Backpacking Light & Ultralight: Everything You NEED to Know for Africa

backpacking light, packing list, backpacking essentials, backpacking in africa

Backpacking Light: Is it possible in Africa?

When I first started my 7 month trip backpacking in Africa, I brought everything you could imagine. I was not backpacking light– that’s for sure. Most of the stuff I didn’t need, and the rest I could have picked up along the way.  Besides all the money I wasted buying useless travel gear, it was simply unbearable having a bag that overweight.

Six weeks into my trip a British guy named Robby, who was backpacking light, helped me sort through what I actually need. I sold the rest (almost half of it!) at a market in Mozambique. The locals went crazy! And while it’s a hilarious memory, I highly suggest you go the light or ultralight backpacking route. Backpacking light is the only way I’ll travel now. I made my own travel packing list and I follow it no matter where I go.

Backpacking Light in Africa, Backpacking Africa for Beginners, Overloaded truck in Africa

At least I’m not the only one who overpacks in Africa. You’ll see this kind of thing a lot! Photo Credit: Africa Geographic

What is Backpacking Light?

Backpacking Light (and ultralight)

means you carry the lightest and simplest gear safely possible. In practical terms it means you wouldn’t skip Malaria medicine to save room in your bag (because that’s not safe!). You would, however, count out the exact amount of pills you need for your trip instead of taking the entire pack of medicine.

Going minimalist offers genuine benefits in every area of your life. Pros of backpacking light/ultralight include:

  • Your Health Now – Do you really want to throw your back out when you could be sand surfing Botswana?
  • Long Term Joint Health – If you do a long trip like mine (7 months) or take off a couple times a year, that adds up. The goal is to extend your years of travel not extend the weight of your backpack.
  • Enjoy Backpacking Africa – My trip was significantly improved once Robby repacked me.  Before I dreaded getting on and off buses because my bag was too hard to lift. It was also embarrassing being unable to carry my bag for long durations. Once I got rid of all that stuff– I was free and much more mobile.

Bottom line, don’t be tied down by stuff. Backpacking light/ultralight in Africa forces you to be creative, resourceful, and content. There’s no better feeling than that.



Backpacking Light in Africa, Backpacking Africa for Beginners, Overloaded donkeys in Africa

This is NOT an example of backpacking light 🙂

Who Started Backpacking Light?

While backpacking ultralight is the trendy thing to do now, it actually got its start in 1992 when author and rock climber, Ray Jardine, wrote
Beyond Backpacking
. The book laid the foundations for many techniques used today.

Ultralight and Light Backpacking Standards

It’s all about reducing your Base Pack Weight (BPW).

BPW= Weight of your backpack +  the gear inside and outside it – consumables (like the million packages of biscuits you’ll eat on long bus rides).

It used to be accepted that your backpack could be 1/3 of your weight. But if a 180lb person carried a 60lb bag now, it would be considered 40 pounds over Luxury. Big difference!

The standards vary, but generally:

Minimalist/Super Ultralight – 6lbs

Ultralight: 7 to 14 lbs (Nothing but the basics, but enough you can have a thicker sleeping bag and tent)

Lightweight: 15 to 20lbs (Aim for this! It’s the basics with enough room for a selfie stick and a few other perks)

Luxury/Plush: 20lbs + (My bag was plush plush. Honestly I’ll never go into this category again. If you end up at 22 pounds, okay. But anything more isn’t worth it.)

Clever Travel Companion, Backpacking Gear, Backpacking Light, Backpacking Africa for Beginners

Travel shirts like this double as money belts/purses, but are much more secure. Mine has saved my ass more than a few times! Seriously, get one today.

Backpacking Light Techniques

The goal is to bring only what you really need and refine what you already have.

1. Reduce Weight of Existing Items. Example, do you really need a whole box of batteries or can you take out the few you need? Some backpackers even cut off tags from sleeping bags, shirts, tents, etc. to save weight. It all adds up!

2. Bring Only What You NEED. I brought 4 pairs of pants with me! That was too much. I sold 2 in the market in Mozambique, and never even missed the other two. I just did twice as much as laundry. (That’s a lie…. I rarely did laundry. It’s generally acceptable to be dirty as a backpacker, and I totally owned that).

3. Multi-purpose equipment. Get a single universal charger instead of multiple ones for each country. Wear a travel shirt that hides your money instead of bringing both a shirt and a money wallet. Or buy a sari like I did in Zimbabwe and use it as a beach wrap, beach towel, and picnic blanket.

Universal Charger, Backpacking Essentials, Backpacking Light

This is the EXACT Universal Charger I’m using right now. At first, I bought a cheaper one. It worked, but broke eventually. This one so far is holding up really well, and it has 2 USB ports so you can charge multiple phones which is awesome! Highly recommend this particular one.

