Overlanding is an experience like no other. It can be exhausting constantly moving from place to place, spending hours a day in a truck without air conditioning in 45C heat, sleeping on thin mattresses in tents.. But that also means you are visiting a new and incredible place every day, watching out the window as vast deserts give way to lush national parks and jagged mountains, and sleeping every night under the stars. There is no more authentic way to experience Africa than to drive through it.
Continuing on from Part I, where I discussed the intricacies of an overlanding holiday in southern Africa and what to expect from the tour, and Part II, where I offered some information on preparing for your trip, this post will outline what you should bring with you to ensure that you are fit and ready for the experience of a lifetime. I actually really pride myself on my ability to under-pack (ok, so occasionally I’m under-prepared, but there are always shops on hand), so many of these things I didn’t even have the foresight to pack for myself. This list, then, is a combination of the things I found very useful on my own trip and the things I wish I had brought, looking back. Learn from me.
This post is Part III in a 3-part series on Overlanding in Southern Africa. Read the other posts here:
General packing tips
And with regard to packing, I just want to share my packing strategy, because it occurs to me that a vast majority of people are chronic over-packers and this is certainly not the time to be carrying dozens of unnecessary items (the lockers are small and you’re living out of a truck for weeks on end, so minimal belongings will mean more organisation and less stress).
- I always recommend starting a packing list several months before your trip and slowly adding to it as more things jump into your head. Read any recommendations in your tour dossier, talk to people who have been on similar trips, and read blog posts like this one to give you an idea of what you might need.
- As the trip nears, start getting very specific in your list: red floral dress, black running short, tan sandals, etc. Write down all the items you’re considering bringing, even if you’re not sure.
- Maybe 2-3 weeks before your trip, lay out every single one of these items, including clothing, personal bits, tech, and camping gear, and really look at how much stuff there is. Try on every single piece of clothing in a number of combinations and make sure you’re not packing a pair of shorts that only work with one shirt or a dress that doesn’t suit the type of activities you’ll be doing.
- Take out anything that doesn’t work with the majority of your other clothing, that has special washing or care instructions, that won’t look good if it’s been wrinkled, that will stain easily (e.g. white shirts), or that is uncomfortable. Look at however many shirts and shorts/skirts/pants are left, and cut each pile in half.
- Assess whether anything obvious is missing and make a shopping list. This could be for a pair of black shorts that will go with all of your shirts or for a headlamp if your current one is broken, just try to fill in the gaps in your list.
- About a week before you leave, pack everything into your bag and see how much room you have left. I like to aim for a bag that is no more than 75% full to allow for some shopping (and the inevitable poor packing that will take place on the road, which always makes the bag seem fuller than when you left). If the bag is too full, make more cuts.
- Write an updated list of everything that is in the bag and glance at it throughout the week, carefully considering each item. Eliminate anything that seems excessive.
- The night before you leave, take everything out of the bag, choose something to wear on the plane (preferably your heaviest shoes and comfiest clothes) and then repack as tightly as possible for the flight tomorrow.
Ok, so it’s an elaborate process.. But I am always travelling with far less weight than my friends and I really never seem to spend my time overseas fretting about that one special shirt I left behind. As long as you meticulously work on your packing list, you won’t leave out anything essential, you’ll just eliminate duplicates of things that can easily be washed and reworn in different combinations. Absolutely no one will notice if you wear the same skirt twice in one week, and that’s a promise. Plus, I would remind you that there are stores and many markets in Africa, so in all likelihood you’ll acquire some new items anyway.
- Large backpack, which will be checked on the flight. It’s always better to have soft-sided luggage so it can squeeze into the locker, and I’d say 50L is more than enough (although everyone else in the world seems to have a 70L bag, so that will also work).
- A small backpack, think 20L, that will be used as your carry on for the flight and then your day bag on hikes and other outings where you might want to carry your camera, water bottle, sunscreen, etc.
- A dry bag, which is extremely useful both in wet and sandy situations when you’re trying to keep your camera clean. This is obviously a non-essential one, but if you happen to own a dry bag, I’d bring it along.
