Travel tips: what (not) to wear

As a few people have asked me about this recently, I thought I’d share my list of tips for people traveling in low income countries for the first time.  Based on my time in central Africa, so caveats apply outside of this region.  You can see all of the posts in this series here.  First up: what (not) to wear.

Don’t bring:

  • A head-to-toe khaki ensemble made of rip-stop, permethrin-treated, UV-blocking fabric.  Unless you will be spending weeks at a time in the jungle, this type of outfit simply isn’t necessary.
  • Worn-out clothing.  People everywhere care about looking put together.  It’s rude to show up in a new place looking as though you couldn’t be bothered to bring proper clothes.
  • Shorts or skirts that hit above the knee, for men or women.  It’s usually not work appropriate.
  • White clothing.  Gets dirty easily and is prone to getting stained by bluing in the wash.
  • Anything that needs to be dry-cleaned.  Cleaners are rare outside of more affluent capitals, and your wool sweaters will not benefit from being washed with the rest of your clothes.

Do bring:

  • Business casual clothing in natural materials.  I have three basic outfitting strategies for very hot places, in declining order of formality: a suiting skirt with an oxford shirt; jeans or linen pants with a cardigan or tunic; and long cotton skirts with a t-shirt or tank top.
  • Athletic clothes made of synthetic fabrics.  Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are useful if you’ll be hiking in wooded areas.  Hooded raincoats are essential rainy season material.  Avoid cotton shirts or socks, which are uncomfortable to wear when wet and take a long time to dry.  I’m partial to SmartWool’s hiking and running socks.
  • One set of warm clothing.  Evenings can get cool at high altitudes and latitudes, and you may find yourself on a bus with an overenthusiastic air conditioner for hours on end.  For women, scarves are useful if you’ll be visiting religious sites where you need to cover your shoulders or your head.
  • At least one formal set of day and evening clothing, which may well break the “don’t bring” rules.  Important for high level meetings.  People also dress quite well (and less conservatively) to go out in larger cities.
  • Shoes that can get wet. I usually wear flats or sandals in synthetic leather.  Hiking boots are appropriate if you’re hiking, not at the office.

3 thoughts on “Travel tips: what (not) to wear

  1. When I traveled to Uganda in 1998 I was told to bring dresses with sleeves the fell below the knees. As I understood it this would best conform with local standards of modesty. Do you suppose that is still the case?

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    1. Hi Cindy! Knees or elbows? Somehow shoulders don’t seem as scandalous as knees do in many of the places I’ve been, but I can also see how that would be useful in more conservative areas. (Also, thanks for reading along) : )

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