. Bring along at least a couple of shirts that aren’t cotton. The truth of safari is that you will sweat a lot, and you want something that will wick away moisture and stay as dry (and clean) as possible. My go-to long-sleeve is the Silverqueen from Corbeaux.
This lightweight raincoat is perfect for travel. (Photo: Eddie Bauer)
Raincoat — Something simple and small that rolls into nearly nothing in your bag. I am a fan of the Eddie Bauer Cloud Cap because of how tiny and lightweight it is in your bag.
Hat — This can be a baseball cap or a wide-brimmed safari hat. Regardless of the style (bring a cowboy hat if you want), bring some kind of head gear to protect your face and your scalp from the sun.
Sunglasses — Make sure to bring along a pair with polarized lenses to make your game-viewing experience more enjoyable. No one wants to squint at a herd of zebra.
Hiking boots — Few things are as important on safari as great hiking boots. You’ll want a sturdy boot with a rubber sole and secure ankle support. I love this Lowa Boot, but it’s best to go into an REI store (or other outdoor outfitter) and sit down with one of their boot experts.
Be sure to bring some good binoculars so you get the most out of your wildlife-viewing. (Photo: Bernd Vogel/Corbis)
Binoculars — On safari, roof prism binoculars are best because they tend to be more comfortable and lightweight and are significantly more durable.
“Safari binoculars are essential tools for any truly successful game-viewing expedition. Certainly, we never go on safari without them. The awe you feel as you witness the finest details of a herd of elephant from afar, or watch a cheetah stalk and chase down its prey as if you had a front row seat, is simply breathtaking. We can’t stress enough to our clients how vital it is that they bring a pair along,” John Spence the President of Aardvark Safaris told us .
Sunscreen — Always bring more sunscreen than you think you need. The African sun is no joke, and even when skies are overcast you will likely get a nasty burn if you don’t use protection.
Bug spray — Some travelers are obsessed with 100 percent DEET sprays. You don’t need something strong enough to strip the paint off a car. Thirty percent DEET is a perfectly acceptable spray.
A great camera - The only bad pictures are the ones you don’t take. Rick Collins is the photographer-in-residence at the Four Seasons Serengeti Lodge in Tanzania. He’s shot thousands of incredible safari photos and taught thousands of tourists how to capture the perfect safari memories. Collins’ personal expensive toy is a Canon EOS-1D X. He travels with a 500 lens, a doubler, and a 1.4 extender. He’s intense. For folks looking to bring along a starter camera on safari, Collins recommends the Canon Rebel.
Don’t forget an extra memory card and a spare battery for your camera, Intrepid’s Gray reminded me. “You’ll take more photos than you can imagine! All lodges and campsites will have charging facilities but some of these will be powered by generators that are often switched off at night and at other times you may be out on full day game drives, so a spare is a good idea. Don’t forget your converter as well!”
The bonus items
Bathing suit — You never know when you’ll get the chance to go for a dip.
Headlamp — Much more useful than a flashlight, this is one accessory that might make the dark African nights a little more pleasant.
What not to pack
Designer purses — Leave the Birkin at home. The elephants won’t appreciate it the way you do and dust isn’t kind to fine leather.
Leave the fancy footwear at home. (Photo: iStock)
High heels — Plenty of luxury safari camps roll out the red carpet when it comes to gourmet meals, but I promise no one is scrutinizing your footwear. When it comes to shoes, think about what is comfortable and practical.
Jeans — Not only do jeans take up a lot of room, but they don’t breathe well in the heat.
Expensive jewelry — Ladies, leave the diamonds at home. Men, do you really need to bring that pricey watch? Most safari camps are incredibly safe, but if you don’t want to lose something don’t bring it along.
Fancy electronics — You’re on safari. Leave the tablets at home and try to unplug for a bit. Bring a wonderful camera instead and capture memories instead of sending texts. “Focus on the luxury of exploring this remarkable part of the world, and take only the things that will enhance your experience,” Aardvark Safaris’ Langmead says.