Planning to travel to Africa as a backpacker? These tips for backpacking Africa will show you what to do and what to expect on your African safari.
Africa is an amazing destination that backpackers are starting to embrace. Gone are the days when you needed to have hundreds of thousands of dollars to enjoy Africa (yes, Africa can be quite expensive sometimes), but these days even backpackers can enjoy the amazing wildlife that Africa boasts.
However for you to make your backpacking trip in Africa amazing, there are some things you need to know.
So in this post, I’ll be sharing with you the best tips for Backpacking Africa.
But before that, first check out these Africa travel tips that you need to know before your trip. They will give you an idea of what to expect from your Africa backpacking journey.
Tips for Backpacking Africa
1. Polish your bargaining skills
Literally anything is negotiable in Africa. If you buy at the first price you’re told, you’re going to be ripped off and lose so much money you wouldn’t have lost if you had bargained a bit.
Nope, it’s not embarrassing and almost everyone in Africa does it. And being a tourist, chances are high that prices have been raised above the normal, so that’s another reason for you to bargain.
If a seller tells you the price, start by diving it into half and negotiate from there. If you reach a price that you feel is fair for what you’re trying to buy and the seller still insists, try the “walking away” trick. I promise it works like a gem – it’s like my ultimate bargaining technique.
When you walk away, the seller is likely to call you back and give you the product/service at that price or at least close to it.
2. Forget time as you know it
If you have been to Africa before, you’ve probably heard of the phrase “African time” but if you haven’t, it’s time to prepare for it.
African time can range from anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours from the real-time. This is not even funny but that’s just how it is.
Time in Africa is not taken so seriously in that if you plan to meet someone at 4 pm and they show up at 5 30 pm, they will not see it as a big deal but rather a minor complication and they’ll bombard you with lots of excuses as to why they’re late.
I live in Africa myself but this African time thing makes my blood boil like nothing else.
However, the fact that time is taken for granted in Africa doesn’t mean that you should show up late for your bus or scheduled tour because you know they will be late. No, actually some “fields” know how to keep time.
As you backpack Africa, your patience levels should be through the roof as you might end up getting mad at everything. Whether it’s people seeming like there is no rush even when you see it’s really needed, try to keep calm and get on the African time bandwagon.
3. Try to slow travel – there is so much beauty to see in Africa
There is so much beauty in Africa that it would be such a shame to just travel it through without staying to immerse yourself into it.
If you visit one country, try to at least spend 2 weeks in it to be able to see the biggest percentage of the country. I personally always prefer to stay for longer in one country instead of rushing through it.
And since the distance between popular attractions is immense, you’re better off planning for a longer stay in each African country as opposed to just a couple of days.
4. Stay in Hostels
The best way to backpack through Africa is by staying in Hostels. It’s a great way to meet with other travelers and share your experiences about Africa and also create meaningful relationships with likeminded people.
However, when choosing a hostel, make sure that you put into consideration its location. Its always better to choose a hostel that is near a big city or a town so that you’re close to a number of facilities that you might need. This is also where most backpackers are likely to stay so it’s better to look for such hostels.
However, since it might not be easy to find backpackers’ hostels in some parts of Africa, you can opt for guesthouses or campsites especially in the southern African countries like Botswana or Namibia.
Hostel World is a great website to use to research hostels across Africa but Booking.com comes in handy to show you a number of options available on top of hostels.
But if you’re staying in a hostel for the first time and not sure how to handle everything, these hostel tips will guide you.
Related post: Things to pack for a hostel
5. Book early if you’re traveling in the high season
Imagine reaching Africa and the highly anticipated activity you wanted to participate in is sold out. Though for some things you might not need to book early, things like gorilla tracking in Uganda might require booking way in advance.
Aside from activities, even hotels and hostels can get booked out in the high season, so if you know of a good hostel or campsite that you don’t want to miss, you’re better off booking in time. However, if you don’t want to pay as yet, booking.com can let you book some properties without your credit card.
This actually happened to me at a number of campsites in Chobe National park in Botswana. I didn’t book in time and most of the affordable campsites were fully booked. And since I had nothing to do, I had to opt for a more expensive tented camp which was beyond my Africa backpacking budget.
6. Prepare yourself for slow internet
If you come from western countries which have superfast internet, you might need to prepare yourself for the opposite.
The Internet is slow in Africa and that is if you’re lucky enough to get it because it’s actually non-existent in some parts of the continent.
If you’re a backpacker that also works online while on the road, you might want to put slow internet into consideration and research the internet availability in the areas you plan to travel in and if it’s not there, then you might want to adjust your working schedule a bit.
