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Backpacking Safaris: How To Pack & Plan Wisely


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

Author: Lutz Otto

Original Version: April 2018

Review: October 2022


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 backpacking wilderness trail, especially when we come from a "convenience" environment, is very rewarding and we always return home with new perspectives, and an 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, coupled to situational decision making, are all part of the trip. A seemingly simple thing, like making fire with friction, an old bush craft practice, can create 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.

When choosing equipment ask for advice from people with diverse, relevant, experience.


To participate in these experiences you will require certain pieces of equipment. With time many of us come to love gear, but in the beginning of our journeys making decisions around equipment can be difficult, and it is not unusual to feel slightly bewildered by the amount of choice, information, and the associated decision making. In this process we thus often lean on the advice of others, and in doing this it is worth been aware of the following:


  • It is important not to assume that advisers relevant backpacking CV. I cannot tell you the number of times we hear complaints about gear that was bought on “advice” at the new owners cost. Always try determine the amount of experience, and across what variety of environments it was gained, that the adviser has.


  • Visiting a specialist store does make a difference. At generalist outdoor retailers most employees only have basic product training, many do not participate in these activities of their own free will, and most have a limited equipment range in stock, which they are likely to upsell.


  • There is not the need to have the latest equipment, nor the very best, but it is important to understand that gear does make a difference, and in some instances is life critical. Although some folk state that gear does not matter, or that one can apply a "one-size-fits-all", both statements are not true. These opinions are almost always made from unconscious incompetence, a self-serving reason or romantic notions that have never been properly tested.


To close this point, when asking for advice it is useful to remember that, regardless of activity, the formula for experience is always ➡️ Experience = Capability (skill + knowledge) + Exposure (gained over time through, consistent, related, 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 my first real backpack trail, the Giants Cup trail in the Natal Drakensberg. From word go, I was absolutely hooked and by 1990 I had walked many of SA’s well known hut-to-hut backpack trails. Wanting it wilder, in 1989 I started leading wilderness backpacking trips in the high mountains. This transition created a seriously steep learning curve, with some hard lessons and very close calls. Soon this experience progressed to include included mountaineering, climbing [rock and ice], overlanding and walking safari trips. Fast forward to today, over 3 decades later and many thousands of hours, I am still seriously active, albeit a little older.


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

What, and how you pack, is fundamental to the enjoyment of your experience


Packing is an art that is developed over time with exposure, in the chosen activity, in wild places. The decisions you make with what to pack, how to pack and your preparation are fundamental to the overall enjoyment of your experience.


Upfront it is important to state that planning for a backpacking safari, which this article focuses on, is different to venturing into the high mountains. Comparatively, the bush is reasonably forgiving.


As you start thinking about packing, there are certain fundamental considerations that you should always have in mind. These will not only make a huge difference to the enjoyment of your experience, but are also important to your wellbeing. Not in order of importance these are:


  • good footwear, staying dry, staying warm [cold, hot and wet conditions all create different human physiologically responses, and all require management], sun protection, lighting for at night, shelter,

  • first aid, navigation equipment, emergency communication,

  • intelligent hydration, nutrition, and

  • packing light.


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Classic backpacking safari. Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa

In the context of preparation, we generally find that people earlier in their learning curves are caught out by things that become obvious with experience:


  • Not packing with a list, or leaving it to late.

  • Carry too much, or carry too heavy.

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

  • Investing money in gimmicks or poor quality equipment.

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

  • Trying to make equipment fit purposes it was not designed for. In summer, on a backpacking safari, a 4- season high altitude tent equates to a nightly sauna.

  • Not checking new or borrowed 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 poor fitting. Two points; Good quality tactical equipment is not cheap, and with few exceptions, leading edge mountaineering/ backpacking equipment is almost always better.


You will substantially increase your level of fun by avoiding all of the aforementioned 😊.


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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.


Next up is the principle of packing light. If legendary adventurers, that include Rheinold Messner, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Conrad Anker, Mike Horn, Robert Jasper, Steve House, Mark Twight, Jimmy Chin, Alex Honnold, Will Gadd, Nirmal Purja, Leo Houlding 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 situations have opened my eyes to possibilities that can unfold in wilderness, I consequently continue to utilize the mountaineering philosophy; Travel light enough to remain comfortable whilst never compromising critical safety kit.


Carrying light will:


  • save energy.

  • improve balance and agility.

  • reduce fatigue, and incidence, to injury.

  • allow you to focus on loving the experience and having FUN.

