I’ve Been on Almost 50 African Safaris, and These Are the 16 Items I Never Travel Without
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From game-changing gadgets to sun-protective clothing, you'll be so happy that you packed these products.
Africa has been one of my favorite continents to travel to since college when I got to study abroad in Zimbabwe. It was here that I experienced my first safari, and since then, I've returned to Africa 17 times and racked up close to 50 safari days in eight different countries.
My most recent safari experience was in Kenya's Masai Mara, which has the world’s highest density of wild animals. I spent a week with Basecamp Explorer, an ethical and eco-friendly African safari tour company dedicated to conservation, visiting three of their safari camps in Masai Mara National Park and the adjacent Mara Naboisho Conservancy. During my week in the bush, I saw a wildebeest being born (a first for me!), a leopard eating its kill in a tree, and more lions and elephants than I could count.
However, choosing the right safari operator is often easier than packing for the trip itself, which is truly an art form because most safaris require you to arrive and depart via small aircrafts — and there's always a weight limit for what passengers can carry.
Over the years, I've perfected my African safari packing list and am happy to say that on my most recent trip, I brought just the right combination of clothes, camera gear, and essential toiletries and extras like, a sun hat, a pair of boots, and binoculars to make the 44-pound bag weight limit. Here are my top 16 must-pack items to take on safari. I’ve also included recommendations from my travel writer friends, who are equally passionate about following big cats across the African savannah.
And one note on what not to pack: camo clothing. In some African countries it is actually illegal for anyone not in the military to dress in camouflage. In East Africa, it is also best to avoid wearing black, as this can attract parasite-carrying tsetse flies. This is less of an issue in Southern African countries.
Comfy White Sneakers
As part of Basecamp's conservation efforts, the safari outfitter encourages visitors to plant a tree in the Basecamp Tree Plantation and Nursery, which I made sure to do during my trip. And, I did so in a pair of ACBC sneakers made from recycled materials.
I always pack stylish sneakers for safari so you can dress them up and down as needed, and the ACBC Evergreen Sneakers are incredibly versatile and sleek. The shoes are really comfy, and I love the breathability factor. They keep your feet cool on hot days and are trendy enough to pair with a long skirt, shorts, or jeans. Sizes for the ACBC Evergreen Sneakers are limited at Amazon, but your feet will be equally supported and stylish in a pair of Adidas Cloudfoam Pure-2.0 Running Shoes or Kufeiti Low-Top Canvas Sneakers.
To buy: amazon.com, $59 (originally $75)
Jack Wolfskin Routeburn Jacket
A lightweight technical jacket that can compress in your luggage is my favorite safari travel hack. Morning safaris head out before sunrise, and while it heats up fast once the sun comes up, for the first hour or so it’s cold and windy in the open vehicles.
I love my Jack Wolfskin Routeburn Jacket and take it with me pretty much everywhere I go. It is feather-light and packs down super small, but it is also very durable with its tear- and water-resistant construction. I’ve been to Kenya twice in the last year with this coat and I’m hard on my travel clothes, but it hasn’t shown any signs of wear and tear yet. And best of all, when zipped up with the hood on, it is entirely windproof and keeps me toasty on even the chilliest morning drives. The jacket also fits great; I’m short and curvy, so I love how the side panels are made from a stretchy material and the chest never feels too tight.
To buy: amazon.com, $133
Occer Compact Binoculars
A good pair of binoculars is another safari must-pack item, especially if you are interested in birdwatching. While you do get quite close to many animals, others are still a considerably far distance away, and binoculars can quickly bring them into your field of vision. I was super happy I had a pair of binoculars on me, for instance, when I witnessed the extremely rare sight of twin baby elephants who were just a few hours old.
The ones that I used had low-light vision focus capability, which is also a key feature of the Occer 12x25 Compact Binoculars that available at Amazon. The high-power, easy focus binoculars work for adults and kids, offering 12x magnification so you can get as close to the action as possible without missing a thing. They are also super compact and portable, making them easy to pack for a safari flight.
To buy: amazon.com, $66
Ray-Ban Erika Round Sunglasses
Whether you are on safari in South Africa, Botswana, or Kenya, one thing remains the same: you'll be closer to the sun (probably than you've ever been before). Polarized sunglasses are something that I never leave home without, and always make sure to have on deck for safaris. After all, you spend a lot of time looking through a camera lens on game drives, which causes plenty of eye strain on its own. Don’t let the sun add more. Polarized lenses not only increase clarity and contrast of your surroundings, but they also reduce glare and, in some cases, offer UV protection.
Ray-Ban is known for making some of the best polarized sunglasses in the industry and the Erika style works great for a safari. I love how the Light Havana/Dark Green frame and lens combo even has animal print flair.
