Two simple rules to bear in mind when you decide what to take with you on a Uganda safari trip — particularly if you expect to use public transport — your packing list should include everything that might not be readily available when you need it, and carry as minimal as possible.
Somewhat contradictory rules, you might think, and you’d be right — so the key is finding the right balance, something that probably depends on personal experience as much as anything.
Worth stressing is that most genuine necessities are surprisingly easy to get hold of in Uganda’s main centers. Most of the ingenious gadgets you can buy in camping shops are unlikely to amount to much more than dead weight on the road.
If it came to it, you could easily travel to Uganda with little more than a change of clothes, a few basic toiletries, and a medical kit. That said, let’s take a look a how your packing list should look like.
Your Uganda trip packing list starts with carrying everything in something like a luggage travel bag. Visitors who are unlikely to be carrying their luggage for any significant distance will probably want to pack most of it in a conventional safari bag (sometimes called a duffel bag).
Ensure the suitcase or duffel bad is tough and durable and seals well so that the contents will survive bumpy drives to the game reserves. A lock is a good idea, not only for flights, but for when you leave your case in a hotel room — theft from upmarket safari lodges is unusual in Uganda, but it can happen anywhere in the world. Even a flimsy lock will act as a serious deterrent to casual finger-dipping.
A daypack will be useful on an Africa safari, and you should be able to pack your luggage in such a manner that any breakable goods can be carried in the body of the vehicle and on your lap when necessary — anything like a phone or camera will suffer heavily from vibrations on rutted roads. If you are likely to use public transport, then an internal frame backpack is the most practical way to carry your luggage.
Once again, ensure your pack is durable, that the seams and zips are properly sewn, and that it has several pockets. If you intend to do a lot of hiking, you definitely want a backpack designed for this purpose.
On the other hand, if you’ll be staying at places where it might be a good idea to shake off the sometimes negative image attached to travelers with backpacks, there would be obvious advantages in using a suitcase that converts into a backpack.
If I’m travelling with heavy photography equipment and a laptop, my preference over either of the above is for a robust 35L daypack. The advantages of keeping luggage as light and compact as possible are manifold. For starters, you can rest it on your lap on bus trips, avoiding complications such as extra charges for luggage on domestic flights, arguments about where your bag should be stored, and the slight but real risk of theft if your luggage ends up, say, on the roof.
A compact bag also makes for greater mobility, whether you’re taking a day excursion, hiking, or looking for a hotel in town.
The sacrifice? Leave behind camping equipment and a sleeping bag. Do this, and it’s quite possible to fit everything you truly need into a 35L daypack. Possibly even a few luxuries — I refuse to travel without binoculars, a bird field guide, and at least five novels, and I am still able to keep my weight down to around 8kg.
If your luggage won’t squeeze into a daypack, a sensible compromise is also to carry a duffel bag, especially if you’re taking a planned safari trip and carrying photography gear. Leave what you’re not using in storage. Travelers carrying a lot of valuable items should look for a pack that can easily be padlocked.
Camping gear will not be needed on your packing list if you’re taking a planned Uganda safari trip. There are established safari camps in the parks where your safari operator would have booked you. You could want a planned trip and want to camp; then, the next text is for you.
There is a strong case for carrying a tent to Uganda, particularly if you are on a tight budget. Campsites exist in most Ugandan national parks, forest reserves, and towns. Travelers who intend to do a fair bit of off-the-beaten-track hiking will find a tent a useful fallback where no other accommodation exists.
If you decide to carry camping equipment, the key is to look for the lightest available gear. It is now possible to buy a lightweight tent weighing a little more than 2kg, but make sure that the one you buy is reasonably mosquito-proof. Usable sleeping bags weighing even less than 2kg can be bought, but, especially as many lightweight sleeping bags are not particularly warm, my own preference is for a sheet sleeping bag, supplemented by wearing heavy clothes in cold weather.
Also essential is a roll-mat, which will serve as both insulation and padding. There is no real need to carry a stove in Uganda, as firewood is available at most campsites where meals cannot be bought. If you carry a stove, it’s worth knowing that Camping Gaz cylinders are not readily available.
Try the travel shop at Victoria mall in Entebbe (near the airport) or the Game store in Kampala’s Lugogo Mall, which has Uganda’s best selections of outdoor/camping equipment. If you are camping in the rainy season, bring a box of firelighter blocks: they will get a fire going in the most unpromising conditions. It would also be advisable to carry a pot, plate, cup, and cutlery — lightweight cooking utensils are available at most camping shops in Western countries.
