An East African safari was an adventure I had dreamed of my entire life. I imagine many adventurers do. For years, though, I had avoided even exploring it as an option because I thought it was out of my budget. I mean, is there such a thing as a budget camping safari?
The short answer is yes. Here’s what you need to know, before booking your budget camping safari in East Africa.
What to Expect on a Budget Camping Safari
If you are picturing yourself sleeping in a comfy bed in a fully outfitted tent with a personal bathroom, you may be in for a disappointment. Let me reset some expectations for what is included with a budget camping safari.
Let’s just say, you get what you pay for. Sure, for $3000 (or more) you can get what you imagined. But, if you’re on a budget, here’s what you can expect. This is what was included on my 5-day 4-night safari in Tanzania for $825.
- Pickup at my accomodation in Arusha
- Transport between Arusha, Tarangire, Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and back to Arusha in a 4×4 Land Cruiser with pop-up roof
- All National Park entry fees
- All meals
- Basic camping tent shared with one person
- Optional use of comfortable sleeping bag, sleeping mat and pillow
- Professional guide fluent in English
- Personal cook
- 1.5L of water per day
Our guide also stopped at a grocery store on our way out of Arusha where we could buy anything else that we wanted to bring along. For me, that included a boatload of wine.
Headed somewhere in Africa other than Tanzania? Check out this complete list of National Parks in Africa! There’s so many!
Pro Tip: If you have more time to spend in Arusha, I recommend also hiking Mount Kilimanjaro!
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7 Things to Know About a Budget Camping Safari
Ok, you’re probably wondering what else you have to give up if you opt for a budget camping safari. Honestly, not a whole lot in my opinion.
#1 // Luxury & Budget Camping Safaris See the Same Wildlife
If you strip down the African safari experience, it’s really all about seeing the amazing animals in their natural environment. The “circle of life” in real life.
Whether you pay a little or a lot, you see the same animals. My budget tour’s Land Rover was literally parked next to the one from the Four Seasons as we watched the lions lounging in the sun.
#2 // The Guide Makes All the Difference
Prior to my safari, I wasn’t aware of the amount of training and education it takes to become a professional safari guide. My guide had spent weeks living in the Serengeti learning about the wildlife and terrain. He knew every corner of the park and was able to navigate us to exactly where the wildlife would be active throughout the day.
Aside from being talented at spotting wildlife, my guide also was skilled at maintaining the Land Rover. The sandy, bumpy terrain is incredibly harsh on the vehicles. Breakdowns can (and do) happen, but a great guide will be doing proactive maintenance and tire pressure checks so you don’t breakdown when you’re out and about in the park.
Pro Tip: Expensive safaris do not guarantee that you will have a good guide and a no breakdowns.
#3 // You’re Barely at the Campsite
The animals are most active around sunrise and sunset. So, a typical safari day involves heading out into the park before sunrise and returning to the campsite just in time for dinner. Shortly after dinner, it’s already time to get ready for bed so you can wake up early and do it again the next day.
While the idea of the luxury tents with infinity pools is lovely, the truth is that you have very little time to actually enjoy them except after dark.
If you don’t mind roughing it for a few days, you can cut your camping safari costs by more than 70%.
#4 // There’s No Fence Keeping Wildlife Out of the Campsite
I don’t know why, but I assumed there would be some sort of barrier preventing lions, baboons and other animals from walking right up to my tent. There’s not.
Ok, take a deep breath. First, not all parks and campsites are the same. So, if you’re concerned, it’s worth asking if there will be fences where you’re staying. Second, the guides were all very diligent in ensuring all food scraps and scented toiletries were kept in the vehicles so the animals wouldn’t be tempted to visit the tents.
Fortunately, the only animal that came into my tent was the snake from my very vivid Malarone-induced dream.
RELATED: Should You Buy a Smartphone Camera Lens Kit for Travel?
