The Essential California Packing List


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California is one of the top travel destinations in the world. As the most visited state in the USA, California boasts an incredible, diverse landscape and culture and it can feel like a country all in itself.  And though the coastal region boasts nearly year-round great weather, it is still a state that can see you surfing in the morning and skiing by the afternoon. Because of all the possibilities in this beautiful western state, it can be hard to figure out the perfect California packing list.

Though it certainly doesn’t matter what time of year you choose to visit California, it can still be hard to figure out what to pack for a California road trip. If you’re embarking on an epic California coastal itinerary, driving inland to places like Yosemite or spending a few days on Lake Tahoe and need to know what to bring, look no further.

Things to consider when packing for California

California is blessed with essentially year-round great weather and so you never need to bring anything too bulky with you no matter if you’re visiting in the height of summer or the dead of winter. However, there are some seasonal nuances that can be worth knowing before you start compiling your California packing list.

If you are sticking to the most popular coastal drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles (or vice versa!), then it is worth knowing that the weather is pleasant and mild throughout the year and rarely will it ever be too hot or too cold. This is fantastic news if you are looking to pack light, which is what we would recommend. This is also the case if you’re primarily sticking to Southern California.

If you’re planning a trip to California in the winter months, it is worth knowing that this is the rainiest of seasons and it is likely that you will get a few wet days. Although California has a reputation for perpetually basking in glorious sunshine, this isn’t always the case.

While California certainly has a lot of sunny days, don’t expect there not to be rain, particularly if you’re heading to Northern California and make sure you pack accordingly. A lightweight rain jacket and an umbrella can be your best friends if you’re visiting California in winter. However, they can be just as welcome to have even if you’re travelling in the dryer summer months.

If you are visiting in summer, it can be tempting only to pack shorts, T-shirts, and sandals in your bag, however, you should also make sure that you have a pair or two of jeans and a light jacket. Though the days can be very sunny, dry, and warm, nights can get quite chilly even in the summer and a jacket and long pants can be a very welcome addition to your packing list.

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at sunset
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at sunset

Another thing to make sure you have in the sunnier months is sunscreen. The sunshine on the California coast can be very strong and if you don’t lather on the SPF you will leave your trip with an unwelcome souvenir — a sunburn!

All in all, make sure you pay attention to the weather averages for where you’re visiting in California and be sure to pack accordingly.

Part of the beauty of figuring out which things to bring to California has to do with the fact that you don’t need to worry about big bulky clothing in the winter or unbearably hot summers. You do, however, need to be prepared for freak weather conditions that might be thrown your way.

If you want to pack light or carry-on only, then maybe only bring things that directly correspond with the season you are visiting in. That means maybe don’t bring a rain jacket and a bulky umbrella if you’re visiting in the summer. If there is rain in the forecast, you can pick up items like that when you are there.

A surfer about the hit the waves in Pismo Beach
A surfer about the hit the waves in Pismo Beach

Essential California Packing List

So without further ado, these are the things that you should bring on a coastal California trip. Obviously, if you’re visiting in the winter months and want to go skiing or enjoy some of the mountain regions, this isn’t the packing list for you. However, if you’re going to be cruising down the PCH no matter the season, here is what you should bring:

Clothing

California is known for its trendy, and fashion-forward cities along with its laidback coastal style. While you will certainly see people dressed to the nines just for a day at the beach, it is just as easy to wander around wearing yoga pants and a relaxed t-shirt.

When choosing the clothing for your California packing list, pick some items in neutral colours that can easily be mixed and matched to create infinite different outfits.

