What to pack for your volunteer experience

2 December 2015

Some people plan their packing for weeks before their big volunteer adventure; others favour the last-minute, throw-it-all-into-a-bag-and-see-what-sticks approach. We know that packing can be a hassle so we have put together a fairly universal list of things you need to think about (regardless of whether you're a packing planner or not!).

1. Understand what you’re going to be doing…

Look at what you’re going to be doing while you’re volunteering as this will dictate how much and what you pack. If you’re going to be spending time with local communities or in schools, pack some conservative clothes. Male teachers in African schools are required to wear a suit and tie, so sports shorts and a vest are not appropriate for male volunteers. Guys; when you’re in the local community, wear smart shorts (i.e. not swimming shorts!) and a t-shirt or collared polo shirt. Ladies; knee length shorts, trousers or, more preferably, a knee length or longer skirt is appropriate. Definitely nothing revealing on top.


One of the biggest issues which projects often face are volunteers dressed inappropriately for their work. Hot pants and a strappy vest might be fine for lounging by the pool at the end of the day or at weekends, but it is not appropriate attire for mucking out animal enclosures or hiking through the bush on a game count. Male members of staff will be uncomfortable around female volunteers wearing skimpy clothes, as it is completely against their cultural norms.

Remember, you are at the project to work and you represent your country and culture, so dress appropriately!

2. …And when you’re going to be doing it

If you’re flying from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern Hemisphere, the chances are you’ll be flying into the opposite season. So don’t pack jumpers and fleeces if you’re travelling from London to Lilongwe in November! Make sure you understand the differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures. In the deserts of Namibia, it can be 30+ degrees during the day and a chilly 7-8 degrees at night. So make sure you have the correct clothing for daytime and nighttime - don’t assume because its hot during the day, you’ll be warm at night.

Rooms are often shared in volunteer accommodation, so skimpy night clothes might not be the most suitable attire regardless of the weather! If you’re going to be camping, you may want to bring a sleeping bag and a sleeping bag liner. Liners are easier to clean and air than a bulky sleeping bag, and are useful to sleep in on hot nights.

If you’re travelling to Southern Africa during their winter (generally May - August) - think layers. Don’t fill up your luggage with a bulky jacket which you won’t be wearing past breakfast time. Pack lots of lightweight layers and a fleecy top and hoodie, which you can peel off during the day. If you’re volunteering in a game park, pack a woolly hat, scarf and gloves. Doing 30kph on the back of an open game viewer at 6.30am in August is a chilly experience!

If you’re travelling in the summer months (usually November - March), pack lightweight clothing in light and neutral colours and a light waterproof jacket in case of sudden downpours.

3. Are there opportunities to do laundry?

Most projects will have laundry facilities where either the housekeeper will do your laundry for you, or you can do your own washing. Check whether you need to supply your own detergent. If laundry facilities are available, you don't need to pack as many clothes. Bring clothes which you can safely hand wash if required, so leave that dry clean only top with sparkly bits at home - hand washing can stretch some fabrics. It is customary for volunteers to wash their own underwear.

4. What colour?

If you are based in a National Park or large game reserve where you will be doing game drives and guided walks, there are a few colours you should avoid. White and bright colours are not advisable in the bush as these make you stand out to animals. Avoid dark blue if the area where you are going has the Tsetse fly as these are attracted to dark and navy blues. Black is just plain hot. If there is a dress code, stick to greys, greens, khaki, brown and neutral colours. Many African countries do not allow civilians to wear camouflage colours, so we advise against taking anything camo wherever you volunteer in Africa.

5. Pack smart

Even if you’re volunteering in the middle of nowhere, there’s usually at least one opportunity to go into town, to a local lodge or to a restaurant for dinner. When you’ve been in the bush for 3 weeks straight, a fast food restaurant will feel like a dining out experience! So, pack something nice for the odd occasion you might want to dress up a bit or look slightly smarter and cleaner than normal.

6. Best foot forward

No matter where you go on your holidays, you WILL debate long about how many pairs of shoes to take (ladies - we know this is you). To reduce your baggage weight, find out from your programme whether you really need those heavy hiking boots, or whether a good sturdy pair of trainers would be sufficient. The chances are you won’t need clunky boots unless you are really going to a remote project where you will be doing a lot of hiking. We’d recommend taking three pairs of shoes in winter and four in summer, when at some point one pair IS going to get wet and not dry overnight. One or two pairs of closed shoes, a pair of casual sandals or flip flops, something comfy and something that you can wear in town or to dinner. Pack your socks and belts inside your shoes to save space.