#5 // Don’t Use the Bathroom At Night
On the first night, our group of four was drinking all of the wine after dinner. As our guide announced he was heading to bed, I casually asked him what the bathroom situation was during the night. He responded, “oh yeah, I wouldn’t leave your tent at night. The animals can wander into the bathroom stalls.” He then proceeded to tell us how he keeps an empty water bottle in his tent to pee in if things get desperate.
So there we were, having just drank a load of wine realizing all of us were going to have to pee in the middle of the night. That was when we instituted the “3 pee” rule where we all had to go pee three times after our last drink of anything.
#6 // Showers Are Available, Hot Water Not so Much
Private bathrooms aren’t a thing on a budget camping safari. That being said, the bathrooms were not bad and pretty consistent with National Park bathrooms in most places I’ve visited. There are showers, but the access to hot water was inconsistent. If cold showers aren’t your thing, be sure to bring baby wipes!
#7 // Expect To Wait At the Park Entrances
While your National Park entrance fees may be included in the tour cost, that doesn’t mean these fees are paid in advance. At each park entrance, there were dozens of Land Rovers parked waiting to pay their fees. Take advantage of this time to stretch your legs, use the restrooms and maybe even see some wildlife wandering around. The waits lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour.
I guess I imagined that this would be a more seamless process so I found myself getting frustrated at times. It’s possible that some companies have ways to work around this but the long wait seemed to be common practice.
Practical Tips About Safaris in General
No matter your budget, a safari is an adventure of a lifetime! These practical tips will help you make the most of your adventure.
Dust Will Get in Places You Didn’t Know Existed
Conceptually, I understood that there would be dusty conditions on a safari. In reality, it was so much more dust than I imagined. It gets in your shoes, hair, eyes, camera, and just everywhere. Thankfully, I only brought clothes and gear that I didn’t mind getting dusty.
Here are a few items that will make the dust more manageable:
- Bandana – Use it to wipe dust off of your face and camera display. On dusty stretches of road, tie it around your head to keep dust out of your mouth.
- Sunglasses – To protect your eyes.
- Camera lens cleaning kit – So you don’t have dust specks on your epic wildlife photos.
- UV Camera lens filter – Keep dust away from your lens altogether and reduce UV light in your images. Check the diameter of your camera lens before purchasing.
Here are some more helpful tips to keep dust out of your camera gear.
There is Limited Access to Bathrooms During the Day
As if not peeing at night wasn’t challenging enough already, there is also limited access to toilets during the day. Guides will typically stop somewhere with a bathroom at least once per day. If you have to use the restroom any other time during the day, the only option may be to go outside the vehicle in the park. This is not ideal for several reasons (aka lions), but if it’s an emergency be prepared to follow Leave No Trace. In other words, be sure you have toilet paper and a trash bag with you in the vehicle.
It’s Possible to Charge Electronics
Prior to my camping safari, I had purchased several extra camera batteries. There was no way I was going to run out of batteries on this adventure! I was pleasantly surprised to discover that our Land Rover had an outlet (plug, not USB) at every seat. Each day, I was able to top up the charge on all of my electronics!
Group and Vehicle Size Vary Significantly
My group of four had a vehicle and guide to ourselves. If group size is important to you, ask about this before booking with a tour company. I saw several safari vehicles that had eight or more people, some were large buses with more than twenty.
Is a Budget Camping Safari for You?
When I booked my budget camping safari, I had a tinge of FOMO. Would I regret not splurging on the luxury safari experience?
In the end, no. I don’t regret it one bit. For less than one third of the price of a low-end luxury experience, my safari dream became a reality.
In five days, I saw all of the Big 5, over 25 lions, baby hippos and elephants practically an arms length from where I was standing. There really aren’t words to describe what it’s like to see these animals roaming in their natural habitat, without fences or gates.
If you think that a safari is outside of your budget, I encourage you to think again.
21 thoughts on “What to Expect on a Budget Camping Safari”
Glad I could help, Kim Joe! I’ve been camping for over 20 years in all different environments. It’s a lifelong learning process – but one I love!
