Packing for Peace Corps South Africa


Before I left for SA I wanted to write a post about packing for the Peace Corps. Ultimately, time got away from me and I never wrote one. However, a post written after the fact (including what I brought, what I brought that I didn’t need, and what I wish I brought) is probably much more useful for future Peace Corps South Africa volunteers.

Firstly, keep in mind that this is a packing list for Peace Corps South Africa, NOT a packing list for all Peace Corps countries. What to pack may change drastically throughout the PC, and even throughout PC Africa countries.

Also, this list isn’t exhaustive. I’m not going to include obvious things I brought (ie, toothbrush). If it’s not on this list and you’re thinking “I use that on a daily basis, I need that” then by all means, bring it.

Lastly, I left for South Africa in January, which means I was lucky enough to do my packing and shopping during the holiday season. I bought most of the “big ticket” items on Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or during the after-Christmas sales. For instance, I got my hiking backpack from the REI Outlet on Cyber Monday for $75 (originally over $200). Packing for PC isn’t cheap and I recommend doing research before buying really expensive items. I’ll include prices and stores (when I can) to help in that regard. 

*My biggest piece of advice is this: You’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, not Bear Grylls on a remote island. Pack accordingly.


For international travel to South Africa passengers are allowed two checked bags (neither over 50lbs), one carry one, and one personal item.

My personal item was my North Face backpack (standard school size) that I’ve had for 6 years.

When I started the packing process I only wanted to bring two checked bags and my backpack, so I didn’t plan on bringing a carry on, but the day of, not everything could fit in my three bags so I ended up with a tote bag as a carry on.

For the checked bags I used a large, rolling duffel-esque bag (a Mizzou gymnastics bag to be precise) and a 60L hiking backpack (Alps, $75, REI Cyber Monday sale). I HIGHLY recommend a hiking backpack. Not only are they easy to travel with, they hold enough for weekend trips to visit friends, or even travel to Cape Town for a week. It’s so much easier using a hiking backpack than trying to lug around a duffel bag.

What I brought

Watch: I wear mine 24/7. Waterproof is a must. Not much else to say. Marathon$30, Target.

Plug converter: I brought a plug converter, which I subsequently lost, but very early on in PST, Peace Corps gives every volunteer the opportunity to buy a converter. $8, Brookstone, or R60 from PC

Laptop: Totally and completely necessary. I don’t care what Peace Corps says; everyone who brought a laptop is so glad they did, and everyone who didn’t completely regrets it. I use mine daily, whether to watch TV shows and movies, write reports for PC or my org, write blog posts, and occasionally get access to Internet. I have a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2010.

External Hard drive: So important! PCVs share media with each other via external hard drives and trust me, you’ll want as many movies and TV shows as you can get once you move to site. I recommend 1 terabyte or bigger. I had a Seagate 1T portable external hard drive from the states, but it broke a week after swear-in. I ended up getting a LaCie Thunderbolt Rugged 1T hard drive, which is designed for “rugged” travel. $159, Best Buy (my mom sent it to me from the states)

Headlamp: At first, I didn’t think I needed this, but I’ve made good use of it. Some volunteers don’t have electricity and for those of us who do, it’s not reliable and shuts off occasionally. The headlamp is also great for walking to the latrine at night. Black Diamond$14.99, REI Cyber Monday sale

Hiking boots: This item is debatable among PCVs. I love mine and use them a lot, but they aren’t a necessity. Volunteers who don’t have them don’t notice a difference in their daily lives because of it. Honestly, I could live without mine (it’s not like I have to hike a mountain to work every day), but they are comfy and durable and nice to walk in for long distances around my village especially in winter. Keen, about $100 on sale, REI

Shoes: I brought a pair of Reef flip flops, Birkenstocks, Converse, hiking boots, Merrill running shoes, and Target sandals. I have been very happy with my shoe collection. A lot of people brought Chacos, and although I personally don’t think they are comfortable, they are completely appropriate for PCSA. (On second thought, I did bring a pair of Chacos, but I gave them to my host sister, that’s how much I hate them)

Clothing: In terms of clothes, there is a balance between the amount of “dress” attire and the amount of “casual” attire you’ll need. Bring a few knee-length skirts, sundresses, and cardigans, but don’t bring a suit jacket or slacks (for females) it’s not necessary. As long as you aren’t wearing old t-shirts, ripped jeans or shorts, you’ll be fine. South Africans don’t care if you show cleavage, but if you wear a short skirt, you’ll look inappropriate. During PST attire is more restricted than anything you’ll experience post-PST. For instance, I wasn’t allowed to wearing leggings during PST, but I wear them occasionally at site. Be careful what you pack for exercise. Short shorts and sports bras are not appropriate to work out in. I suggest longer shorts or athletic leggings and t-shirts. Also, clothes are really cheap and easy to get in Pretoria if you need something you didn’t bring.

Life Straw Water Bottle: South African village water is not safe for Americans to drink and although Peace Corps provides each volunteer a large water filter, sometimes you forget to fill the filter and need water immediately, or your filter breaks and it might be a while until you can get a new one – in those situations, having a self-filtering water bottle has been amazing. I got mine as a gift. As long as you have a water bottle of some kind, you’ll be fine. 

Camelbak 1L Water bottle: I highly suggest a 1L water bottle, especially in the summer when you absolutely need to stay hydrated.

Inflatable pillow: Definitely not necessary, but I’ve actually used mine a lot cause I’ve been in situations where I didn’t have a pillow or I was traveling and didn’t want to bring a regular-sized one. I can’t remember, but I probably got it from REI because I’m addicted to that store.