4. Rethink Your Needs.   Originally I bought this big metal net to put over my backpack. I heard about it through a travel website. Looking back, I think they only wanted the affiliate money because this thing is ridiculous. It’s impractical, waste of space, hard to use, and totally inefficient for stopping thieves. I threw it in the garbage (waste of $75 grrr….) and instead relied on my theft proof top to keep my stuff safe. It was way lighter, more concealed, and easier than anything else.

Backpacking Light, Backpacking Africa for Beginners, Metal Net

The metal net I brought with me…. Not worth the $

5. Reduce. Don’t carry a big bottle of shampoo or soap with you.  Things like deodorant, laundry soap, and shower accessories can be found along the way. As a side note, some products for Caucasians like light skinned makeup won’t be easily available.

6. Replace Gear. The “Big Three” also known as your tent, backpack, and sleeping bag (sleeping pad is #4) are the most important, but also the heaviest. Jorgen Johansson coined the phrase ”3 for 3.” He recommends getting the “Big Three” down to 3 kilos (which is 6.6lbs total). If you can replace them while retaining quality, it’s worth it. 

7. Shoes. If you’re not a hard core hiker, you don’t need to hard core hiking boots. Grandma Gatewood, another ultralight backpacking pioneer, wore Keds instead of army boots for example. If you have super huge feet though, you might need to bring an extra pair since I found shoes in Africa rather small (for women size 8 or 38 was typically the highest). Alternatively you could adjust your trip to start with hiking first. Begin your trip at Mount Kilimanjaro (instead of ending your trip with it). Donate your left over equipment to a guide to lighten your load the rest of the way.

grandma gatewood, backpacking light, backpacking ultralight, backpacking africa for beginners

If Grandma Gatewood can backpack light, so can we.

All of this depends on:

  • Comfort level/Convenience – I’m extremely good at being uncomfortable–especially when it comes to sleeping. So I opted out of a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Others, especially those with back issues, should take greater care.
  • Personal Preference- I would go fuc*ing crazy in a bivy sack, but it would save weight. If you can do it, go for it. But if you’re like me it’s well worth it to buy a tent instead.

    Bivy Sacks, Backpacking Light in Africa, Backpacking Africa for Beginners

    Bivy Sacks. Photo from

  • Safety Needs- If you’re backpacking South Africa or another country with clean drinkable water everywhere, then you’re fine. Anywhere else I highly recommend water purification tablets (Note: speaking from experience, the tablets are easier and lighter than the liquid options) as a backup for the unexpected. I knew an American guy who got stranded on the side of the road in Somaliland with no clean water. He never travels without these pills now. 
  • Where you Go- A hammock might be fine (I mean totally awesome!) at Lake Malawi. But you’d freeze your ass off in the Simien mountains. Also your bag will be exceptionally heavier in colder areas.

    Lions be wishing they packed for colder weather, Backpacking Light, backpacking africa for beginners

    Lions be wishing they packed for colder weather 😉 Photo Credit: Jan Tik

  • Your Skill Set- Do you really need a multi-purpose skill that includes a beer opener? Be a badass and learn to open a beer bottle with another bottle. Or just use the edge of a table. Whatever you do, don’t use your teeth– I worked at a dentist office and can tell you 100% that’s a bad idea.
  • Money – If you’re on a budget, consider bringing your own cooking stove. It adds weight, but I knew a group of Israelis who made their own dinner and saved lots of money. Others like me, choose to eat at local food stalls or cooking my own food at hostels that had community kitchens.

Cautions of Backpacking Light with the “Big Three”

Backpacking Light. Backpack, Tent, Sleeping bag, Backpacking africa for beginners

The Big 3: Backpack, Tent, Sleeping Bag. Photo Credit:

  • Backpack– Lighter backpacks use lighter materials and are not as durable. The most important thing you buy is your backpack, and especially in Africa, you need quality. It will be thrown, kicked, sat on, peed on, and mercilessly dropped off the top of buses. Get something that will hold up. 
  • Tent- While tarps protect you from rain; bugs, especially mosquitos, are your biggest problems in most African countries. So be safe. Opt for a tent, unless you know you’re staying in malaria-free areas with no poisonous snakes/critters running around.  I also highly recommend getting a waterproof tent because you’re bound to run into a rainy season somewhere.
  • Sleeping Bags- Like I mentioned earlier, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s always warm in Africa. Google night temperatures of where you’re going and adjust accordingly. I didn’t bring a sleeping bag though, and instead borrowed blankets from the hostels I was staying at. Sometimes they didn’t have any in which case, I put on a shit ton of clothes to keep me warm. Not the best, but it worked.

Backpacking light or ultralight in Africa is tough, but it’s not impossible. It’s also super important. Get the important basics. Hopefully with some good karma on your side, you’ll find everything else you need once you arrive. 

See Also:  "It's a Traveling Experience That Will Creep Under Your Skin": Bloggers Describe Africa