Planning a trip to the Golden State and looking for the ultimate packing list for California? Read our list of essentials including clothes, beachwear, sunglasses, sun hats, water shoes, makeup, hiking boots, binoculars, and other things to take to California. Find a free printable for the California vacation packing list and make packing easy. You may also like our post on California Road Trip Itinerary.
Wondering what should you bring on your California trip? You are not alone! California is quite tricky to pack. On our first trip, we went all-in on swimsuits and beach coverups – to be surprised by the foggy climate and chill in the Bay area. Since then, we have packed for a variety of experiences and climates since a trip to California usually involves a combination of micro-climates and activities.
In California, you have the option to explore from beaches to snow-clad mountains and need to be prepared for a variety of outdoor adventures including surfing, whale watching cruises in Big Sur, desert hikes in Joshua Tree, and camping in the mountains. A trip to California will be among your most memorable ones – here’s what you need to pack for the Golden State.
What to pack for California
In this section, we cover the essentials for packing for California. You will need to pack according to the list for exploring California’s cities. For the rest of the list, pick your attractions and then add in those items. For eg., if your trip involves Southern California beaches, Los Angeles, and a visit to Disney – then pack for cities + beach + theme parks. If you are planning San Francisco plus camping in Yosemite – then pack for cities + road trip + hiking + camping. And so on.
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For exploring California’s cites
Use this as your starting list. If you are spending any time in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Palm Springs, or any other cities then you need this list. You can follow this list for each family member and customize it as per your preferences.
4-5 Tees, Shirts and Blouses
Carry a bunch of tees, shirts, and blouses so that you do not have to repeat your clothes and worry about washing them when they get spoiled. One or two extra tops and tees should carry you well over several days.
2 pairs of jeans
2 pairs of jeans should be enough for a trip of up to 3 to 4 days without any problem as these can be easily re-worn. If you are planning for a longer trip, add an extra pair. Make sure that the denim is comfortable.
2 pairs of shorts & skirts
Adding a pair of shorts and skirts adds versatility to your outfits. It will ensure that you have enough casual wear for relaxed outings during your trip to California. Choose bright colors or bold prints to add a statement of style.
1-2 Dressy outfit for date nights & clubbing
Packing a couple of dressy outfits is key to having a travel wardrobe for all occasions. Enjoy Los Angeles and San Francisco nightclubs and go on date nights to trendy restaurants with your partners by dressing up to the nines during your trip.
1-2 Maxi dresses or sundresses
Maxi or sundresses are especially essential if you are headed to SoCal. They can double up as casual/stylish outfits and can be worn for visiting museums during the day to having a beach view patio dinner at night.
1 utility jacket or trench coat if traveling fall to spring
Utility jacket or a trench coat – if it’s waterproof, even better – will make sure that you are ready for whatever weather that California chooses to dish up during your trip. This is especially necessary if you are road tripping along the Pacific Coast as the weather changes quite often as you drive northwards. Read our post on the Most stylish and trendy travel jackets for women to see our recommended picks.
Pajamas or loungewear
There’s nothing like slipping into your favorite pair of pajamas or nightwear after a long day of shopping, exploring cities, hiking, or swimming on the beach. Chill out in comfortable pajamas and rest for the next day’s activities.
Underwear & socks
Goes without saying, carry plenty of comfortable underwear and socks for your California trip to avoid a trip to the laundry as having a clean pair is indeed essential for everyone.
Comfortable flats or walking shoes
Expect to walk a lot while exploring the cities and walking in museums or zoos. From spending an entire day shopping to walking along the beach, comfortable flats or walking shoes will prove very useful.
Pack in a pair of fancy shoes that go with your dress for when you plan to go clubbing, visit dive bars, go on brunches, or dine in the uber-trendy restaurants in California.
Sun Hat or cap
The California sun gets super hot, especially in the south. Having a hat will be useful while you go out during the day whether for long walks or to the beaches or shopping. It will definitely save you from getting skin burns and tans.
Definitely carry sunscreen on your California trip irrespective of when you go. A little tan is good but getting sunburned is painful, trust me – I have learned it the wrong way!
Toothpaste & Toothbrush
Toothbrush and toothpaste are legit one of the most forgotten travel items! Make sure to carry yours in your toiletries. Btw, did you know – if you forget toothpaste most hotels can supply you with one?! Just call up the housekeeping/reception desk and let them know.
Super essential for a trip to California. Whether you plan to take pics for the gram while you go clubbing or flaunt that beach bod in Malibu, you definitely need some makeup to look your best self. Make sure that you carry your makeup essentials including waterproof eye makeup with you all the time.
