Safari clothing: 6 essential lessons to dress for safari success

You’re off on safari! The research is done. The guide books are purchased. The tickets are hot in your hand. And you’re getting ready to pack your ultra-light bag with everything you’ll need for your trip of a lifetime.

You’ve read all the advice you can handle (perhaps even my post on how to pack clever for your African bush adventure!).

But when it comes down to the line, you still have no idea whether your favourite sweater is going to be a help or a hindrance; if you should pack jeans, how many pairs of socks is enough, and what on earth to expect once you are out in the wilds.

What to wear on safari is something of a conundrum, the answer to which is entirely dependent on whether you are a complete slave to fashion and worry constantly about your appearance; or whether you don’t care if your trousers absolutely match your shirt and if your shoes co-ordinate properly with your camera bag.

So, in a bid to help sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to safari style, I am going to take a look at what I believe to be the ultimate safari wardrobe which won’t break the scales at the airport!

First off, let me say that I have seen virtually EVERY take on both the best, and worst dressed safarigoers, including the most practical and impractical safari gear going.

From haute couture animal prints hot off the Milan catwalk, Prada stilletos getting stuck in between the slats of wooden decks, and $300 silk scarves ripped to shreds by thorn bushes; to Victoria’s Secret lingerie being pilfered by baboons and draped for all to see high in the branches of an acacia tree, I can tell you tales of complete wardrobe disasters, but, happily, some equally good success stories.

OK. So – what constitutes a great safari wardrobe to suit every possible incident, occasion and event? Well, for me it’s one which you can afford to lose. Or at the very least have ruined!

1. Never Take Your Best Clothes in the Bush

Couple on safari in Tanzania, posing in front of their four wheel drive

Lesson 1 in safari style is to NEVER take your best clothes into the bush. If I find a pair of shorts, or trousers, or a top I love and know that it would break my heart to have it ruined on safari, I usually buy two – one for best and one for the bush.

And if the item comes in different colours, I buy the range! This way, over the years, I have acquired what I call my “bush stalwarts” – clothes which come everywhere with me, which can be teamed together to create practical, and yet stylish outfits.

The basic colour range is simple: khaki, beige, white and brown (or variations thereof!). I avoid black and blue during the day because they attract tsetse flies but do occasionally take these colours for evening wear, when the tsetses have gone to bed!

2. Stick to the Basics

Lesson 2 is learning how many of each item you will need. I always go with four of the basics – four pairs of shorts, four pairs of cut-off pants, four string vests, four T-shirts, four pairs of long pants, four button-through shirts (two of which are long-sleeved), four sets of underwear, four pairs of socks… you get the drift I am sure!

When I travel in winter, or during the colder months of the year, I add to this scenario two lightweight long-sleeve T-shirts and two knitted sweaters, plus two fleeces or warm jackets, thermal long-johns, gloves, scarf and a beanie.

I ALWAYS pack a swimsuit (because even in the winter, it’s usually warm enough to suntan during the day and sometimes even swim) and a couple of sarongs/kikoys. This is a fairly unisex wardrobe, which works for guys as well as gals!

3. Shoes to Wear on Safari

Low angle view of two safari guides and an elephant bone

Lesson 3 concerns footwear. In the heat of the summer I pack two pairs of “bush slops” – flip flops (thongs) which are heavy-duty, waterproof and good enough to handle walking in light bush for game drives, two or three pairs of fashion flip-flops for around camp and evening meals and a pair of good walking shoes (Merrells) for walking safaris.

In the winter I replace the walking shoes with walking boots and add a pair of lightweight faux-fur lined “trendy” flat boots for evening wear.

4. Safari Wardrobe: Accessories

Accessorize – that’s the key to lesson 4for guys this means very little, but for girls – it’s the difference between a good safari wardrobe and a bad one. Two or three lightweight coloured scarves and/or wraps are a must in my safari bag.

Usually they have beadwork or applique of some description on them, and can be used to dress up even the most conservative safari outfit to add a dash of glamor to evening meals. Team them up with a couple of great “ethnic” bead necklaces and earrings.

Hats are essential on safari, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun. I have a couple of lightweight, floppy straw sun-hats which are great for tiger fishing as well as the usual peak baseball-style caps.

5. Quality

Typical clothes to wear on an African safari

Lesson 5 is all about quality. Everything I take into the bush with me has stood the test of time, the rigours of hand-washing and bumping and grinding in the back of a safari vehicle halfway across Africa.

So it’s important to check your clothes before you pack to make sure they can be hand-washed, aren’t going to fall apart the first time you wear them, and are not likely to fade too drastically when hung in the sun to dry.

Most of the high-street fashion chains carry good quality fashionable clothing which will stand up to the average safari conditions, avoiding the need to go to specialist outfitters and camping/outdoor stores where things tend to cost a lot more.

And, of course, the big brands like Jeep (a personal favourite because their clothes are practical, hard-wearing and pretty at the same time), and Cat always have some great wardrobe “must haves”.

6. Colours to Wear: White Clothes?

Finally, lesson 6 concerns white. Do you take white clothes into the bush with you? Hell yes.

As long as you don’t expect them to remain white for long, and can accept the fact that no matter where you wear it, white is an impractical colour, it’s more or less a bush essential in my book because it reflects sunlight, keeps you cool and goes with everything.

Everyone says don’t wear white on a safari vehicle – but let me tell you that I always have done, and have seen some incredible things while doing so!

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