This is a guest packing list post by Melissa Johnson. See all packing list posts here.
In many ways, East Africa is a place of rich diversity, filled with living contradictions. It’s a place of lively and luxurious capital cities, beautiful safari parks, misty rainforests, relaxing coastal beach towns, and rural countryside villages. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth lie side by side, dry deserts and gigantic waterfalls can be found within the same country, and days filled with bright sunshine quickly transition into rain and thunderstorms. Because of this, packing for a trip to East Africa can be quite a challenge. But not to worry, you’ve got this packing list to help!
Most East African countries are still conservative in dress. Though you may be able to get away with above-the-knee dresses or skirts in capital cities while hanging out with younger crowds, I find that it’s always best to be respectful of the local culture and of those around you. Because of this, I’d strongly recommend packing longer bottoms, while short-sleeved and sleeveless shirts are totally acceptable.
2 dresses – I usually pack one casual dress and one nice dress for a dinner out on the town. (Have a look at our top 5 travel dresses.)
2 skirts – Easy and breezy for walking around cities and villages — and for using squatty potties. (Check out the infinity skirt / magic wrap skirt.)
1 pair of pants – While jeans may be too restricting and warm, cargo pants are a nice alternative and are handy while hiking or during more adventurous activities.
2 tank tops or T-shirts – Those sweltering days will be best spent in light shirts.
1 long sleeved shirt or fleece – Rainy season nights can get a bit chilly in more mountainous regions.
1 windbreaker/rain jacket – Strongly recommended if you’re traveling during the rainy season. (Check out the North Face Triclimate. You can take the liner and leave the ultra warm bit at home for another trip.)
5 pairs of underwear
1 swimsuit – Necessary if your plans include visits to the coast of Kenya or Tanzania, or if you get the chance to stop by any of the lakes in the Great Lakes region.
Scarf – Lovely to have if you find yourself getting a bit cold or if you need to cover up.
Sturdy sandals – Chacos are a lifesaver, as they are waterproof and tough enough to handle the most intense and demanding excursions. I lived in mine while I was living in East Africa.
Closed toed shoes – Useful on dusty days or when you’d like to protect your feet from unsafe environments.
Nice flats or sandals – For a night out or a more formal occasion.
Soap or Body Wash
Deodorant – A little luxury to have when you find yourself in stinky situations.
>>Check out the best toiletries for carry-on travelers.
Razor – Many East African women don’t shave and will actually marvel at your ability to grow hair on your arms and legs. I never shaved while I was there, but if shaving is your kind of thing, then pack a razor or two.
Hair ties – Necessary to keep the hair off your neck on those hot days. (Try a headband or a Buff.)
Diva Cup – After my time in East Africa, my Diva Cup is the one thing I recommend to all my fellow lady travellers. It’s easy, mess-free, light to pack, and ideal for rural life.
Prescriptions – If you want to stay happy and healthy during your travels, pack some anti-malarials and any other medications you may need. (I recommend bringing Cipro and some probiotics along in case you find yourself suffering from a case of traveler’s diarrhoea.)
Towel – Try a microfiber towel that absorbs water quickly and dries fast. (Find one here at REI.*)
*We are an affiliate with REI, and if you make a purchase after clicking this link, we will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. It simply helps keeps the site going.
Protection from the Elements:
Sunscreen – The higher the SPF, the happier you and your skin will be when you make it out without a sunburn.
Hat – Perfect for sunny days or when you find yourself unable to wash your hair for a couple of days.
Bug Spray – To prevent getting bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, pack a strong insect repellent.
Pack electronics and expensive technology at your own risk. Over the course of a year, I had a couple of friends who had their cameras or phones stolen when traveling.
Headlamp – An absolute lifesaver when the power decides to go out unexpectedly.
Laptop – Useful in capital cities when you’re able to stop in at an internet café. Most cafés have computers on site as well. (Try a netbook for size and price.)
Camera – To capture all the beautiful sights you encounter!
Chargers and adapters – Don’t forget the necessary converters for your electronics.
iPod – If you’d like some tunes for a long bus ride or beach lounging.
