What to pack for a trip to California
Published 9 months ago
Our customers often email in to tell us how their Carl Friedrik suitcase or bag performed on a recent trip away.
Recently, we've noticed that many are heading on holidays or corporate travel to the Golden State, alias California.
Considering we have a penchant for all-things packing (see our articles on how to pack efficiently and packing cubes for a start), we wanted to write a piece answering the question: 'What should I pack for a trip to California?'.
Key considerations when packing for California
Whether you’re a metropolitan creative, backcountry hiker or sun worshipper, California has endless appeal.
The ideal California vacation packing list will depend on where you go, when you go, and what you plan to do.
California is one of few places on earth where five distinct climate types exist in close proximity (Desert, Cool Interior, Highland, Steppes and Mediterranean). Therefore, your destinations will determine what to pack for California.
If you’re heading to So-Cal to soak up the perpetual sunshine on its golden sand beaches, expect clear skies and warm (or downright hot) weather.
Northern California and the luscious wine-growing valleys have a cooler, more variable climate, with vast temperature swings between day and night. The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and other high-altitude zones, on the other hand, can get icy-cold at times.
Variable climatic zones aside, California, on the whole, has a warm Mediterranean-style climate. Expect hot, dry summers and mild, wetter winters throughout much of the state.
May to September has the sunniest weather, with the hottest temperatures (and thickest tourist throngs) hitting in July and August. Avoid any Californian desert during summer — there’s nothing you can pack to stay cool on 45°C days.
The two colder seasons arrive in April and October, bringing agreeable temperatures from north to south.
California receives most of its annual rainfall from November to March. But that’s not to say it’s a washout. Most of the time, you can bring an umbrella and go about your regular routine. While winter trips to the mountains and deserts entail sub-zero nights.
The size of your suitcase will dictate what you should bring. If you’ve opted for a sizeable check-in, you’ll have the space to haul an impressive wardrobe around. Carry-on adventurers are more limited — you must carefully consider each item and learn the basics, such as how to fold a shirt for travel.
So what’s better for California, a checked bag or carry-on? It’s ultimately about personal preference. Nonetheless, California is generally warm enough to get away with a small carry-on suitcase.
Stylish urbanites will want to fill their suitcase with trendy attire. As, though Californians generally favour casualwear, you’ll need to look sharp when frequenting upmarket establishments.
Outdoorsy types will need rugged, high-quality apparel. Expect snow at altitude and strong winds to batter the coast, especially during the fickle winter months. Consider renting adventure gear — tents, surfboards, SUPS — on arrival, so you don’t have to lug them around.
Road trippers will need the essential automotive safety gear. If your rental doesn’t have a first aid kit, air compressor, windshield sun shade or jumper cables, make sure to stock up quickly.
What should I pack for a trip to California?
Regardless of the destination and season, there are several things everyone should bring. Don’t forget these ten things to pack for a trip to California
California is a gigantic state; it pays to have a rough idea of where you’re going. While you could seek out recommendations online, there’s nothing like the professional curated advice of a high-quality guidebook.
We’re big fans of Lonely Planet, though there are plenty of other competitors out there. If space is a premium, opt for a digital version to download on your e-book reader or phone.
2. Functional backpack
From sightseeing stints to museum-hopping jaunts and wine-tasting forays, you’ll be making a plethora of exciting day trips. To keep your everyday essentials at hand, you need a fully functional daypack.
Fashion-conscious travellers should check out our Bowen all-leather backpack. This sleek 17L pack slides easily under an airline seat yet boasts sufficient space to safeguard your essentials and tech. Its padded mesh lining keeps the comfort level high, while the refined all-leather design is minimalist and understated.
3. Reusable water bottle
Travelling around California is thirsty work. You need to stay on top of your hydration game. As a good-willed eco-warrior, you wouldn’t dream of churning through single-use plastic bottles every day.
Grab a 1-2 litre reusable water bottle and fill it up as you go. Tap water is safe to drink everywhere in California.
