10 Essentials You Need to Pack for San Francisco
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Maybe I didn’t appreciate it enough when I called the Bay Area home, but San Francisco is a pretty special place. Each year, millions of visitors come to see the city’s iconic sights – the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Powell Streetcars, and the Ferry Building, among them – and explore the city’s streets and many hills (48 in total!). If you’re planning to be one of those visitors soon, you might wonder what to pack for San Francisco. Is it sunny and warm like Los Angeles? Or, being 350 miles apart, do their climates differ?
The short answer is both. Some days are warm and sunny in San Francisco, but there’s a lot more variance in the weather in SF than further south near LA. California is a huge state, so this makes sense if you think about it. This also makes it trickier to pack for San Francisco since you can’t just throw in shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops.
I called the San Francisco Bay Area home for almost four years, and have experienced the city in many different types of weather – including that crazy Apocolypse orange day. Below, you’ll find my San Francisco packing list of 10 essentials you need to include when it’s time to fill your suitcase.
If you still have questions about packing for San Francisco after reviewing my suggestions, please let me know in the comments below; I’m always happy to help you choose whether to bring additional items I didn’t mention, or answer questions about the items I think you can’t travel without.
Ready to dive into my packing list for San Francisco? Let’s cover some more specific info about San Francisco’s weather and seasons first, then dive into the list!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Ramaytush, Ohlone, and Muwekma peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in October 2014, and was updated most recently in October 2022.
Weather in San Francisco
San Francisco is a pretty great destination year-round. Like other coastal West Coast cities further north (Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver), San Francisco has a temperate climate. The average temperature difference between January (the coldest month) and July (the hottest month) is only 7° (the average highs between these months range from 50°-57°).
This might seem cold, and it certainly means people in San Francisco joke about not having a summer. Even in warmer months, it’s wise to pack layers and a raincoat, as the weather can change frequently. There’s also a frequent fog that rolls in off the Pacific Ocean – the fog is so common, locals have named it Karl!
As you’ll see, the essentials I recommend packing for San Francisco are season-neutral – because San Francisco doesn’t have strong seasons.
Weather in the Bay Area
One caveat to my previous statements: if your trip to San Francisco also includes visits to the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley) or South Bay (San Jose), you should pack a few more seasonal items – heck, even if you’re planning to just cross the Golden Gate Bridge and visit Sausalito, the weather can be quite different.
While living in Oakland, I regularly wore shorts in the summer months, and bundled up in the winter months; San Jose has even more dramatic temperature changes seasonally based on its geography. Don’t expect snow or anything – just check the forecast for all the places within the Bay Area that you’re planning to visit, as San Francisco has its own weather pattern compared to other parts of the Bay.
What to Pack for San Francisco
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 San Francisco.
Below you’ll find the ten things I think you actually need to pack for San Francisco based on living here in the Bay Area and doing plenty of my own explorations over the years. I also asked Mr. V to make suggestions for what men need to pack for San Francisco where it makes sense.
In addition to the items listed below, you might add other things based on the activities you plan to enjoy. For example, if you plan to spend a day exploring SF’s Pacific beaches, you might throw in an extra pair of shoes that you don’t mind getting sand in. Here’s exactly what to pack for San Francisco any time of year.
As you can see in pretty much all of the photos in this post, I’m wearing layers. While this is my go-to everyday style, it’s also a great idea when visiting San Francisco. Having several layers each day allows you to adjust as the weather changes.
My favorite company for layering items is Unbound Merino; their women’s collection has all the essentials you need to put together cute outfits with items that travel well – they’re odor- and wrinkle-resistant and mix-and-match well!
2. Puffy Vest
The next few items on this list are also related to layering, so that you’ll be comfortable no matter the weather forecast for your trip – or how many times it changes each day while you’re there.
I love layering up with my UNIQLO Ultra Light Down Vest and Jacket (below); the vest is great because it’s very on-brand for San Francisco’s techie style – but also warm and stuffs into a small sack that makes it highly efficient to pack.
3. Light Down Jacket
As mentioned, you can’t go wrong with the UNIQLO Ultra Light Down jacket – it’s perfect for keeping you warm on a cool SF day, but packs down small enough to not be annoying if you don’t end up needing it. I love my jacket so much that I’ve replaced the zipper once already.
