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What Should You Wear for Safari in Africa? A Conscious Women’s South Africa Packing List

Two women dressed in green, white, and hats look into the South African bush
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As our trip to South Africa approached, I had never felt so anxious about what to pack.

Sure, I’ve been a bit overzealous in my research when I’ve visited destinations that have a very specific mode of dress. (Think Tulum, Morocco, and Day of the Dead in Oaxaca.) But South Africa is a whole other ballgame. I would be going on safari, in the bush, with wild and dangerous animals, which I thought might be a level up from a normal hiking trip. More importantly, there was the added element of South Africa and the safari’s fraught colonial history. I didn’t want to dress like a colonizer.

“The safari suit, which consisted of a shirt, jacket, and trousers or shorts for men, or a skirt for women, was invented in the 19th century. It was intended to be worn by Europeans on African or Indian expeditions typically focused on killing large animals,” The Wall Street Journal said in 2019 article titled “‘Safari’ Style is No Longer Politically Correct.” Fashion brands had started calling pocketed, khaki jackets “utility” fashion.

I wasn’t going to South Africa to hunt, or even to be fashionable. I was going to see a fully functional ecosystem in all its glory, a vast national park where predators are respected for their vital role in the ecosystem, instead of (like wolves and big cats in the United States) being hunted down and exterminated. (I was also going because South Africa was on my mother’s bucket list, and when someone offers to make a trip like this financially feasible, I take it.)

After looking into recommendations from several people and being turned off by packages that seemed to glorify that past, I finally chose a tour guide for our family who is ecologically and culturally sensitive. He booked us in at an eco-lodge that runs on solar power and—with its straw-thatch-roofed huts and staff that sang as they prepared lunch in the kitchen—felt more in tune with the local culture, rather than a glorifying big-game-hunting culture.

Next step: figuring out what to pack. The packing list our tour guide sent said simply: “Light cotton clothing that covers your arms and legs,” “Neutral colored clothing for those days on safari,” and “closed-toe shoes.”

A dear friend who had just gone on safari for her honeymoon insisted that brown and green were the only colors we should wear because white would make us stand out to the animals, and black would attract insects. She went on a shopping spree to kit herself out with khaki dresses, skirts, tops, shorts, and hiking pants. Luckily for my wallet and the environment, we’re the same size. So she boxed everything up and sent it to me so I wouldn’t have to buy anything new. But I sent my poor husband out to buy green hiking pants because I was sure he would spook the animals or get attacked by mosquitos in his hiking uniform of black, grey, and white.

I couldn’t stop wondering even after I arrived: Is the safari outfit really just a costume that people put on to feel fancy at the lodge? Or is it actually a useful and comfortable way to dress in the bush?

In other words: How much do you need to buy just for your trip to South Africa? And how can you stay comfortable without looking like you’re cosplaying a brutal system of oppression?

Our white South African guide at the eco-lodge, Murray, told us that people from different continents approach this question differently. “Generally, people from South America will have neutrally colored clothes,” he said. “And then people from America will often fly into Cape Town, buy out the whole shop, and then come up to the bush and wear whatever they’ve just bought. English people generally wear their older clothes that have worn down the brightness level.”

No, there is no reason to buy a khaki shirt and pants with pockets, what you would think of as “safari style.” The lodge’s manager said she laughs to herself when someone shows up in these fresh, pocketed khaki outfits. Like, calm down.

And in fact, you only need neutral colors if you’re going on a bushwalk. You’ll spend most of your time in a loud, rumbling, open-top truck that the animals are so inured to that you can pull right up alongside a pride of napping lions and barely cause a stir. You’re not sneaking up on any creature. The animals know you’re there, they just don’t care because they’ve grown up surrounded by trucks and know that rumbling metal things won’t bother them.

Hanging around the lodge, sipping cocktails, and looking at the wildlife from afar? Definitely doesn’t matter. Pack a floral sundress, if that makes you happy.

But for a bush walk, which is when a trained guide walks you through the rocky, arid landscape on foot, you’ll want to blend in to the scenery. “For the bushwalks, neutral clothes,” the local indigenous guide Elvis told us. “It’s gonna be khaki or gray.” Your guide might take you downwind so the animals can’t smell you, and bright colors will spook them and ruin the walk. Elvis told us that the day before, he had sent a couple to the gift shop to buy some olive green shirts because they showed up to do a bushwalk in white and yellow. 

