We investigate how smallholder farmers at two sites in Kenya and Tanzania cope with climate stress and how constraints and opportunities shape variations in coping strategies between households and over time during a drought. On the basis of this analysis, we draw out implications for adaptation and adaptive policy. We find that households where an individual was able to specialize in one favoured activity, such as employment or charcoal burning, in the context of overall diversification by the household, were often less vulnerable than households where each individual is engaged in many activities at low intensity. Many households had limited access to the favoured coping options due to a lack of skill, labour and/or capital. This lack of access was compounded by social relations that led to exclusion of certain groups, especially women, from carrying out favoured activities with sufficient intensity. These households instead carried out a multitude of less favoured and frequently complementary activities, such as collecting indigenous fruit. While characterized by suitability to seasonal environmental variations and low demands on time and cash investments, these strategies often yielded marginal returns. Both the marginalization of local niche products and the commercialization of forest resources exemplify processes leading to differential vulnerability. We suggest that vulnerability can usefully be viewed in terms of the interaction of such processes, following the concept of locality. We argue that coping is a distinct component of vulnerability and that understanding the dynamism of coping and vulnerability is critical to developing adaptation measures that support people as active agents.