Assuming that you have space, you ought to carry at least one shirt and underwear change for every day you will spend on safari. Organizing laundry along the way is a pain in the neck, and the dusty conditions will practically enforce a daily change of clothes.
It’s a good idea to keep separate one or two shirts for evening use only. Otherwise, try to keep your clothes to a minimum. In my opinion, the minimum you need is one or possibly two pairs of trousers and or 2 dresses, one pair of shorts, three shirts or T-shirts, one light sweater, maybe a light waterproof jacket during the rainy season, enough socks and underwear to last five to seven days, one solid pair of shoes or boots for walking, and one pair of sandals, thongs or other light shoes.
It’s widely held that jeans are not ideal for African travel since they are bulky to carry, hot to wear, and take ages to dry. I seldom used to travel in jeans myself, but these days I almost always do, since they have the advantages of durability and comfort and hiding the dust and dirt that tends to accumulate on public transport.
A good alternative is light cotton trousers, which dry more quickly and weigh less. Try to avoid light colors as they show dirt more easily. If you intend to spend a while in montane regions, instead of bringing a second pair of trousers, you might prefer to carry a safari trouser made from a synthetic material that offers UV protection, convertible, and vented for comfort. The material is great for fighting moisture and dirt/dust when out in the bush.
Pants like these are particularly helpful if you’re gorilla trekking as the jungle is extremely humid with lots of low lying plants where protection is crucial.
Shorts on men are acceptable for travel, especially on the savanna plains and informal situations. However, many Ugandans consider them inappropriate on grown men whose school days are clearly long past. Before travelling in shorts, it’s worth considering whether you’ll be able to don longer trousers before mosquitoes start snapping at your ankles.
Like trousers, these are best made of light natural fabric such as cotton. It is advisable to wear skirts that go below the knee for reasons of protocol: short skirts will cause needless offense to many Ugandans (especially Muslims). Whether you like it or not, they may be perceived as provocative in some quarters.
There are parts of Africa where it’s still considered slightly off for women to wear trousers or jeans rather than a skirt, but this isn’t a real issue in Uganda. In rural areas, women are probably best off not wearing shorts.
Another point against short skirts is, in addition to climbing into a tall vehicle, you’ll be standing up on the seats for game viewing and perhaps even sitting on the roof. Your driver/guide usually stays seated, so it’s really not appropriate to be wearing a short skirt in this situation. I’m sure he would try to keep his eyes averted, but I think you would be better off wearing shorts if you want to keep it short.
Wearing a skirt one around the camp or lodge during a midday break might be okay, but you’re still looking at whether that’s culturally appropriate to wear one around the camp staff.
T-shirts are arguably better than button-up shirts because they are lighter and less bulky. That said, I’ve found that the top pocket of a shirt (particularly if the pocket buttons up) is a good place to carry my spending money in markets or bus stations, as it’s easier to keep an eye on than trouser pockets.
Uganda is generally warm at night, though at higher altitudes (for instance, in Fort Portal), it can cool down in the evening. For general purposes, one warm sweater, fleece jacket, or sweatshirt should be adequate. If you intend hiking Mount Elgon or the Rwenzoris, you will need very warm clothing.
Western Uganda has a wet climate, and showers are normal even during the supposed dry seasons. A light waterproof jacket is close to essential. Alternatively, a lightweight umbrella can be useful against rain and sun (usually, your safari lodge provides one if it rains).
These must be made from natural fabrics, and bear in mind that re-using them when sweaty will encourage fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, as well as prickly heat in the groin region.
Socks and underpants are light and compact enough for it to be worth bringing a week’s supply.
Unless you’re serious about off-road hiking, bulky hiking boots are probably not important on the Uganda trip packing list. They’re also very heavy, whether they are on your feet or in your pack. A good pair of walking shoes, preferably made of leather and with some ankle support, is a good compromise.
It’s also useful to carry sandals, thongs, or other light shoes. Rather than spending a fortune outfitting yourself for Africa before leaving home, you might follow the lead of informed travelers and pack a minimum for just what your itinerary needs you to do.
If you are trekking the gorillas in Bwindi, waterproof hiking boots are your best friend. You’re not going to trek gorillas in your long tucked trousers and socks in canvas shoes, the jungle floor is mostly dumpy, and there are no designated hiking trails, so you’ll have to put your best foot forward. And your best foot will be thick-soled, waterproof, and with a decent ankle support pair of jungle boots that feel like Indiana Jones.