Read this post: Should I… Pack all these electronics?
Passport and necessary visas – Requirements for acquiring a visa vary from country to country, so check before you board your plane!
Travel insurance – Lost luggage, stolen passport, cancelled flight? It’s best to be prepared!
Books or an E-Reader – Nothing better than a good read while travelling.
We recommend having a read of this post: Packing for Your Safety. You might also enjoy this helpful post on traveling in Southern Africa.
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Giraffe Centre, Elephant Orphanage, and Bomas of Kenya Day Tour from Nairobi ↗
Visit the Giraffe Center and the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, one of the most successful elephant rescues in the world, before heading to a traditional bead workshop and a music and dance performance at Bomas of Kenya.
* * * * *
About the author: Melissa Johnson is currently a grad student living just outside of Washington D.C. She has spent time abroad working with numerous international development NGOs, namely in Rwanda and Uganda. She has also visited Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, Great Britain, and Canada.
*All photos, except for title photo, by Melissa Johnson.
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Great start to the list. Here are some extra ideas:
No camo/army print, no bright florals (bugs), no dark blue (attracts the tsetse fly)
No 100% cotton – will never dry in the humidity
No tank tops on their own – East Africa is very modest and conservative. Think long, loose layers, always. The image of Madonna, orphan shopping in a tank top and cowboy hat is cringeworthy.
No skirts shorter than knee. Midcalf is best.
No heavily scented toiletries (bugs!). Organic products will be more earth friendly as most of Africa is without a waste water treatment program.
I brought along a bar of anti-bug soap from a local craft store. Contained peppermint, citronella.
Bring the best quality, highest SPF you can find, as well as high DEET bug spray. Not the time to go all natural here!
Bring light body lotion. My usual brand just sat on my skin, wouldn’t sink in with all the heat. Was left with a greasy layer on my body.
A small, but comprehensive first aid kit is key. If you need a malaria test in a rural area, you don’t want to drain a local clinic’s band aids, lancets, etc.. Nor do you want to worry about the safety and hygein of the supplies.
Bring matches- electricty goes out often, but candles are everywhere.
Bring duct tape – at some point will be so helpful.
Bring some strong twine – you might need it to string up a mosquito net.
I also took: a small photo album of my home, my family to pass along, a few cassette tapes (remember them?) of favourite music to suggest as an alternative to the never ending church music on the buses, tiny containers of my favourite spices, and a jar each of peanut butter and nutella.
Melissa Johnson says
I never had a problem with tank tops in any of the countries I lived in, even when I was working in rural, religious communities (though I always wore tank tops with thicker straps rather than spaghetti straps). There were even times when I saw young, local city-dwellers walking around in tube tops! I think wearing skirts and dresses that are below the knee is most important. Either way, I never had anyone say anything about bare arms, so I suggest just going with what you feel to be most comfortable and respectful.
Also, in regards to tsetse flies, dark colors are fine to bring along. Just make sure you bring your laundry in off the line BEFORE it get dark!
is this list for 5 days only? (because of the underwear) just wondering who would go through all the trouble to go to africa for 5 days…
anyway, i spent several months living in very rural areas of zambia and malawi and here is what i have to say:
most people are overly cautious when they visit “third world countries”. dont overthink your packing list. do take the local dress codes seriously and bring your malaria prophylaxe, but honestly even if you end up having to take a malaria test in a rural hospital, so be it. ive been there a couple times and even in the most rural hospital they made sure to use clean needles and everything. just dont worry so much.
i suppse this list is primarily for safari tourists so here are some additions if youre actually going to stay in a village for a while:
1. bring something nice to give to children. do not bring candy! bring like colorchanging pencils, cool stationery, colorful hairclips for little girls, little bouncy balls and wild animal stickers for guys, just whatever you can think of.
also, feel free to bring lots of clothes you dont wear anymore. clothes are much needed almost everywhere.
for adults, you could bring discarded watches, glasses, nice pens, etc.
2. ditch the laptop
chances are, you are not going to be anywhere near a truly functioning internet connection anyway.
