An African safari adventure presents the ultimate packing challenge. This bucket list trip is a big investment in time and money. You will likely be on long overseas flights where you’ll want entertainment and comfort items, and short flights on bush planes where your luggage weight and size is severely restricted. And there are no convenience stores in the bush. All of your clothing, safari equipment, and essentials must fit into what’s basically a carry-on bag. The challenge is the gear. A wildlife safari is a lifetime dream for photographers, so how do you decide what cameras, and gear for safari to bring?
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If you will be taking any small planes between safari camps, you will likely be restricted to a maximum or 44 lbs. (including camera equipment and personal items) in a soft sided bag. For most of us that means we bring the bare minimum of clothing, mixing and matching as we go, and relying on laundry during the trip. Fortunately, most safari camps offer laundry services so you can count on some help here.
What to Pack for Safari – Cameras, and Lenses
What is the best camera for an African safari? The wisdom is “the best camera is the one that is with you”, and for most of us that means cell phones. These phones are remarkably advanced now and might very well serve as your only camera on safari. But it is a trip of a lifetime, so I pack cameras.
Things to consider when deciding what camera to pack for your safari:
- Africa is dusty
- African wildlife are often at a distance from your vehicle
- Game drives are bumpy
- Safari vehicles may not have room for a tripod
- Your pictures will be your favorite souvenirs
Camera Gear for Safari – what we packed
For those high-end amateur photographers, we recommend a digital SLR, with a fast, telephoto lens. We would suggest an additional camera for close-ups, etc., as you will want to minimize lens changes.
Dave is carrying his Canon Rebel T3i dSLR. For this trip he has decided to rent a high-end Canon EF lens. These lenses are often available to rent in Africa, but he will rent here so as to have time to practice with the lens. He’ll also bring a couple of prime lenses.
For the hobby photographer, who may want to spend more time absorbing the landscape than photographing it, we recommend a high-quality bridge camera.
I will carry my Panasonic Lumix FZ200, a superzoom with Zeiss lens, for its low light capabilities and long range. I loved having a high-quality point and shoot so I could savor my time in the field without concern for lens changes. For our second safari, I debated upgrading the camera but decided that the quality of the FZ200 in relation to its weight was too good to trade.
(Below is an example of an image captured on my Lumix FZ200)
Cell phones- As mentioned previously, phone cameras have improved tremendously. I wouldn’t recommend using one as your only camera, but a smartphone camera will come in handy for quick shots around camp.
No matter what camera you bring don’t forget:
- extra SD cards
- lens wipe or brush (we use a Nikon lens pen)
- camera wraps, etc.,
- travel tripod, if recommended by your safari camp, or a bean bag to balance on the car window.
Do you need binoculars for a safari?
When you’re trying to minimize weight in your safari luggage, it’s tempting to skip the binoculars. We packed binoculars as we are birdwatchers and knew we’d want to get a good view of Africa’s amazing birdlife. For the non-birders, a few considerations:
Are binoculars necessary for seeing the wildlife? Maybe, maybe not. This will depend on your location and the type of safari tour you’ve booked. On some safaris in South Africa, you may be very close to the animals, but in other game parks you might be at a distance. We brought two sets of binoculars on our first trip but realized we could easily share one pair.
Won’t your safari guide provide binoculars? We had assumed they would, but on our trip, none did. Fortunately, we had our own set which the safari guides borrowed themselves!
Binoculars for Safari
No need to purchase expensive or high-magnification binoculars for your trip. We suggest a set of travel binoculars will work best and will be light enough for hand-viewing in your vehicle. There are many great options out there, but we packed on our safaris:
We maximize quality in a small package with the Swarovski CL Companion line. The optics are astonishing for such a small, lightweight binoculars.
For more information on choosing binoculars, and recommendations for less expensive options, read –Best Binoculars for Travel
Technology and miscellaneous gear you’ll need on safari
Tablet, laptop or other device to review and backup photos. Days on safari are unusual in that you have early morning game drives, and evening game drives, with the afternoon to relax. We enjoy using that time to review our images and make sure everything is backed up.
- SD card Backup drive – from $$ – $$$, but peace of mind for those precious photos.
- iPad mini – At .73 lbs. it’s a lightweight solution for entertainment on flights and portable backup device for photos.
I never travel without an eReader. Great for the long flights and jetlagged nights when sleep doesn’t come.
Tip: Load your waterproof Kindle Paperwhite with books from your library’s Overdrive collection.
Safari camps are usually located way off the grid. A few have reliable electricity and wi-fi, but most we visited used generators. In some camps the power is only available for part of the day and the wi-fi coverage is spotty.
- External charger – most camps have charging stations and most airplane seats have outlets, but don’t count on it! recommended – a small lipstick Anker (3 oz.) charger or, my favorite, the Anker PowerCore 10000 (6.3 oz).
- Flashlight or headlamp – each traveler should carry their own flashlight or headlamp.
We bought the UCO flashlight/lantern combination in 2014 and were glad we did when an elephant broke through the electricity lines in camp looking for jackal berries… In the 5 years since, this light is always by my bedside in case of power outages. It is always on our packing list for safari!
Safari luggage and travel accessories
No hard-sided or wheeled luggage allowed! We highly recommend a bag that features multiple carry options.
- The Eagle Creek No Matter What bag is well priced and works great for safaris and road trips. Small enough to be stuffed into bush planes yet with pockets and dividers for organization. We used an older version of this bag (with backpack straps) on our last safari and loved it. [capacity – 59 L, weight – 1 lb 14 oz, $53-80]
- Tom Bihn, a Seattle based company, makes quality ‘Made In The USA’ bags. This Aeronaut 45, and the newer Techonaut 45, convert from a duffel to a backpack. It’s wide opening makes living out of the bag easy. It’s pricey but will do the job in style and last forever. [capacity -45 L, weight (halcyon) -2 lb 7 oz, $295]
- Patagonia black hole duffel – water resistant and pretty tough for throwing into safari vehicles.
- Osprey offers many great duffels. I bought the Osprey Trailkit bag for a overseas bike trip. Lightweight, lots of organization and sturdy backpack straps make this bag easy to use. [capacity 40 L, weight – 1.9 lbs., $120 but often found on sale]
Camera Gear for Safari: The Camera Bag
This choice is determined by what you carry. Remember that your camera equipment counts towards your total allowed weight on bush planes.
- For Professional Photographers (or amateurs carrying professional equipment) – Choose a backpack designed especially for your equipment. Remember – no wheels!
- For hobby photographers – a small camera case – slingback or hipbelt – works well. But consider using camera inserts or wraps within a normal pack or tote. This minimizes packing space and is also good in that it doesn’t advertise the expensive equipment you’re carrying.
My favorite minimal camera bag on safari (and at home) is the PacSafe CamSafe hip belt. It’s loaded with security features, which makes it a bit heavy, but my optics are easily accessed when I’m outside, and it sits flat on the floor of the safari vehicle on game drives. When I’m carrying more equipment, as I will be on my next trip, I rely on a Peak Design backpack. It’s not a huge bag but is comfortable and adaptable for my needs.
Tripod – it is unlikely you will have room in your vehicle for a full tripod. Consider a monopod or a beanbag camera support that can be mounted quickly on the vehicle edge.
Cable Release, or Remote Shutter button – don’t forget to take advantage of the isolation of your safari camps for dark sky images.
Gear for the Long Flight
Noise-canceling headphones, pillows, cleansing wipes, and your favorite snacks are some of the things that will make the long-haul flight bearable.