Deciding what to pack for long-term travel in Africa can get pretty confusing – not to mention heavy! Especially if you take into account covering several countries with different dress codes, cultures and weather.
Please allow me to spare you the many mistakes and unpleasant experiences I’ve suffered and share with you the little wisdom I have gained along the way. I have spent a lot of time working, hiking and travelling in Africa. So do not fear, with this universal Africa packing list I’ve got you covered. These items will keep you cool, suitably modest and most importantly – looking good along the way.
For ease of carrying and walking with your luggage, particularly in countries with rough dirt tracks or bustling streets you cannot beat a good old trusty backpack. When travelling in Africa your bags are likely to get thrown about, strapped to bus roofs and otherwise manhandled and covered in dust. Therefore a lightweight but durable rucksack is key. I use a Berghaus pack but Osprey and North Face also do great backpacks and importantly these brands all carry female-specific designs. This is important, not just for aesthetics, but since the female body shape is different from the male they are designed to sit better and to more effectively distribute weight across your hips and chest.
Discovering these quite honestly changed my life. Be it actual packing cubes or slightly more expensive but sturdier dry sacks, the ability these give you to organise your gear is incredible. No more will you suffer that increasing backpack rage as your stuff becomes more disordered and harder to find, before you’re forced to check into a private room just to dump it all out and re-pack. You can pick up these little wonders at a reasonable price online or from most decent outdoors shops. It really does makes everything so much easier to find and keep clean! I also use a dry sack stuffed with clothes as a pillow when I’m camping or on overnight transport. Luxury!
Having a small day pack as your carry on luggage will be useful once you arrive to use for hiking and other such day or short multi-day trips. It’s up to you if you want to take a decent day pack that you might use for hiking at home, or if you don’t think you will be using it too often you can buy a smaller fold-down one instead as this will take up much less room in your backpack when not in use.
I usually take a wash bag that has room for general toiletries and the bit of make up I carry. You can get packing cubes designed for toiletries, or use any number of the ones found online and in shops. Waterproofing is useful as it stops leaks soaking into your bag. Being able to hang it up in the shower or bathroom can also be good to prevent having to pack it soggy after a shower.
Africa can be really, really dusty, so don’t bring anything expensive or anything you mind not taking home at the end of the trip. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring nice things to wear – after all you want to feel good about yourself when you are travelling. There are many high street shops where you can pick up a bargain before you leave, and you can find beautiful cover-up clothing from any of the local markets. See also my article How to look great whilst travelling.
If you plan to do some trekking or go on safari, check out my separate packing lists for any additional items.
The sun is strong, so protect your face and neck. Most people bring a hat, personally i prefer to wrap a nicely coloured scarf around my head, neck and shoulders.
You’ll be wanting to spend a lot of time outdoors, especially if you are camping, in dorms or on safari. It can get cooler in many places in the evenings so pack one warmer jumper. It also serves as good protection against mosquitoes!
You’ll live in these, so take at least 3 or 4 basic ones you don’t mind getting dirty. I like to take nicer running tops or other sports tops as they dry faster when I wash them. Also be sure to have some which cover your shoulders for the more conservative areas.
Long Sleeved top
A long sleeved top is invaluable. It serves many functions: to cover up out of respect, from the burning sun or as a little extra warmth at night. I usually only take one, and again I like very lightweight sports material that is breathable and sweat wicking. This also doubles up as a good base layer if you are doing any trekking.
Colourful, slouchy ‘traveller pants’ can be found anywhere these days. They are usually cheaper and in greater number at your arrival destination so I wouldn’t panic about buying these before you leave. Linen trousers are another alternative and are smarter if you are planning on doing anything like volunteer work. But they make me feel hideous and they crease like crazy so personally I tend to avoid!
Great for wearing under shorter dresses in areas where you shouldn’t show your knees, for hiking or for protection against mosquitoes. Again I favour running leggings for all the benefits mentioned above. Plus I tend to run a lot whilst travelling so it saves me doubling up. if you are happy to hand wash regularly one pair is plenty.
These are perfect for throwing on for a nice dinner, trip to the market or the beach. Take a couple of versatile and lightweight items that will work both day and night. One skirt and a dress or two is plenty. Be sure to pick one that you really like and feel good in as you are likely to spend a lot of your smarter events in these and have most of your photos taken in them!