4. Lightweight rain jacket
If you’re travelling California from October to April, you’ll encounter at least a small amount of rain. Store a lightweight rain jacket or waterproof coat in your bag for when the heavens open up.
5. Quality camera
Could California be the most photogenic state in America?
We think so. From windswept Pacific coastlines to the crystalline Lake Tahoe and the cactus-studded Joshua Tree, California is a nature photographer’s paradise. Urbanite types will find endless Insta-worthy cafes and chic boutiques in its thriving metropolitan regions.
To capture all this glory, bring a high-performance SLR or a high-end smartphone with a powerful in-built camera.
6. Portable charger
Running out of juice can be a traumatic travel experience. Without a fully charged smartphone, how will you navigate your way around town, pinpoint your next meal or capture those blissful Cali scenes?
Fit a high-capacity, lightweight, portable charger into your backpack to keep your battery topped up throughout the day.
There’s nothing like sprawling out on the beach with a good book. Given hardbacks are inexcusably heavy, the humble e-reader is the perfect 21st-century solution.
Aside from flipping through novels at Big Sur, you can use it to store your guidebook of choice. An e-reader also serves as a brilliant in-flight entertainment alternative (let’s face it, those onboard movies are rarely worth your time).
8. Trusty carry-on suitcase
Keen to save on check-in luggage fees and skip the tedious baggage carousel queue?
Consider a carry-on. Not only is it a godsend at the airport, but it makes you super agile when skipping around the state.
Check out our original cabin suitcase: The Carry-on. Compliant with almost all airline restrictions, this roomy 40L polycarbonate suitcase has a space-saving compression pad to enhance your packing experience.
A durable aluminium lock frame can withstand the rigours of the road, while its lightweight design and 360-degree spinner wheels make it a delight to move around with.
9. Travel adapter
International arrivals will need to charge their devices from the get-go, so bring an adapter from home. Like the rest of the U.S., California uses the Type A/B powerpoint. However, most seasoned globetrotters prefer to stock a universal adapter to use anywhere in the world.
America runs its appliances on 120V, which differs from the U.K., Europe, and Australia (240V). Nonetheless, almost all personal electronics (laptops, phones, charges) have in-built converters that work on both voltages. One common exception is the portable hairdryer — check the label if in doubt.
10. Sun protection
Regardless of when and where you visit, you’ll cop a lot of U.V. in California.
Purchase a stylish pair of sunglasses to safeguard yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. Round tea shade-style specs are big right now, though there’s nothing wrong with the timeless aviators.
Don’t neglect your skin. A hat and a thick slathering of sunscreen are a must for extended ventures outdoors.
What should I wear in California?
We’ve covered what things to take on a trip to California. Now it’s time to discuss your mobile wardrobe.
It’ll be hot pretty much everywhere. Leave the heavy jacket at home but bring a light sweater and trousers for the evenings, at least in cooler regions.
While California does have distinct seasons, most of the state remains relatively warm throughout the year. Unless you’re heading up into the mountains or straddling the northern border, you generally don’t need heavy-duty winter clothes.
In any case, aim for layers so you can adjust your garb to suit the climate, season and time of day.
As for style, California is pretty casual (athleisure is commonly on show). You’ll need a smart shirt and trousers for high-end venues, but for everywhere else, there’s no need to dress up.
“Whether you’re down the coast in L.A., the land of denim shorts, or in the Bay Area, where hoodies reign supreme, the style here is definitely on the casual and comfortable side”, as Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen puts it.
While California boasts an abundance of diverse climatic zones, the state is generally rather warm. Feel free to leave the heavy-duty cold weather clothes at home unless you’re venturing into the mountains or overnighting in the desert.
You’ll need to bring an array of C.A. essentials, which we’ve covered in our top ten list. Throw in your Men’s everyday carry necessities to complete the ensemble.
How to dress in California?
What to pack for Northern California?
What to pack for Southern California?