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Because you can go from the mountains to the coast in one single day, planning how to pack for a trip to California can be a challenge. To help make it easier, I’ve compiled the perfect California packing list (and included a free printable too!)
If you’re anything like me, you probably like to research and plan everything about your next California adventure until you’ve got giant Pinterest boards full of ideas!
And while putting together a full trip itinerary can be overwhelming, the actual packing for California doesn’t have to be difficult.
If you know where you’re going, and have a general idea of what you intend to do when you get there, putting together a packing list for California will totally be a breeze!
Before we get into the meat of what you should bring to California, there’s a couple of things you should keep in mind before packing your suitcase.
Things to Consider When Packing for California
When you’re putting together your California packing list, you need to consider several things, including what part of the state you’re visiting (an LA packing list looks very different than a San Francisco packing list!).
Also, consider the time of year that you’re visiting California, the weather in California, and the kinds of activities you’ll plan to do while you’re here. Keep in mind that the amount of clothes you pack will depend on how long you plan to visit, and whether or not you want to do laundry in the middle of your trip.
Weather in California
Most people tend to think that the weather in California is always beautiful and sunny. For some reason, 80 degrees and sunny skies always come to mind when you hear the word California! And while that might be the case in certain parts of the state, it’s definitely not the case everywhere!
The California central and northern coasts (including San Francisco and Napa), are much chillier than the Southern California Coast (Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara).
It’s not uncommon for temperatures to drop to 40 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the north, and for the southern parts to reach into the high 90’s.
That’s not even getting into the weather in the California mountains (where you often need heavy winter gear), or the heat of the deserts (yes, we have those too!)
Something else to consider the time of year that you’re visiting. Summer will tend to be warmer than winter in most of the state, but the weather always gets siginificantly cooler at night.
So when you’re figuring out how to pack for california, definitely keep the weather and seasons in mind.
The easiest trick to a perfect california packing list is to remember to always dress in layers.
I’ve lived in California for several years now, and have traveled up and down the state plenty. The one constant I’ve experienced throughout the state is the absolute need to dress in layers.
It’s not uncommon for me to start my days in a cozy sweater, change to shorts in the middle of the day, and add a jacket when going out at night. So repeat after me, dress (and pack) in layers!
California Clothing Style
One of my favorite things about living in California is how laid back everything is, and that definitely includes the California dress style! You can pretty much live in jeans or yoga pants, flip flops and breezy dresses and NO ONE bats an eye. I love it!
The epitome of California cool is comfort. We absolutely put it above everything else, and manage to make it look good at the same time 😉
When you’re deciding what clothes to wear in California, definitely bring your favorite beachy sundresses (these are adorable!), go buy a good pair of flip flops (rainbows are a local favorite), add a retro jean jacket, and you’ll be on your way to dressing like a California local!
Packing List: California Must Haves Anywhere in the State
The following items are things that you definitely should pack no matter where you’re going in California. I’ve included specific amounts of clothes for a weeklong trip below, as well as specific recommendations for these items below (in case you’re in the mood for some shopping!)
Clothes to Bring to California
- 3-4 dresses. Search your closet first for your favorite sundresses, and make sure these are breathable and comfortable. Look for dresses that are lightweight and will layer well (no bulky sleeves or too many ruffles).
- 1 jean jacket. If you don’t have a lightweight jacket in your closet, definitely invest in a good jean jacket. Denim is heavy enough to keep you warm and layer over a sundress, but not so bulky you’ll be sweltering.
- 3-4 t-shirts and cute tops. If you’re visiting in summer, stick to short sleeve tops and tanks. If you’re visiting in winter, add a long sleeve top to your list.
- 1 pair of jeans. Look for darker washes that are easier to mix and match.
- 1-2 pair of shorts. Pack breathable fabrics that you’ll be comfortable in. Darker and neutral colors work best for outfit vesatility.
- 1 pair of pajamas. Pack whatever you’re most comfortable in!
- Underwear/Socks. Pack more than you think you’ll need! You never know what your travel adventures will look like, and it would absolutely suck to run out of clean undergarments.
The epitome of summer, a good sundress can be dressed up or down for those sunny California days when the summer breeze is going through your hair and you can just taste the salty sea air.
A lot of girls in California (like me) live in sun dresses during the summer months because they’re super versatile and easy to wear. If you’re looking to add more dresses to your wardrobe, Old Navy has plenty of affordable, cute options.
For a weeklong trip, pack 3-4 of your favorite sun dresses.
For a while, it seemed everywhere I turned I saw someone wearing a jean jacket (no matter the time of year). These look super cute over a sundress, but also allow you to stay warm when the weather starts to get a bit chilly.
Personally, I steal my boyfriend’s jean jacket every chance I get because I love a boxier cut. So you can go my route and steal your boyfriend’s jacket, or just get one of your own! Whatever you do, make sure you add this to your packing list (but don’t pack it away, wear it on the plane instead!)
You’ll want to pack a couple of lightweight t-shirts and tops for your California strip. Casual is definitely the way to go in California, and a good t-shirt (or cute top) and jeans combination is a classic you can wear anywhere in the state. For a weeklong trip, I’d pack 3-4 comfy, basic tops like these ones.
Again, causal is the name of the game here. Pack your favorite pair of jeans, and a pair of shorts (if coming in the summer). The bottoms you pack should be versatile enough to allow you to mix and match outfits easily, so go for darker shades.
Shoes & Other Things to Pack
The following shoes & accessories are things that you definitely should pack no matter where you’re going in California. I’ve included specific recommendations for these items below as well.
