Packing for a safari is not like packing for just any vacation.
You’ve booked the plane tickets, arranged the lodge, and you’re looking forward to a bucket list experience– seeing some of the world’s most majestic animals in their natural habitats. And honestly, this might sound trivial, but what the hell are you supposed to wear? The world is full of safari-style inspiration, from the sensible khaki garments of Jane Goodall and Nigel Thornberry to the chic and probably unrealistic fashions of Meryl Streep in Out of Africa and Banana Republic catalogs circa 1987.
Most lodges and parks are only accessible via a remote airstrip and tiny plane, so there are strict luggage allowances. Keep in mind that many of these small planes (called bush planes) request that you only bring soft-sided luggage, so leave your rolling hard shells at home. Lodges offer daily laundry service where clothes that are sent out in the morning are returned nice and clean that same evening. This way, you really only need two safari outfits (plus some extras pieces) and the clothes you’ve traveled in. Keep in mind that when dressing for a safari, the goal is to blend in as much as possible in order to not scare off the animals, so leave the wild colors and crazy patterns at home.
It might seem impossible to try and pack for a week of adventures in the savannah in just a small duffel, but with these tips, you’ll have everything you need.
A Sturdy Pair of Boots
On a walking safari, you’ll want a thick-soled shoe with ankle support. Waterproofing is a bonus because you never know when you’ll have to ford a stream or stomp through mud. Doc Martens makes stylish boots that are versatile enough to be worn even when you’re not on safari. The nylon Rakim Ajax doubles as a great safari shoe and a good boot for slushy city winters or any other outdoor adventures. If you’re looking for something a little less hip, brands like Merrell, Danner, and Vasque all have heavy-duty, thick-soled hiking boots that will do the job (some with more style than others).
A Long-Sleeved Shirt
Long sleeves are imperative for two reasons: mosquitos and sun. The key here is to get coverage without wearing something too heavy. Opt for a lightweight white linen or cotton shirt from J. Crew for a classic safari look, or go with something more sporty like a breathable button-down from ExOfficio.
A Practical Pair of Pants
Long pants are key on safari because shorts leave your bare legs at risk for mosquito bites and brambly bushes you might be walking through. You’ll want something thick enough to resist burrs and thorns, but loose enough to still be able to move around freely. While you’d be fine in a good old-fashioned pair of Carhartts, you might want something built specifically for hiking outdoors. Athleta’s Trekkie hiking pants are lightweight but made of durable material. Plus, they come in safari green!
Most guides will have a pair handy in the game vehicle, so this isn’t totally necessary if you don’t want to spend the cash or lug a pair of (sometimes heavy and big) binoculars all the way from home. Binoculars are insanely expensive (a top-of-the-line pair will set you back over $300) but if you’re going for a week or more, it’s worth the investment. Nikon makes a compact and waterproof option that’s great for safari. But if you want to make all of your Instagram friends jealous, get a pair of binoculars with an iPhone extension that lets you take super-zoomed photos.
A Brimmed Hat
Yes, a brimmed straw hat will look cute on your Instagram, but unfortunately, it will blow away as soon as the game vehicle starts moving. The only option here is to go full dork, either with a brimmed hat that fastens under your chin to keep it on or a baseball hat that you can secure to your head with a ponytail through the back opening. (If you have short or no hair, sorry–your cap will blow away). Your only option is to wear a chin strap or risk a nasty sunburn. When the sun is low on the horizon in the afternoon and early morning (when most game drives take place), you may want to double up on sun protection with a UV-rated buff.
A Comfortable Pair of Pants
For game drives, you’ll want to be as comfortable as possible–we’re talking borderline pajamas here. Opt for flowy, lightweight pants in a linen or cotton material for a more elegant safari look. Free People usually has some good options for linen pants, or you can try The Gap. If you’re more comfortable in a stretchy pant, Uniqlo’s legging pants come in a lovely shade of safari green. They look like jeans but feel like yoga pants. And of course, a regular pair of jeans is fine here too. Paired with a neutral linen or cotton t-shirt or button down, you’re good to go. Bring on the sundowners.