3. bring an old cellphone, not a supernice one
and leave it in the village when you leave
ok thats all i can think of right now, if i can think of more, i will add 🙂
Thanks you Lena for your excellent feedback – much appreciated!
Re: underwear – a lot of travelers tend to hand wash as they go. What would you recommend for a trip in Africa of… 3 weeks or so?
Lena, my family is adopting from Ethiopia. When we have to go get the children (a nine year old boy and a six month old girl), the travel is a max. of four days. Even the court date travel is only 7-10 days.
I so love your attitude and generous heart Lena. You are search a humbling individual. You have surely put me on a challenge🤗😍
NYC Girl says
I agree with all above and would like to add…..Don’t under estimate how cold you can get in Africa. I recommend a high quality water proof and warm jacket to wear at night. Avoid anything with obvious brand names printed on it as you may attract unwanted attention from those who think your brand name clothes mean you’re wealthy.
I also recommend that you take baby wipes with you. Clean water for bathing purposes is not always available when you want it and the wipes can come in handy… as can you’re own supply of toilet paper.
Lastly, take click seal bags in a range of sizes. It gets dusty in some places. You can use the bags to protect your camera, journal and a clean set of clothes.
Adding to Lena’s comment above, kids and adults, love ball point pens. it’s nice to have some to hand out.
I lived in Uganda for five months and have been to Kenya twice- I’ve never experienced issues with tank tops, or spaghetti straps for that matter, in either the big cities or villages. Culturally the “sex appeal” is waist-down, so that’s where you should dress conservatively. Be sure to research the area where you’ll be traveling- some villages are all for blue jeans and knee-length shorts/skirts, while others won’t allow their women to wear anything other than lengthy skirts and dresses. Always, always, always research the culture! I can’t emphasize that enough!
You’ll be surprised how much of what you packed is unnecessary- most people in East Africa simply don’t own much, so you won’t want to flaunt a different outfit every day for three weeks. I packed about four or five outfits for each of my two-week stays in Kenya.
The length of time you’ll be staying also affects a lot. After my first two weeks in Uganda, I was using the water to brush my teeth (never just to drink, though), and I abandoned sunscreen (maybe not the most health-conscious move, but I’m no worse for it). Malaria preventatives are not meant to be taken for longer than five to six months at a time; if your stay runs long like mine, bring plenty of bug spray (I actually do recommend natural kinds such as “Thursday Walkabout Plantation”) and be prepared to sleep under a mosquito net every night. If you feel sick, talk to a doctor IMMEDIATELY. Don’t be afraid of the hospitals and clinics- they’re different and much poorer than you’d ever imagine, but most are sanitary. Malaria CAN be treated and you’ll be just fine so long as you catch it early- so don’t wait to test your symptoms.
The food is delicious everywhere! If you’re visiting a village, a momma will probably invite you in for African tea (essentially chai tea made with hot milk instead of water) or dadies (think crunchy doughnut holes). Carry hand sanitizer with you, but don’t use it in front of people. It’s considered rude to deny an invitation to eat, so if you’d rather not, don’t venture into the villages near meal time.
My final word on the subject- enjoy your time! Africans run on what’s known as “African time”- by American standards, they are late for everything. I don’t mean ten minutes late, I mean hours late. In my five months in Uganda, however, I learned that because of war, poverty and disease, most Africans see no reason to think futuristically. The past has only proven how small their chances are of seeing far into the future, so they live in the moment. Even if they have a meeting they are scheduled to attend, if they are caught up in a deep conversation with a friend, they will first finish their conversation. I can’t tell you how many times people stared at me when I opened a Coke on the go. “First finish your drink, then you go!” they would tell me. They place so much value on the present moment, which is something we could stand to learn. Try not to get frustrated if your meal takes an hour to come to your table, or if your tour guide doesn’t show up on time.
That’s my advice! 🙂
Question about the diva cup: Did you have any issues sanitizing it? I’m having a hard time imagining how I would do that while on the road. (Although, I think you mentioned in the comments that you lived there, so maybe that you didn’t run into that issue.)
