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In December 2021, I traveled to Uganda for the first time. It was my first time in Africa and my first time traveling internationally since 2004.
Having overpacked so badly on my last trip that I almost fell on my face coming up the escalator, I wanted to pack more lightly this time. (Thanks HPL for the inspiration and education to make that happen!)
Uganda Trip Summary
The main packing challenge occurred because I was leaving the Virginia winter to spend a day in even colder New York City to fly into hot Uganda. That day in NYC had me worried because once I’m cold, I don’t warm up easily.
Airports and planes are also cold, so if I got cold in NYC, I was worried I wouldn’t get warm again until landing in Uganda – that would have been miserable!
Our summarized itinerary was:
- December 2021
- Four travel days (two there and two back)
- Traveling from Virginia, USA
- A long layover with tourism in NYC
- 15 days in Uganda
Virginia: 40 F (4 C), wind and possible rain
NYC: 30 F (-1 C), wind and possible rain or snow
Uganda: 75 F (24 C), sunny with possible rain
Destinations and Activities
Our Ugandan activities included staying in Entebbe and Kampala, visiting relatives in small villages, going to two safari parks, and a bit of miscellaneous sightseeing that included touring fancy resorts and hotels.
Our final itinerary ended up being:
- 6 hours in NYC during a long layover
- Times Square
- Entebbe, Uganda
- Lake Victoria and Botanical Gardens sightseeing
- Mall visits
- Kampala, Uganda
- Mall visits
- Crafts Market in downtown area
- Fancy resorts and hotels tours
- Visiting relatives (The first time I’d met them!)
- Rural village in central Uganda
- Visiting relatives (The first time I’d met them!)
- Staying in a local house
- Murchison Falls National Park safari
- Queen Elizabeth National Park safari
- Fort Portal, Uganda area
- Fort Portal area day trip
- Semuliki National Park and Mount Rwenzori area day trip
- Mid-range hotels and safari parks
- Local’s house in a rural village, plumbing accommodations unknown in advance
Packing for Uganda
Despite the challenges of significant temperature changes and varied activities, I was determined to pack carry-on only, with a stretch goal of packing personal-item only. With that in mind, I set out to pack into a 9-liter handbag (!), just to see if I could do it.
I could not.
So I switched to my 24-liter daypack, hoping to only pack it halfway full so that I would have room for my favorite souvenirs – local fabric and an English-Luganda dictionary.
I could not, but I also didn’t have to upsize.
The only item I wanted to bring and didn’t have room for was two rapid COVID test kits. Thankfully, we stayed healthy and didn’t need them. (A PCR test from a verified facility was required to exit the country.)
What I Packed In
- 24-liter Mountain Hardware daypack that fit all our airlines’ carry-on dimensions
My online research suggested that Ugandans, especially in the cities, are very used to white women wearing tank tops and shorts, but that t-shirts or blouses and pants or skirts that come to at least the knee are more what Ugandan women wear. My observations confirmed this.
I wasn’t concerned about dressing too western for my relatives since most of them have lived extensively in the US and Europe, but I did want to dress conservatively enough to not draw unnecessary attention. I opted for long hiking pants (no shaving!) and ¾-sleeve t-shirts (for sun protection).
I didn’t feel uncomfortable with my choices anywhere we went, except for the fanciest hotels and resorts that we toured, where I felt a bit underdressed.
My research also suggested that Ugandans are more comfortable with bright colors than most people in the US, so I put together a capsule wardrobe with colors that make me happy. I wore grey pants and purple or purple-patterned shirts.
I didn’t stand out (beyond clearly being a foreigner) and my observation is that Ugandans dress with the same level of colorful clothing as I see in my hometown. I saw women in jeans, trousers, leggings (with long tops), and skirts/dresses.
Can You Wear Shorts in Uganda?
I did not see adults, men or women, wearing shorts in Uganda. In full disclosure, I don’t wear shorts in public unless it’s for a specific physical activity, so I wasn’t particularly paying attention to that aspect of dress.
On the other hand, because white women stand out in Uganda, I did notice what they were wearing and none of them wore shorts.
To summarize the factors I observed to help you decide if you want to wear shorts in Uganda:
- I did not see adults wearing shorts.
- People seemed to dress more formally than what I see in the US (e.g. casual, daily shoes were rarely sneakers for adults).
- I often saw Ugandan women wearing pants, even form-fitting ones.
- I often saw Ugandan women wearing skirts/dresses that showed the legs below the knee.
My Uganda Packing List Concerns
Having too little clothing wasn’t of particular concern for me because I planned to sink wash, I had quick-dry fabrics, and the climate would be warm enough for clothes to dry overnight.
I was, however, concerned about having the medications my body is used to, and of course, there is no negotiating with prescription medications.
My other concern was that I wasn’t in full control of the itinerary and could imagine needing something and not being able to get it for a day or more.
My Carry-On-Only Packing List for Uganda
What to Wear in Uganda
This clothing list includes my travel outfit and items used in NYC.