- packing cubes, something I always travel with, but that will also make living out of a locker just that much easier. I really like these ones.
Think comfortable. You’ll be sitting on a hot truck for many hours a day and then walking around outside during activities in even more extreme heat, so dress in lighter fabrics to keep cool, loose fitting and stretchy materials for comfort, and don’t bring anything that will show dirt too easily because, spoiler alert, you’re going to be filthy.
- a few t-shirt & tank tops, at least one of which should be a neutral colour for safaris and desert walks where it’s possible to encounter animals. Again, don’t pack too much white (dirt) or black (heat), but otherwise it doesn’t much matter as long as you are comfortable wearing it (and sweating all over it). On that note, try to bring at least a couple quick-dry fabrics, like a hiking shirt or an exercise tank top, as they will tend to stay smelling better longer and also keep you a little less damp as you perspire excessively.
- a long sleeve button-up shirt, either a safari-style linen shirt or a quick-dry hiking shirt. It may seem counter-intuitive to put on long sleeve in extreme heat, but it’s always a good idea to have a lightweight shirt option that still keeps your arms covered. Boating along the Okavango Delta for multiple hours or spending the whole day white water rafting, many people ended up agonisingly burnt (like blistering, no joke) because their sunscreen was continually washing off and the reflection off the water was just intensifying the sun. Sometimes you just need to cover up.
- a light jumper, something that you can wear at 5am when it’s just a little cool. Don’t get carried away with this one, a single spring-weight jumper is more than enough for the temperatures in southern Africa, but it’s still a good idea to have something.
- a rain jacket, although you could probably go without this if you’re really low on room and you aren’t fussed about being rained on. I only wore mine once during the entire overlanding journey, but weather is unpredictable, so plan for all seasons and pack a coat if it’s something that you usually wear in the rain.
- a week’s worth of bras & underwear, and then plan to do washing.
- a swimsuit, for all the camp pools and river swims.
- a couple pairs of comfy shorts, and emphasis on “comfy” as you’ll be living in them for 90% of the trip. I would recommend at least one loose, linen-y, high-waisted pair and a pair of running shorts, plus a pair of denim shorts for when you’re trying to look a little nicer (but probably not on long drives, because ow). My favourite was actually a hiking skirt from Kathmandu that was a really good quick-dry material, so max mobility and very little sweating. People may wonder what you’re wearing at first, but everyone will come to envy you in time.
- a pair of exercise tights, great for the (infrequent) cool nights/early mornings. I didn’t wear mine too much, but I was still happy to have them on the few occasions that the weather took a turn and also on bush walks that were more like bushwhacks (protect those legs). For the guys, maybe a pair of chinos or similar pants (something you could wear to a nice dinner and also on a particularly thorny nature walk), but I’d really advise against jeans. I’ll never understand why people would bring jeans to the desert (or even why they’d bring them on a summer hike, but that’s another story), the amount of sweating that would be taking place beneath that denim is absolutely criminal.
- a couple skirts/dresses, for the occasional dinner out or just to liven up your photos a bit. Although it may not be ideal to wear a dress on a truck while trying to spread yourself out and sleep, there were plenty of situations where a dress/skirt was much-needed. We went to dinner in town a couple times and went to see live music in Windhoek, so it was night to clean up and look at least a little bit nice with the group. I also just like wearing maxi skirts in general, they are very breezy in extreme heat, provide a more modest option if you’re in a conservative town or village, and look rather good in photos. Basically, pack a summer dress to wear to dinner, a short wrap skirt to wear over your swimmers or to another meal out, and a maxi skirt to wear absolutely all the time.
- a pair of runners and socks, since thongs won’t cut it on nature walks through the brush or when participating in certain adventure activities. Hiking boots seemed entirely unnecessary and the people who brought them hardly used them, so just ditch the extra weight and stick to runners, they will be more than enough if you’re not planning to hike Kilimanjaro.
