Updated on 25/4/2021
In October 2019 I was packing for Africa again. That time it was going to be for 40 days volunteering in Uganda with many different activities planned. Once again I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to need and what I’m probably not going to need.
“A good rule when packing is to take half the clothes you think you’ll need and double the money”.
If the only plan for your trip to Africa is a safari or to spend your day on a beach, then the rest of this post might be useless to you. Just bring your beach outfit, some shorts, t-shirts and mosquitoes repellent and you’re all set.
But if you’re planning to tour around, to volunteer or even only to mingle more with the locals, then you’ll need to think twice about what you want to bring along.
A missionary in Mozambique once told me, “When you visit Africa the only 3 things you really need are your passport, your credit card and Jesus”.
I second that! It basically means you need your documents for travelling and emergency, a source of money for any needs and protection from sickness and general danger.
Everything else is for your comfort.
But if you can bring a little more than just the very basics, what should you be packing to travel to Africa?
The African heat
The Western idea of African weather pictures an extreme heat, broken twice per year by crazy heavy rain. It might be the actual case in some countries, but Africa is a big, big place and I’ve encountered a very different truth.
Besides high mountains which have their own unique weather and therefore they need a specific packing list, like Mount Kilimanjaro, in the central East Africa I’ve visited so far the weather has been quite a surprise to me.
The heat is certainly there during the day, but I’ve experienced chilly mornings and evenings. And the rain can be as sudden and heavy as quick to stop.
The onion layers style could often be the winning solution.
Respect the local culture
Besides the temperatures, it’s important to think about the local culture. If you’re visiting someone, working or volunteering, ask about the local habits first.
Being a foreigner, you’ll get away with a lot. But you want to respect the people you’re interacting with, even if you don’t necessarily agree with their traditions.
It’s like seeing someone walking around town in a bikini or swimsuit: you’ll think it’s a bit weird, at the very least. In many European countries, going around topless/shirtless, both for men and women, is actually illegal.
As a general rule, in Africa I’ve seen most people (not just women) covering their shoulders, knees and belly in any “official” occasion like in schools, hospitals, offices and often just outside the family environment. You’ll see youths following more and more the Western fashion, but further away from the big cities you go the less it will happen.
What should you be packing for Africa?
Cotton is my favourite choice. Silk and linen are even fresher, but they require ironing, which most likely is just not going to be an option.
just not going to be an option.
For myself, I find loose skirts the most comfortable and fresh to wear, paired up with leggings if they are above-the-knee long. I combine them with sleeveless t-shirts that still cover the shoulder, just because I’m very sensitive to hot temperatures.
As a woman, you can also wear sleeveless t-shirts, adding a scarf to cover the shoulders in case of funny looks.
Loose pants are fine too, just below the knee for the working days, shorter for touristic trips or familiar environment.
Man often wear shirts, but t-shirt will do too. Long pants are the best, but you won’t be as scandalous as a woman if you show your knees. At worst, you are going to be looked down on a little, because you’re dressing like a child.
Bring a cotton sweater and slightly warmer pants for the evenings. Long sleeves will also help you stay protected from mosquitoes.
Last but not least, if your trip is at least a couple of weeks long, bring one nice piece of clothing for a “fancy event”, which might simply be the Sunday church service.
Africans do dress up. They might own 2 pieces of clothes, but one of them is going to be the “fancy/Sunday dress”. And they do expect you, being the rich foreigner, to do the same. They are going to look at you weird if you wear normal everyday clothes on a Sunday mass, because you’re supposed to be richer than them and they just don’t understand the fact that you choose not to dress up. Basically, you’re insulting them.
Fresh comfortable shoes, like trainers, are what you’re going to wear most often. If you are not 100% sure of the state of the place you’re heading for the day, just assume it’s going to be at the end of an unpaved, uneven road, with possibly some random animals, mud, playing children, forest paths or piles of rubbish sudden encounters.
You don’t want to wear heels nor flip-flops. While a pair of sandals can be useful for a warm day when you’re not leaving your accommodation porch or your well-known destination, it’s safer to approach any other occasion with proper shoes.
Safari and other touristic activities
If during your trip to Africa you’re planning a game drive, a hike, a boat trip, animals tracking or other similar activities, forget all the above and start packing something else.
You’re going to need comfortable clothes, feel free to wear a tank top if you like them and shorts (unless you’re walking in the forest, then you’ll need long pants). I would also avoid skirts.
I suggest a waterproof light jacket or raincoat, to still be able to walk around in case of rain. In everyday life, you’ll be able to get cover and patiently wait for the rain to stop, like everybody else. But a tourist activity does not stop just because of bad weather and you’ll find yourself socked in 5 minutes time, if you don’t have some protection.
On the contrary, a hat or a bandana might help for long sunny exposures.
A last thought about jewellery and accessories. Africans love decorations. Either for tradition or fashion, they wear all kinds of stuff. You can do the same, as far as you’re doing it modesty and carefully. While your wedding ring will always be well respected, showing off your golden Rolex or your engagement diamond ring might not be a smart move.
Water, mosquitoes and electricity
Besides clothes, there are a few important things that I strongly recommend packing, more related to safety than to the weather or African traditions.
Unless you’re certain you’re going to be able to always have access to mineral water during your stay in Africa, you absolutely need to add a water cleansing system to your packing list. Water is simply not safe enough, even if come out of a hotel shiny facets. It could carry bacteria such as salmonella and typhoid, parasites like giardia or even cholera viruses. It might not be very common, but it’s definitely a possibility: do you really want to risk getting any of the above? I’d rather play it safe if I can. You can choose between a water filter, water drops/tablets or a mix of the two systems for maximum protection.
The other issue about water in Africa is its absence. It obviously depends on your plans, but even only washing your hands before eating might not be as simple as you think. I find bringing along wet towels and/or an alcohol-based sanitizing gel very useful.
Together with water and food, mosquitoes are the most common illness carriers. It’s important to keep yourself protected as much as you can all the time. Sleep under a mosquito net and use a mosquito repellent every day. There are plenty of brands out on the market. I haven’t tried them all, but what you want is a strong one that contains DEET (the chemical that keeps insects away) or states that it’s specific for tropical areas.
Power outages are common in many areas of Africa. They might not last long or go unnoticed thanks to a secondary generator, but they happen often and are unpredictable.
A little solar panel to charge your phone can help you in emergencies. If you need a laptop or other electronic devices working all the time, I suggest you to pack a power bank to keep always charged, so as to have a source of electricity available in case of cut-outs.