Updated on February 22, 2021 by Asher Fergusson
Check out our California packing list, and tailor it to your specific needs! You’ll also find tips for what NOT to pack, and what to wear in California.
What to Pack for California – 17 Essentials
No matter which part of California you’re visiting, you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Make sure to bring a super comfortable pair of flats that you can spend all day in without your feet killing you. I personally own and love these shoes – I wear them everywhere and I get a ton of compliments on them. They’re the most comfortable flats I’ve ever owned, and they spice up any outfit.
One of the tougher things about packing for California is that it has such varying climates depending on where you’re going, and depending on the season. You’ll want to pack plenty of layers, but you won’t want them to take up a huge portion of your suitcase. Enter: packing cubes. These multi-sized zippable pouches keep me organized, and compress my items into manageable sizes and shapes. They make packing much easier, and I always know where everything is.
Available on HeroTravelSupply.com with an exclusive 15% discount using the coupon code “HERO”.
Navigating California can be a bit intimidating and there is nothing worse than walking around Melrose with a dead cell phone and no idea how to get back to your car! This little beauty holds multiple charges for my devices, is as tiny as a tube of lipstick, and uses standard USB cables to power up my items easily and quickly, even while tucked safely away in my daybag! I love it, and don’t travel without it.
LA fashion is like the lovechild between Miami and NYC, and San Francisco is it’s slightly more conservative cousin. For going out in the evening, this dress works great in both Northern and Southern CA venues. I personally own this dress and adore it – it’s perfect for dinner and dancing or going to a club, and can easily be worn off-the-shoulder or over the shoulders. It’s universally flattering (check out the Amazon pictures), and comes in quite a few cute colors.
California beaches are fantastic and you wont want to miss a few days soaking up the sun. This super affordable waterproof cell phone case is perfect to bring because it will save your phone from the water and sand, but the touch screen still works well so you can use your phone normally. ALSO please don’t forget if you are heading to theme parks like Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags etc. there are many rides where you will get WET. And you will want to keep your devices safe and dry. This waterproof case is hands down the best solution.
This is really an ideal camera for the beach, plus any activity where you’ll be getting wet but still want quality pictures and video. We use ours during water sports, and can even use it to get great underwater video with sound!
You’ll want to take advantage of all of the free WiFi you can so that you don’t have to worry about data and roaming charges. However, did you know that using public Wifi is actually very risky to your personal and financial information? Hackers often “haunt” free connections to attempt to steal this kind of data from unprotected individuals. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an incredibly easy and affordable way to protect your information. With a touch of a button on your device, it adds an extra layer of encryption to shield your data from hackers, thereby keeping your identity and financial info safe.
My husband had his credit card information stolen while using WiFi in Paris, and now we both use it everywhere we go – foreign or domestic! It’s also very handy when we’re in countries that block certain parts of the internet, as the VPN allows us to access those areas without the country-specific restrictions.
A purse like this one is great to have along in case you are making a quick stop at a cafe, or doing some light shopping. It’s big enough for your wallet and cell, but not too big to lug around if you don’t need to bring too much. Man bags, too, are actually pretty popular in California, just because of the connivence, and I love this one by Zicac.
Swimsuit cover-ups are an easy, fashionable way to avoid having to wear a soggy towel around while you dry off or hang by the pool. Another thing to think about is that California beach towns are really casual so you could totally slip this on over your swimsuit and go out to lunch without changing. I love mine – it retains its shape even when wet, it’s very flattering, and is super cute.
In Californion cities such as LA or San Fran you will be driving a decent amount, and often it’s incredibly difficult to find parking. Once you find a spot you wont want to move your car, and you won’t want to keep going back to it for things like water, snacks, your camera, your sunscreen, etc. A stylish daybag like this one is a great way to keep everything on hand. If you’re doing more active rigorous activities, you may also like this Venture Pal daypack which folds into a tiny pouch.
11. Facial Spray
Your skin might go haywire while you’re traveling. Between putting your skin through hours in recycled airplane air to smoggy LA sidewalks, your face is going to need some extra care. This moisturizing spray will spruce you up and keep your skin glowing and healthy.
It’s a big of a sad truth… but from growing up in LA I know how important it is to be street-smart. Scams happen, theft happens, and the best way to avoid them is to be prepared. An RFID-blocking wallet is a great way to protect your personal and financial information, I would be sure to use it if you are going clubbing or in a touristy area where theft is most likely to happen.
We love our hanging toiletry bags. And this one can only be described as “SEXY.” I don’t think I’ve ever had a love affair with a toiletry bag until I met this one. It makes it so easy to quickly find what you’re looking for without having to rummage through a disorganized bag or case. We also found that it holds on to our toiletry items so they don’t fall, roll around, and get lost when we’re in our accommodations. It’s great for both men and women.
14. Flexible Tripod
A tripod is surprisingly handy, and can make taking pictures of yourself and your whole family much easier. I like that this flexible tripod allows me to mount my camera onto almost any surface for just the right photo distance and angle!
