How to Pack for a Safari, in a Carry-on

by Lauren on February 3, 2014


I like it when my luggage arrives at my final destination. Fortunately, it always has. This past summer was my first trip to Africa, and I had heard stories of bags going missing en route to Tanzania. There was no way I was going to risk losing my baggage.

So I decided to pack everything in a carry-on. All of my safari clothes, trekking equipment, and everything needed for two weeks in Africa. Here’s how you can do the same:

Wear Heavy Footwear on the Plane
Wear your heaviest shoes, or hiking boots. It may sound uncomfortable, but just keep them loosely (or barely) tied for when your feet swell. No need to take more than two pairs total.

Mosquito Netting
Precautions against malaria are very important. However, many hotel rooms and tented camps have mosquito netting around the beds. Do your research before bringing the full-body mosquito netting.

No Fancy Pants
The safari experience is very casual. There is no need to bring fancy sunglasses, or designer clothes of any kind. You’ll be inhaling lungfuls of dust while cruising the Serengeti plains, and wondering how dirt finds its way up your pant leg to settle in the crook of your knee. Plan to pack one shirt per every two-three days on safari. Be sure that it is quick-to-dry.

Leave it in Africa
I bought a used safari shirt at the REI garage sale for $2, wore it for three of the four days on safari, and left it in Africa. It’s not my habit to give my filthy stuff to hospitable folks, but we were encouraged to donate used clothing or gear to our awesome porters. This frees up space in your luggage for gifts to bring home.

Squishable Clothing Encouraged
Some people swear by rolling clothes, while others are folders. I use a combination of methods, but make sure that items are highly packable. The North Face makes excellent, squishable jackets that are uber-lightweight, perfect for a cold night or as a layer on summit day. Buy a safari hat you can crush, one that will hold its shape when you take it out of your suitcase.

No Jeans
They’re heavy, they make you sweat on hot days, and then they stink. Take lightweight, breathable trekking pants instead, ones you can simply shake out at the end of the day. I brought two pairs, plus an insulated pair for summit day (not necessary on safari).

Leave Jewelry at Home
All of it. You won’t worry about its being stolen. For ladies, leave makeup at home. Okay, maybe take lip gloss with you. But that’s it.

Carry Essentials on Body
This includes your passport and your money — close to your skin. Carry the next most valuable things in a backpack, i.e.: camera, prescription medication, and things that won’t fit in your carry-on. I always travel with gluten-free food, loading up on bars, nuts, and beef jerky. The added bonus being you can replace eaten food with gifts for family.

Carry Trekking Poles on Board
No, the flight attendants may not love you. Tuck them in neatly next to your carry-on in the overhead compartment, and you should be just fine. But exercise caution when opening the overhead bin, as poles may shift during flight…

Minimize the things you bring in order to maximize the fun you have abroad. Got any other innovative packing ideas? Feel free to share below!


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Triin Sikk February 6, 2014 at 7:47 pm

I was actually surprised that you can take hiking poles on board. They sound like a potential weapon to me 🙂
Great post and very useful tips!


Lauren Schaad February 6, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Thanks for reading, Triin! I know, I thought the same thing until I called ahead to triple check. As long as the ends are covered, you’re fine. However, one flight attendant did glare at me…


Dan Desai February 11, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Loved your choice of an Aeroflot aircraft, and agree with most of your points, but…
– It’s actually quite easy to keep even your best clothes looking fresh with the right folding technique. Anything can go in a backpack!
– Instead of wearing your heaviest shoes in transit, why not simply wear them to the airport (where you have to take them off anyway), put on some light ones, and throw the heavies in one of those Duty Free bags that never seem to get counted against carry-on luggage?
– I’ve found a tracksuit and running shoes almost ideal for transit. And very Russian. Which goes with the Aeroflot 😉


Lauren Schaad February 11, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Dan, I would love to see one of your tracksuits. But it must be from the 70’s in order to officially qualify, right? Great suggestion on the big boots in Duty Free Bags. Much appreciated, and happy adventuring!


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