- Chaco Sandals
- 3 pairs of socks
- 6 pairs of underwear (Check out this Travel Underwear Guide for tips)
- 2 bras
- 3 quick-dry ¾-sleeved t-shirts
- 1 quick-dry button-up shirt
- 2 pairs quick-dry trousers
- Pajama pants and top (could double as daywear)
- Swimsuit (shorts and t-shirt style that could double as daywear)
- 1 pair of gloves
- Winter hat
- Fleece jacket
- Pashmina shawl or sarong (they’re super versatile!)
Warmth in NYC
I ended up being a little chilly in NYC, but not so much that I couldn’t warm up once we got into the airport. While a warmer coat would have been nice for walking to Times Square, it wasn’t worth the extra bulk in my luggage. The hat and gloves were key to me staying reasonably warm outside.
The most impactful thing I would change on this packing list is sleepwear.
I had read that the nights are chilly, so I packed a lightweight long-sleeved t-shirt and pair of pants that could double for day clothes. I was so hot! I ended up sleeping without clothes, which was sticky and uncomfortable, especially because we stayed in a lot of places without air conditioning and the windows were closed at night to keep out the mosquitoes.
Next time, I’ll bring a lightweight tank top and pair of shorts for sleeping.
From my online research, I decided to bring a swimsuit that was the style of a t-shirt with skirted bike shorts. That took up a lot more room than a regular swimsuit, but I didn’t want to be uncomfortably exposed and the swimsuit style was such that it could have doubled as daywear.
In the end, we never went swimming, but I don’t count it as wasted space because comfortable swimwear is important to me. I didn’t see any adults swimming, but I did see tween boys at Lake Victoria in Entebbe swimming in everything from cutoffs to underwear to nothing.
The Ugandan adults in our group never even blinked at that kind of public nakedness.
I wouldn’t change this on the packing list, but it will be something I keep in mind when selecting future travel clothes. My shirts were athletic material that was more like swimwear than cotton and were chilly to put on in the morning.
I thought a cool, slippery shirt would feel good on hot days, but on so many days, I just wanted the soft comfort of cotton. I hear merino wool t-shirts are a good choice, but I couldn’t afford any for this trip.
Clothing Choices for Sun, Mosquitos, and Modesty
For my clothes, I opted to wear ¾-sleeve t-shirts because I wanted some sun and mosquito protection, but plenty of Ugandan women wore short sleeves and even tank tops (I didn’t see any bra straps). I didn’t see any Ugandan women in shorts, although they did wear knee-length skirts/dresses. I also saw women wearing black leggings with tunics. The younger women also wore jeans and trousers.
I never felt uncomfortable as a woman in my grey hiking pants and purple shirts. For our itinerary, that was a good middle ground of not too casual and occasionally slightly underdressed, but not disrespectfully so. The one time we went with family to church, they gave me a skirt to wear.
One thing I did that I’d likely do again was to wear only two of my shirts, unless I absolutely needed the third, and to wear my second pair of pants as rarely as possible. This way, I had something mostly clean to wear on the 27-hour plane trip home.
Handwashing the swimsuit/athletic fabric did not get out the armpit stink, no matter how much I soaked and scrubbed with bar soap. We even paid for laundry at one hotel (about $0.25 – $1.00 per item) and the armpits still smelled.
That’s something to test before a trip. Does handwashing get your shirts smelling clean? It wasn’t a problem in Uganda – everyone was sweating by the end of the day, but I was trying to be considerate of my airplane row mates.
Medical, Health, and Safety Packing List
I didn’t want to risk having my medications confiscated, so I took everything in their original packaging, breaking down boxes and putting them in zip-top bags, or asking my local, non-chain pharmacist to print vitamin labels on their smallest prescription bottles.
The medications took up the largest part of my packing space, mostly because of the size of the packages.
- Prescription medications
- Antimalarial pills
- Allergy pills
- Pain pills
- Cold medicine
- Stomach and anti-diarrhea medicine
- Sunglass wipe cloth
- Zip-top bag with 10 disposable masks
- 2 pairs non-latex gloves
- For emergency first aid
- Door stop
- For use with doors that don’t lock as well as I would like
Toiletry Packing List
I’ve used a menstrual cup in back-country camping, so I felt confident that I could handle whatever came up in that department. As long as there was safe drinking water in bottles, I’d be fine.
In the hotels, the plumbing was sufficient that I felt comfortable with whatever I needed to do, although I wouldn’t risk flushing a tampon. When we went to a village for a few days, the host’s house had slow plumbing – as in, we maybe got one solid flush every twenty minutes. Moreover, the only trashcan in the house was an open box near the kitchen stove, so disposable products would be on display.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to deal with monthly stuff by the time we got to the village, but it’s something to keep in mind because you may need to be prepared for an awkward conversation with your host or arrive with a back-up plan.
I took as many small, solid toiletries as I had on hand and I wasn’t worried about running out because soap is pretty universal to buy. I didn’t bring hair conditioner and I didn’t come back bald, but my hair was harder to work with and more prone to breaking than when I use conditioner regularly.