As I mentioned above I use my scarf for many things! As a head covering, an accessory to my outfits, for sitting on to avoid getting my clothes dirty. It works well for covering your nose and mouth is sand storms and on dusty journeys. I tend to buy one at a local market and keep it as a souvenir. You can use a full length sarong to cover up in more conservative regions, for days on the beach, to wash in if you are making use of home stays. It also has many uses. And if you choose a nicely coloured one at a local market it can add a real sense of style to your travel wardrobe.
A pair of shorts or two is always useful in Africa. Maybe take one that are lightweight and breathable for activities like hiking, running or white water rafting, and then maybe a pair of denim shorts or similar for lounging around in.
When I’m in Africa I spend most of my time in flip-flops. I take a dressier pair for sightseeing or evening wear and a more robust pair for travelling and walking longer distances.
I tend to take a pair of trail running shoes to cover both running and hiking, unless I am doing serious hiking such as Kili when I might also bring a pair of walking boots. This is an area of personal choice and planned activities. Boots are heavy, but sometime they are necessary.
In most African itineraries there will be plenty of opportunities to get in the water, so bring a swimsuit so you don’t miss out.
Breathable material and quick drying are essential, You get products designed for hiking and multi-day activities which are perfect. Sports bras are really good for the bumpy roads and for running/hiking. Though I must admit I usually bring a couple of pairs of nicer pants and a nice bra. Hey, you never know!
The sun is strong, so protect your eyes. Pick a pair you like, as you’ll be wearing in them in most photos!
A lightweight waterproof jacket is a good idea as the rains can be pretty heavy and prolonged at certain times of year. Pick one with decent waterproofing (water-resistant is a waste of everyone’s time) and one that packs down small and won’t take up too much room in between showers.
In general I tend to pack pretty light when it comes to electronics. I’m just not a big gadget person, and combined with previous experiences of losing or being pickpocket-ed of expensive gear I tend to leave all but the essentials at home.
Africa is a photographers paradise, so a fairly decent camera classes as an essential for me. I’ve gone with basic ‘point and shoot’ type cameras and it really just doesn’t do justice to the colour and vibrancy of the continent. At the very least a decent zoom is a must. It doesn’t need to be a top of the range DSLR, and for me lightweight and compact models are a must, but if you are going to invest in any of your electronics for your trip let it be this.
Having a camera with wifi capabilities is also useful so you can back up your photos and send them straight to your phone. This allows you to upload to social media without having to transfer using a computer, but if that’s not your bag then it’s certainly not an essential feature.
If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses, you may also want to consider getting a wide-angle lens for incredible landscape shots and maybe a telephoto zoom lens for when you are on safari. Again, far from essential and the weight can add up quickly.
It can be challenging to find decent memory cards outwith the bigger cities. Not necessary if you are backing up often either via wifi or to your computer, but if you’re not then definitely stock up!
For all of those long journeys and days on the beach. Lightweight and portable, kindles have revolutionised travel reading for bookworms like myself! You can now even get digital versions of most guidebooks – though these aren’t as easy to navigate as a paper copy so I tend to stick to paper for these myself.
Charging points are becoming more easily available, but if you are planning to camp or use homestays or otherwise get really off the beaten track portable chargers are a must. I have one power bank and a solar charger which I use to recharge my bank on really long trips off the grid. Hey, if you want to escape and switch off then be my guest and don’t bother. But I like the security of having a phone in case of emergency and it’s host of useful functions including a torch and a local dictionary!
Either consider getting your smart phone unlocked so you can pick up local SIM cards along the way, or buy a cheapie phone when you arrive. The advantage to having your smart phone with a local sim is that it allows you cheap internet connectivity. You may need a copy of your passport to get a SIM card, so you can either take a few copies with you, or take your passport and the phone shop can usually copy it for you.
Some places use UK plugs, some use European and some use South African, so a worldwide adaptor which is able to accommodate each of these is pretty handy. the price of these has dropped recently and they are widely available.
Chargers | Don’t forget all your chargers so you can use all your stuff!
