• Spirited Adventures

Backpacking Safari: SMART Packing & Planning

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

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Camping wild in true Big 5 territory with highly experienced wilderness guides.

Author: Lutz Otto

April 2018

When choosing to go on a backpacking trail in the Greater Kruger National Park most people give a fair amount of attention to the fact that they will be walking in an area freely inhabited by Africa's Big 5 and an incredible diversity of other species.

Once on the trip, trailists discover that there is just so much more to this incredible, sometimes life changing, experience. Spending time on an unsupported wilderness trail, especially when we come from a "modern convenience" environment, is very rewarding and we always depart with a sense of appreciation of the things we take for granted. A number of our blogs have written to this, both in the context of personal growth and leadership.

Bush craft including water collection, campsite selection, site rehabilitation, general organization, navigation and constant situational awareness are all part of the trip. A seemingly simple thing, like making fire with friction, creates great joy as what often starts with disbelief concludes with many lessons learned and a sense of satisfaction.

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Creativity used to set the tent pegs for an ultra light Big Agnes tent.

Ask for advice from people with diverse, relevant, experience when choosing equipment

To participate in these experiences you will require certain pieces of equipment and making choices can be difficult in the beginning.

With time many of us come to LOVE gear, but in the beginning of our journeys making decisions around this can be difficult. It is not unusual to feel slightly bewildered by the amount of choice and the associated decision making.

Learning number one 😎. Assuming your advisers backpacking CV can result in poor purchase decisions. I cannot tell you the number of times we hear complaints about kit that was bought on “advice”, at the new owners cost, from asking for suggestions from less experienced adventurers, forums and so forth. With regards generalist outdoor retailers, most employees only have basic product training and many do not participate in these activities of their own free will.

Regardless of career or activity. the experience formula looks like this. Experience = Capability [skill + knowledge] + Exposure [built over extended periods of time through consistent activity].

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Looking over to Organ Pipes from Bell traverse. Natal Drakensberg, South Africa.

With this in mind, when did the authors journey start?

In 1984 I completed Giants Cup, my first real backpack trail, and by 1990 had walked most of SA’s major hut-to-hut backpack trails. Wanting it wilder, in 1989 I started leading wilderness backpacking trips, which followed on by mountaineering, climbing, overlanding trips and walking safaris. Many of those trips saw us carry all the normal wilderness trail kit, plus full winter ice climbing equipment [ice axes, crampons, ice screws, rock protection, ropes, helmets, etc.].

Fast forward to now, some 25 years later, I am still seriously active at it, albeit a little older. I have spent thousands of hours, well into the serious double digits, on foot in wild places.

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On route to climbing the ice waterfalls you see in the distance. Sertig, Switzerland

What To Pack, Is An Art

Packing is an art that is developed over time with exposure, to the chosen activity, in wild places.

There are several important considerations that can really make a big difference to your experience - Good shoes, intelligent hydration, managing weather conditions [although physiologically different - cold, hot and wet conditions all require appropriate management] and packing light are fundamental.

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Classic backpacking safari. Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa

Shifting our attention back to packing, we generally find that people earlier in their learning curves are caught out by things that become obvious with experience:

  • Carry too much, or carry too heavy.

  • Invest money in gimmicks, poor quality or the wrong equipment.

  • Trying to make equipment fit purposes it was not designed for.

  • Over compromising. e.g. using a 4 season high altitude tent in summer.

  • Buying equipment based on a description without trying it on, touching it, etc.

  • Not checking new equipment prior the trail. Is it the right size, is everything there?

  • Getting caught up in the tactical equipment craze to find out that this is usually unsuitable, uncomfortable and ill fitting. Two points; Good quality tactical equipment is not cheap. With few exceptions, mostly follows the leading edge mountaineering equipment manufacturers.

  • Misjudging the experience and not undertaking enough research and preparation.

Your plan should be to substantially increase your level of fun by avoiding the aforementioned 😊. The decisions you make with what to pack, how to pack and your preparation are fundamental to the overall enjoyment of your experience.

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Boot choices. Although brilliant boots, the two pairs on the right are not suited to this application.

Carry as light as you legitimately and safely can.

If legendary adventurers, true machines, that include Rheinold Messner, Conrad Anker, Robert Jasper, Steve House, Scott Backes, Mark Twight, Alex Honnold, Will Gadd and the list goes on, see/ saw value in this principle, so should we. Although a backpacking safari requires less equipment than a mountaineering excursion, unforgiving wilderness situations have opened my eyes to possibilities - I wisely continue to utilize the mountaineering philosophy; Travel light enough to remain comfortable whilst never compromising critical safety kit.

Unless you are used to carrying loads, the suggested maximum pack weight limit of 20% of total body weight is already heavy. Carrying light will:

  • allow you to move more comfortably.

  • improve balance and agility.

  • reduce fatigue and incidence to injury.

  • focus on loving the experience and having an amazing time.

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Typical equipment for a backpacking safari. The highlighted areas shows additional kit carried in winter and by a guide.

So what does equipment weigh and how do I manage weight?