Sleeping bag: This is another debatable item. I used mine every night in the winter because South Africa winters are brutal, especially at night, and blankets weren’t cutting it (but I could have layered more blankets if I didn’t have a sleeping bag). I also use mine when visiting volunteers who don’t have a lot of sleeping space. Some people don’t have them, but I’m glad I brought one. This was a splurge for sure but it was a Christmas gift from my mother, otherwise I would’ve gone with something cheaper. Sierra Designs, $300, REI

I got this pic from the REI website.

Kindle: I’m obsessed with my kindle (as you can see here). It’s great for travelling because you can have hundreds of books on one device, and volunteers share books with one another so you’ll never run out of something to read. Kindle Paperwhite, about $100, Amazon.

Camera and 32g memory card: I love my camera. I use it ALL the time, especially for my blog. Some people just use their iPhone cameras, but most people brought a digital camera. The large memory card is also nice because I don’t have to worry about taking too many photos and not being able to store them. Canon PowerShot SX510 HS$300, Creve Coeur Camera in St. Louis. The memory card was a gift.

iPod: Because of all my phone problems (see below), I don’t always have a place to listen to music. My iPhone is dead (RIP) and my BlackBerry only has a 4g memory, so I use my iPod all the time, especially when I go for runs. People frequently see me running and then ask for my phone number, but I tell them that I don’t have a phone and my iPod is only for music. It’s a great way to avoid those awkward “Gopela numbers” situations. I got mine from Craigslist. iPod Touch 16g, $130 (I believe)

Travel size umbrella: Great for rainy days, which are frequent in the rainy season, and great for sun protection. If I walk around the village without wearing a hat or using an umbrella, people are shocked because “your white skin will be ruined”. Unfortunately, I lost the umbrella that I brought.

Winter coat: Although winter only lasts about two months, it can be brutal. I’m really happy with the winter coat I brought. It’s warm, but made for travel (compresses into a little bag thing). REI

Rain jacket: Yeah, bring one, why not.

Towel and washcloth: Bring at least one towel and washcloth. You don’t know when you’ll get a chance to visit a store and buy some (and it definitely won’t be before you need to bathe) because PC doesn’t provide any, even your first night. A lot of people bring the quick-dry towels, which seem to work well.

Toiletries: Bring enough to last for a month (tops) because even though you won’t have access to a store immediately, you won’t be living in isolation for long and stores have most items you need. Also, PC provides volunteers with unlimited sunscreen, bug spray and condoms, so keep that in mind when packing. PC also gives you a medical kit at the beginning of service and although it’s full of most meds you might need, once you run out, you’re on your own.

Things I brought that I didn’t need

Water bladder: An REI employee convinced me I needed this. I don’t. They only way I can see this becoming useful if I go on a hiking trip (which I want to, but who knows). $35, REI

Edit: I went on a hiking trip and didn’t use this.

Hammock: The only reason this hasn’t been useful is because I didn’t actually buy a hammock… I bought a bug net for a hammock. That’s my bad. In reality, a hammock would’ve been great because I have the perfect spot for it outside my house. However, I recommend seeing if there’s a spot for a hammock at your permanent site before buying one (you can find them at Cape Union Mart in South Africa for about R150). $65, REI (with an additional 20% off)

Inflatable sleeping pad: I have a bed; I don’t sleep on the floor; this isn’t needed. I have used it when visiting other volunteers or when they visit me, but I’m not sure it was worth the price. However, I can see this being useful if I go on a hiking trip. I have used this mat as a yoga mat on occasion, but an actual yoga mat would’ve been much better (which you can buy in SA, so don’t bring one).

What I wish I brought

Two years worth of good deodorant: This sounds silly, but good deodorant is impossible to find here. I’m not the only one who thinks so; it’s a universal complaint among PCSA volunteers.

GoPro: I love my camera but it would be nice to have a GoPro for scuba diving and other activities that involve water. Lucky, a lot of my friends have GoPros so I’ve been able to use them when I need to. However, I’m glad I brought a regular camera because I’m not a huge fan of the “fisheye” look for everyday pics.

Other items

Laundry stuff: Some volunteers bring fancy stuff from America to do their laundry, but I think it’s a waste. Everything you need is here, and if you really hate hand washing, you can pay someone in your village to do your laundry for you.

Solar Charger:  I didn’t bring a solar charger, but for those who did, I don’t think they found it useful (or warranted the price). Everyone in my cohort has access to electricity, even if it’s limited and spotty.

Unlocked cellphone: This is a tricky subject. If you want to use your American phone in South Africa (which a lot of volunteers do because they love their iPhones) then you need to call your cellular provider and “unlock” your cell. If you don’t unlock it, then a South African sim card won’t work in the phone. I didn’t bring an unlocked cellphone because my iPhone was almost 4 years old, cracked, and barely worked. I bought a Blackberry in South Africa for R1999 and 1G of data is R149. However, my blackberry did break relatively soon after I purchased it, and South African customer service is… lacking, to say the least, so I had to buy a completely new Blackberry. Having an IPhone is great but it can make you a target for theft, but that doesn’t happen too often.

Musical instrument: Don’t bring one. They are bulky and hard to travel with. I bought my guitar in Nelspruit for R700 (about 65 bucks, which was a great deal). Also, volunteers who are finishing up service will give you their old instruments for free or really cheap.

Food: There are lots of food items that are impossible to find in SA. Some volunteers try to bring stuff (like American candy, spices, tortillas, mac n’ cheese, chocolate chips, powered Gatorade, etc.) but it doesn’t seem worth it to me.

I can’t think of anything else at the moment, but if you have any questions, just leave them in the comments below!

P.S. Am I going blind or are these photos kinda blurry?

P.P.S. My computer thinks it’s South African and wants me to spell things weird now. Oh well.

Any packing questions? Let me know in the comments!


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