In California – especially in touristy places – they really overcharge for water. I strongly recommend against drinking California tap water – it’s horrible. To avoid being charged $5 for a tiny bottle of Evian I always bring this filtered water bottle by Brita. I refill it at drinking fountains, and with it I’m confident that the water I’m drinking is safer and tastier.
16. Dry Bag
A dry bag is an essential item that I always bring with me when going to a beach or anywhere there’s even a small chance my belongings will get wet. Hiking, surfing, paddleboarding, riding rides at theme parks, and other activities all expose personal items to water. A dry bag seals them all away from harm, and can either be carried on its own via the strap or tucked into my daybag.
Petty theft is a problem anywhere, but California does have a few patches where it’s worse than most. There’s also a risk of canceled reservations, lost luggage, or other issues whenever you travel. Travel insurance is always a good idea – experienced travelers don’t travel without it. My husband and I really like World Nomads, as they’re reliable, affordable, and have great service and reviews.
Other California packing list items not to forget
What to wear in California
The trends in California lean toward laid back and casual. Make sure to bring extra underwear and socks. During the warmer months, pack sundresses, shorts or and short-sleeve shirts. During the cooler months, bring pants, long-sleeve shirts, a sweater, and a jacket. Pack clothing of neutral color palettes that can be mixed and matched with other pieces.
What NOT to take to California
If you’re flying, keep in mind that these items are TSA prohibited:
3) Sharp objects
3) Liquids (unless you follow the liquids rule)
5) Camping equipment
6) Medical tools
7) Various miscellaneous items
If you’re interested in reading up on the TSA regulations, here is a link to their website.
FAQs about traveling in California:
1) What’s the best time of year to go to California?
If hitting the beach is part of your vacation plans then May through October is your best bet, as those months are best for mild but warm temperatures. For downhill skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, the months of December, January, and February are the best due to their cooler temps.
2) How can I protect myself against the sun in California?
Bring your sun gear. Pack sunscreen with a high SPF, a pair of sunglasses with ultraviolet protection, and a cap or sunhat. Sun protection is necessary in California throughout the whole year!
3) How can I capture all my California Trip memories?
Bring a camera or video camera with an extra battery to capture the special moments of your trip. If your batteries are rechargeable, make sure you bring the charger!
4) I want to go on a California road trip. How do I decide my destinations?
If you truly have no idea where you’d like to go, use websites like Roadtrippers to build your perfect trip starting in your hometown.
Another fun option is to road trip from southern Cali to northern Cali, or vice versa!
5) Why take a road trip to California instead of flying?
Getting there is half the fun. If you’re traveling with a companion, you’ll get to know your co-pilot in a new way with all of the long on-the-road conversations and bonding over new sights. If you’re traveling solo, you’ll likely learn a lot about yourself and have plenty of time to jam to your favorite playlists en route. At any rate, you’ll see areas of California and its hidden gems that you would never see through a plane window.
6) What are some must-see attractions in California?
Lake Tahoe and San Francisco are great, as they are places that have a lot of top attractions in them already. Lake Tahoe is even a lot of fun during the winter season, and boasts some great snow activities! San Francisco is glorious in the spring and summer but is also still fun to see in the winter when the crowds are lighter.
The Redwood Forest is a sight to see, and will leave you in awe of nature’s beauty. Another fun attraction is Tijuana in Mexico, just south of the border near San Diego. It can be a bit dicey off the beaten tourist path but is certainly a fun and exciting experience if you take basic precautions.
Amusement and theme parks like Sea World, Disneyland, and Legoland are certainly winners for family activities! They can be more on the spendy side, though, so be sure to budget accordingly. If you’re in LA, there is a little-known place that has recently opened up called The Scenario Studio where you can do world-class photoshoots on impressive sets with just your cellphone camera. Check out their website to see what I mean!
7) What’s the best way to get around in California?
Many people rent cars, and they’re probably the most efficient way to see as many attractions as possible. Parking is a bit of a chore, but luckily once you’ve parked you can typically walk many places from your parking spot. Public transportation is available in some cities but is sometimes hard to navigate or not as tourist-friendly.
If you’re staying in a smaller place or won’t be venturing far from your accommodations, some cities and towns offer scooters or bike rentals!
8) How can I find accommodations in California on a budget?
Homesharing sites can be a good option for lower-cost accommodations, and hostels are pretty widely available in places like San Francisco and LA.
9) Is California an expensive place to travel?
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be extravagant. One of the surest ways to spend a lot of money is to pay for activities you could do for free, so instead of taking paid tours or doing expensive activities, try to find self-guided tours, free attractions, and cheap or free activities. There are many! Hike in a national park, take a picnic lunch to a park near the Golden Gate Bridge, drive around wine country or find a free wine tasting, hang out on one of CA’s many beaches… the list goes on and on.
Another way to make your trip less expensive is to walk or ride bicycles when possible instead of driving. If you can avoid renting a car altogether, so much the better! Public transit in California is pretty easy to use and could save you money.
Dining out and alcohol consumption certainly takes a chunk out of your spending money, so limiting these activities is a good way to save. If you have access to a kitchen, try picking up fresh local foods to cook for some meals!
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