Hi, I just read your article. I was looking for such an article. I was thinking of going camping with my 2 children and I had a budget problem. After reading your article, all my confusion has been resolved. How long have you been camping? Keep it up. Thanks
Hi Sakina! The company I went on safari with out of Arusha was called True Views Tanzania. They have many packages on their website, but if what you are looking for isn’t there, you can always contact them to see if they can arrange something different!
If you enjoy camping, then this option will work great for you. I’m also now an often solo 40 year old female traveler so I understand the need to find the right fit for you! I hope you enjoy your safari. It was an absolutely magical experience. One tip: You may want to consult with a doctor on what immunizations are required both in Tanzania and in any countries you may have a layover in (Kenya is a common stopover). Getting the right immunizations may take a little time so it’s best to find out about that sooner than later!
How can I find something like what you found? Can you make a reference, even privately? I am interested in a future trip, perhaps soon, as I know tourism is down, yet borders are open, so what a time to see the Serengeti!
I love camping and am totally at ease with it, as well as peeing outside (despite lions and snakes).
I’d love to hear more about how you found your tour because I have definitely not found one this low, and as a solo female traveler in my 40’s, travel IS a feminist issue, and also, Tanzania is just at the highest top of my bucket list. Need to leave sometime in July, before work resumes in late August. Any help is VERY appreciated.
Thanks! It’s definitely doable on a budget – and you really don’t have to sacrifice much!
Never thought about doing this on a budget. But hey why not? You listed some great pros acutally!
I can totally relate! I had a similar experience when I was trying to book mine, but I did end up booking it online in advance. I had a tight schedule so needed to guarantee that I could book one in my budget on the dates I had available. I’ve heard several people say that they booked their safari after they got to their destination in Tanzania though! Either way, there is some room for negotiation on price in my experience.
I’ve never considered a budget safari. Looking online, I always find very expensive packages. Maybe better to do the safari when you are there rather than booking ahead of time.
Isn’t it?! I think I could go back 10 times and not even scratch the surface of all that Africa has to offer 🙂
You’re welcome! I was shocked when I realized I could do this on a budget! Hope this opens up new possibilities for you 🙂
This is awesome! I love Africa <3 It's such an incredible and varied continent! 🙂
Wow!! That is much more affordable than I was expecting! Thank you so much for bringing light to this. I’ve always wanted to go on safari but thought it was something I’d have to save much longer for.
It IS possible on a non-luxury budget without missing out on the wildlife! I can relate as I usually have to go to the bathroom often. There were other people who went to the bathroom at night, I just would recommend avoiding it if possible. If necessary, definitely have a buddy system and headlamps/ flashlights. I also think that if you opt for a company that has small group sizes, you can talk with the guide to get a campsite that has the easiest access to the bathroom and possibly stop more often during the daytime.
So glad you found it helpful! Ha ha – yeah I figured I’d share so others could learn from my mistakes 🙂
So nice to see that this can be done on a non-luxury budget. I am certain, though, that no matter how I prepared, ie no liquids after noon, that I would be the one who had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Wonder if this would work for the older or lightweight bladder demographic.
What an experience! Great advice on camping and giving folks a heads up on the bathroom situation. I would have never thought of that!
Ooh how exciting! It’s going to be an amazing adventure! What part of Africa will you be visiting? I booked my safari with True Views Tanzania, which visited Tarangire, Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater. Let me know if you have any other questions!
Ha ha glad you found this post helpful! I understand how overwhelming it can feel to plan your first trip to Africa – there are so many countries to visit and amazing places to see. Hope this helps answer some of the questions you may have, but feel free to reach out to me if you think of anything else! 🙂
This is perfect! I haven’t made it to this continent yet and some of these concerns are exactly the reason why! Glad you tried it out for me 🙂
This is exactly what I was looking for!
What a great post! I’m finally going to Africa in September and have started to (but not in great length) look into tours and options and it can be so overwhelming! What tour group did you use? From your article, it sounds like they did a good job. I’d love to see what they offer. Many thanks!