Unless you are used to carrying loads, try stick to the suggested maximum pack weight limit of 20% of total body weight. As a note, for people who are very light in body weight, limiting pack weight in this way can be a challenge and you should factor in carrying heavier in your strength training building up to your hike.

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

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


In the context of a wilderness trail in a safari area [remember different experiences require different in equipment], an ideal base pack weight for a participant [a guide’s pack contains additional items] is between 12 – 14 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 ultra-light category, the following are average weights. A:


  • 2 man tent +/- 2000 grams

  • 65 liter backpack +/- 1900 grams

  • 6 degree Celsius rated sleeping bag +/- 1000 grams

  • Inflatable sleeping mattress +/- 500 grams


Total for these items 5400 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.


By now you will get a sense that packing light requires some thought. So, to start the fun, and 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.

  • Pack multi-use equipment. For example, don’t pack a plate as you can eat out of your pot, use your spoon as a fork, only take a pocket knife and also use this to eat with, etc.

  • Use multi-functional clothing that can be used in layering systems. Remember that every layering system must as an absolute non-negotiable include rain gear.

  • In winter you can extend the range of a sleeping bag with a puffer jacket and descent thermals. Remember though that over layering clothing in a sleeping bag is counter productive.

  • 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 of the year. In winter we almost always carry heavier. To this point, a summer sleeping bag will weigh as little as 450 grams and a summer fleece top around 230 grams – Contrastingly a winter bag will weigh + 1600 grams and a decent winter fleece +/- 700 grams. Seeing this we can see why it makes sense, if you walk trails often, to seriously consider different summer/ winter sleeping bags.


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You don't need a -20'c sleeping bag on a lowveld trail. Night time on a mountaineering and ice climbing trip in the Sertig region of the Swiss Alps.

Whilst talking about seasons, it is very important to understand that:


  • sleeping bag comfort, transition and extreme temperature ratings are different.

  • sleeping pads, which are critical not only to comfort but not to losing heat into the ground, also have rating systems.

  • low altitude areas are comparatively forgiving to higher altitudes.

  • when packing in autumn and spring, be mindful that a cold snap can produce winter temperatures.


Ultralight equipment


Should you choose to go the super ultralight equipment route, which is not discussed here, it is important to understand that:

  • This equipment does not have the durability [and thus the lifespan] of good light kit [this relates particularly to packs and tents].

  • It comes at a completely different price point, and clients in South Africa will most probably need to look for this type of equipment in either the US or Europe.

  • Ultralight backpacks, which weigh less than 900 grams, are generally compromised in their hip belts. This means that you are forced to pack ultra light, as you will have lost the efficiency of a good hip belt that allows for load transfer to the hips and lower torso in the region of 70% of pack weight.


Sleeping And Shelter


Much like your hydration and boots, these are important topics that deserve more attention and we have dedicated full blogs to them. Click the links to read more about choosing the right tent and sleeping bag for your purpose.


Remember that with the darker hours comes the need for light - We highly recommend your bringing along a head torch that is adjustable from a low light to 400 lumens [or more]. On a walking safari you will not be walking after dark, but should you be venturing into the mountains on an ambitious project, you might start before sunrise, or finish after sunset - In both instances you will be walking via torch light and a quality head set is a must. Should your walking safari include spending time on night-watch, whilst your group sleeps without a tent under the stars, the higher luminosity is very important to undertake your light sweeps. Torches that offer the option of a red filter are useful in attracting less insects and a very low setting is great for reading in the tent. Even if only going for a short while, do not forget to pack a spare set of batteries.

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The rising moon on a beautiful autumn night.

Personal Hygiene


As a starting point only take biodegradable liquid soap that you have decanted into a small container. You do not need to take shampoo, body soap and a face wash. Make sure that you only pack a sample sized toothpaste, decant sunscreen [absolute 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 a 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 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.


Clothing


For walking safaris pack neutral colored clothing that reflects the shades of the bush e.g. browns, greens, khakis, dark blues, grey, burgundy, etc. Three points relating to this are:

  • Interestingly many animals are colour blind, however certain colours, such as whites, neon yellows, bright pinks, etc. are picked up by animals quickly.

  • Be mindful that camouflage clothing has military connotations attached to it, and is illegal to wear in some countries.

  • Bright colour's are intrusive in the bush where we prefer to blend into the environment. This is different to the mountains.

