Backpacking Safari: SMART Packing & Planning

Updated: Dec 11, 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.

Cape Buffalo on a walking safari

Once on the trip, trailists discover that there is just so much more to this incredible, sometimes life changing, experience. 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. 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.

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

It is only though possible to participate in these experiences if we have certain pieces of equipment. With time many of us come to LOVE gear, but in the beginning of our journeys making decisions around this can be difficult. Based on uncertainty, many people resort to asking for suggestions on forums, in shops and so forth. This is our first big learning 😊- Not understanding your advisers backpacking CV can result in poor outcomes - I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard complaints about equipment that was bought on “advice”. The formula for experience is simple: Experience = Capability [skill + knowledge] + Exposure [built over extended periods of time through consistent activity].

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

With this in mind, when did my journey start? In 1986 I completed my first backpacking trail and by 1996 I had led over 150 high altitude backpacking and mountaineering trips – Many of those trips saw us carry all the normal wilderness trail kit, plus full winter ice climbing equipment including ice axes, crampons, ice screws, ropes, helmets and so forth. Fast forward to 2018, hundreds of trails, thousands of hours and +30 years later, I am still seriously active at it, albeit a little older and with less time in the climbing arena.

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

Packing And What To Pack, Is An Art

Shifting our attention back to equipment, and packing, for this awesome pursuit we generally find that people earlier in their learning curves:

  • Carry too much, carry too heavy or invest money into the wrong equipment.

  • Feel slightly bewildered by the amount of choice and the associated decision making.

  • Are caught out by things that become obvious with experience.

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

  • Misjudge the experience, and thereby leave things too late or do not undertake enough research/ planning.

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.

Classic backpacking safari. Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa

Packing is an art that is developed over time with exposure 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. It is worth your reading our blogs that talk through safari boots and hydration.

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

A backpacking safari requires a lot less equipment than a mountaineering excursion. Saying this, unforgiving big mountains had a huge influence in my life, and I continue to utilize the philosophy first developed in this space, of travelling light, whilst remaining comfortable and always being appropriately prepared.

Packing Light

Carry as light as you legitimately and safely can. The suggested maximum pack weight limit of 20% of total body weight is already far too much. If legendary high-altitude athletic machines that include Steve House, Scott Backes, Mark Twight and Ueli Steck see/ saw value in this principle, so should we. The lighter you carry, the less strain you will put on your body. Carrying light will allow you to move more comfortably, whilst your balance and agility will be better. Carrying light also reduces fatigue as well as our incidence to injury. Fundamentally the combination allows you to focus on loving the experience and having a super awesome time.

An ideal pack weight for a participant [a guide’s pack contains additional items] is between 10 – 13 kg’s, on top of which you will carry 3 liters of drinking water. The five heaviest things you carry will generally be your tent, sleeping bag, backpack, food and water. Of these five items the only one on which weight cannot improve/ decrease is water.

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

With the view to give carry-weight some context [in the framework of a wilderness trail in the Greater Kruger National Park and with products of a reasonable quality but not in the very expensive ultra-light category], a small 2 man tent will weigh 2100 grams, a 65 liter backpack 2200 grams, a 0 degree Celsius sleeping bag 1000 grams and should you use to carry an inflatable sleeping mattress another 620 grams. Total for these items 5920 grams. This excludes clothing, rain gear, camp shoes, a chair [for the discerning backpacker 😊], 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, weather forecast dependent, will require 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 - 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 multi-functional clothing and layering. Carefully watch autumn and spring temperatures – Serious backpackers have a third category of temperature graded equipment. A summer sleeping bag will weigh as little as 500 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 [accepting that this applies to low altitude areas - higher altitudes requires equipment with deeper temperature ratings]!

You don't need a -30'c sleeping bag on a lowveld trail. Mont Blanc, French Alps.

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 and understand that this equipment does not have the durability [and thus the lifespan] of the good light, but not ultra-light equipment [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. 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.

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.

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. The only thing we carry many of, are socks – On a 4 day day trail i carry one pair for each full day.

A buff is an all season must – This is a hugely versatile piece of equipment. A rain jacket is important – 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, so I feel obligated putting it here - Leave the cotton and jean-like material at home. Make sure that your clothing is made of a synthetic technical material or the new merino wool – It dries faster, wicks better, carries less body odor, is lighter, often has UV protection and has better insulating or cooling properties.

Walk in your boots [see blog related hereto] 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.

Buying Equipment

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 though the subject of another blog. Saying this, a couple of observations remain consistently true are:

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

  • Speak to experienced backpackers - Undertake a process of comparison and good research. Understand your advisers backpacking CV. Experience = Capability [skill + knowledge] + Exposure [built over extended periods of time through consistent activity].

  • Many outdoor store employees have only been given basic product training. Many do not passionately participate in these activities of their own free will NOR do they have underpinning interest in the subject. This quickly puts them out of their depth - At your cost.

  • “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

Planning Your Hydration On Trail

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. Read our blog for more information hereto [including great ideas for water storage]. If filtering remember to bring the parts for back flushing, gravity feeding, etc.

Carry at least two water containers. 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. With cereals and similar, package per meal, by weight. If you pack the right food, you need less than you think. Our suggested packing list has great food ideas.

An elephants sufficiency :)

All cooking must be done on your hiking stove – In almost all wilderness areas no cooking is allowed on a fire. Bring small gas canisters [230 grams and below] – Big ones are unnecessary.

Remove all unnecessary packaging and separately pre-pack each meal. 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. Another tip is to 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

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. Zip lock bags are also super awesome.

Nothing can put a damper, excuse the pun, on your trail like wet kit, 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 ☹. Some people claim that this is unnecessary to do in the dry months – I disagree, besides the possibility of un-seasonal weather, ask anyone who has had a water bottle or bladder burst if it needs to rain for your pack to get soaked.

Packing Lists

Pack with a list. Ask any experienced adventurer, about when they forgot that one important thing, and the lessons they learned from that. Some things which we might forget can be inconsequential, others less so. As an interesting side note, physically ticking a list, guarantees that you won’t just glance over something.

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 wilderness backpacking, either as a guide or participant, click on this link and we will email you your packing list.

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



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