Melissa Johnson says
To be honest, I usually didn’t have the chance to sanitize my Divacup in boiling water while on the go, though when I was at home in Kigali, it wasn’t a huge problem. If had to use it while I was traveling, I would just change it out and wash it throughly with bottled water and Diva Wash. That usually seemed to do the trick.
East Africa was simply amazing! I could seriously get used to ‘African Time’ and their happy uncomplicated way of living. My only electronics were a camera and a simple phone for emergencies. Going so long without internet or TV was liberating.
I found this list to be really helpful when I packed for my trip. My only addition would be a good nail scrubbing brush. I stayed around Arusha and Moshi in Tanzania for most of January and February. At the end of everyday I was covered in a combination of sweat, sunscreen, insect repellent and dirt. With only a small bucket of 2-3L with which to wash myself I wish I had packed more than a bar of soap to wash with.
I see in an earlier post someone questioned the 5 pairs of underwear on the packing list. I thought 5 was a good number if you have the opportunity to wash your clothes every few days.
Instead of Chacos I wore a pair of Crocs (not the chunky ones, the Jayna design).
Question for Sammy – I will be in Moshi for a month in July/August. What do you recommend for clothing if I will be working in the community with a women’s group? I’m mostly curious about colours of clothing to be honest. I tend to wear dark colours, and will feel most like myself in darker colours, but am worried about tsetse flies! Also, what are you thoughts on leggings? Are they considered too provocative because they’re form fitting? Let me know! Thanks!
I will also be in Moshi this summer from May-August. What will you be doing? I am also working with a women’s group and I will be traveling around the small villages around Moshi. I have spoken, at length, with my supervisor in Moshi and she has said to wear long maxi-type skirts and always cover your shoulders. She didn’t say anything about colors so I didn’t even think about it!
I’ll be doing sexual health education community seminar/outreach. I’m working with a group through Hostel Hoff. You?
I can’t say I ever came across the tsetse fly while I was there. I suggest not taking any white clothes as you’re going to get quite dusty/dirty. Any other colours are fine. I mostly wore maxi-dresses and skirts because it was easier to navigate the squat toilets. Not too sure about the tights – I think you’ll get hot wearing them but as far as being too provocative I don’t see it being an issue, they should cover your knees. I stayed at the “Mzungo House” with ART in Tanzania and on the other side of those gates you could wear whatever you liked. Remember to take a scrubbing brush and have an absolute ball! Oh and it takes a couple of days to adjust to “Africa time”.
Take some bicycle trouser Velcro or drawstring trousers to wear evenings to stop the mozzies going up. I found no need anywhere in big villages for meds as all the pharmacies had rehydration salts and there’s a lot for sale in the dukas (little shops) in Tanzania. Take toothbrushes to give out to the kids. I’m doing Pack for a Purpose to take some baby items and medical supplies to a hospital.
Well all of this is good help, but what do you bring when you are going for three months.
Hi Selena- We would recommend generally the same amount of clothing as a short trip. You would only need to bring more of something you can’t get there- like certain medications for example.
I’m heading to Uganda for six months in January and am taking advantage of Christmas to get all the things I need.
I’ve been told to bring a rain mac. Might sound silly but I’m just figuring out pyjamas?
Usually when I travel I just use my sportswear or shorts but feel that long sleeved light trousers and top may be best? Any recommendations!
Thanks for all of the info above it is really helpful
Hello! I’m a nurse who will be spending a couple of months working in a clinic in rural Uganda and had a couple of additional questions as I’ve been scouring the internet for posts such as yours 🙂 I typically don’t shave my armpits or legs, and yours is the first thing I’ve read that mentions shaving. It sounds as though my hairy (and blonde, at that) legs may be something of an anomaly, but you don’t think that’s likely to be read as inappropriate or bizarre beyond the typical “bizzare foreigner” benign interest? I’m less concerned about the armpits as I will likely be wearing long sleeves to cover my heavily tattoed arms anyhow, but am interested to hear anyone’s experiences with either/both of tattoos and body hair. Thank you!