For future trips, I’ll probably pack conditioner, but if I desperately needed that extra two square inches of packing space, I could live without it. It would have been a production to ask to be taken to the store to buy some, so for my particular situation, I don’t feel comfortable with buying there as an option.
- 1 menstrual cup
- 30 liners
- 3 mini packs of tissues (allergies!)
- 2 disposable razors
- 1 soap box with
- Soap-saver sponge
- Body soap
- Solid shampoo
- Spare toothbrush cover
- 20 cotton swabs
- 20 cotton balls
- Emory board
In the 3-1-1 bag:
- 1 oz. hydrocortisone
- 1 oz. acne cream
- 2 oz. body lotion
- 1 oz. face moisturizer
- 1 oz. anti-fungal cream
- Travel-sized toothpaste
- Tide pen (for laundry)
- 1.4 oz. solid deodorant*
- 0.5 oz. solid lip balm*
- 20-count package of hand and face wipes*
*The last three items weren’t required to be in the 3-1-1 bag, but that’s where they fit best when I was packing. Learn more about the 3-1-1 rule and packing carry-on-only.
Laundry Packing List
I sink-washed a shirt, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear almost every night using the hotel bar soap.
I didn’t use the Tide pen (packed in the 3-1-1 bag), so I won’t bring this again.
Electronics Packing List
There weren’t many places with free wifi, even in hotels, so it was worth it to us to pay for our cell carrier’s international unlimited data plan.
- Phone charger
- Plug adapter
- Small camera and spare batteries
- Gorillapod tripod (See the Gorillapod on Amazon)
I ended up not using the Gorillapod since I either left it in the van and forgot about it when I needed it or we had someone with us who took photos for us. I’ll probably not bring this next time.
Miscellaneous Packing List
- 9-liter Baggalini crossbody
- Money security belt
- Decoy wallet
- Bag of candy for motion sickness
- 1 packages of jerky for the flight
- 1 chocolate bar for the flight
- 1 paperback book
Packing List Wrap-Up
What Was I Missing?
We bought mosquito repellant there since we didn’t want to check any luggage. It was almost $20 US for a small bottle that would be about $6 US in Virginia. We actually only needed it once, but the cost was worth the peace of mind of the added protection (we also took malaria pills during the entire trip).
Hair conditioner would have been nice, but since it was only two weeks, I survived without it.
I didn’t bring nail clippers since I didn’t know if they’d be allowed on all the flights, so I used an emery board to “trim” my nails. It wasn’t my favorite feeling, but I survived and would do this again.
Books are more expensive there than in the US and at least in my young relatives’ schools, they don’t have novels, so tweens and teens eagerly desire “storybooks” and manga. Reading fiction in a physical book helps reduce stress for me, so I wish I had brought another book or two and then left them with my nieces and nephews.
What Would I Bring Differently?
As mentioned, I would bring cooler clothing to sleep in, most likely shorts and a tank top.
I brought 10 disposable face masks, in addition to one reusable one. I mostly wore the reusable one (I washed it) and the airlines gave us disposable masks to wear. Masks were also cheap enough in Uganda that we could have bought some there. It’s unlikely that I’ll pack masks for the next trip.
The money belt I had didn’t work well with the t-shirts I brought, so I’ll have to test a few options for the next trip. I used the normal techniques for keeping a purse safe in a crowd and other than the general anxiety of having to carry more cash than I’m used to and a passport, I never felt that my purse was in particular danger. I might have felt differently if I had spent a lot of time browsing in the crowded downtown areas.
- You may want to read this article about common travel scams
Like I said in the packing lists, I did not use the Tide pen or the camera tripod.
I didn’t use the rain jacket, so I may reconsider this on the next trip, depending on the weather prediction.
The one thing we most needed that we didn’t even think about when packing was binoculars for the safaris! That’s going on the list for next time.
Most Used Items
Besides the clothes that I washed and wore repeatedly? The packet of hand and face wipes.
There were so many times we ended up eating without the option to wash our hands. I did not want to get sick in remote areas with no toilets and lions and snakes in the grass, so I used these wipes on my hands often!
Chaco sandals: these are heavy to pack, but the most comfortable shoes I own and I wore them every day in Uganda. I only used my sneakers for a couple of jungle walks and on the plane.
Sunglasses: these are medically necessary for me, but I also think anyone would appreciate their protection. The sun is bright!
I haven’t included a documents packing list, but of course, be sure to leave room in your bag for your passport, visas, and other travel documents!
In the end, my 24-liter bag was stuffed so full that it was a little hard to get out my travel documents when needed – not items flying everywhere hard, but not easy-peasy, either.
You’ll notice from the packing list that I packed a 9-liter Baggalini crossbody in my carry-on backpack. This was big enough to carry a rain jacket, my camera, a water bottle, and snacks in Uganda and also to use as a personal item on the flight home so that I could pack souvenirs in my daypack.
Even though there are a few things I would pack differently next time, overall, I’m happy with what I packed and will use this packing list for future trips.