- a pair of thongs or other sandals, which you’ll wear almost all the time because shoes are too hot. I brought Tevas for my more active sandal needs (river rafting, light hiking— and before anyone says anything, they are extremely fashionable, thank you very much) and a pair of cheap slides that would go decently with both shorts in the day and a long skirt for dinners out. Versatility is the key to a light backpack (I really should trademark that).
- a hat, because there will be a lot of sun and, if you’re anywhere near as white as me, you will burn. Badly. Frequently. At least it won’t be a burn on your face.
- first aid kit, which should, at minimum, include: plasters/bandaids in a variety of sizes, medical tape, alcohol wipes, ibuprofen, a broad spectrum antibiotic like azithromycin, an anti-diarrhoeal like loperamide, activated charcoal, antihistamine tablets, hydrocortisone cream. Find more detail on building a first aid kit in Part II of this post.
- sunscreen, at least several tubes of water resistant 30+, because the sun is strong and you’re likely to be sweating it all off constantly.
- bug spray, preferably tropical strength (> 40% DEET). Test this on your skin before you leave, because it is a rather strong chemical and doesn’t agree with everyone. A good alternative would be permethrin, which can be found in many bug repellants and works just about as well. There are also all-natural options, which use lemongrass, citronella, and eucalyptus, although I’d be wary about using only this and nothing stronger, especially if you aren’t taking a malaria prophylaxis (more on that in Part II). We used a ridiculous amount of DEET spray and also these bracelets, and I am proud to report that we were both malaria-free and almost entirely bite-free, as well.
- insulated water bottle, which will honestly be the envy of everyone you meet. There’s nothing worse than having to drink hot water all day, so I was absolutely loving life with a bottle that keeps water cold for nearly 24 hours. They should be paying me for this promotion..
- shampoo & conditioner bar, some of my favourite travel items of all time. Rather than lugging a bottle of shampoo around (and dealing with the liquid restrictions on carry-on luggage), I always bring Lush shampoo bars, which you rub on your hair just like a soap bar to work up a good lather (again, put me on the pay roll). I recently tried the conditioner bar as well, and it’s just as good. Rather than using the metal containers that Lush sells for the bars, someone recommended an empty container of Hubba Bubba bubble tape and it is truly the best.
- laundry soap, ideally in a small bar. You’ll need to do some washing on the go, so it’s nice to have some actual soap. Again, this doesn’t need to be much, and also you can find it once you’re in Africa for about $1, so no stress.
- body wipes & face wipes, because there will be times when you don’t have an opportunity to shower and you’re covered in sweat. It makes a world of difference even just to wipe your face and back.
- passport, obviously. Make sure you have plenty of blank pages, since the visas and stamps tend to be quite large.
- credit card, one with no international fees, which should be most of them these days. Ideally, one that also includes free travel insurance (more on this in Part ii) and that gives plenty of reward points— you may as well get something back for all the money you’re spending anyway!
- debit card, for taking local currency out of the ATMs. If possible, also bring one with no international withdrawal fees, but that’s more difficult to find in a debit card, so you may just want to limit the local cash you are using.
- US dollars, for use in Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. These need to be clean, post-2006 notes, so go to a bank or currency exchange place before you even leave home and stock up. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much you’ll need, but many of the activities can only be paid for in USD, so it’s best to err on the side of caution. Your tour dossier should give you an idea of optional activity costs, and then build in extra money for drinks or food at the camp bar and incidentals. I wrote more info about bringing USD in Part II of this post.
- travel insurance, which all overlanding companies require for liability reasons. I managed to get around that by just using the free travel insurance provided by my credit card. I would recommend reading the fine print on your card to see what is covered and then email them to get a policy number for your reference. I wrote a lot more about travel insurance in Part II of this post.
- camera with zoom lens, because you’ll want something with a bit of reach to photograph animals on safari but also a wider angle for the incredible landscapes you’ll be seeing. I’m no professional, but I really love my Olympus OMD EM-5 Mark ii and 14-150mm lens (both of which are weather proof). I was quite happy with the photos I got, and still it wasn’t too heavy or bulky, as it’s a mirrorless camera. Whatever you bring, just make sure it’s a quality camera, I would have been devastated to have only a phone or old point-and-shoot to capture all the amazing scenes. Also, be sure to bring some extra batteries for those days you’re unable to charge and an extra SD card, you’d hate to be witnessing something mind-blowing and have your camera go flat or your memory card be full.