To buy: amazon.com, $115 (originally $140)
Kelty Asher 55-Liter Backpack
Remember the bag limit I mentioned before? Well, I might also add that certain airlines typically won't allow you to bring a traditional suitcase with wheels. So, how are you expected to pack all of your gear? You'll need a trusty duffel bag or backpack to do the trick. I’ve traveled with both, but I prefer a backpack; I like to be able to carry my weight on my back as there is usually some walking with your bag required at the airport. Lately, I’ve been using the Kelty Asher 55-Liter Backpack, which is really comfy to wear, comes with a ventilated back panel, and is hydration compatible.
It is made with the company’s Fit Pro technology that allows the backpack to conform to your torso shape. It also is super easy to pack, and I love how the top is wider than the bottom, allowing you to stuff bulkier items in and out with more ease. This backpack comes in three other sizes (35L, 65L, and 85L), but I think the 55-liter option is a great size choice for travel. Plus, you can also use it for hiking, backpacking, and other activities.
To buy: amazon.com and backcountry.com, $150
Artfish Women’s Sleeveless Tank Top
My travel writer friend Lola Méndez was on the Basecamp Explorer safari with me, and I admit that I was super envious of her wardrobe — particularly this one tank top that she brought, which paired so well with all of her outfits. It was also breathable and great for layering, a.k.a. key elements for safari clothes.
“I packed an assortment of mix-and-match neutrals, the tried-and-true safari uniform," Méndez shared. "I stuck with lightweight fabrics, including cotton and linen, and breathable-but-appropriate styles such as midi skirts and tanks with thick straps. I wore my ribbed beige tank constantly in Kenya and then on safari in Tanzania with Sabubu Safaris.”
Taking a cue from Méndez's safari style, I'll be adding the Artfish Sleeveless Tank Top to my next packing list. It has a flattering square neckline and is made with a soft polyester material that's also very breezy.
To buy: amazon.com, $22
Outdoor Research Sunbriolet Sun Hat
This is proving a popular year for travel writers to go on safaris in Africa because my other industry friend and fellow Travel + Leisure contributor, Katie Jackson, is heading off to Botswana in a few weeks for one. She’s super organized, so she’s already packed. One item that she says she's definitely bringing is a sun hat.
“Per my dermatologist’s recommendation, I’m packing the best-selling Outdoor Research Sunbriolet Sun Hat on my safari with Natural Selection," she said. "In addition to the 360 degrees of UV protection, I love the side vents that keep my head cool in the African sun and the chin strap that I can adjust with one hand. I want to have my other hand free so I can snap photos of the lion cubs I hope to see."
To buy: amazon.com, outdoorresearch.com, and rei.com, $45
Lululemon Convertible High-Rise Hiking Joggers
Another item that Jackson packed for her Botswana adventure that I recommend packing are these two-in-one high-rise hiking joggers from Lululemon, which are designed for hiking and are made with water- and tear-resistant materials.
“At $198, Lululemon’s Convertible High-Rise Hiking Joggers aren’t cheap, but considering they turn into shorts in a matter of seconds, they’ll always have a place in my bag," she explained. “When I’m on safari in Botswana next month, it will be 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, but likely to drop close to freezing at night. I’ll wear these as pants in the cooler mornings, zip off the bottoms and stash them in the cargo pockets midday when I want shorts, and turn them back into pants in the evenings. Basically, you get two looks/vibes for the space of one!”
To buy: lululemon.com, $198
Tinsley Patchwork Romper
Every year I bring a different splurge outfit on safari, and this year, my showstopper look was the Tinsley Patchwork Romper from Cleobella. It folds up super easily, fits great, and pairs well with sneakers, lace-up sandals, and ankle boots.
Yes, this romper is white, which you might think is a bad color choice for a trip where you have to re-wear clothing, but not on safaris. Most camps launder and iron clothes daily for guests, so you’ll be able to drop it in the dirty linen basket in the morning and have it back for dinner.
To buy: cleobella.com, $268
Hotouch Cotton Button-Down Shirt
Just like with any vacation wardrobe, packing clothes that can be worn on multiple occasions will take you far (and help lighten your load). For me, that one versatile item is a cotton button-down shirt like this Hotouch one from Amazon.
I like to pair a shirt like this with leggings or shorts. The sleeves roll up and down, so you can adjust it for temperature variations, and it's always good to keep in your bag for when you'll need extra coverage from the sun. Plus, the shirt is made from 100 percent cotton, which makes the fabric durable, breathable, and not see-through.
