Everything But The Kitchen Sink! Tips On What To Pack For Your Volunteering Trip

Even seasoned travellers can have some head-scratching moments, wondering what to pack for their overseas volunteering trip. On the one hand, you want the freedom and convenience of travelling “light” and avoid the hassle of lots of space-hogging luggage.

On the other hand, you want to make sure you’re taking the right things, especially if you’re not 100% sure what’s easily available in your host country, or what conveniences your accommodation offers, or what kind of clothing or equipment will help make your work days go smoothly. 

  • If you’re travelling straight from a Northern climate to a volunteer project in Southern Africa, your first question will probably be “What should I wear?” Remember that not all of Africa is situated in the tropics. Many travellers can be quite surprised to learn that it often snows in the winter months in some parts of South Africa. Nights can be unexpectedly chilly year-round, especially inland in South Africa or Zimbabwe, and in mountainous regions like Malawi or Tanzania. You won’t need your Arctic gear though – a couple of warm sweaters and long trousers should be fine. In mostly Muslim countries like Malawi or Tanzania, you will be expected to dress conservatively, with knees and shoulders covered at all times except when on the beaches.
  • Take a smaller backpack within your large travelling pack or suitcase, so that you can take essentials out with you in the daytime. Many volunteers also swear by the so-called “bum-bag” – you can wear it all day without it getting in the way, and everything you might need is at arm’s reach.
  • When the African sun is shining, it seems to shine with one purpose only – to bake everything to a crisp, volunteers included! Cool, light clothing with “breathability”  will be needed, and of course sunblock is absolutely vital – it’s readily and inexpensively available at supermarkets and pharmacies in urban South Africa; but if you’re headed somewhere a little more rural, you should consider bringing your own just in case.
  • In the summer months, flies and mosquitoes will be getting up close and personal, at all hours of the day and night. You can buy insect repellent easily in South Africa – your volunteer organisers will be able to assist you with brand names to look out for – or save yourself the bother and bring your own, especially if you’re headed to a rural area.
  • As a volunteer, you will no doubt want to head out to see the sights when you’re not working. If you’re the hardy outdoors type, practical footwear is an absolute necessity – make sure it’s comfortable and sturdy with good grip for hiking or even gentle strolls in the bush, as the Southern African landscape is rugged and thorny and teeming with all creatures great and small. Pack a tube of superglue as well – the last thing you want is to be caught on a hike or working at a busy project, when all of a sudden the sole of your shoe wants to have an existential conversation with you!
  • If your volunteer trip is in a coastal area and you want to get some beach time, bear in mind that people generally cover up when not right on the beach. You won’t see too many people rocking the no-shirt look until they’re actually frolicking in surf and sand. Pack light outfits that you can wear over bathing costumes – there are no changing facilities or fresh-water showers on most South African beaches.
  • Rainstorms can happen in Southern Africa in the blink of an eye – one minute you’re enjoying a sunny afternoon, next minute it’s raining torrentially. 10 minutes later and the sun is out again, as if the whole rain situation was just a joke on you! Think about your electronic devices or wallet if you’re caught outdoors in a downpour – you can put them in plastic sandwich or freezer bags inside your smaller pack, just in case. This will protect against dust or sand in heavy winds as well.  This might seem like unnecessary fussiness, but when you’re far from home and in a country or area where you might not be able to get your items fixed quickly, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
  • As a volunteer, you’ll probably be doing a lot of physical work, perhaps in very warm conditions. Take rehydrating energy sachets out with you in the daytime – they’re easy to pack, and can give you that vital, extra mid-afternoon boost. People can underestimate the effects of heat, and you don’t want to be “THAT guy” that starts to fade!
  • Some volunteers suggest packing elasticated lines that you can rig up at your accommodation, to hang up your damp laundry or towels. This can be especially helpful in busy hostels where a number of travellers are using the same washing facilities, or at rural projects where the facilities might be very basic.
  • Many experienced travellers and volunteers in developing countries swear that facial wipes or baby wipes will become your best friends. If you’re out in the bush far from bathroom facilities for long periods of time, you’ll at least be able to wipe perspiration and dust off your face and hands. And even if you’re at a project where bathrooms are available, the facilities might be lacking in soap or paper towels or “white gold” a.k.a. toilet paper. Don’t flush the wipes down the toilet – even Western plumbing often falls prey to the Scourge of the Baby Wipes, blocks up and overflows.
  • If you’re a night owl like to read or study, while you’re in a dorm surrounded by a number of snoring people – a headtorch will allow you to do your thing without bothering anyone else.
  • A spare credit or ATM card could come in handy – the banking systems in developing countries might not be able to help you as quickly as your bank at home, if you lose your card, and you don’t want to be without access to funds.
  • If you have space in your luggage, consider bringing a small pillow from home. Bedding at your volunteer accommodation might be very basic, and no-one wants to wake up tired and with a stiff neck from a too-flat pillow.
  • If you’re going to be volunteering with children, pack whatever old games or educational toys you can collect – they will be much appreciated. Any lightweight toys, stickers or balloons that are easy to pack will also generate much happiness and excitement!


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