There are three Cs of packing for Africa: culture, climate and curriculum. Pack only for hot weather, and you’ll be scrambling at night for warmth; disregard culture and risk becoming mistaken for a prostitute; go on safari with Ralph Lauren’s entire spring collection, and your luggage won't fit on the safari flight.
Depending on when you go, your destination may be hot, cold, dry or wet. Winter can occur during U.S. summers, and vice versa. Early mornings and late evenings are chilly, with midday sun scorching. So how to prepare? “Layers!” advises Allison Fleece, founder of WHOA travel, a women’s high adventure travel company that frequents Tanzania and Kenya. “Layer your clothes so you can remove things as temperature changes.”
For Allison Allgaier, backpacking throughout West Africa was an adventure. Advised that women should wear modest, conservative clothing, she chose ankle length knit stretch pants. “I got stares,” said Allgaier. “And nonstop harassment from men who thought I was a prostitute.” Her “conservative” pants showed her curves, drawing unwanted attention. “Once I put two and two together, I bought baggy pants and walking down the street was much better.” Women should wear long, loose-fitting skirts and dresses. Shoulders should always be covered, so a light jacket or scarf is essential. For men, stick with pants. “Men don’t wear shorts,” said Bennett Rea, a politics student who visited the Senegal/Gambia region for school. “Shorts are only for children in many parts. Wearing them sends a message you’re much younger than you are.”
Standard business attire is fine for business trips. Impress local colleagues by integrating native scarves into your Western attire. Also, “Look like you care,” says Jeffrey Lamoureux, who worked with the American Red Cross in Tanzania, Burundi, Malawi and Ethiopia. “Most of the people you meet do care and will show it. Dress up more than you’re initially inclined. Dressing well shows you take care of yourself.” If headed on a South African safari, Karen Cleary, Africa Destination manager for Boundless Journeys, suggests lightweight linen in earth tones. Avoid insect-attracting dark colors. A sweater is great for cool mornings; a scarf perfect for protecting from cold, sunburn and dusty roads. “Safari flights have weight restrictions, so pack conservatively,” Cleary adds. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro can be cold, so think warm and waterproof -- a fleece or rain jacket. Long sleeves and trousers guard against malaria-causing mosquitoes. A sports bra is ideal for bumpy rides on unpaved roads. For visiting holy sites, a scarf comes in handy because women must cover their faces before entering.
What to Pack
Remember to keep culture and climate in mind. Check a destination guidebook to familiarize yourself with customs, especially what’s required of women. Essentials include long sleeved tops, baggy pants or trousers, long flowing skirts and dresses, all in lightweight breathable fabrics such as linen. Take a sweater regardless of season, and a fleece jacket if you’re adventure traveling. A long scarf will be your go-to accessory.
Women, avoid body-accentuating pieces. Men, remember shorts are for children. And while multizippered pants and safari jackets seem practical, everyone will know you’re a tourist -- including pickpockets.
Lastly, leave some space in your luggage and purchase clothing locally. This guarantees you’ll have the right pieces for both culture and climate -- and provides mementos to remind you of your visit to Africa.