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While California is not the “Sunshine State,” there certainly is a lot of sun here – but that doesn’t mean you should pack shorts and swimsuits all year long, for anywhere in the state. Instead, California is the Golden State because of the gold rush fields, the fields of golden California poppies, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the golden tones of sunsets over the Pacific Ocean. These descriptions alone tell how diverse California is – and why what to pack for California must also be diverse.

I’ve lived in California for going on four years now, and have explored the state from top (Crescent City) to bottom (San Diego) – literally! After all of my adventures (so far), I’ve put together a solid list of the essentials you need to pack to explore pretty much anywhere in California.

This California packing list doesn’t cover everything you need to pack, but it will tell you the essentials I think you need and might for get. If you’re uncertain what to pack for California and need some help, read on.

California Travel Tips

November 2020 Recap Hero

Before jumping into my California packing list, I want to cover a few quick things about California that will help explain why I consider these essential items to pack for any California trip.

Northern California vs Southern California

As you’ll learn quickly when planning a California trip, Northern and Southern California are two different worlds. Culturally, geographically, and in terms of the experiences you can have – they’re really like two different states!

Here’s a quick breakdown of the differences:

Northern California:

  • Redwoods
  • Rugged coastline
  • Cooler, temperate marine weather

Southern California:

  • Deserts
  • Sandy beaches
  • Sunny days and cool, starry nights

If you’re traveling to both of these regions, you’ll want to plan ahead and pack for a lot more diverse weather and experiences than if you’re just visiting one.

Coastal vs Inland California

The same is true for Coastal vs Inland California – they’re totally different worlds!

  • Coastal California (the Pacific Coast, the Coastal Ranges, where San Francisco and Los Angeles are located) is generally cooler and wetter (even in SoCal).
  • Inland California (the Central Valley, the Sierra Nevadas, the deserts) is hotter and dryer.

If you’re planning to visit both parts of California during your trip (such as on this California national park road trip that traverses most of the state), you’ll need to pack to handle hot and cool, dry and damp – and loads of adventure.

Weather in California

As you can tell from my descriptions above, there’s a range of ecosystems and weather in California, but that’s just within the state. On the whole, California is a warm, temperate destination that for the most part is pleasant year-round.

There are – of course – exceptions: the Sierras and Cascades get snow during the winter, the southern deserts can exceed triple-digit temperatures during the day, etc. But if you check the forecast and plan for the averages during your trip, you’ll probably be fine.

One last note: unfortunately, due to the increasing effects of climate change, the nicest months in California (September & October) are often plagued by smoke from wildfires. If you’re planning to visit during this time, be sure to keep an eye on the smoke and air quality indicators in addition to temperature and other weather.

What You Actually Need to Pack for California

3 Days in San Francisco Hero

I’ll be honest: I pretty much pack 90% of the same things over and over… and I bet you do too. That’s why I have this separate list of travel essentials I always pack. Also, most packing lists are about 90% of those same things, right?

So instead of giving you a packing list that’s 90% of what you already know or are already planning to pack (yes, you do need 1 pair of underwear for each day…), here’s a packing list that’s 100% of things you need specifically for traveling in California.

In addition to the items listed below, you might add other things based on the activities you plan to enjoy. For example, whether you plan to sunbathe in SoCal or tidepool in NorCal, you might throw in an extra pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting sand in. Hiking in the Giant Sequoias of the Sierras or among the Coastal Redwoods north of the Bay Area merits a good pair of shoes.

What to Pack for California

1. California Guidebook

It might sound strange as you’re reading my blog and I have lots of free California resources, but I always recommend grabbing a physical guidebook to bring with you on every trip. I love having them to hand to discover new things to stop and do – here’s the Lonely Planet California guide I recommend.

If you’ve never used a guidebook before, check out my helpful post on how to use guidebooks!

2. Sunglasses

It isn’t sunny every day, but it is sunny a lot in California. I basically never leave the house without sunglasses, and I love these Erikas from Ray-Ban if you need a suggestion for new ones to buy.

3. Sunscreen

I’m definitely not as good about sunscreen use as I should be – but I’ve gotten a whole lot more intense about it since moving to California where the sun is so intense itself.

I love this “no excuses” facial sunscreen from Julep – it reminds me that I really should use it everyday, and is gentle enough to not cause skin issues.

4. Flats (or Sneakers)

A good pair of flats is worth their weight in gold – especially when exploring the diverse landscapes and urbanscapes of the Golden State.

I love and have long recommended Tieks as my go-to flat (read my review).

Jordan Packing List - Black Matte Tieks

Mr. V’s Pick for Men: Here

5. Boots

Even if you’re not planning any major adventures in California, it’s a good idea to bring a pair of shoes with a bit of support. I love these ones from Teva (they may come in a newer style now) and they’ve held up well hiking in the Redwoods and Sequoias, exploring the Pacific coast, and trekking in Joshua Tree.

Pack for San Francisco - Boots

Mr. V’s Pick for Men: Here

6. Reusable Bags

California is notoriously eco-conscious – undoubtedly it comes from an appreciation for how beautiful this state is, and wanting to protect it!

As such, you can’t get plastic bags here, and paper bags have a surcharge. Instead, just bring a small-folding reusable bag with you and you’ll save money and the planet.

7. Water Bottle

Similar to reusable bags, packing a water bottle is a good idea to reduce your footprint while traveling – anywhere in the world.

In California, it’s an extra smart idea since we have a bottle deposit (5¢). It doesn’t seem like much, but it does add up if you buy a bottle or two every day – and they are filling up landfills/ending up in the beautiful Pacific Ocean.

Our water is good here too, so you don’t need to worry about a filter.

8. Light Jacket or Rain Shell

Depending on where you are traveling in California, a light jacket and/or rain shell is a good thing to pack that won’t take up much space. You can layer it on if the skies open up on the North Coast, or if it gets chilly in the desert after dark.

I have long traveled with my North Face rain shell; here’s a similar one to the style I have.

9. Light Down Jacket

It’s kind of a joke but also totally based in reality: the light down jacket (or Patagonia vest) is part of the Bay Area wardrobe. That’s because the weather here (and the rest of Northern California) is really dynamic and having a light warm layer can come in handy.

I love and live in my Ultra Light Down from Uniqlo; Mr. V has one too.

10. Camera

I’ve lived in California going on four years and I never go on a trip where I don’t end up taking a ton of photos – even if I’ve already visited the place before!

There’s something about this place that just begs to be captured, so make sure you bring a good camera on your California trip. (I recommend the Sony A6000.)

What Else to Pack for California

I’ve put together a weekend packing list, which can help you see some of the basics I pack for every single trip. Additionally, here are a couple of tips to help you pack for your California trip:

  1. California’s seasons don’t vary much. Don’t get hoodwinked by a packing list that says you need this for winter and that for summer. There’s not enough difference that you need to buy or pack substantially different things unless you’re planning to visit Tahoe in the winter or Death Valley in the summer.
  2. Don’t want to pack a guidebook? Snag a digital copy. Lonely Planet offers ebook versions of all their guidebooks, usually at the same price or cheaper. Here’s the link for the California ebook.
  3. Adjust your packing list based on how long you’re traveling. Whether you’re only spending 3 days in San Francisco or stopping for one day as part of a 10-day PCH road trip, add (or remove) one more top for every two days of travel, and one more pair of trousers for every 3 days. Don’t forget extra undergarments and socks!

Now you’re all set and know what to pack for California adventures! Have any other questions? Let me know in the comments!

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