In urban places, you can expect it but in some deserted rural areas, it’s unlikely and if you get it but slow, just try to appreciate the fact that you even got it in the first place.
7. First “window shop” around and compare prices
When booking anything, be it tours, first compare prices with different travel agencies or service providers.
I know a number of travelers who paid way more than me for a bridge swing at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or a snorkeling trip to the blue hole in Dahab Egypt because they went for the very first tour company they landed on.
I am not saying that the first one can’t be the cheapest, – it can! But as you backpack Africa, it’s better to first try out at least 3 to 4 companies, compare prices and then go for the better deal in terms of price and what comes with the package.
8. You’ll probably have the best wildlife encounter in Africa
If you’re still skeptical about backpacking Africa, I want to tell you that its one of the best decisions you’ll ever make when it comes to traveling.
Whether it is having a close-up encounter with mountain gorillas and Chimpanzees in Uganda, experiencing the greatest show of the wildebeest migration in Kenya, seeing the greatest concentration of African Elephants in Botswana or enjoying amazing game drives in Kruger National park in South Africa, there are a number of exciting experiences in Africa that will make you appreciate wildlife even more.
Honestly, without any bias, the best wildlife experiences can be found in Africa.
Related post: 10 Best National parks in Africa
9. Get familiar with the “This is Africa” (TIA) phrase
While backpacking through Africa, you’ll probably hear the phrase “This is Africa”. It’s like our little “excuse” for literally everything that goes wrong or downplaying the intensity of what has gone wrong.
Does it take 6 hours for your bus to arrive, do you get mediocre service, water being cut off in the middle of your shower, you’ll probably hear “this is Africa”.
It’s like a way of telling you that, hey, bad or mediocre things happen here so you shouldn’t have thought that everything will go well.
I know its not the most ideal situation or phrase because even some people might take advantage of it, to not give their best with a dumb excuse of “This is Africa”.
However, this should not make you change your dream of backpacking in Africa as some places and people are adjusting their minds in the direction of Africa doesn’t mean mediocre quality by giving their all at whatever they do.
10. It’s possible to backpack Africa as a solo woman
To some people, Africa is not safe for solo female travelers but this is a hoax and it’s absolutely safe.
However, like any kind of trip, you have to be mindful of where you go and your valuables. It’s important to observe the general travel safety tips.
But if you don’t want to go backpacking Africa solo, then you can join a small travel group or even team up with other travelers.
Related post: Safest countries to visit Africa
11. Brace yourself for dusty roads
Probably this will pass in a couple of years down the road but as of now, be prepared for the dust.
Forget the urban roads where they’re in a quiet a good shape, rural roads will show you how dusty it can get in Africa. And in some cases, they won’t just be dusty but also full of potholes.
This is actually why I advise backpackers to leave behind those white clothes as they will look like dust but the time your trip is done.
12. Cash works the most in Africa – you’ll also need Dollars
Unlike in Europe and the US, where you can make almost all transactions with just your credit/debit card, it’s not the same in Africa.
For most small transactions especially in the rural areas (even urban areas actually), you’ll need to have cash in the local currency to transact. Nonetheless, for tours, big restaurants, national parks, hotels, and some big supermarkets, you can just swipe it without any issues.
So as you backpack across Africa, it’s always prudent to have some cash of the local currency on you at all times.
Whereas transacting with dollars is not possible in most places in Africa, you’ll need to have some on you as most boarders require you to pay for the visa in dollars. Check how much the visa costs for the country you’re traveling to and have those dollars on you.
13. Wild camping in Africa is cool – you might just share your campsite with wild animals
If you choose to camp inside a national park, you might get a chance of experiencing this.
There is probably nothing as cool as sharing your campsite with wild animals. It can be scary at first, God knows I was super scared when elephants, a hippo and Hyena came at my campsite while camping in Botswana.
But when the shivers wear off, you realize how cool it is to just be a few meters away from these wild animals. (Ps. they’re still wild animals, so do not bother them or they might attack you).
And since a number of camping sites in the major national parks in Africa are not fenced, you might be lucky to see the animals just next to where you camped.
14. Malaria is common in Africa – carry an insect repellant
It’s unfortunate that most parts of Africa are still struggling with Malaria.
Although you can’t do much to stop it, you can protect yourself from the evil bites of mosquitoes that cause malaria by carrying an insect repellant as you backpack in Africa.
On top of the insect repellant, you can carry your normal anti-malaria tablets as prescribed by your doctor.
15. Get comfortable with African toilets or at least try
If you’re wondering why I am writing about toilets, it’s because I think it is important to take note of it before backpacking in Africa.
Unlike in other places where its only Flush toilets, Africa has quite a variety of toilets that some might scare you to use but brave up and help yourself. Below are some that you might come across as you backpack Africa.
