Traveling to South Africa (SA) for the first time and not sure how to pack? I got you. You’d be happy to know that SA is a great destination for holidaying and it’s very welcoming to its visitors. The weather is generally agreeable for most part of the year and the people are warm, though overly friendly sometimes I admit, but it’s because we are genuinely excited that you chose us and we are always fascinated by visitors from other countries. I was born in this country, have traveled the length and breadth of it, and have lots of friends from other countries who visit often so I know a thing or two about being a tourist in this country. That’s why I’d like to share some tips about what to pack if you are coming here for the first time, and what to not bother with.
Quick South Africa Packing List for 2023
The Essential Women’s Packing List for South Africa
- 1 fancy dress
- 2 casual dresses
- 2 blouses
- 2-3 t-shirts
- 2 pairs shorts
- 2 pairs leggings or yoga pants
- 1 khaki pants
- 1 pair denims/jeans
- 3 bras
- 2 sport bras
- 5 panties
- 2-3 pairs socks
- Comfortable walking shoes (sneakers)
- 1 pair sandals or slops
- 1 pair dressy shoes or pumps for evening
- Bathing suit
- Wrap (can double up as sarong)
- Warm jacket
- Light sweater for layering
- Light windproof jacket or hoodie
- Crossbody bag
- Compression flight socks
- 1 cap or sunhat
- 1 beanie
- Nightwear (can use shorts and t-shirt)
The Essential Men’s Clothes Packing List for South Africa
- Khaki pants
- 1 pair jeans
- 3 pairs of shorts
- 2-3 short sleeved shirts/polo
- 1 long-sleeved shirt
- 3 t-shirts
- Walking shoes
- 1 pair of sneakers
- Dress shoes
- 5-7 underwear and socks
- Warm jacket
- Light jacket or hoodie
- Rain jacket
- 2 pairs gym shorts
- 2 swim trunks
- Compression flight socks
- Fanny pack or cross body bag
- Printed copies of passport
- Extra passport photos
- International drivers’ license
- Boarding passes (digital)
- Vaccination certificates – yellow fever if traveling from another country that’s at risk
- Printed hotel information
- Downloaded map
- Medical information
- Travel insurance
- Body lotion
- Toiletry bag with hook for hanging
- Face wash
- Microfibre towel (travel towel)
- Toner (as needed)
- Shaving razors
- Shaving cream
- Cotton buds
- Sanitary pads/tampons/menstrual cup
- Insect repellant
- Sunscreen lotion
- After sun
- Deep heat
- Tiger balm/bite cream
- Throat sweets
- Your medications
- Diarrhea medication
- Glasses or contact lenses (as needed)
- Contact lens solution (as needed)
- Foldable tote bag for day trips and souvenirs
- Combination lock
- Travel pillow
- Re-usable water bottle
- Wet wipes
- Hand sanitizer
- SA travel adapter plug
- Battery pack for phone
- Laptop, phone, tablets
- Headphone splitter
- Charging cables
- USB plugs
- Travel multi plug
- 25000mAH power pack
- Camera, memory card, charger
- USB/External drives
- Phone/tablet holder
- Local currency (ZAR)
- Foreign currency (USD preferred)
- Emergency money
- VISA or Mastercard credit and debit cards
- Revolut card (no ATM withdrawal fee)
- Yoga mat
- Resistance bands
- Skipping rope
- TRX system OR gym rings
- Nail scissors/file
- Hair bands
- Sleeping bag (if going camping)
Packing for Winter in South Africa (& Summer)
Here’s a quick overview of how to pack for all seasons & parts of South Africa:
- North – expect -2°C (winter), so pack thick jackets, beanies, and scarves. In summer expect up to 40°C so pack, shorts, and T-shirts
- East – 10°C (winter) to 34°C (summer); imagine mild winters, so pack a jersey and long pants for winter, and shorts & T-shirts or dresses in summer.
- South – 4°C (winter) to 38°C (summer) so layering with sweaters and jackets/hoodies in winter and shorts, shirts etc. in summer.
- West – 5°C (winter) to 40°C (summer), so layered clothing in winter, beanies and scarves, and shorts and T-shirts in summer.
With the climate shifts in South Africa, the winters are getting colder every year and the summers are getting extremely hot.