Best of all, there’s a UNIQLO on San Francisco’s Powell Street, so if you ignore my advice and/or forget a jacket for your trip, you can stop and buy one on the ground!
4. A Long Raincoat
For your outermost layer, it’s important to bring something that can handle the rain and/or mist if Karl finally decides to precipitate during your visit.
My go-to rain jacket is this slicker from Pendleton; it’s a West Coast brand that makes great gear – and this jacket in particular is totally waterproof, so no chance of seepage ruining your day or making you chilly.
They have several colors too, which can be great for photos if that matters. (The yellow one would look so good on the Golden Gate Bridge!)
5. Comfy Sneakers
Next, I recommend packing two pairs of shoes for your trip. First up, comfy sneakers that you can tackle the city and her many hills while wearing.
I’m not one of those people who recommends tourist shoes – my go-to’s are equally classic Converse All-Star low tops in “optical” white. There are plenty of other colors, but you’ll notice in the photos above that I love these shoes and they fit my style as well as allow me to sightsee in any city I visit.
6. Water-Resistant Boots
When you hear “water-resistant boots,” your mind might go to Wellingtons or other rain boots, but that’s not what I mean here.
Instead, I recommend buying a good pair of boots that can handle the rain but still look good and are good for walking.
Enter the TOMS Mesa boot (which replaced my beloved Teva De La Vina boots a few years back…). I own three pairs of this style, and while they tend to go in and out of stock a lot, they’re absolutely clutch for me on basically every trip – urban or outdoor adventure.
I’ve worn a lot of sunglasses over the years, but my current go-to style comes from a Native-owned and designed company called Trickster Company. I have two pairs – you can also see them on my list of travel essentials – and grab one or both depending on the other colors I’ve packed for my trip.
These sunglasses are a great option to rock the Ray-Ban style but support a Native company and have a bit of flare in the design.
8. A Day Bag
If you’re heading out on long days of exploring San Francisco, a day bag is necessary – especially to throw in other items on this list, like your camera, guidebook, and water bottle.
What I like best about the Cotopaxi Del Día 18L (other than the bonkers colors!) is that it’s kind of a black hole bag – once you put something it, it’s hard to get out. This makes it a backpack you can feel safe wearing while traveling because it’s pretty hard for someone to get in/out of it without you noticing, thanks to the toggle design and the bag’s tall shape.
This is another travel essential I have two of – a green/purple bag and an orange/yellow/blue one
9. A Good Camera
I left one of the most important items you need to pack for San Francisco to last – a camera to capture your memories! You might be, like me, an iPhone-only photographer, but if you’re looking for a nice camera to capture this bucket list trip, I’ve got a suggestion.
The Sony A6000 isn’t as amped-up as the A7III that many pro photographers use, but it’s got a ton of the same functionality, great quality, and costs less than half the price.
I have a fair number of San Francisco articles here to help you plan, but in my opinion, nothing beats a guidebook when you’re planning your trip. It’s always helpful to be able to flip through for ideas if you need to adjust your itinerary.
Lonely Planet is my go-to guidebook company; the Lonely Planet guide to San Francisco has loads of tips to help you maximize your time in the city.
Bonus: Get this guidebook for free with a free 30-day trial of Kindle Unlimited. Sign up here!
What Else to Pack for San Francisco
Wait, what about the toiletries and underwear, you ask? As I said at the top, I don’t really remind you of every single little thing you need to pack – just pack the normal travel essentials you bring with you! I’ve also put together a weekend packing list, which can help you see some of the basics I pack for every single trip, in case you need that inspiration.
Additionally, here are a couple of tips to help you finish packing for your trip to San Francisco:
- San Francisco’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.
- 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 San Francisco ebook. (Pro tip: it’s available for free with a 30-day trial of Kindle Unlimited!)
- Bring reusable items to reduce your footprint. San Francisco (and California as a whole) has lots of policies around single-use plastics, so it’s best to bring a water bottle, reusable bags, and bamboo cutlery with you if you’re a sustainable traveler. Bringing your own coffee mug is a good idea too, as some coffee shops give a discount for that.
- 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!
And there you have it: a San Francisco packing list that covers the essentials but doesn’t overwhelm you. Have any other questions about what to pack for San Francisco? Let me know in the comments!