- Sit on Flush toilets: These are common in big malls, hotels, and hostels and basically what the western world knows. If they’re old with no water, you’ll always find a drum full of water where you can draw some with a bucket and flush the toilet.
- Squat Flush toilets: They are the same as the above except that instead of sitting, you squat. You can also find them in busy but mid-range shopping malls, fuel stations. The flushing is the same as the sit on flush toilets.
- Compost Toilet: It’s a sit on long drop toilet which doesn’t require flushing. Think of it as a combo of a modern toilet and a pit latrine.
- Pit latrine: You’re likely to come across these majorly in rural areas. It’s a long drop squat toilet normally constructed behind the house or in the garden if there is one. No flushing is required.
16. You probably don’t want to drink the untreated tap water
Unless it’s clearly marked that the tap water is safe to drink, I’d advise you to stay away from tap water.
However, if you carried your own water filter, you can purify it and then drink it but if not, then stick to bottled water throughout your trip.
Related post: Best backpacking hacks to know
17. Be ready for the stares
Before you even leave for Africa, know that you’ll be stared at – probably more than you can handle.
But this doesn’t come from the rude side. In any case, the stares are harmless but can rather make you a little uncomfortable especially if you’re backpacking through Africa for the first time.
The stares come from the fact that you’re different and it’s nothing to worry about. All you have to do is to ignore the stares or wave at them and move on.
18. Take sunscreen
Since African people don’t necessarily need sunscreen, getting one on the continent can be pretty expensive.
Do not be surprised when you walk into a store and find sunscreen at $30 – and no, it’s usually not the best quality.
And since the sun can be really hot down in Africa, you’ll need sunscreen and as a backpacker, that’s a lot of money to spend on just one little item even though it’s essential.
So before you embark on your Africa backpacking journey, make sure that you take sunscreen from your home country – which I am sure is cheaper or better yet buy it from Amazon.
19. Africa is huge – don’t underestimate it
One mistake I normally see backpackers do is to plan to travel the entire Africa in just a couple of months. Unless you plan to visit each country for just a handful of days this will be impossible.
Not just impossible but also impractical. I mean Africa is the 2nd- largest continent in the world, so try not to underestimate its size.
So before you backpack Africa, come up with a proper and doable itinerary of the countries you’ll visit and how long you’ll spend in each country.
20. Pack light but don’t leave the essentials
Like any kind of backpacker, the ultimate goal is to pack light and it’s no different when traveling in Africa.
Honestly, you don’t need much for an African trip – just carry a few essentials and clothes you can wear a couple of times and everywhere.
Some of the essentials you need to take to Africa include;
- Personal water filter
- Power bank
- Universal travel adapter
- Head Flashlight
- First Aid kit
- Micro Fibre travel towel
You can check out everything you need to pack for Africa from here.
21. Bring an unlocked phone and buy a local Simcard for each country
While backpacking across Africa, it’s important to buy a local Simcard of that particular country. It’s easy to get a Simcard in most of the African countries and when you do, you’re better off subscribing for a monthly data package (or any amount of time you’re to stay in that country). And if you hope to be making local calls, then you can subscribe to voice calls as well otherwise, you can forego that.
You can easily hotspot to your computer if you need to do something.
To get a Simcard, if you don’t want to stress with looking for a telecom service center, most airports do have kiosks of telecom companies where you can buy a sim card as soon as you arrive.
22. Team up with other backpackers
Africa is fun and all but it can also get lonely especially when you’re traveling solo. And on top of that, it can be quite costly – especially with safaris. So the best way to solve all that is to team up with other backpackers.
The good thing is that you’ll all be backpackers so it’s very likely that you know your way around backpacking and what to expect.
Instead of spending so much money on hiring a car alone, why not team up with another backpacker and split the costs especially if you have a closely related itinerary.
This can also come in handy for those group tours that charge per group instead of per person. You get to create meaningful relationships with other backpackers and also save money.
And the best way to find backpackers to travel with is by staying at hostels especially those that have communal places – it will be easy to associate with others from there.
Related post: Best backpacking tips for beginners
23. Stay safe by buying travel insurance
Travel insurance is one of the essential things you should have before backpacking Africa.
Just like traveling anywhere else, anything can happen and Africa is no exception. Things can go wrong and that’s also likely considering the “this is Africa” (TIA) phrase.
God forbid but it would be a shame to get sick or an accident in the middle of nowhere in Africa and not have any fallback plan. This is why it’s paramount to have travel insurance as a contingency plan should something go wrong.
Though you can be treated in some African countries without any form of insurance, you would need to pay for your medical bills in cash which money you might not have at that time.