Glasses / contacts & sunglasses
Glasses & contacts are essential for those like me who wear prescription glasses. Don’t forget to carry an extra pair because having a blurry trip is no fun! Also, don’t forget to carry a good pair of sunglasses for both, as a fashion statement, and to shield your eyes from the hot California sun.
Documents for California packing list
Always carry along the required travel documents for a hassle-free and stress-free trip. Here is what all you might need to pack for California.
Passport / ID / Driver’s License
Get an RFID blocking antitheft wallet to keep your essential documents including passport and other IDs safe at all times. Also, don’t forget to pack them as you may be denied entry on planes or in clubs. A driver’s license will be necessary to rent cars and go on a road trip to California. The documents will also be needed for booking attraction travel tickets, hotels, and availing other services.
Travel Insurance documents
Nobody can predict what mishap might befall while traveling; the latest pandemic is a great example. You might end up losing your documents or the airlines might lose your luggage but good travel insurance will come to your rescue in such trying times.
A credit card is a very convenient mode of payment plus helps you rack up miles or rewards points. It also essential for the shopaholic in you!
Most of the transactions can be done digitally today but there is always that one place which is cash only. If you are traveling to the US internationally, make sure to carry a sufficient amount of cash in dollars for your shopping sprees and other needs.
Technology essentials for your California trip
Nowadays tech essentials are as much a part of essential travel gear as clothes and footwear. Here’s what all you need
Nowadays, I don’t travel anywhere without a power bank to charge my cell phone, tablet, and smartwatch. The gadgets are like a modern extension of my body and I definitely don’t want them to run out of juice.
Phones and chargers
Several times have I kept my phone out on the desk or for charging to the last minute and then had to run back to get it! While we know that you will *almost* never forget your smartphone and chargers, it is important to double-check before you head out as these items are not easily replaceable.
Cameras and chargers
A California trip is full of epic and memorable moments. You definitely want to retain the memories and a camera plus the charger are essential to treasure the moments forever.
Tripod / Selfie stick
We always carry along some sort of handsfree camera support to click family photos of all of us together on vacation. Whether you prefer tripods or selfie sticks, they are very useful – especially when you’re traveling solo – to take amazing photos for the ‘gram and photo albums.
Kindle Fire/e-reader or tablet
If you enjoy reading, then definitely carry along a kindle, tablet or any e-reader. The tablets are also a blessing when our kids are cranky and need something to cheer them up. I love to load my tablet with books and take some time to read when I find a beautiful and quiet reading spot.
Also Read: Best Travel Gifts for Kids who travel
For a trip to the southern California beaches
Add these items if you will be spending significant time on the California beaches and engaging in any kind of water sports. Also read our post on Southern California road trip itinerary.
Swimsuit & coverups
We’re pretty sure that you plan to take a dip in the beautiful Southern California Beaches, so don’t forget your swimsuit and coverups. Splurge on something trendy, stylish, yet comfortable for your trip.
Carry a long beach towel or two, whether you plan to go swimming, sunbathe on the beach, or just relax in the sand. You’ll definitely not regret carrying a beach towel for everyone in your party.
Pack a foldable tote to use as a beach bag to carry your sunscreen, beach towel, books, headphones, tablets, etc to the beach. Totes are easy to carry and spacious enough to carry all the essentials.
Water shoes or flip flops
When you visit the beaches, wear a pair of flip flops or water shoes to keep your feet safe from the trash, weeds, or marine life that may get washed up. Ditch the flip flops for waterproof hiking sandals if you plan to look for tidepool creatures over rough and rocky coast.
While you go for a dip on the beach or try water sports, make sure to carry a dry bag to protect all your accessories and other important items from getting wet.
For spending a day at the theme parks
California is famous for its theme parks. Anaheim has many including Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Legoland, and many more. Here’s what you need to survive a day at the theme parks
Disney Daily Agenda Planner
While it is easy to get lost in the magical world of Disney, make sure to carry a Disney Daily Agenda Planner so that you don’t miss out on things that you have been wanting to visit all along.
Disney drawstring backpack
The best way to carry a camera, water bottle, sunscreen, etc at Disney is in a matching Disney drawstring backpack. These themed bags are especially hit with kids on their first Disney trip, no matter the age or gender.
The climate of California can change in a jiffy with cold showers coming in from out of nowhere on a sunny warm day. Carry a Poncho along with you to avoid getting wet.
Handheld USB Fans & Mist sprayers
A day at Disney can be hot and humid at times, so we recommend carrying a handheld USB fan or a mist sprayer to keep cool during the long walks from attraction to attraction at the theme park.
Disney autograph book
Don’t forget to carry a Disney Autograph book for all kids at all times – you never know when you might run into Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck, or your favorite Disney Princesses at the park.