Most backpackers, even those with no intention of camping, carry a sleeping bag. A lightweight sleeping bag will be more than adequate in most parts of Uganda; better still in this climate would be to carry a sheet sleeping bag, something you can easily make yourself.
You don’t need a sleeping bag if you’re taking a planned tour.
The one time when you will definitely need an all-weather sleeping bag is on high mountains.
You might meet travellers who habitually place their own sleeping bag on top of the bedding provided when they stay in local lodgings—Ludacris, in my opinion. I’d imagine that a sleeping bag placed on a flea-ridden bed would be unlikely to provide significant protection and, rather, more likely to become flea-infested itself.
One item I wouldn’t leave out on my Uganda safari packing list is a pair of binoculars, which some might say makes me a nut. Seriously though, if you’re interested in natural history, it’s difficult to imagine anything that will give you such value-for-weight entertainment as a pair of light, compact binoculars, which these days needn’t be much heavier or bulkier than a pack of cards.
Binoculars are essential if you want to get a good look at birds (Africa boasts a remarkably colorful avifauna, even if you’ve no desire to put a name to everything that flaps) or to watch distant mammals in game reserves.
For most purposes, 7×21 compact binoculars will be fine, though some might prefer 7×35 traditional binoculars for their larger field of vision. Serious birdwatchers will find a 10x magnification more useful. Pack it for your holiday in Uganda.
Some travelers like to carry their own padlock. This would be useful if you have a lockable pack, and in remote parts of the country, it might be necessary for rooms where no lock is provided. If you are uneasy about security in a particular guesthouse, you may like to use your own lock instead of or in addition to the one on your door.
Although combination locks are reputedly easier to pick than conventional padlocks, I think you’d be safer with a combination lock in Uganda because potential thieves will have far more experience in breaking locks with keys.
Some lodges provide domestic safes, usually placed in your locker, wardrobe, or next to your bed with instructions on using them. You can use it for your most valuable things.
Another item that should make your safari trip packing list is the toilet bag and its contents. Your toilet bag should, at the very minimum, include soap (secured in a plastic bag or soap holder unless you enjoy a soapy toothbrush!), shampoo, toothbrush, and toothpaste. This sort of stuff is easy to replace as you go along, so there’s no need to bring family-sized packs.
Men will probably want a razor. Women should carry at least enough tampons and/or sanitary pads to see them through at least one heavy period since these items may not always be immediately available.
Nobody should forget to bring a towel (unless you’re travelling luxury) or to keep handy a roll of loo paper which, although widely available at shops and kiosks, cannot always be relied upon to be present where it’s most urgently needed.
Other essentials on your Uganda safari trip packing list include a torch, a penknife (or arguably more useful, a Leatherman-style tool), and a compact alarm clock for those early morning starts. As load shedding (a euphemism for scheduled power cuts) becomes an increasingly important factor of day-to-day life, so does a powerful torch rank as an increasingly important item of luggage. Some safari camps and lodges are not connected to the national grid and may use solar or generators but switch off after midnight to conserve electricity.
Download a couple of interesting apps on your phone to engage you like games, your audiobooks playlist, and hiking music. Some travelers carry games — most commonly a pack of cards, less often chess or draughts or Travel Scrabble. Some hotels and lodges in Uganda have these at their lounges.
Many older hotels have baths but no bath plugs, so you might want to consider carrying your own universal bath plug.
You should make sure a small medical kit makes it to your trip’s packing list, the contents of which are discussed in health (Watching your health on a Uganda trip), as are mosquito nets and insect repellent. It’s mandatory that you carry surgical gloves, N85 surgical facemask, and hand sanitizer on your medical kit. At any entry point, these may be requested to protect you or others from coronavirus (Covid-19) infection. Most importantly, keep your face mask on while you travel in Uganda and watch your distance from other people. Coronavirus could be anywhere humans are.
If you wear contact lenses, bring all the fluids you need since they’re not easily available in Uganda.
You might also want to bring a pair of glasses to wear on long drives and safari drive — many lens wearers suffer badly in dusty conditions. In general, since many people find the intense sun and dry climate irritate their eyes, you might consider reverting to glasses. It’s worth bringing a spare pair for those who wear glasses, though a new pair can be made up cheaply and quickly in most towns, provided that you have your prescription available.
Novels should make your safari trip packing list if you’re an ardent reader, and they’re difficult to get hold of outside Kampala. Either bring a supply with you or visit the excellent Aristoc bookshops on Kampala Road and in Garden City, which stock an excellent range of literature, present bestsellers, Africana, and local-interest material. Books are competitively priced and sometimes cheaper than UK prices.
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