Five years ago, we traveled on what we expected to be THE trip of a lifetime – an African Safari in Southern Africa! 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 an itinerary in East Africa, prepared our reading lists, and focused on how to pack for safari once again. (safari packing list below)
Which brings me to a confession… As social media so often skips over the difficulties of life, I haven’t shared my near hysteria when our luggage was deemed over-sized at the gate on our first time safari. I chose to leave out descriptions of 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.
The important thing is that we have gained some wisdom in the past few years, and 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 for our comfort and for the environment.
So, with lessons learned, how to pack light for safari:
As almost all African safaris involve some hopping around, usually on bush flights (small aircraft). You will likely be restricted to packing in a soft bag with no wheels, and a small personal item – a backpack, camera bag, or similar. The luggage allowance for these items combined is no more than 15 kg, or 33 lbs. Your camera gear and gadgets will take up the majority of that weight allowance but, fortunately for us, most camps offer same day laundry service so you can pack a minimal amount of clothing.
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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, lip balm (Chapstick), etc. into the bag. (If you’re carrying more, especially more camera equipment, you’ll need a bigger camera bag.) I loved how stable the hip pack was resting on the floor of the vehicle, even over rough terrain.
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!
PRO TIP – 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 hand luggage 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 African 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
- Passport with at least 4 blank pages – add a scanned copy of the passport to another bag and email a copy to yourself
- Yellow Fever vaccination and other inoculation certificates if needed – scanned and emailed as well
- Tickets & travel vouchers
- Travel Insurance information – Travel Insurance is a must for a safari.
Gear and Gadgets – (see What to Pack for Safari: cameras, gear and gadgets for more information)
- Camera with telephoto lens – Africa will be dusty, so it’s important to minimize the number of lens changes. Don’t forget memory cards and extra batteries!
- Camera wrap or bag insert to eliminate the need for a dedicated camera bag (unless you plan on carrying more than one camera body and lens). The insert can go in your carry-on bag and can be put into a smaller bag for the safari vehicle. Dave used a basic wrap for his dSLR.
- Binoculars [in our experience, one set shared is sufficient!]
- iPad or small laptop to review and backup images [optional]
- eReader – borrow a good book (or four!) from your library to load onto your device. The battery life on the Kindle Paperwhite was sufficient for my entire three week safari. YMMV
- Plugs, adapters, and chargers for all above
- Flashlight/headlamp or both. My favorite portable flashlight/lantern from 2014 is still going strong! It’s out of stock now but this 2-in-1 mini lantern is similar
- Money belt or similar security stash
- Water bottle – we were issued a reusable water bottle at our first camp, but it didn’t hurt to bring our own.
Health and First Aid Kit
- Malarone – malaria pills
- Compression socks for DVT prevention
- Bug spray [most safari camps will supply insect repellent that is much stronger than what’s available in US. Bring a small amount just in case and apply before your early morning game drive]
- Prescription medicine – leave in labeled bottles if possible. Take a copy of your prescription with you.
- OTC medications used regularly
- Bush bathroom helpers –
- toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer (Amazon offers a packaged set including toilet seat covers call the Restroom Kit but you can put your own together)
- Highly recommend women bring a Go-Girl or Venus to Mars device for easier ‘going’ mid game drive.
- Almost all toiletries, shampoo, etc., will be available in camp, but pack sunscreen.
- [optional] Gatorade or similar electrolyte powder packets, and Airborne or Emergen-C powder always make it into our bags and come in handy on exhausting trips.
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 colors, esp. blue!
No camouflage clothing! It’s illegal in some African countries.
If you’re planning on a walking safari, you should bring supportive shoes or hiking boots. Wear these on the plane.
If traveling during the rainy season, you’ll need a good waterproof poncho or similar. Make sure to also pack a lens sleeve or other camera protection.
Don’t forget to pack warm layers no matter the season! Early morning game drives can be quite chilly!
Again: pack light. Most upscale lodges will include daily laundry service.
In Dave’s bag:
- 1 merino wool polo shirts
- 2-3 merino wool tees (Icebreaker merino)
- 2 safari style long-sleeved shirts treated with insect repellant*
- 2 pairs of convertible pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- Fleece jacket
- Sun hat
- 1 bathing suit
Dave recommends Scottevest fleece jacket with removable sleeves.