For biking the Golden Gate Bridge
Biking is one of the best ways to explore the Golden Gate Bridge. You can also bike at many other places in California including Napa Valley, in the city of San Francisco, along the beaches, and in the national parks.
1 Padded riding shorts
If you plan to bike the Golden Gate Bridge or Napa Valley, a padded riding short will make your ride much more comfortable and enjoyable.
1 sport jerseys
A sports jersey that you can wear or remove as needed will keep you protected against climate changes and cool winds plus keep you looking trendy and fashionable.
Fanny pack or backpack
A fanny pack or backpack will help you carry your essentials like water bottle, documents, cell phone, power bank, etc while you bike through the Golden State.
For hiking in the Californian deserts
California deserts are a different environment. They are different than the beaches and you need to be uniquely prepared to hike in the harsh climate. Pack these things and you will have a great time hiking in the desert whether you are visiting Joshua Tree or Death Valley.
1 hiking pants
A pair of comfortable and well-fitting hiking pants will ensure that you are comfortable while hiking through the desert. Some also prefer hiking shorts but the long pant is a good idea to combat the desert heat and walk through the cacti environment.
1-2 Moisture-wicking shirt
Pack a few moisture-wicking shirts made of 100% polyester for backpacking across the California desert. The shirts are good at keeping the humidity and sweat away from your skin and keep you dry. Pack a combination of long-sleeved and short-sleeved shirts.
1 Sweatshirt or jacket
While the days are hot, nights can get pretty cool out in the open. A sweatshirt or jacket will help you sheath from cool desert winds and keep you from shivering at nighttime.
A pair of athletic underwear you snug and comfortable while providing extra support while you indulge in desert adventures such as ATV riding, rock scrambling, and other outdoor activities.
Hiking Backpack / Daypack
We love carrying a packable daypack to keep all essentials while hiking in the desert. The backpacks come with many handy pockets and water bottle compartments and are the perfect hiking gear.
Hiking boots & socks or hiking sandals
While joggers and sneakers are good for exploring cities, they can’t substitute for hiking boots/ sandals while walking over tough terrain. Also, pack a pair of moisture-wicking hiking socks to avoid blisters.
If you don’t like getting hot, then a cooling towel is the best invention ever! Simply soak the towel in some water, wring it, and keep it over your neck. Or use it to wipe your face. You will instantly feel refreshed.
It is very important to carry a water bottle while hiking in the desert. Carrying a bottle of ice water is essential for everyone especially when you are hiking during the summer.
For camping in California’s mountains
If you plan to visit California national parks, then plan to camp. Camping lets you be close to national park attractions and explore the nature more intimately. Here is what you need to go camping.
Tent & stakes
Nothing beats camping in the mountains under the open sky with millions of stars keeping you company. If you are an adventurer wanting to go camping in Yosemite or Sequoia, tent & stakes need to be the first item on your list.
Mallet for hammering stakes
A mallet is essential to hammer the stakes deep in the ground. Mallets also have a tent peg remover which is useful while packing up and can be used as a multi-tool for self-defense or while rock-climbing.
Sleeping pads & sleeping bags
While camping is thrilling and fun-filled, being ill-equipped can do you more harm than good. A good cold weather sleeping pad & bag should enable you to be comfortable even on cold nights in the mountains.
Unless your site has an electric hookup, a flashlight is your go-to source of electricity for visiting restrooms at night or keeping an eye out for the wildlife.
Keep a couple of camping chairs in the car to be comfortable when star-gazing at night or enjoying a campfire and roasting marshmallows.
Carry a portable camping lantern to help you stay safe in the dark. Many often double up as bug repellants are useful to keep the swarm of mosquitoes away.
Camping stove & fuel
As long as you are planning to cook your own camping meals and not survive just on cold cuts, then you absolutely need to pack a camping stove & fuel. And you never know, when you might have night cravings for instant noodles or mac n cheese or hot water in the middle of a cold night!
Camping utensils – Cooking & dining
Carry a set of basic cooking & dining utensils like a skillet, dutch ovens, plates, tumblers, flatware, grill, & tongs to prepare your meal out in the open.
A cooler will keep your beer cold and the food frozen. This is a camping essential to keep your perishables safe and increase their shelf life.
When we go out into nature, we always practice ‘Leave no trace’. Make sure that you carry a trash bag so that all plastics, paper, & organic waste can be easily disposed of and you leave the natural areas as pristine and clean as you found them.
For skiing near Lake Tahoe
If you plan a winter trip to any of California’s snow destinations, then you can go skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. Here is what you need to take to be prepared for extreme weather and outdoor activities.
Ski pants & jackets
A set of ski pants & jackets is made from functional fabric that keeps you warm and dry while you go skiing at Lake Tahoe.