You might also be told black can attract bugs. But if you travel to South Africa outside of the rainy season, it won’t make much of a difference anyway. There are just no mosquitoes during dry season. More importantly, everyone agreed that the chances of us getting malaria were close to zero—there had been no cases for years in the reserve we visited, or in the southern part of Kruger National Park, despite the dire warnings from my travel doctor.

My verdict? Don’t go out and buy an entire week’s worth of safari-beige clothing. If you want to go on a bush walk, pack one or two lightweight hiking outfits in brown, green, grey, black, or even navy blue. Otherwise, just pack lightweight items that you would wear in any hot desert environment, such as linen and cotton in breezy and loose fits. Honestly, I didn’t pack my white linen button down, and I was regretfully pining after it all week.

Elephants we saw during our bushwalk.

A note on the season: This packing list is for the spring after August, when it’s bone dry and hot in the Bush before the rainy season starts in late October. If you go in a wetter season, you’ll want to pack a rain jacket and plenty of insect repellent and do try to avoid black. We did need a warm sweater for Cape Town, which is very windy, and it rained one night we were there. We hadn’t checked the weather so we were caught without a rain jacket or umbrella. So try to be more prepared than us!

So, all that being said, here’s what to pack for South Africa:

On the Plane

It’s a long, long flight, so you’ll want to dress comfortably in something you can sleep in.

  • Sweats or lounge pants in a natural fabric – natural fabrics are more comfortable and odor-fighting for long travel days.
  • Sweatshirt or shacket  – I wore a matching outfit of elevated sweats from Skin that came in neutrals that I could wear in the Bush, too. It’s chilly in the morning before the sun comes up, which is when you’ll set out on your safari.
  • Long-sleeved cotton tee
  • Comfortable undies in natural fabric
  • Wool socks – I love merino wool specifically because it feels nice and wicks away moisture and odor.
  • Lightweight canvas hightop sneakers or boots – I wore canvas Palladiums, but high-top canvas sneakers would work well, too. The high-top is to protect your ankles from scratchy brush, insects, or sand getting in your shoes.
  • Sling/bum bag – I like carrying a sling bag when I travel, because it gives me quick access to my passport, wallet, and tickets, without me having to take off my backpack.
  • Travel wallet
  • Sunglasses
  • Day backpack – You’ll take this on safari, too.
  • Passport
  • Passport case
  • Phone and charging cord
  • Portable phone charging battery
  • Insulated water bottle – Usually, we travel with a Lifestraw or Grayled purifying bottle, but we always had access to clean water wherever we went. So insulated is the move.
  • SPF chapstick
  • Earbuds that can plug into the plane’s video console
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Travel pillow
  • Ear plugs
  • Face mask
  • Hand moisturizer
  • Camera, lenses, and accessories – Try to get yourself a zoom lens for taking pictures of animals.
  • Extra underwear, travel-sized deodorant, toothbrush, and toothpaste for the long plane ride.
My friend sent me all her safari clothing, which I’m wearing here. Our husbands are different sizes, so all my husband borrowed was this hat.

In Your Suitcase

  • Linen, long-sleeved button-down
  • 1 pair hiking pants in earth tones
  • 1 long-sleeved hiking shirt in earth tones
  • 2 pairs of shorts in cotton or linen
  • 2 tanks
  • Casual, wide-leg pants in cotton or linen
  • 2 sundresses – For lunches at the lodge and walking around Cape Town
  • Pons Avarcas or huaraches – for covering and protecting your feet even in casual situations
  • Lightweight ankle and long socks
  • Bras and underwear – go with natural fabrics for comfort
  • Pajamas – washable silk is the easiest and most lightweight to pack
  • Wide-brimmed hat with a string to keep it on your head in windy areas. The one I packed was from REI and was actually pretty cute.
  • Bathing suit
  • Hand fan – I’m so glad I brought this, I fanned myself and everyone around me.
  • Merino wool light sweater in black or gray – This sleek sweater can be used at night in the Bush, or blend in at a restaurant in Cape Town
  • Cozy sweater – for Cape Town, which is windy and cooler
  • Jeans – for Cape Town or other cities
  • Flat pack day tote – for wandering around Cape Town or other cities. Any reusable bag you’ve gotten free with purchase will do.
  • Rain jacket and/or umbrella
  • PurSteam traveling iron/steamer
  • Universal sink plug and travel dry line – Even if you usually pay your hotel to do your laundry, you might find it more convenient to handwash your clothing and air dry it. You’ll peel your stinky clothing off yourself twice a day and run through your whole suitcase quick.
  • Laundry bag
  • Body lotion – I found my skin getting so itchy from the hard water, I wished I had the most intense moisturizing lotion available!

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