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

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. Wear any new clothing prior trail to ensure that it does not chaff or feel uncomfortable. It feels unnecessary to write the next point, however we still see this, leave the cotton and jean-like material at home - It takes long to dry, starts smelling quickly and is prone to causing chaff.


For backpacking safaris, pack a maximum of two shirts, one pair of shorts and a light fleece jacket. 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 [especially if prone to chaff]. The only thing we carry many of, are socks. 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.


Although the bush is mostly warm, or hot, it gets cold in winter when the sun goes down. For the winter months pack thermals to sleep in, a beanie, lightweight gloves, and light weight puffer jacket.


In terms of weather management, rain gear makes up one of two pieces of fundamental, and non-negotiable, equipment. Regardless of terrain type, or country across the globe, the number one cause of people entering into hypothermic states is either not having, or having inadequate rain gear. Rain gear serves to keep you dry, and forms part of your layering system if it gets cold or windy. Although safari areas generally do not have weather conditions as dangerous as in the mountains, wet bodies, even in these warmer environments, chill very quickly, and extended periods of being cold, can result in problems that include decreasing cognitive function including poor decision making. In terms of high level choices:


  • Consider a poncho as an absolute minimum. Lightweight and cheap, they can be also be used as a makeshift shelter, a basic blanket in an emergency or to cover a backpack. They work poorly when stretching body movement is important, and perform badly in windy conditions or as a layering system.


  • Rain jackets are fundamentally better. They trump ponchos in sustained rain and the wind, they work well where dynamic body movement is needed and are excellent in a layering system. In instances where cold weather is expected, they must be paired with rain pants and suitable gaiters.


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When the forecasted snow turns out to be rain. North Wales.

Good foot wear is the second fundamental, and consequently we have dedicated a full blog too them. Remember to wear gaiters [everyone that comes on backpacking safari 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, completely 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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Water carrying options. Be super careful with hydration bladders on trail as they are prone to splitting.

Your hydration is very important and we have a blog dedicated to this. Four high level points from that are:


  • 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.


  • Always start your day with three liters of water in your pack. Carry at least two water containers that have a carrying capacity for up to six liters. Should one break, you have a plan B and the additional capacity is useful to store additional water once in camp.


  • Although hydration bladders are amazing on short trips, they regularly burst or break on backpacking experiences. If you choose to use one, it is critical that you have a backup water container.


  • Remember to pack a mineral and electrolyte product, like “Rehydrate” or salt tablets. This is to replace those your body will lose whilst sweating - Not doing so, can result in your feeling unwell and lethargic. For South African clients, remember that the product Game is not an electrolyte replace drink.


One final point, which 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.


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 ☹.


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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 and heavy. To burn less gas, and use it more efficiently, bring a wind shield and a ultra light heat exchanger pot.


We follow, and live the leave-no-trace principles. Remember that 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.


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, zip lock or dry bags. Some people claim that this is unnecessary to do in the dry months – This really 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.


A couple of points to think about:

  • Besides you being uncomfortable, anything that can hold water will increase its weight.

  • Wet sleeping bags are very heavy and take long to dry. Down becomes completely ineffective and although hollow fiber sleeping bags still hold some insultation value they are largely compromised. The same applies to all wet clothing.

  • Unusable communication, navigation or first aid equipment can have serious consequences.

  • Food that is soaked, will need to be eaten to stop it going off.

  • Fire making equipment won’t work.


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 liners are the plastic bags which you can get when shopping.


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 physical 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.


Hiring or Buying Equipment

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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


  • If you are keen to join us on backpacking safari, and you do not have the equipment, this should not be the reason not to join. You are able to hire equipment [see below], and further this, hiring is a great way to check out equipment.


Remember that all Spirited Adventures clients, booked on any of our retreats or safaris, receive the benefit of a preferential discounts on any equipment:



Coming Full Circle.


Hiking and backpacking, are incredibly rewarding experiences. Although everything we do, as well as who we engage with, influences our thinking and behavior, a good wilderness must rank right up there. Whether you choose to pursue this frequently, or if it is only for one trip, a good trail will imprint memories in your heart that last for your lifetime. Packing the right stuff and packing light, will allow you to enjoy the experience to its fullest.


We hope that working through this has helped. We look forward to spending time with you, and creating active, exciting, immersive, connective, safe and impactful experiences, that will result in your eagerly planning your next adventure on your journey home.



About this articles author: 🐾 Lutz Otto is the founder of Spirited Adventures and Consulting. He is a safari trails guide, a mountain guide, coach and leadership consultant. You can explore his bio here.

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