So to avoid all that, make sure that you have travel insurance before you go to Africa. And actually, if you book with tour companies, some of them might need to see a copy of your travel insurance.
Most travelers have had no issues with World Nomads travel insurance and it also has an advantage of operating in more than 130 countries worldwide. You can request a quote from here before you go for your backpacking safari in Africa.
24. Expect to meet friendly and happy people
Africans are generally friendly and welcoming people and I can guarantee that your trip will be filled with so much joy and laughter as you immerse yourself in the lives of the locals.
You’ll meet locals who will always want to engage you in a conversation – if you feel like it, join in and if not, just wave and move on.
Are you stuck and need some help with directions or something else? Just ask for help and someone will be kind enough to help.
Speaking of happiness, I don’t think you’ll ever meet any happier kids like in Africa. They may not have much, but they will always find a reason to be happy (you might just feel inspired by those little humans).
If you meet those kids, they will be soo excited to see a white person that they will start smiling and waving at you screaming “bye mzungu” which can be interpreted as “hello white person”.
Just be kind enough to wave back and you would have made their day. If they ask for a pic and you’re up for it, sure why not! If you’re not up for it, just smile at them and say hi.
I honestly believe Africa has some of the most friendly and happy people in the world despite the challenges at hand.
25. Do not expect to have electricity 24/7
I think this is one of the draws of backpacking in Africa. Even in city centers where you’d expect to have electricity all the time, it’s not the case, power cuts are common.
And it even gets worse as you head into the villages. Those with electricity, power cuts are more frequent but some of them do not have it at all.
So as a way of coping with the electricity issue as you backpack Africa, I advise you to take a flashlight and this portable solar power bank panel charger to keep the “lights” on and your phone fully charged when the electricity goes off.
26. Prepare for fun or rather uncomfortable public transportation
As a backpacker, the cheapest way to get around is by using public transportation – but it can be tricky in Africa.
A few countries like South Africa and Egypt have trains that are rather comfortable but most countries in Africa especially in the Eastern and Western Africa use Tuk Tuks, Boda Bodas, Minivans and can be somehow uncomfortable and chaotic.
But since they’re the cheapest ways to get around, you’ll just need to try and find some bit of comfort in those uncomfortable situations.
On that same note of transportation, anything that moves on the road can be treated as a means of transportation in Africa.
If you’re in a place where you can’t access the typical public transport, just walk to a place where you see cars parked (even if they’re private), ask nicely and before you know it, you’d have found transportation.
Whether its horses, camels, carriages, motorcycles, lorries, cargo vans – anything can literally be a means of transport in Africa if you ask nicely.
27. Be ready to exercise your highest level of patience
Oh, I love my Africa but one thing I hate is how slow we can be! No, the world can rush all it wants but no one is rushing here. Things will get done when they get done and no one seems to mind.
And as a backpacker from a country where everything is handled fast, you’re likely to be so annoyed that all you can do is to shake your head in amusement.
So as you travel to Africa, try to make sure that your patience level is at the maximum or you’ll be disappointed more often than you can handle.
Whether you’re on a bus, your patience levels will be highly tested. A one hour’s drive can take up to 3 hours due to the immense number of stops on the way. Whether it is to stop for people to stretch (pee break), stop to remove someone, stop to pick up someone, stop to buy roadside snacks – I mean it’s soooo tiring and annoying but all you can do is to exercise your highest level of patience.
Can we talk about queing- this could be queuing for a ticket or anything. To you something that could take 2 minutes to handle could take double the same time in some parts of Africa – whether someone is just utterly slow, finishing up a conversation with someone else, distracted by a phone call — arrghh, suck it in and stay patient.
However, when all those inconveniences are done, you’ll have a wonderful trip that makes everything so worth going through.
28. Enjoy your African trip
Finally, as you backpack Africa, you can choose to focus on the negatives or choose to focus on the undying beauty in Africa.
There is no doubt that Africa has its own challenges but the purpose of your trip is to enjoy Africa but not to look out for what’s not going right on the continent.
I mean there is no problem is noticing the bad stuff but the problem is focusing on them especially if you can’t solve them.
So don’t let the uncomfortable situations ruin your trip as that’s part of what makes an African trip memorable.
Are you backpacking Africa for the first time, I hope these tips gave you an idea of what you can expect on your African trip.
If you have more questions or need some clarification about your Africa backpacking trip, leave them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer them. In the same way, if this post has been helpful to you, don’t forget to share it with other backpackers.
More posts to Inspire your trip to Africa
- Best countries to visit in Africa
- Safest countries to visit in Africa
- Essential tips to know before traveling to Africa
- Things to pack for an African safari
- Best National parks to visit in Africa
- Best African experiences you must have
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