- GoPro, for the times when you can’t bring your big camera, like quad biking, white water rafting, canoeing, etc. I wouldn’t rely on it for good animal photos, but it was great to have along and I would have missed out on capturing quite a few of my favourite memories without it.
- power bank, for charging your camera and other electronics in the tent or on the road (our truck was only connected to power when we were parked, and only at certain campsites). I’d recommend a 22,000mAh bank, which might be a bit heavier than you’re expecting, but will charge an iPad and camera a handful of times before running out of juice. It is always better to have backup power than to have flat electronics when you want to use them!
- kindle, for the long truck rides where you need a bit of entertainment. The kindle app on the iPad is just as good, but I still travel with my kindle so I can bring it into the tent or to the pool and not stress about it getting damaged. It’s much less fragile (and much less expensive) than my iPad.
- iPad, which I used to backup photos daily from my big camera and my GoPro (both of which can transfer photos wirelessly) just to avoid losing all of my photos in a memory card snafu. I would load all the photos onto the iPad, go through and delete all the crap ones, and then work on editing the good ones while we were driving or during downtime at the campsite. I was pretty excited to come home with absolutely no photo editing left to do! I also used the iPad to write some of my blog while on the road (although I did the majority of this on my laptop, which I wouldn’t ordinarily travel with, but had to bring for work and ended up being far nicer to do my daily journaling on anyway).
- portable speak, like a UE Boom. Great to play music on the truck or at the campsite, and it’s very compact, water resistant, and charges via USB cable (power bank!).
- binoculars, if you’re more of an observer than a photographer. We didn’t bring these, because I did all the planning and was more than happy to use my camera, but I think in retrospect Cal would have really enjoyed safari more with some nice binoculars. A decent pair might be $200, but it will be worth it if you don’t have an enormous camera lens. Plus, you can even take cool photos through the binoculars.
- luggage lock, to keep your locker secure on the truck. Not necessarily because the people on the tour will rob you, but because the door to the truck is sometimes left open and it’s just always that much safer to have your cash, passport, and tech locked up.
As I mentioned in Part I, a sturdy tent with a rain cover and mattresses will be provided by the tour, but you’ll still need to bring all the other camping bits. Just because you’re roughing it doesn’t mean you need to be sleeping in complete discomfort, though!
- sleeping bag, and preferably one that zips open all the way so you can just use it as a blanket on the hot nights (and there are many). For a summer trip in southern Africa, a 10C bag will be more than sufficient, and probably you could get away with an even lighter weight bag if you don’t get cold easily.
- single fitted sheet to cover your mattress, as it’s vinyl and it’s miserable to be sweating all over and sticking to it in the night. If you don’t have one you want to bring, you’ll be able to buy one at one of the shops along the way for about $5.
- pillow and pillowcase, because there’s nothing worse than spending 3 weeks sleeping on a camp pillow when there’s plenty of room for a full size pillow. Again, if you don’t have one you want to bring (or if you are travelling before the tour and don’t want to carry a pillow around), it’s just as easy to buy when you arrive.
- headlamp, for navigating around the campsite, to and from the toilet, and even occasionally eating in the dark. It’s absolutely essential to have a headlamp, and better invest in a decent one than to constantly be tripping over things because the beam isn’t long enough.
- travel towel, preferably a lightweight microfibre towel that packs up small and dries quickly in the sun.
- life straw, which hopefully you won’t use, but it’s always better to have and not need than to need and not have.. As the name suggests, it’s basically just a straw, but there’s also a rather advanced in-built filter, so you can drink from dirty puddles in an emergency and not worry about waterborne bacteria.
Hopefully this provides at least some inspiration for your own packing list! Even if you forget a majority of these items, though, you’ll still have the time of your life on this trip; it’s all about the experience, not the clothes or the camera gear.
If there’s anything you think this list is missing or something you’re unsure about bringing, let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer!