Safari Essentials: Your Guide to Packing for the African Plains

So, you’ve booked that safari that you have been planning and plotting for years. I know from experience that the excitement can hardly be caged, as you tell everyone you meet about the destination you are soon to visit, the scenery that exists there, and the wildlife that you’re sure to spot.

But stop some of that gloating and take advantage of the weeks leading up to your departure to buy any last-minute essentials. Of course, knowing exactly what to take can be tricky. Over packing= paying excess baggage fees at the airport. Under packing= the potential to be stranded without some bare necessities.

As a seasoned veteran, I’ve put together a guide of the most essential items to take with you on an African safari. Pack accordingly and you can’t go wrong.


Taking precautions against malaria is essential when visiting Africa. The malaria virus is spread by mosquitoes, which generally bite between dusk and dawn. To help protect yourself, use a DEET-based insect repellent to deter mosquitoes during biting times and also take anti-malarial tablets daily, such as Doxycycline or Malarone. See your doctor about a month before you depart to get the proper prescriptions, and also find out if there are other shots or medical precautions you might want to take, depending on the particular country you’re visiting. The CDC has lots of useful info in this vein.

Sun Protection

The African sun is very strong, and can lead to some serious damage if you aren’t careful. To effectively avoid being sunburned, use SPF 40+ sun lotion on exposed areas. Sun block is also advised for more sensitive areas such as the nose, ears, and lips. Get some good-quality, UV-protected sunglasses from a reputable retailer to protect your eyes from the sun’s rays—don’t buy cheap sunglasses from street sellers, as many will sell you fakes that claim to have full UV protection, but rarely do.


The right apparel ensures that you’re both comfortable and protected from insect bites and sun exposure. Wearing brightly colored clothing (especially blue) is not advised while on a safari, as it attracts tsetse flies and other insects. The tsetse flies can give a nasty, painful bite, which can sometimes result in the sleeping sickness virus. Khaki and beige are the best colors of clothing to wear, their blandness will not attract unwanted insects and will also ensure that you do not stand out and scare the wildlife. Gear manufacturers like ExOfficio also make clothing that actually repels insects, while most performance brands make clothes with UV protection.

Wearing a large brimmed hat that covers your head, neck, and face will help avoid exposure, and it’ll keep the wind out of your face while driving in an open-top safari vehicle.

During the day, rely on a mix of t-shirts and shorts—but avoid cotton; if you get hot or wet, the clothing won’t dry and you’ll be miserable. Instead, consider either synthetic “wicking” apparel, or invest in one of the many brands of merino wool, which is an all-natural high-performance alternative to the poly blends typically found in outdoor apparel. The wool does carry a higher price tag, but it’ll last longer—and it boasts all-natural odor repellency, which can be a godsend when conditions require you to wear the same clothes for days at a time. Convertible (or zip-off) pants, which give you the option to go with shorts or pants by a zip at the knee, are also a very utilitarian option. Also bring a light rain shell (preferably one with a breathable waterproof laminate) as well as a thermal or fleece and warm pants as it can get quite cold at night.

The Fun Stuff

A pair of binoculars will always come in handy on game drives and can help you to distinguish which type of animal it is you see hiding in the long grass in the distance.

Of course, returning with evidence of all the animals you saw is essential, so invest in a high-quality digial camera and/or video camera with spare batteries and extra film/memory to take advantage of your highly photographic surroundings. Be sure the product is equipped with a high-powered zoom lens that doesn’t distort too much, and if you invest in a higher-end DSLR camera and telephoto lens, consider at least a monopod; little shakes of the camera are greatly exaggerated when you’re zoomed in from a great distance, and no one wants a to see a blurry shot of one of the Big Five.

While spotting the wildlife and passing great scenery, you will on more than one occasion be left wondering “Wow, which Mountain is that?” or “What type of animal did I just see?” That is why it is vitally important to bring your destination and wildlife guide books with you! Otherwise the odds are that you won’t know what you are seeing or what you are trying to spot. Nowadays most people just learn online, but there is no internet on a safari so a guide in your hands is necessary.

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