Clothing for volunteers in the field

Volunteers don’t have to wear zip offs and Birkenstock’s….

….although you’ll still see plenty of volunteers wearing them!

Traveller or tourist…

Going into a comparatively harsh environment, means that your clothes must be comfortable, light, tough, long lasting, cool or warm enough and affordable on a volunteers allowance.

Oh, and not toooo conspicuous! After all, you don’t want to stand out from the crowd or advertise too much that you are the ‘new guy’ in town.

Here are some tips based on what I learned in the field. Feel free to add your own suggestions too!

  1. Match the basic colour of your clothes to the terrain. i.e. Earthy browns keep cleaner in the East African red soil. City dust doesn’t show up on grey’s etc.
  2. Many overseas volunteering placements are in warm countries. This may mean that many volunteers aim for 100% cotton if it’s going next to your skin. Certainly a loose fit of light weight cotton is preferable to anything tight fitting and manmade.
  3. Some people like T-shirts but they can be warmer to wear than a regular cotton shirt that has an open neck and can hang away from the body a little.
  4. Many volunteer posts are in tropical countries. When it rains in Africa you wont see many rain coats because a big banana leaf will do just as well! Rain generally sends all but the desperate scurrying for cover till the rain passes over. Umbrellas are used in most places though and have the benefit of avoiding the uncomfortable feeling of wearing waterproofs in hot climates where the humidity can climb to high levels.
  5. Short sleeves or long sleeves? I won’t say just take long sleeves because I know that in the heat of the day you won’t wear them, even though they give protection against the sun etc. But do take a couple for the evenings to ward off the flying nasties that will feast on your underarms. They really are sneaky things mozzies!
  6. Buy in country. Many second hand clothes from Europe end up on markets in Africa, for example and can be bought for very little. They have the advantage of being already ‘worn in’, (you’ll look like you’ve been there for years!)
  7. tilley hats for volunteers abroad

    Better a battered hat than a battered head!

    Hat. Essential wear in my opinion. The baseball cap has become ubiquitous but a hat with a brim is better in hot climates.

  8. Oh, and white shirts look amazing, but how Africans keep them so dazzlingly white is a closely guarded local secret…………
  9. ?????? over to you to keep list going, just ping me a comment.

Advances in materials technology means that you have many alternatives to chose from today and because there are so many outlets, you’ll be unlucky if you see two people wearing the same gear.

Although many  volunteers agree that 100% cotton is best for anything next to your skin, especially in warm climates, fleece etc is fine for practical and comfortable outer wear. Because practicality often trumps fashion in the field, many volunteers like to buy gear from outdoor wear specialists.

I won’t go mad with suggestions here for gear, because you are all big boys and girls now and know what you like. So, I’ll just give you the places I go to  for some of my favorite outdoor stuff over the years:-

  • Blacks…One of the best known high street shops for good gear.
  • Millets…Another big high street name.**
  • Webtogs…Top brands, great prices and zero hassle.

**Actually, Blacks and Millets are part of the same group these days, although Blacks history can be traced back to sail makers in 1861!

Pants! (how’s that for a sub-heading?)

volunteer underwear

Sensible underwear recommended!

I’ve got ahead of myself by starting with outer wear, when I should of course have started with yup, you guessed it, underwear! And where else is there to buy underwear from, other than Marks and Spencers of course.

Underwear is one thing that I wouldn’t recommend buying in country, as finding it on the markets is difficult and prices will be high in the regular shops. Take it with you. (They won’t weigh much unless you chose the ones in the photo!)

That’s underwear and outer wear sorted which leaves shoes, which kind of comes under clothing, doesn’t it?


Choosing suitable shoes for a volunteer project abroad can be difficult and doubly so for me since I don’t quite know where you are going!

However, its safe to say that you won’t get away with just the one pair. Lots of volunteers swear by a ‘sports sandal’ of Teva or Merrill fame and there is a lot of merit in that choice in a hot climate.

However, I wouldn’t recommend relying on a pair of sandals for all your needs, especially from dusk onwards when little bitey things that particularly like ankles are about!

A pair of sturdy walking shoes or even a lightweight boot might be a good choice. Especially if they are breathable and waterproof. Many of the outdoor specialist above will be able to help you choose something suitable.

More to follow……….

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