You don’t have to take everything you normally use in multiple, again see my article on How to look great whilst travelling. But if there are products you couldn’t live without be sure to take enough to last. Otherwise, in terms of most staple toiletries like shampoo, conditioner soap etc these are widely available and local brands are often really good. Watch out for facial products with skin whitener though! Apart from ruining your tan, these products can cause pretty bad reactions in some people. For some specifics see below:
Girls (and guys), look after your skin. Use a high factor (I recommend 50!) on your face and neck unless you want to look old and wrinkled before your time. Sun cream in general can be expensive in Africa, so I usually start my trip with a decent stash.
Nail Brush | Your nails (especially your toenails) will get really dirty with the dust, so I’d definitely recommend taking a small nail brush to keep you clean and dirt free. Nail clippers too if your trip is any great length.
First Aid Kit | I always have a fairly well stocked first aid kit with me. But as a doctor my needs are maybe a little different. I would recommend travelling with a basic first aid kit and adding a few extra bits and pieces such as antiseptic cream, rehydration sachets, paracetamol, Tiger Balm and Immodium. I would also highly recommend taking a sterile kit with clean needles etc. Hopefully you won’t even need it, but for me it is peace of mind when I am travelling in very remote places where the quality of local medical equipment might not be great. You can usually request a private prescription for basic antibiotics from your GP or travel doctor too which is pretty useful when your tummy goes off or a small cut begins to get infected in the tropical weather.
You can get good mosquito repellent in the cities, but it’s not always readily available. I would recommend a spray with high percentage of DEET, but I know people who use Avon skin so soft with excellent effect.
I recommend buying enough to last you before you leave home. they might be a bit pricier at home than abroad but that is because of the extra quality check they undergo. I’m sure most pills bought abroad are fine, but I personally wouldn’t recommend taking the risk.
Pretty easy and convenient to take a stock with you. You can stock up easily, especially in bigger cities but with these things I prefer to be prepared…
4) Money/Travel Documents
I suggest taking a mix of your own currency, dollars for visas (dollars need to be in good condition and dated later than 2006, so be vigilant when you exchange) and some activities. Local currency if usually easier to get when you arrive, either through exchange or ATM withdrawal.
Visa is the most commonly accepted card in Africa so I’d ensure you have a Visa card. Personally I use a Halifax credit card which doesn’t charge for use abroad and offers a perfect exchange rate. It is a MasterCard and I have rarely had a problem.
Remember you will get stamped so your passport should have enough pages to get you through your trip. They usually say 2 pages per country you are visiting, however they will usually stamp more than one stamp on each page. Just make sure you have a few left! And you should have 6 months left on the passport from when you enter the very last country.
Yellow Fever Certificate
Some countries require a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to allow you to enter. This is gradually being phased out but is worth getting if you can.
You can get most visas at the borders, but there are a few you have to apply for in advance so do your research and plan you trip accordingly.
Travel Insurance Make sure you have a really comprehensive that covers you for every activity you want to do. Read the fine print to make sure you are covered and that it includes repatriation cover (flying you home in the case of emergency). Be sure to keep your documents with the emergency numbers handy.
Carry a few spare passport photos with you in case you need them for visas.
Nowadays most places you will stay where you need a net will have one provided. I think in the past 6 years I have used mine once, maybe twice. That said, I still take mine with me when I travel around Africa. Mozzies spread worse things than malaria and I would rather have the extra tiny amount of weight than be caught short. Personal choice.
Also note, mosquitoes are vicious little things and they won’t hesitate to eat their way through a net. While many hotels provide nets nowadays, most of them won’t be treated. If you are taking your own net make sure to spray it regularly (6 months – 1 year) with permethrin, which kills the mozzies when they touch it before they can chomp a big hole in it.
Fixes everything. Don’t leave home without it! From boot repairs, to fixing holes in mozzie nets and tents it is a must-bring.
You’ll have an abundance of choice in Africa, so leave your expensive stuff at home and have some fun and support the local economy by haggling for some locally made items.
Substitute a proper towel for a microfiber towel. They’re certainly not luxurious , but they dry quick and are small and light.
I always tend to sacrifice this, then regret it and have to run around trying to buy one. I would recommend packing a small notebook and pen for keeping track of all your incredible experiences.
For everything from power cuts to late night camping loo trips! Spare batteries also useful.
I hope you have found this packing list useful. Do you have any other useful hints and tips? Have I missed anything you think is important? I’d love to hear from you.