In the context of a wilderness trail, in the Greater Kruger National Park [remember different experiences require differences in equipment], an ideal base pack weight for a participant [a guide’s pack contains additional items] is between 11 – 13 kg’s, on top of which you will carry 3 liters of drinking water.

The five heaviest things you carry will almost always be your tent, sleeping bag, backpack, food and water. Of these, the only one which you cannot decrease in weight is water. With reasonable quality kit, not in the very expensive ultra-light category, the following are average weights.

A small 2 man tent +/- 2000 grams, a 65 liter backpack +/- 1900 grams, a 0 degree Celsius sleeping bag +/- 1000 grams and should you use to carry an inflatable sleeping mattress +/- 600 grams. Total for these items 5500 grams. This excludes clothing, rain gear, camp shoes, a chair [for discerning backpackers 😊], first aid kit, water purification system, a pot, spoon, pocket knife, stove, fuel, food, water, camera and personal gadgets. Click on this link for your packing list.

By now you will get a sense that packing light requires some thought. So, to get the ball rolling:

  • Know the weight of any piece of equipment before your purchase it. Always make comparisons against alternatives.

  • Weigh, with a scale, anything you plan to pack.

  • Decant fluids into lightweight, well sealed and smaller containers.

  • Remove all unnecessary packaging. Don’t double bag equipment, for example using a stuff sac plus a plastic bag to keep it dry – Choose one.

  • Pack multi-use equipment – For example you don’t need a plate - eat out of your pot. Only take a spoon and pocket knife - You don’t need a fork and an additional knife.

  • Use multi-functional clothing that can be used in layering systems. Winter generally requires additional clothing.

  • Once you have gone through this process, pack your bag and weigh it. If it is too heavy unpack and restart this interrogation process.

There are substantial weight losses/ gains that can be made as we move through the seasons. If you walk trails often, seriously consider different summer/ winter sleeping bags. In this context understand the difference between sleeping bag comfort, transition and extreme temperature ratings. Remember that in the pursuit of light, that we can extend ratings through wearing multi-functional clothing and layering.

Carefully watch autumn and spring temperatures – In this context, serious backpackers have a third category of temperature graded equipment. A summer sleeping bag will weigh as little as 400 grams and a summer fleece top around 230 grams – Contrastingly a winter bag will weigh +/- 1700 grams and a decent winter fleece +/- 700 grams. This equates to a 1670-gram difference. Remember that this applies to low altitude areas, higher altitudes requires kit with deeper temperature ratings!

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You don't need a -30'c sleeping bag on a lowveld trail. Sertig, Swiss Alps.

Ultralight equipment

Should you choose to go the super ultralight equipment route, which is next level and not discussed here, expect a serious shift in the price tag. Understand that this equipment does not have the durability [and thus the lifespan] of the good light kit [this relates particularly to packs and tents]. If choosing to go with an ultralight pack, 850 grams or below, accept that their hip belts do not transfer bag weight to the lower torso as effectively which means that you must pack light. Good hip belts should allow for a load transfer in the region of 70% of pack weight onto the hips.

Personal Hygiene

In term of personal hygiene only take biodegradable liquid soap that you have decanted into a small container. You don’t need shampoo, body soap and a face wash. Make sure that you only pack sample sized toothpaste, decant sunscreen [must have] and moisturizer [if you need] into smaller bottles.

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Sprucing up for supper. Never use normal soap in a river system.

Leave the wet wipes behind – Replace this with a bandanna or buff [multi-purpose, dry quicker and lighter than a face cloth]. Should you need to, you will be surprised how well you can clean yourself with one cup of warm water, a bandanna and a little bit of biodegradable soap - We have undertaken high altitude unsupported mountaineering trips for 12 days, at subzero temperatures, living like this without a problem.

Use an ultra-light fast drying towel that is no bigger than medium size - You don’t need a large or extra-large towel. In high temperature areas, you can even consider using a fast-drying yellow dusting cloth [you can save +20 grams].

Pack a small Deet based mosquito repellent [must have]. If you are prone to chaff, which many of us are, decant anti-chaff treatment.


For walking safaris pack neutral colored clothing e.g. browns, greens, khakis, dark blues, grey, etc. Although many animals are color blind, bright colors are intrusive in the bush. Certain colors, whites, neon yellows, bright pinks, etc. are picked up by animals quickly.

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Unintrusive clothing. Trails camp set up in beautiful Jackalberry tree's. Backpacking safari heaven. Greater Kruger National Park.

For safari backpacking trails, pack a maximum of two shirts and one pair of shorts. Pack one set of clean clothes for camp – We prefer ultra-light running t-shirts and shorts as they dry quickly and wick moisture. In summer I sleep in these, in winter I use thermals. Go for purpose made synthetic or merino underwear - You will not regret. The only thing we carry many of, are socks.

Make sure that your clothing is made of a synthetic technical material or merino – It dries faster, wicks better, carries less body odor, is lighter, often has UV protection and has better insulating or cooling properties. re-check any new clothing to ensure that it does not chaff before coming on trail. Collared shirts and button fronts, based on versatility, are always better than t-shirts on trail.