- 2-3 pairs of shoes: you’ll want a good pair of flip flops, a pair of sneakers, and some cute sandals.
- Sunglasses: this cute pair is one of those absolute MUST things to take to California to protect your eyes from the sun.
- Crossbody bag: do you really want to be carrying a huge tote bag around while you’re trying to take in the California scenery? Of course you don’t! Pack a small, but roomy crossbody bag in a neutral color (think black, brown leather, or white) to stash your phone, keys and wallet away.
- Daypack: if you plan to do any hiking, or are planning to lounge around at the beach, you NEED to bring a daypack. A daypack is essentially a smaller, lightweight backpack that will give you the extra space you need for beach towels, extra clothes and snacks.
- Reusable water bottle: we’re big into the environment here in California, so make sure you bring a reusable water bottle! Not only is it good for the environment, it’ll save you money compared to buying expensive bottled water. I have this water bottle in blue, and love how much water it holds and how cheap it is!
- Portable charger: having a portable charger packed for your trip to California is probably one of the smartest things you can do. This is an absolute lifesaver for those times when your phone runs out of charge right when you need it most.
- Camera: the natural beauty of California is absolutely ridiculous, so having a good camera on hand is a must. While I love my DSLR (and lug it around to capture most of my photos,) there’s other more affordable (but still powerful) camera options.
- Sunscreen: We get so much sun in the Golden State, you absolutely need to pack some sunscreen. I’m a fan of the Sun Bum brand for sunscreen, and their mineral sunscreen specifically. When shopping for sunscreen, read the labels and look for ones that don’t contain avobenzone and oxybenzone. These chemicals aren’t that great for you or the environment.
Shoe & Accessories Recommendations
Toiletries + Other Things You’ll Need
Below you’ll find a list of the toiletries and essentials that you need to bring with you on your trip. I recommend buying some reusable TSA approved bottles to pack your favorite essentials. Whether or not you use reusable bottles, pack your toiletries in some leak-proof bags to prevent any spills in your luggage.
Packing List: Southern California Additions (LA Packing List)
If you’re visiting Southern California, especially during the summer months, you’ll want to make sure you add the following items to your packing list. Most of these are geared towards spending time by the water. Because let’s be real, if you’re in SoCal, you’ll definitely want to hit up the beach!
- 2-4 swimsuits: a good rule of thumb is to pack 1 swimsuit for every day you plan to be at the beach. I love this high waisted two piece that just screams summer.
- 1-2 swim cover ups: for wearing over your swimsuit while lounging at the pool or beach.
- 1 dressier outfit: you really only need one dressier outfit if you’re visiting a major city (like Los Angeles) and planning to go hit up the fancier nightlife scene. For most places, you’ll be fine in a sundress and sandals.
- Sunhat: there’s something about throwing a sunhat over an outfit that just takes it to the next level. Look cute and protect yourself from the sun by buying an affordable and adorable sunhat!
- Leave in conditioner: I love the feel of the salty sea spray, but my hair? Not so much. If you plan to spend any time out in the water or by the beach, do like surfer girls do and invest in some good leave in conditioner for your hair. Trust me, you’ll be so glad you did!
- Waterproof phone case: You don’t want your phone getting wet and ruined when you’re near the water (which is such a super real possibility!) Instead, buy an inexpensive waterproof phone case to give you peace of mind on your next California adventure!
- Beach blanket: If you plan to lounge around at the beach, you need to pack a good beach blanket. I’m partial to these colorful Mexican inspired blankets (if you have the space). For something more lightweight, check out this sand resistant beach blanket.
- Lightweight beach towel: Going to the beach? You definitely need a (lightweight) beach towel. If staying at an Airbnb, ask your host if beach towels are provided. If they’re not, this towel is a good, quick drying option.
Southern California Packing List Recommendations
Northern California Packing List Additions (San Francisco Packing List)
The Northern California Coast is very different than Southern California. Our beaches are much colder, so swimming isn’t as common (but surfing absolutely is!)
When packing for Northern California, you’ll want slightly warmer clothes, a good rain jacket, and hiking clothes (especially if you’re planning to visit Muir Woods).
- Rain jacket: Northern California receives more rain than other parts of the state, and the weather here is much foggier. I’ve found that umbrellas take up too much space, are easy to lose, and don’t really keep you dry anyway. Instead, pack a lightweight rain jacket if rain’s in the forecast. This will allow you to explore the outdoors no matter the weather!
- Sweater: you need a sweater when visiting San Francisco (or anywhere else in Northern California) no matter the time of year. As the nights get chillier, you’ll be cozy and comfortable if you’re dressed in layers!
- Hiking supplies: hiking is a big deal in Northern California. We have so many breathtaking parks and hiking trails, adding a hike to your California itinerary is an absolute must. If you plan to go hiking, you want to pack a good pair of hiking shoes and a hiking hat.
- Scarf: having a good scarf allows you to stay warm when you need to, but is an easy layer to shed when it gets warmer. I never go anywhere without a pashmina scarf – they serve double duty and keep me warm on the plane ride as well!
- Beach blanket: The beaches in the northern parts of California are perfect for people watching, lounging, surfing and beach bonfires. Bring a beach blanket to relax and enjoy the salty sea breeze.
California Road Trip Packing List
If you’re going on a California road trip, you’ll want to make sure you bring binoculars for watching marine life. From the coast you can often see elephant seals, whales, sea otters and many other sea creatures.
Additionally, you’ll want to bring the following:
- Scarf: to keep warm in the car or in the changing weather;
- Portable charger;
- Small first aid kit.