A Versatile Slip-on Shoe
Besides a sturdy hiking boot, you’ll also want a slip-on shoe that can be used in lots of ways: going from your cottage/room/tent to the pool, sporting on game drives, and wearing to dinner and meals. This can be something casual and easy to travel in like a classic Toms slip-on, or something a little fancier like a canvas espadrille from Soludos or a leopard-print mule from Jeffrey Campbell.
A Flowy Silk Dress
Yes, people will think you’re high maintenance when you’re dressed in a ruffled maxi dress and everyone else is wearing dusty khakis, but what is the point of even living if you’re going to be preoccupied with what other people think about you? Be your fabulous self and wear a totally frivolous and over-the-top gown. If you’re a rich person (probably safe to assume, since you’re on safari), Figue makes a plethora of silky (read: extremely packable) gowns that can be dressed down as sundresses or dressed up as evening wear. Just make sure to opt for something lightweight that won’t take up much space in your suitcase. If you’re a less rich person, Madewell’s silk print dresses look almost as fabulous for under $200.
A Packable Down Jacket
We know, a safari really does not seem like a place you would expect to need a down jacket. Cheetahs and elephants don’t really seem like cold weather creatures, but it’s true–you may need to bundle up. Most game drives leave early in the morning–around 4 or 5 am, when it’s still dark out. Even though the sun will make things beastly hot, these predawn hours can be extremely chilly, especially at high elevations, desert locations, or countries further from the equator. You don’t want to go packing a giant coat, however, so it’s best to choose something compact. Patagonia makes a packable down jacket in many flavors (vest, half zip, full zip) and Uniqlo has a similar but much more affordable down jacket in a huge variety of colors and styles.
A Nice Camera
How is everyone going to know you went on safari if you don’t post any photos online? Phones these days take incredible photos, but you’ll want to bring an actual DSLR camera in order to get the best shots. Make your friends say, “Wow, you could work for National Geographic Fodor’s with these photos.” Just don’t forget your zoom lens.
A Fancy Pair of Sunglasses
How to let your fashion freak flag fly when you’re dressed in head-to-toe khaki? Fancy sunglasses, that’s how. New Orleans brand Krewe makes totally over-the-top (yet still tasteful) sunglasses perfect for saying, “Hello, I’m wearing camouflage right now, but my spirit outfit is Rihanna’s 2018 Met Ball look.” Privé Reveaux offers panache for under $50, with mirrored lenses and whimsical shapes that might even scare away the animals.
A Colorful Swimsuit
The general rule on safari is to blend in so you don’t scare away the animals. On a drive, it’s best to wear neutral colors in shades of brown and green. But after a while, all that olive drab starts to feel, well, drab, so you need a bit of color in your life. Opt for a totally outrageous printed swimsuit from Mara Hoffman.
Mosquito Repellent and Malaria Pills
Apart from some regions in South Africa, most safari locations have a risk of dengue or malaria. Talk with your doctor before your trip to see what the CDC recommends for your destination and even if you’re on malaria pills, bring bug spray. Dusk and dawn are prime wildlife viewing times but also prime mosquito time. Bring an outdoor spray with DEET or go au natural with lemon eucalyptus oil (the only non-chemical insect repellent recommended by the CDC–contrary to popular belief, citronella does not actually repel mosquitos).
It’s not that anything is going to go wrong, it’s that something could go wrong. And while the more remote the better applies to safari locations, you don’t want to have any obstacles in getting to a hospital if your health is on the line. World Nomads provides extremely affordable last-minute travel insurance that offers excellent coverage (however, there are age restrictions), and Medjet is a membership program that provides emergency medical evacuation all over the world, regardless of circumstances.