A buff is an all season must – This is a hugely versatile piece of equipment. A rain jacket is fundamental – Not only in the context of rain, but as part of a layering system if it gets cold. Although the bush is mostly warm, or hot, it can get cold - Especially when the sun goes down in winter. For winter I pack a beanie, lightweight gloves and a warm fleece jacket.

It feels unnecessary to write the next point, however we still see it, leave the cotton and jean-like material at home - It takes long to dry, starts smelling quickly and is prone to causing caff.

Walk in your boots [choosing correctly is so important that we have dedicated a full blog too them], wear gaiters [everyone that comes on backpacking safari in the seed months that does not have them wishes they had them] and pack camp shoes for afterwards. Camp shoes are generally adventure sandals, "crocs", aqua shoes or similar. As a note, if your boots fail you can walk out in adventure sandals - The super light weight flip-flops that are commonly used lack multi-functionality/ versatility [try cross a fast flowing river in these] and often result in thorn punctured feet.

Hats are a must. Remember that caps don’t shield necks nor the side of the face. In terms of sunglasses, for all adventure activities, those with both UV protection and polarization work better.

Planning Your Hydration On Trail

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Your hydration is very important! On a walking safari we mostly obtain water from seeming dry river beds or from a river. It is very important that you bring either water purification drops or a filter. THis is again so important that we have a blog dedicated to just this.

If filtering remember to bring the parts for back flushing, gravity feeding, etc. Carry at least two water containers that have capacity for six liters. One in which your drinking water is carried and one to store additional water in once in camp. Ideas can include hydration bladders, water carrying bladders such as the brilliant MSR Dromedaries, dry bags, unused two-liter soda bottles [cheap and bomb proof] and traditional water bottles.

Remember to pack a mineral and electrolyte product, like “Rehydrate” or salt tablets, to replace those your body will lose whilst sweating - Not doing so, can result in your feeling unwell and lethargic.

One final point - It might sound obvious but for an easy start fill your water bottles at home.

Planning Your Food

Meals should be light to carry, high in nutritional value, fast and easy to prepare. If you pack the right food, you need less than you think. Our suggested packing list has great food ideas.

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An elephants sufficiency :)

All cooking must be done on your hiking stove – In almost all wilderness areas around the world cooking is not allowed on a fire. Bring small gas canisters [230 grams and below] – Big ones are unnecessary. If want to burn less gas use a wind shield and a ultra light heat exchanger pot.

Remove all unnecessary packaging and separately pre-pack each meal. With cereals and similar, package per meal, by weight.

Folk seriously focused on weight reduction will often only eat food that does not require cooking - This allows one to reduce weight through leaving behind the stove and fuel. It also means no hot food, soup or coffee ☹.

What is packed it in, must be taken out, including all rubbish. Pack rubbish created from food packaging as small and as compact as possible. Keep squeezing packaging into packaging – This reduces odor, the possibility of contamination through spillage and is easier to transport.

As an aside, you might consider leaving a snack and a cold drink in the car for your return. Store the latter in a tightly sealed cooler box filled with dry ice 😊.

Keeping Your Stuff Dry

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Saddle billed stork in its preferred habitat.

One important point is to pack all your kit and food in plastic or dry bags. Dry bags are useful for clothes as they allow you to seriously compact them through air extraction – Choose wisely in terms of weight though. The lightest bag liner is a black plastic garbage bag. Although plastic, zip lock bags are super awesome and can be re-used.

Some people claim that this is unnecessary to do in the dry months – This shows as a lack of experience. Besides the possibility of un-seasonal weather, ask anyone who has had a water bottle, soap bottle or bladder burst. Nothing can put a damper, excuse the pun, on your trail like wet kit, unusable communication or navigational equipment, food that is soaked or fire making equipment that won’t work. Besides that you will be uncomfortable, anything that can hold water will increase its weight ☹.

Packing Lists

Pack with a list. Ask any experienced adventurer, about the times they forgot to pack kit, and the lessons they learned from that. Some forgotten things might be inconsequential, others less so.

As an interesting side note, the physically ticking of a list is a requirement in certain professions such as medicine, etc. We have developed what we believe to be, in the context of our what we do, some of the most thought through and comprehensive packing lists around. For those interested in backpacking safaris, either as a guide or participant, click on this link and we will email you your packing list.

Buying Equipment

Experiencing the continuous movement of a backpacking safari.

If new to backpacking, the choice when walking [excuse the pun] into a store can be quite overwhelming. Going into equipment specific’s is the subject of another blog, saying this, a couple of observations remain consistently true:

  • Don’t go "wild" and excitedly buy what you see. It might sound counter intuitive BUT buy-less-of-the-right-stuff.

  • “Penny-wise” often leads to “pound-foolish” – All equipment is not the same, and this is often discovered at an inconvenient time during a trip.

  • Good equipment is purpose made. Regardless of the new owner’s perspective, NO piece of quality equipment is made to suit every application, situation or environment.

  • Certain equipment is similar to insurance – It seems like it will never be used, however when needed, the money we parted with was well spent

Pack the right stuff, pack light, focus on the incredible experience and have fun. See you soon!

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