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The Challenge of Packing for Safari in a Carry-On

image showing merino tops take up half the space

Before and After - Packing space saved with merino wool tops and a smaller set of binoculars


Five years ago, we traveled on what we expected to be THE once-in-a-lifetime trip – an African Safari! But safaris are addictive so, with retirement and a big birthday to celebrate, we decided to splurge on a second trip. We contacted Rhino Africa again, decided on our itinerary, prepared our reading lists, and focused on how to pack for safari once again.

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Which brings me to a confession As social media so often skips over the difficulties of life, I haven’t shared on my near hysteria when our luggage was deemed over-sized at the gate. I chose to leave out descriptions of me wrestling with the gate agent when she took my bag away, or me running back out of the plane to rummage through my sadly abandoned bag for any medications and documents I might need enroute. We also skipped over the fact that my husband’s bag broke halfway through the trip, and we neglected to mention the extra set of binoculars (1.6 pounds!) that we carried unused over 19,000 miles of travel.

We have learned some packing wisdom in the past few years, but just as important, we have slowly been replacing worn out or inefficient items with products better designed for travel – travel sized tech products, lightweight but sturdy luggage, and merino wool clothing. These ‘specialized’ items are often expensive, but we watch for sales and sign up for alerts for off-season items on websites like sierratradingpost.com. And ultimately packing light is worth the investment.

Just getting started thinking about a safari? Read: 10 Steps to the Perfect Luxury Safari

Wildlife safaris aren’t the only trips that specify luggage weight limits or soft sided bags. We’ve used these packing tips and products for cycling trips and river rafting adventures. Next year we’ll be packing extra light for a trip to Machu Picchu!

So, with lessons learned, how to pack light for safari:

As almost all African safaris involve some hopping around, usually on light aircraft. You will likely be restricted to packing in a soft sided duffel (no wheels), and a small personal item – a backpack, camera bag, or similar. These items combined should weigh no more than 15 kg, or 33 lbs. However, no worries, most camps offer same day laundry.

The New Favorites We’re Packing for Safari

  • Before and After – Packing space saved with merino wool tops and a smaller set of binoculars

Merino wool clothing – lightweight, quick drying and odor resistant – we choose merino for tees, sweaters, and socks when available.  (Icebreaker and Smartwool recommended)

Eagle Creek Load Hauler Duffel bag/Backpack – 40 L expandable carry-on luggage – can be checked on return flight. There are many other duffels that will fit carry-on dimensions, just make sure the outside of the bag is made of sturdy material. The bag will see a lot of rough wear in the small planes and bush trucks.

Osprey Daylite Plus backpack – ~20 L, lightweight, with lots of pockets for organization. Small enough to be accepted as a flight personal item!

Pacsafe Camsafe hip pack – I hesitated about bringing this bag as I didn’t feel the need for the extra security features the Pacsafe brand provides but ended up bringing it and LOVED it. The bag is solid, well cushioned, and has enough organization for a day on safari. I was able to fit my dSLR with zoom lens, binoculars, iPhone, notebook, Chapstick, etc. into the bag. (If you’re carrying more, especially more camera equipment, you’ll need a bigger bag.) I loved how stable the hip pack was resting on the floor of the vehicle, even over rough terrain.

Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder bag – a super lightweight and colorful seat-back organizer during flights. Add a strap to use as a handbag or add an insert to convert to a camera bag. Never leave home without one!


Swarovski CL 8 x 30 pocket binoculars – at 1 lb., 1 oz. we saved 9 ounces from our Vortex Talon (an at-home favorite) and the optics are AMAZING!

A fun way to pack light:

Put all the items you’re considering packing in the middle of your bed. Move to the left (or in a laundry basket) everything you absolutely need. Not everything you want to bring, but only what you could manage with if you did laundry. Put everything else on the right.

Now, pack the pile on the left, the necessary things, in the bag you’ve chosen to carry.

If you have room, add pieces from the right pile until your bag is full.

How to Pack for Safari: our Carry-on Safari Packing List

Download our Safari Packing List 

If you are traveling to Kenya or Rwanda, note that plastic bags are illegal and subject to significant fines.

Required Travel Paperwork

Gear and Gadgets(see What to Pack for Safari: cameras, gear and gadgets for more information)

Health and First Aid

Safari Clothing for Women and Men

Choose clothing in earth tones for safaris. Game drives are dusty and subtle colors are less likely to disturb wildlife. This is especially important for safaris in East Africa where tsetse flies are found. These flies, which carry diseases, are attracted to black and bright blue!

No camouflage clothing! It’s actually illegal in some countries.

Again: pack light. Most upscale lodges will include daily laundry.

In Dave’s bag:

  1. 1 merino wool polo shirts
  2. 2-3 merino wool tees  (Icebreaker merino)
  3. 2 safari style long sleeve shirts treated with insect repellant*
  4. 2 pairs of convertible pants
  5. 1 pair of shorts
  6. Fleece jacket
  7. Windbreaker
  8. Sun hat
  9. 1 bathing suit

Dave recommends Scottevest fleece jacket with removable sleeves.

In Amy’s bag: (note most items mix and match)

NOT SHOWN:

*NOTE: It is not necessary to buy specially treated clothing for insect protection. We use Sawyer’s permethrin to treat our clothing. Saturate the clothing (outdoors) and allow to dry thoroughly. This insect repellent should last for 6 washings.

A puff jacket will take up little space in an Eagle Creek compression half cube

What to Wear on Safari Evenings – Safari camps are decidedly casual, but it can be fun to dress up a bit after a dusty day. A sundress packs light and might be perfect for dinner with new friends. I always travel with a few Diane Kroe items. They are lightweight, versatile, and add color to a simple wardrobe. My favorites are the Carry-On Cozy (as a scarf, skirt, AND poncho!), Wanderlust as a convertible sweater (and airplane blanket!), and the Origami, a fun piece that goes from casual top to cocktail dress.

Travel Clothing for Women, easy to pack favorites

On every packing list: My Must Have Travel Accessories

Tips for Packing in a Duffel Bag

An African safari usually involves short stays in various camps and tents. You will be living out of your duffel bag. To make this easier, we suggest using colorful packing cubes to organize your clothing and gear. We use some Eagle Creek specter cubes for general gear but love to bring a few boxier cubes as they function as ‘dresser drawers’ when out of the duffel.

It’s smart to give a bit more protection to any liquids you may be carrying. Your toiletry bag may get squished in your soft-sided luggage. I put my liquids into a silicone snack bag to prevent any damage from spills.


To whet your appetite for YOUR African safari, read:

A Day on Safari in Londolozi

What to Expect on an African Safari: a first timer’s experience


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