Safari footwear for hiking in African savannas

Proper safari footwear is essential for hiking in Southern African savannas. These savannas are defined by a lush grassy layer and a notable woody layer consisting of trees and shrubs, but neither of these dominates the biome. Depending on particular climatic conditions and soil types, savanna vegetation can appear as scrublands, bushveld, or woodlands, and due to its intricate nature, it sustains a diverse array of animal life.

Hiking conditions in Southern African savannas

For hiking in savannas, following conditions from morning to evening can be expected to be encountered:

  • In wintertime (May – October): dry clear weather. Cold in mornings and evenings and warm to hot during the day, and…
  • In summertime (November -April): wet grass in the morning, regular short rain showers, hot weather.
  • Soils to be hiked on are at the majority sandy. They are clayey in low-laying areas and rocky at outcrops. On mid-slopes of hills, sandy soil is often intermingled with sodic sites, which got high salt content and are free of most vegetation.
  • Typically, there is enough space between thorny trees and bushes to walk by, but often there are small young shrubs low to the ground, which got nasty hooks and can be easily overseen when hiking.
  • Snakes like to hide in the grasses. It is therefore best, to always use game paths and closely watch the steps. Puffadders will not move away when sensing vibrations on the ground, but will rely on their camouflage and remain where they are.

Requirements on safari footwear

  • Long sleeved trousers during wintertime in the morning, and …
  • Short sleeved trousers in wintertime during the day and during whole summertime
  • Walking on sandy soils requires shoe soles with a fine ribbed profile. Therefore, heavy profiles, like for alpine-type boots, are not suitable, due to the elevated noise generated by sand grains, when rubbing against each other.
  • Flat soles, without a heel, leave the most inconspicuous tracks, as there is no heel portion with a sharp edge on it.
  • Either a tough sole material or a thick sole of lesser strong material has to protect the foot sole from thorns on the ground. This is a difficult task, as for example the sickle bush spines (Dichrostachys cinerea) even penetrate tires of 4WD’s.
  • Ingress of grass- and weed seeds into the shoe has to be avoided and short gaiters can cover the upper shoe opening.
  • In case of using socks, they should be covered with gaiters.

Which types of safari footwear should be worn?

The advantages and disadvantages of the various safari footwear styles are as described in the following.

Type of footwear Advantage Disadvantage
Barefoot Best feeling when walking on sand Thorns, hot sand, small insects (e.g.: Velvet ants). Heavy foot callus necessary  
Flip-flops A bit of protection Nuisance to walk on sand, due to flopping action  
Thongs Good protection (depends on design), feeling of barefoot-walking    
Hiking sandals Good protection (depends on design) Grass- and weed seeds under the strings will scratch the skin  
Hiking sneakers Easy walking, good protection Wearing of socks should be avoided  
Light leather- or linen boots Very good protection Leather boots take a long time to dry after getting wet. On the other hand, suede leather will start cracking on the upper side behind the toes at extensive use. Smooth leather boots however can be oiled and will keep up well. Light linen boots got soles which are too noisy in sand.
Alpine-style leather boots Best protection They are very warm to walk in and moisture can’t evaporate at this heat levels any more. Plus, they are very noisy when walking in sand.  

Rating of different types of safari footwear

Subjective rating of the author about the various types of footwear for hiking in Southern African savanna biomes results in following rating.

Type of footwear Protection Feeling Nuisance Drying time Maintenance Noise Summary rating
Thongs   6 8 8 9 8 8 47
Hiking sneakers   8 8 6 5 8 8 44
Light leather boots   9 7 8 5 4 8 41
Barefoot   0 10 0 10 10 10 40
Hiking sandals   6 7 4 7 7 8 39
Flip-flops   4 2 2 9 8 2 27
Alpine-style leather boots  10 4 2 2 5 0 23

It is evident that thongs, such as ‘Earth Runners‘ or similar types, hiking sneakers, and lightweight leather boots are the most appropriate types of footwear for hiking in African savannas. Barefoot hiking is not recommended for most individuals and will not be discussed further. While trendy hiking sandals may be suitable for other environments, they are not recommended for the African savanna. Flip-flops should be worn where they are best suited, such as around the campfire or on the beach. Visitors from overseas should avoid heavy leather boots designed for alpine hiking due to heat containment and noise.

For a second opinion on suitable safari footwear, one can also check the offerings of a safari store in the UK here.

Remarks on gaiters

Another essential piece of equipment to pair with lightweight leather boots for hiking in African savannas are short gaiters. These gaiters are commonly used by outdoorsmen in Australia and Africa and serve as an ideal accessory to protect against the intrusion of seeds and other organic matter. We highly recommended to purchase them locally due to cost considerations and use them in conjunction with light leather boots.

Remarks on socks

Lastly, it is important to mention the use of socks. While they serve the purpose of preventing rubs and blisters caused by skin rubbing against the shoe material, they may not be necessary if the skin is already hardened and the shoe material is well-worn and supple. However, their second function of absorbing moisture is not suitable for the hot conditions typically found in savannas. Socks can actually increase heat containment, leading to more sweating and moisture within the boot. Additionally, the biggest disadvantage of wearing socks (even short ones) is their tendency to attract grass and weed seeds, such as Black-Jacks, thistle thorns, and spear grass seeds. These seeds can easily cling to the woolly surface of the socks and painfully penetrate the wearer’s skin. Therefore, it is advisable to leave socks at home when hiking in African savannas.

To summarize, modern thongs are the ideal footwear for hiking in Southern African savannas. This is not a new trend, as even bushmen women wear them when gathering wild food, using rawhide soles and strings, which can be uncomfortable. However, the benefits of wearing thongs include the absence of grass and weed seeds sticking to the skin, allowing for long and fast strides under sandy savannah and bushveld conditions. Therefore, we highly recommended to use a modern variation of thongs when hiking in African savannas.

Lessons learned about footwear for hiking in South African savanna biomes:

  • Thongs are the most suitable footwear for hiking in this biome.
  • Hiking sneakers and light leather boots are also recommendable options for hiking in African savannas.
  • Alpine-style heavy leather hiking boots, on the other hand, should be left at home as they can cause heat containment and are noisy on sand.
  • The use of short gaiters in conjunction with light leather boots is highly recommended as they can protect against the intrusion of seeds and other organic matter.
  • Socks should be worn by city-slickers, but are not recommended for hiking in African savannas due to their tendency to attract grass and weed seeds, which can painfully penetrate the skin.