Layer thermal underwear under your clothes and ski pants to avoid freezing to death. No matter how tolerant you are to winter and snow, thermal underwear is the best way to stay warm while playing in the snow.
A pair of ski socks are specifically designed to keep you warm and dry as you go skiing. They fit properly inside the ski boots and are longer than normal socks. The wrong ski socks will leave your feet wet, cold, and sore feet thereby ruining the fun of skiing.
Pack a cozy winter hat or beanie to stay outdoors in the freezing weather and enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, or playing in the snow.
A pair of waterproof ski gloves will keep your hands toasty warm and have enough grip to grasp the skis well. They have enough dexterity for winter activities such as snowmobiling, snowboarding, and ice climbing.
For road tripping in the redwood forests
One of the best ways to explore California is to go on road trips. You can take a road trip along the coast and through the giant redwood trees along the Northern Cali coast. We suggest packing road trip essentials to make your time on the road more enjoyable. Pack these items and you will thank us for it later.
Car Insurance Policy
Not only is having a car insurance policy essential from a legal perspective but having a good policy might save you money and come to your aid in case of a roadside emergency.
GPS or road maps
There is little to zero cell phone range at many natural attractions in California. And that’s why we always recommend carrying a separate GPS while hiking through dense woods or going off-roading. You definitely don’t want to get lost in the unknown terrain. If you prefer the old route, then carry road maps for the trip.
Roadside Emergency Kit
While going on any road trip, it is important to carry a well-equipped roadside emergency kit. You can modify the kit according to your needs but have a few essentials including a rope, coolant, motor oil, first aid kit, blanket, snacks, etc as a must.
Road trip games
For families and those traveling with kids, carry along a bunch of road trip games to while away the hours. While the list of road trip games is endless, some of our favorites include I Spy, Scavenger Hunt, etc.
USB drive with songs
A killer soundtrack can break the monotonousness of driving and alleviate any road trip. Open roads, clean air, beautiful scenery, and your favorite songs are all that you need to have a memorable California road trip. We love digital downloads and make a mix or playlist of our favorites on a USB drive that is compatible with most of the cars.
Packing essentials and luggage for your California trip
Carry on size bags, personal items, anti-theft backpacks, and packing cubes. These items are essential to organizing your stuff and carrying a compact bag. Here is our recommendation for favorite travel gear.
We are huge packing cube fans. It is the single most important gear that keeps our clothes and travel accessories organized as well as easily accessible. Packing cubes allows us to pack for all 4 of us in a single bag and is an important packing essential.
Keep all of your essentials including hand sanitizers, travel documents, wipes, chargers, water bottles, etc handy and easily accessible by carrying a crossbody bag on your trip.
We love anti-theft backpacks to keep all our belongings safe. These come with many hidden pockets and compartments plus have safety features such as steel mesh for anti-cut features and lockable zips., Anti-theft backpack keep your important items including passports, tickets, other travel documents, gadgets, wallets, cash, cards, etc. safe
While the threat of data skimming and identity theft is more imminent than ever, carrying an RFID blocking wallet will make sure that your digital data and cards are safe during your trip.
Cosmetics / Makeup / Toiletry Bag
Keep all essentials including cosmetics, eye and face makeup, and toiletries together in a separate bag. The small pouches are perfect for travel-sized items and makeup jars and brushes.
What to pack for California with kids
Traveling with kids is a different ball game altogether. If you have got kids – whether babies or teens – you need to pack a few items to keep them occupied in flights, on the road, and while exploring the city and national parks. Here is what you should pack for a California trip with the kids.
We love to carry some beach toys for the kids including sand buckets, rakes, shovels, beach balls, etc so that they can play on the sand to their heart’s content. We also love getting in the sand to build sandcastles with them.
We love giving our kid’s separate camera as it helps them learn about photography and take their own pictures of attractions. It works as well as any other travel toy to keep them distracted when needed.
California is a hiker’s paradise and everyone visiting the state should go on at least one hike to experience the state’s stunning landscapes. For those traveling with a baby or toddler, carry a hiking carrier to enjoy the outdoors with your kids.
Wipes & Diapers
If your kids are still not potty-trained, carry enough wipes and diapers to last through the trip. And, this is important – remember to change them more frequently than you would at home. Nothing like a diaper blowout to spoil your trip and mess with your planning!
We always recommend carrying lightweight, safe, portable travel toys for your kids. It will keep them entertained during long flights and in wait lines for attractions. Having a variety of travel toys allows us to enjoy the trip as much as the kids.
That’s it. We hope you like our list of what to pack for California for all types of trips. Did we miss out on an essential item? Let us know in the comments.