An African safari is pretty high on most people's bucket lists. We have worked with multiple clients now who have enjoyed using miles to get to South Africa and surrounding countries and the question we usually get the most is "what on earth do we pack?!"
Safari companies usually arrange travel via local prop planes to avoid the bumpy roads and long distances between parks. While it's nice to have the luxury of saving time, one major difference between these flights and commercial flights is the amount of luggage you're allowed to take on board. Most have a maximum weight of around 33 lbs. in a soft sided bag.
If you're anything like me, you panic slightly (ok, a ton) about how to tackle this packing challenge. Africa requires (to me, at least) looking the part and bringing every possible piece of camera equipment you own with you. Our last trip was our most photographed to date so hard drives and extra memories cards were a must.
Here's a few tips that I learned along the way:
Weigh the Non-Negotiables First
You know for a fact you're not going without your camera, extra lenses, memory cards, etc. so make sure you know how much those items are alone before you pack a single thing. That will be your starting point. This should also include any vital medications or things like contact solution.
Invest in Packing Cubes
These will add very little to the weight of your luggage but make a massive difference in terms of organization. I own these and I swear by them now. I use them to separate shoes, underwear/swimwear/pajamas, and bathroom items, like my contact solution. I ordered them on Amazon for around $20 and you can purchase a similar set here.
Pull Everything Out You Want to Wear & Pack Half
Seriously - gather all of the clothes you think you'll need for this safari and lay them out on your bed or floor. You most likely have multiples of very similar items such as jackets or jeans. Those are heavy items that take up a lot of room in your bag. You'll need only 1 jacket and depending on the time of year you're going, a very light one at that. You also only need ONE pair of shoes and tennis shoes are more than ok. If you're not hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro, you can even get away with light flats since you'll be in the safari vehicles the entire time.
Also keep in mind that most safari lodges, if not all, offer free or very affordable laundry options. It goes without saying to leave dry cleaning at home for this trip (the elephants hate starch smells we hear) and take advantage of the laundry services at each place you stay. For a 10 day safari, we had laundry done 3 times, meaning we only packed 3 days worth of safari clothes that lasted us a week and a half.
Pro tip - wear your heaviest clothing items on your flying days (such as a pair of jeans) and keep your camera around your neck to "take pictures." That will keep the weight out of your luggage.
Leave the Luxuries at Home
This is the hardest part of traveling and yet, the most rewarding. Learn to embrace what hotels have to offer and work with what you have. I am always shocked at how many people bring a blow dryer or their own shampoo/conditioner on trips. Those are VERY heavy items and often not needed. For safari, a blow dryer is comical. Not only will the power not support any hair electronics, the need for it is not there. It's dusty, hot, dry, and sunny so wear a hat or learn to love the top knot. It will be pointless to style your hair due to wind and dust (trust me on this one - I tried it for two days and was miserable) and sundowners and dinner are usually served fresh off of your safari drive. Trying to shower and get dressed after it will make you late for cocktails (a cardinal sin if you ask me) and just give the dust more water to cling on to.
As for shampoo/conditioner/body wash, there are some camps that do not provide these items so you may have to bring along small travel packs. I discovered Lush's shampoo and conditioning bars for our last trip and they were light, and got lighter, as we traveled more. You can also snag the small bottles from hotels prior to arriving to camps to avoid bringing them from home. Luckily, our camps this time around provide those necessities, as do the rest of our hotels on the trip, so I can use what I need and leave the rest behind for the next traveler.
It's also worth noting that this is not the trip to perfect your contour or go heavy on the makeup. You're surrounded by local villages suffering from extreme poverty and driving through parks with maybe 3-5 other guests in your car. Bring just the basic makeup essentials to avoid too much weight in your bag as well and make sure your foundation has SPF in it if you wear it.
If You Feel Like You Need it, Buy it Locally
If you find yourself freezing and kicking yourself for not packing a heavier jacket or despite doing laundry, you're just running low on clothing, most lodges will have a small gift shop of items from the surrounding villages. You'll help someone in need, get what you want, and score a souvenir all in one purchase. These items can also be purchased in the nearby towns and most camps will happily arrange transport or even grab the items for you. They're happy to show you their shops and thrilled when tourists buy locally.
In Madagascar last year, I found myself needing a fleece jacket and the lodge manager opened up the gift shop (which clearly hadn't been opened in a few weeks) to sell me a $20 fleece. It was nothing to me but he hugged me and told me how valuable that sale was, allowing them to give that money to one of the families who made it and worked there. Since the per capita income in Madagascar is around $260, this was a big help to that family.
As overwhelming as it may be, packing for your next African safari can be much easier than you think. It's completely worth the challenge though to experience highly endangered animals roaming free in the wild.