Packing for the North
Here is how you should pack for the northern parts of the country in all seasons:
Summers can be very dry and hot in the Northern parts of South Africa, so pack short-sleeved shirts, lightweight t-shirts, shorts, summer dresses, sandals or slops, sneakers, swimwear, sun hat or cap, and sunglasses. Long pants are perfectly fine if they are made of cool, breathable fabric and are good to protect against bugs and sunburn when visiting safaris.
For winters in Northern South Africa Pack long-sleeved pants, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, hoodies, warm jackets, socks, closed shoes or sneakers, t-shirts for layering, a beanie, a scarf, and gloves are optional because the winters are not that harsh, although it can get very cold.
Packing for the East
The east coast lies along the Indian Ocean, and the eastern parts of South Africa can be very humid and get a lot of rain in the summer so pack a raincoat, short-sleeved shirts/blouses, t-shirts, shorts, summer dresses, bathing suit or swim trunks, sun hat or cap, open-toe shoes and/or sneakers and sunglasses. For rainy days you may be able to purchase a plastic poncho from travel or tourist/curio shops but they are not commonly available in convenience shops.
The East is known for very mild winters in South Africa and though you may need a jacket you can get by with a light jacket, light sweater, long dress, long pants, yoga pants, t-shirts, closed shoes or sneakers, and a hoodie. You may need a beanie in the evenings but it’s not necessary.
Packing for the West
The west has Mediterranean weather and so it is known for its beautiful and long summer days though it can get extremely hot in the Winelands, up to 40 degrees Celsius, so pack very light clothing; shorts, t-shirts, summer dresses, sandals or slops, sneakers, sun hat or cap, sunglasses.
Unlike the rest of the country, due to its Mediterranean weather, the west gets winter rains from around August to October in South Africa, so pack a raincoat, long pants, long-sleeved tops, warm jacket, hoodie, sweater for layering, gloves (optional), closed shoes or sneakers, scarf and beanie.
Packing for the South
In you will hardly hear people referring to the south as the “south” but geographically it includes the Karoo and what we call the Garden Route, a stretch of the coast that connects the southern parts of the Western Cape with the Eastern Cape. Here you will find sub-tropical weather.
The Garden Route has beautiful weather for the most part of the year and it hosts many cultural and fun activities including bungee jumping and many beautiful beaches in, so pack light clothing; t-shirts and shorts, summer dresses, light blouses and skirts, swimwear, walking shoes and sandals, sun hat or cap and sunglasses. You will need a raincoat for rainy days too.
Pack long pants, long-sleeved shirts or tops, a hoodie, a warm jacket, closed shoes or sneakers, warm socks, a scarf, a beanie, and a sweater for layering.
Clothing Etiquette for South Africa | What To Wear in South Africa
South Africa is a very casual country and takes most of its traditions from Western culture although there are still a few traditions that you must observe as a visitor.
Women can pretty much wear whatever they like especially in major cities where the dress code is informal so on a hot day you will see women in short summer dresses, or a pair of shorts and a blouse or T-shirt, a pair of sandals or slops, a sun hat and sunglasses. You would wear the same if you were going out with friends, to the markets, or visiting the Winelands for the day.
Men can get away with pretty much anything, so we haven’t chosen to specifically include a section here.
At the Beach
Everyone wears swimsuits or bikinis and it depends on what you are comfortable with. Some women will have on a sarong on top of the bikini but again this is just a matter of being comfortable with one’s body. Nobody expects women to cover up.
This depends on the type of restaurant you are going to. Most restaurants are very casual, so a dress and open-toe or closed shoes are pretty much standard. So are jeans and T-shirts or a blouse. Of course, if you are going to a really fancy restaurant you would want to dress up for it, in a smart dress and a bit of heel, wedge or even pumps are acceptable. Ask yourself “how would I dress to go to a fancy restaurant back home?” and use that as your guide.
Places of Worship
If you get invited to a church you could wear exactly the same outfit you would wear if you were going for a day out with friends but keep it respectful, in other words, no bum shorts or ripped jeans, would be my recommendation. Those would definitely draw uncomfortable stares. What I have described is fine in the big cities but when you go into the rural areas, and SA is full of them, just know that people still live very conservative lives there and dress in a respectful manner. If you have to go to church in a rural area, or even in what we call ‘townships’, it would be good to dress up, as dressing up is a sign of respect and reverence for the place of worship. The same can be said for visiting a temple or a similar place of worship – like in other countries where women have to cover up if visiting a temple, the same would be expected here.