  • 4 tops
    • If you’re travelling in the winter, I would suggest bringing 2 long-sleeve tops and 2 short-sleeve tops. Even if the average temperatures are chilly, there are bound to be a few beautiful, sunny days where you’ll want shorter sleeves. It is always best to have a mix in the winter.
    • If you’re visiting California in spring, summer, or fall, then pack 3 short-sleeve tops and 1 long-sleeve. Temperatures are warmer during these seasons and it’s likely you’ll want a t-shirt rather than a long-sleeved top most days.
  • 1 pair of jeans
    • I would suggest opting for a darker pair of jeans that can be dressed up or dressed down depending on the occasion or where you’re visiting.
  • 1 pair of leggings or hiking pants
    • For women, I would suggest finding a good pair of leggings or yoga pants that can be used for hikes. They pack down really small and are incredibly versatile. They are my go-to for hikes because of this
    • For men, finding a lightweight pair of hiking pants (also available on REI here) is one of the best investments you could make. Ones that are convertible between pants are shorts are also a great idea. Find a well-fitting pair that could be transitioned to city-wear as well.
  • 1-2 pairs of shorts
    • If you’re visiting in the warmer seasons, opt for 2 pairs of shorts. If you’re in California in the winter, one pair or no pairs should work just fine.
  • 1 dress or 1 skirt + a nice top
    • For women; if you plan to go to some nicer restaurants or on a classy wine tasting, it is always a good idea to have at least one nice outfit. I love Bluffworks dresses which are perfect for travel.
  • 1 smart shirt
    • For men, I would recommend bringing at least one shirt (such as this Bluffworks Meridian Shirt) with a collar and buttons that can be dressed up with a well-fitted pair of dark jeans for nicer places and events
  • 1 pair of pyjamas
    • I only bring one pair, but if you’re going for a longer trip and don’t want to stop to do laundry, then bring a second pair of pyjamas
  • 2 tank tops
    • Tank tops are great as a comfy top with pyjama pants, as a base layer on more chilly days, or to throw on if you’re going on a hike or to the beach.
  • 1-2 swimsuits
    • If you’re planning on swimming and enjoying beach time while on your California vacation, then take two swimsuits. If you’re visiting in winter or aren’t a water fanatic, then only bring one.
  • 1 sports bra and 1 regular bra
    • One sports bra for hikes or if you want to do any active activities on your trip, and one regular bra for the rest of your bra needs!
  • 7-10 pairs of socks/undies
    • The amount of socks and undies you choose to bring really depends on how often you want to do laundry because we all know that the last pair of clean undies means it’s going to be a washing day!
Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur
Viewpoint from a coastal walk at Big Sur

Outerwear

Though California is famed for its glorious, sunny weather, that doesn’t mean you can leave your jackets and sweaters at home.

Sure, you’re not going to need a huge parka or a heavy wool coat unless you’re visiting the Sierra Nevadas or Lake Tahoe in winter, however, you will still need a light jacket or two to make sure you’re comfortable. Here’s what you should bring;

  • 1 ultralight down jacket (for men’s click here)
    • This is the ultimate travel jacket, not just for California, but for everywhere in the world you might travel to. They are super light, will keep you warm and are quick to dry…perfect for a chilly evening or morning!
  • 1 rain jacket (click here for a men’s version)
    • Though it doesn’t rain much in California, you should always make sure to travel with a solid waterproof or windproof jacket to keep you dry on the rare occasion that the sky opens up.
    • It is also available on REI here
  • 1 sweater (for men’s click here) or light cardigan
    • If you’re visiting in the winter, a warm sweater is excellent to layer under your jacket while still looking smart. In the warmer seasons, a light cardigan is the perfect thing to throw on if there is a slight chill in the air, but not enough to need a proper jacket.
    • Also available on REI for women here or for men here
Viewpoint on the 17-mile drive in Monterey
Viewpoint on the 17-mile drive in Monterey

Shoes

  • 1 pair of walking shoes (for men’s click here)
    • You’re going to want to find a good pair of walking shoes that have nice support while still being lightweight and stylish.
  • 1 pair of hiking shoes (for men’s click here)
  • 1 pair of city boots for winter/walking sandals for summer
    • In winter, having a nice and practical pair of boots to stroll around cities is welcome, especially if the weather is a bit rainy. In the warmer months, having a well-supported pair of sandals (I like Birkenstocks) is an essential item for any packing list for California!
  • 1 pair of flip flops
    • A pair of flip-flops is much needed for those inevitable days on the stunning California beaches!