7. Fold or roll?

Here at CTA, we’re a big fan of rolling your clothes. You probably aren’t going to take too many dress shirts or jackets, and rolling your clothes takes up much less space and leaves your clothes less creased. Pack your shoes in the corners of your case and don’t forget to put your washbag in at the end.

8. Practical things

A headlamp is going to be the most useful thing you bring on your volunteer experience. When there’s no power and you’re trying to brush your teeth / go to the toilet / read your book, a headlamp is much more useful than a hand-held torch. Chargers for your electronics (see below), spare batteries and spare memory cards are also essential.

9. Donations for children or the local community

This is a tough one as we don't encourage a hand-out mentality, and sweets, a common gift brough by volunteers for local children, do not support healthy eating or tooth care. However, donations brought by volunteers can be very useful. We recommend checking with the project to see what things they or the local community needs. Sometimes sweets, pens and other small gifts are not as useful as, for example, sanitary towels, reading materials or seeds. We also recommend seeing if there are community projects you could donate to rather than helping to perpetuate an expectation, particularly amongst children, that foreign visitors equals presents.

 

WHAT NOT TO PACK!

Most volunteer programmes will issue you with a packing list to remind you of all the things not to forget - we’ve put a list together of what NOT to pack and things you almost certainly won’t need.

- Lots and lots of toiletries

You can pretty much stock up on toiletries at least weekly or fortnightly on most projects so just bring travel sized shampoo, conditioner and shower gel. You won’t need perfume, honestly. It attracts mosquitos and you’ll have to put mosquito or bug spray on, which will completely drown out your nice fragrance anyway.

- Brand new things

Africa is hot, dusty and dirty. Your clothes will get raggedy even if you haven’t been doing particularly dirty work. We’d recommend bringing things that you don’t mind losing (communal laundry can be a nightmare), ruining or leaving behind. If you’re worried about getting mud on your brand new shorts, you probably aren’t going to get stuck in to the work. Also, don’t bring brand new shoes - they’ll almost certainly give you blisters and get dirty, which will probably make you a bit sad. Ladies, you don’t need heels. Really. You don’t. A nice pair of sandals or flip flops will dress any outfit up, are much lighter and take up less space.

- Too many electronics and books

First of all - do you REALLY need your laptop? Things that you care about getting lost, broken or stolen are probably best left at home. We are constantly amazed when we visit our projects at the sheer number of electronic devices which volunteers bring. You won’t need your tablet, smartphone AND computer for your wilderness bush experience - just enjoy being in the moment. Most projects will have a small safe for locking things like cash, passports and phones away, but the majority will not have space for a laptop. We’d also recommend bringing a Kindle or Nook rather than lots of heavy books.

- Precious things

If you own anything which you would be devastated losing, DO NOT BRING IT.  Leave it at home and it’ll still be there when you come back.

- Sleeping bags, linen, towels

Check before you travel whether you really need a sleeping bag - its likely that all bedding, towels and linen will be provided.

For the girls.
Don’t bring:
- A hairdryer / hair straighteners. Chances are there won’t be power to use it, it takes up too much space, it will probably surge when used with an adaptor and break.
- Hot pants, tube tops, revealing dresses. Dress modestly, you’re not on the beach (unless, of course, you are on the beach and even then, think about what you’re going to wear to and from the beach and in the community).
- Lots of jewellery. Don’t bring Granny’s ring which she left to you, or your best watch - you don’t want to stand out and make yourself a target. Plus, losing it is always a distinct possibility.
- Loads of make-up. Yes, we know that you want to look pretty, but packing one thousand different shades of eye shadow is just insane. We find that a concealer, lip gloss, mascara and an eye liner is plenty for every occasion that might come up!

 

Packing for your big adventure can be stressful, but knowing what to pack and, more importantly, what NOT to pack can make the last few days before you leave a lot less frantic. Once you are on your programme, you still won’t need half the stuff you packed and you’ll find you can borrow and buy anything you did forget and really can't do without.

Volunteering is not about what you take with you, its about what you bring back.

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