Visiting the Rural Areas
Women in rural areas are still expected to wear less revealing clothes, so, if you visit these areas, you will see women wearing longer skirts or dresses and wearing what we call a “doek”, which is a headwrap. This is more the case with married women and the older generation. As a visitor, you are not expected to dress like that but as a sign of respect, it would be best to wear clothing that isn’t too revealing. An example could be just a summer dress with a sweater or a wrap on your shoulders and whatever shoes you are comfortable in.
For men, anything goes really though I would advise you not to wear shorts and slops if visiting the chief’s homestead.
The SA currency is the Rand (ZAR) and at the point of writing this the exchange rate was 1USD/19 ZAR. Unlike other African states, the USD is not accepted in restaurants so I would advise that you withdraw local currency when you land, mostly for tipping and buying from informal traders. South African establishments accept all major credit and debit cards like VISA and Mastercard so you can pay for your meals in restaurants, accommodation in all types of lodgings, and all through the airports with card.
I would advise that you check before you leave your country what the charges are, if any, on your card for transactions and withdrawals in SA so as to avoid exorbitant charges. As a South African, when I travel to other countries I always get a travel card from my local bank that you load with foreign currency before I leave SA. The beauty of this is that its fees don’t fluctuate with the exchange rate while I’m overseas because I would have already bought the currency at a fixed fee before I left my country. Your country will have something like this. I believe this is similar to the Wise, Revolut, and Starling cards.
The maximum amount of cash you can bring into this country is 25,000 ZAR or 10,000 USD.
You can exchange your currency at the airports, or South African banks, or you can just use your card to withdraw from the local ATMs. ATMs are found in all shopping centers, airports, and garages (petrol stations) and honestly, this usually works out cheaper than using a Bureau de Change. Unlike some African states that I have visited in the past, do not be persuaded to exchange money on the streets, this is not a thing in South Africa and if anyone ever suggested it, run.
To Suitcase or To Backpack in SA? That is The Question
This will depend on the type of visit. Is it a luxury holiday where you will be staying in hotels, with a hired car to do day drives to the Winelands and safari visits or are you backpacking across the country? Both backpack and suitcase work very well in SA. Backpacks allow you to free your hands and the multiple outside pockets are great for your sunglasses, wet wipes, and phone chargers to be within easy reach but if you prefer a suitcase so your clothes won’t wrinkle too much, then the suitcase is your best option. You may still want to have a small backpack for day trips or a tote bag.
Packing Tips To Optimise for Space & Weight | How To Fit More in Your Bag (The Tardis Effect)
As someone who uses her backpack a lot, I like to roll up my clothes like you would roll a yoga mat because I can fit more than you would if they were folded flat. I started doing this as a backpacking thing but now I do it even when I’m using a suitcase. I know some people use vacuum packing and packing cubes but this has always worked well for me.
The South African airline restrictions are 23kg (50 lb) for checked luggage for economy class and 7kg (18 lb) for carry-on luggage. For those who are traveling business or first class that would be 32kg (70 lb) for each checked luggage and you are allowed up to 2 pieces. On economy, you are only allowed 1 piece of checked luggage free.
What to pack for activities? | Safari in South Africa, Hiking, etc.
Most people come to SA to go on safari so here are my suggestions for going on safari or hiking.
Binoculars are essential. So is a sun hat and sunglasses as you will spend the day out in the bush under the harsh African sky. Most people believe that you should wear khakis and neutrals when you go on safari so you can blend in with nature but this is not required unless you are going to be out of the vehicle, walking. In that case, you might want to blend in. I have gone on many safaris and never needed to or felt out of place. I wouldn’t wouldn’t waste money unless you really wanted to.
It’s the same with going on a boat, most people think you should wear white, but do you really have to?
On the other hand, if you will be hiking up Table Mountain I highly recommend hiking boots, or a good pair of running shoes, activewear or shorts, and a T-shirt, as well as a cap because the sun is a scorcher.
FAQ – Your Important Questions Answered
Thola is a research psychologist who left the field in 2019 and has been writing professionally for various magazines including her own blog ZuluSingleandFab since then. She also writes as a ghostwriter for various clients and has published 5 books to date. Her love of writing started during the COVID-19 lockdowns when she created her website to share her travel stories and her health and fitness journey. A gym enthusiast and lover of healthy food, she published a book, “Fit and Fabolous at Fifty” on Amazon Kindle in 2020 and is currently in the process of writing her second book about her life experiences from leaving a powerful corporate job to working as a freelance writer.