Accessories

Not everything on your California road trip packing list is going to be clothing. Here are the accessories and miscellaneous things to bring to California:

  • 1 crossbody bag or day pack (also available on REI)
    • Having a practical crossbody purse as a daypack while travelling is an essential item. For men, there are also a number of backpacks to choose from that you can keep your day-to-day items in.
  • Umbrella
    • Because you always want to be prepared if there happens to be a rainstorm!
  • Packable beach towel
    • No California trip is complete without at least some beach time. Bring one of these Turkish-style beach towels with you so you can be prepared for a beach day without taking up too much space in your bag.
  • Sunglasses
    • Sunglasses are necessary even if you’re travelling in the winter. The California sun can be very strong, but you also want to look super cool as well 🙂
  • Notepad & Pen
    • Though it seems very old school to take actual paper and pen, sometimes it’s nice to have a physical journal to jot down your thoughts while on your trip.
  • Hat
    • A hat is an essential item for California to protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, especially if you plan to spend any time on the water.
  • Water Bottle
    • Avoid having to buy expensive bottled water and bring a reusable water bottle instead!
  • Tote Bag
    • Handy for beach days to make it easy to carry small items
  • Packing Cubes (also available on REI here)
    • Packing cubes are an absolutely essential item to keep all of your things organised. They are especially useful on a California road trip where you’ll be moving from place to place frequently. They will make your life so much easier and keep you very organised while on the road.
Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz
Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

Electronics

Choosing which electronics to take on any trip to California will depend on your own personal circumstances. However, if you can use the opportunity to take a break from devices and bring only essential electronics with you.

  • Camera
    • Depending on your passion for photography, the camera on your phone might be enough for your picture-taking needs in California. If you fancy yourself a bit of a photographer and want to take your photos to the next level, we recommend the Sony A6400 (along with one of these great travel lenses!) and a Joby GorillaPod Kit which is a fantastic lightweight tripod.
  • Kindle E-Reader
    • There are few things in life that are better than kicking back on the beach with a good book. A Kindle prevents you from having to haul a bunch of heavy books all over California and is an essential item for your packing list.
  • Power bank
    • A power bank helps to give an extra charge to your smartphone or any other electronic devices that might need it on the go.
  • SIM Card
  • Headphones
    • A good pair of headphones are also welcome when spending the day on the beach!
Sunset in Carmel, California
Sunset in Carmel, California

Toiletries

  • Shampoo/Conditioner in reusable bottles such as GoToobs.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Soap & Moisturiser
  • Limited makeup
    • I like to limit myself to one lipstick, one eyeliner, mascara, a small eye shadow palette, foundation and a few brushes. I also bring facial cleansing wipes for makeup removal at the end of the day.
  • Contact Lenses/Solution
  • Bandages/Antiseptic Cream
    • For any cuts or scrapes

Constructing the optimal California packing list doesn’t have to be difficult at all, just take the time to look at the weather and assess the items you need to bring with you. Try to pack light so you don’t have to worry about hauling heavy luggage across the Golden State!

Are you wondering what to bring to California? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from the US, she has lived in five different countries and has travelled to dozens more, both solo and with her partner, Michael. She particularly loves exploring Spain and spending time in the Caucasus and the Baltics. Read more about Maggie

Comments

  1. Good tips as I am doing all 9 NPs in California. I don’t plan on camping in each of the parks and have already made reservations. I also love my kindle and take it hiking and backpacking. Thanks for the packing lists.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the packing tips Maggie. I won’t be hiking in California but I will be visiting San Diego San Francisco and Seattle all the way up in Washington state. I know I’m going to have a lot of different weather to deal with that’s why am doing my research before I go. Thanks again for your tips and I am a stray cat lover myself. LOL??

    Reply

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