To buy: amazon.com, $29
International Travel Adapter
I used to carry different travel adapters for different countries, and then would just make peace with the giant collection that I'd acquired over time. Once the mismatched adapters became too much to bear, I knew I needed to condense. So, you can only imagine how stoked I was when I found the Jmfone International Travel Adapter that has configurations for plugs around the world in one compact little cube. This smart travel adapter covers more than 160 countries, including all the African safari destinations.
My favorite part is that you can charge up to five devices at once thanks to its multi-USB design. It works great for charging my phone, camera, computer, and backup battery pack together so I don't have to keep changing them out or worry about limited outlet space. Note: It is not designed for high-power appliances like hairdryers and straighteners.
To buy: amazon.com, $20
Charles River Apparel Women’s Bristol Vest
If one thing is for sure, it's that you won't regret packing a layering piece like the Charles River Bristol Vest. I always bring the transitional outerwear staple along on safari, and usually pair mine with leggings and a scoop neck T-shirt so I'll be comfy. Vests are also a must-have because they're usually loaded with pockets, which you'll quickly find are unexpected perks when wrestling with smartphones and camera gear on a safari. After all, no travel wardrobe is complete without stylish-yet-functional items, right?
What's more, the Bristol utility vest by Charles River Apparel is flattering to a variety of body types with its longline silhouette, and I love the drawstring waistline that lets me feel confident in photos.
To buy: amazon.com, $48 (originally $57)
SteriPen Ultralight UV Water Purifier
I bring the UV water-purifying SteriPen with me everywhere I travel, especially if my destination doesn't have water that's safe to drink. While safari lodges will always have purified water for guests on hand, I’ve been in situations before where I’ve run out of water in the middle of the night and just wanted to grab a glass from the tap. This genius pen uses ultraviolet light to destroy over 99.9 percent of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa in just 90 seconds.
I’ve used it for months at a time to purify my drinking water, everywhere from Madagascar to Thailand. It hasn’t ever let me down. And, it is so small and lightweight to pack; it slides easily into my luggage and adds only 2.6 ounces of extra weight. Not to mention that it's also simple to use, with its one-button operation and rechargeable USB battery to re-power itself.
To buy: amazon.com, $88 (originally $110)
Hi-Tec Apex Lite Mid WP Hiking Boots
If you are traveling during the muddy season, or planning to include walking safaris (these are truly a special experience that should not be missed if possible) into your itinerary, then a solid pair of lightweight hiking boots are a great thing to pack.
I like the Apex Lite Mid WP Hiking Boots by Hi-Tec for safaris because they are incredibly durable with their waterproof constructions and come stocked with cushioned memory foam midsoles for long-lasting comfort. They also feature good traction and steady grips on rough terrain, and have fork shanks to help with stability while still remaining flexible. Their mid-height silhouettes also protect your ankles from sharp objects and bug bites. And, not only are they great for safaris, but you’ll definitely be able to wear them on the trails back home as well.
To buy: amazon.com, $60
Repel 100 Insect Repellent
Every safari experience is different, but you can often expect to run into pesky insects on your trip. While some bugs are more annoying than dangerous, others like mosquitoes can carry potentially deadly diseases. Malaria is a reality in many parts of Africa and you should definitely consult with your doctor about the pros and cons of taking anti-malarial drugs on your safari. You can also up your defense by packing bug spray. My go-to is the Repel 100 Insect Repellent, which is currently $8 at Amazon.
I’ve used Repel 100 Insect Repellent before, and so have thousands of Amazon shoppers, 6,695 of whom give it a five-star rating. The pump spray bottle is easy to use and provides up to 10 hours of protection. I also highly recommend carrying a hydrocortisone cream with you in case you do get bit; it relieves the itchiness and redness.
Pro tip: Apply bug spray liberally, especially on dawn and dusk safaris as the mosquitos that carry malaria tend to bite when it's dark out. If your safari lodge has mosquito netting in your room, make sure to use it at night — in areas with mosquitos these will almost always be draped over beds.
To buy: amazon.com, $8 (originally $17)
REI Co-op Sahara T-Shirt
Like I've said before, the African sun is no joke. And while safari vehicles tend to have closed tops to block some of it out, you are still getting hit from the open sides. If you are prone to sunburn, a functional UPF shirt like this one from REI Co-op is a good choice.
It comes in a tank top and t-shirt style, both of which provide UPF 50 sun protection and are made with quick-drying fabric that have a soft and comfy stretch to it. Once you travel with the Sahara T-Shirt, you'll quickly find that it'll be the most versatile piece of clothing in your suitcase. You can wear it for sporty activities, beach days, and casual outings. And, you can even dress it up when your itinerary calls for it.
To buy: rei.com, $30
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