In Amy’s bag: (note most items mix and match)
- 3 merino wool tees (incl. one long sleeve)
- 2 safari shirts with long sleeves that can be rolled up
- silky blouses (for dinners)
- 2 lightweight, convertible pants treated with permethrin*
- 1 casual knit pants (for travel days and dinners)
- 1 skirt or skort
- knit convertible sweater/wrap
- merino wool sweater
- 1 scarf
- Sports bra for those bumpy game drives
- 1 swim suit (Lands’ End swim separates double as workout wear or casual tops)
- windbreaker with removable sleeves (I recommend Scottevest too!)
- pack-able down jacket or vest for cool morning game drives -compresses to next to nothing in a small Eagle Creek compression cube. (NOTE: I rarely needed the two extra layers for this trip)
- safari hat for sun protection
*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 through 6 washings.
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!), and the Mariposa which can be scarf, jacket or kaftan and weighs next to nothing!
If your travel plans include time in Cape Town or the wine country, the safari evenings items above will be more than sufficient for looking great! Though Cape Town is a cosmopolitan city, casual attire is widely accepted.
–Travel Clothing for Women, easy to pack favorites
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!
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 personal items. 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.
One last thing…spend time before you leave reading all you can about Africa and African wildlife. It’ll greatly enhance your safari experience! To start, read:
What to Expect on an African Safari: a first timer’s experience
Items from my safari packing list, featuring Columbia LS shirt, Sunday Afternoon hat, Icebreaker merino tees, Chaco Outcross shoes, Columbia convertible pants, Panasonic Lumix FZ200, Scottevest jacket,
9 thoughts on “How to Pack for Safari Carry-On Only: pack light (free packing list)”
We learn the hard way don’t we? We travel with carry on 90% of the time. We did one month in Africa plus taking our cycling shoes and pedals. We rented helmets there. It takes work but well worth the effort in planning ahead.
OK I’m seriously impressed that you could do that with cycling gear too! We haven’t rented helmets yet though so maybe that would help.
Love your posts BTW!
After 7 safaris and 2 more scheduled, this is mostly good advice. First, should mention most middle to top tier camps and lodges provide free laundry service often in in the morning and back by the afternoon. I disagree with the binoc advice. Every adult needs their own set of binoculars. Get the best you can afford. My wife and I have Leica Ultravids which are fantastic. But Vortex Diamondbacks, at 1/10 the cost are very good. The Swarovski CL are very well rated, but very light. This is not always a good thing. Good cotton T’s work just as well, and they’re less expensive compared to the Marino’s the writer would like you to buy. Usually one light sweater and one light fleece are sufficient. Safari vehicles carry good robe/blankets for those frosty mornings. I gave away my photographer’s vest 4 safaris ago. At least for men, one pair of good walking shoes and flip flops are sufficient. And do remember, on many bush flights you are restricted to 33 lbs including your luggage and everything you have on and are carrying. If I can do it, and I have indeed done it, so can use.
Thanks Stephen! How fortunate you are to have taken so many safaris! As someone who does safaris regularly, you have some great tips for people on their first or second trip. I love my Vortex Talon binoculars, which I believe are an older version of the Diamondbacks you mention.
Yes, merino clothing is pricier, but after several cycling, hiking, and safari trips, I’ve been won over by the odor resistance of merino and the ability to wash and dry overnight. Yes, the upscale safari lodges do daily laundry but canal barges and US national park lodges don’t. 🙂
The ‘safari vest’ I bring actually is the Scottevest windbreaker with sleeves removed. It doesn’t shout tourist, but has plenty of pockets for everything I need. Wearing this on the flight has the added advantage of saving room in my luggage and eliminating the need for an underseat bag.
Thanks again. I love hearing about other people’s experiences. (We’ve never had the clothing we were wearing counted towards our 33 lbs! Good to know that might happen!)
Thank you, very helpful! Our first safari to Botswana in 2022 for 8 days and SA safari and CT for 2 weeks. Now to buy a wheeled duffel-hoping they can stuff a 70L black hole duffel and we make weight at 44 lbs. we have all our KUHL and Arc detex clothing which will be great over there
Oh, you are going to have the best time!! Report back on how it went if you can.
I love your posts. Going to South Africa and Zimbabwe in May. I cannot find a link to the blue puffy jacket you feature.
Hi Karen, I brought a packable down jacket from Lands End, but Patagonia has some really great options (a bit pricier!)