So much more than San Francisco’s city landscapes, NorCal is known for its sea-to-mountain naturally beautiful scenery and plentiful bucket list-worthy destinations. Whether you’re headed to Napa for the wine, Tahoe for the snow, Yosemite for the hiking or Santa Cruz for the ocean, there’s a handful of essentials you don’t want to be caught without!
Northern California Packing Guide for Women
Cold Weather Outerwear
California may be known for its sunshine, but it can get chilly in the higher elevations! The beach cities are also notorious for fickle weather and frequent foggy bouts, even in summer months; coastal mornings in June and July often feel like December, so be sure to pack long pants and a jacket. Layering is recommended regardless of your destination, though I’d highly recommend keeping a light cardigan on hand — no matter the time of year.
With the occasional exception of SanFran, you won’t find many people sporting designer labels or flaunting the latest fashion trends. Northern California is known for its laid-back people with a high priority opting for comfort, so break out those leggings and Birkenstocks (no, Birks are not a stereotype)!
You’ll find that most peoples’ daily attire consists of a humble jeans/tee/flip-flop ensemble, while your Santa Cruz and Sonoma folks wear athletic attire more than anything else. You can’t really be underdressed in any NorCal venue, and — given there’s so many opportunities for nature-oriented activities — you’ll probably find yourself wearing your favorite pair of sneakers more often than not. Don’t waste precious luggage space with heels.
I will, however, note that wine tasting in Napa (and possibly a nice evening out in SF) is probably the only occasion for a nice dress. Although, my go-to outfit if I’m not in the mood for a t-shirt and jeans is a long maxi skirt with a jean jacket. I also wouldn’t pair dresses with anything but flat sandals; the hills and gravel driveways of most wineries in Napa aren’t well suited for wedges or stilettos.
You may not be lounging on sunny beaches all day, but you will find that any amount of time outdoors will leave you a looking a little pink — if not as red as a tomato. The cool air of Tahoe often feels like sunscreen is unwarranted, but sun exposure in the high elevation will leave you with blistering sunburns within a couple hours if you forego it! Even if the sky is overcast or temperatures don’t surpass 70 degrees, apply sunscreen every day!
Water-Resistant Protective Gear for Electronics
With waterfalls, lakes, rivers and the ocean, you’re bound to end up in the water at some point in NorCal — even if it’s getting caught in the rain. There’s so many fun spots to take photos and break out your GoPro, or even snap pictures underwater with a durable waterproof phone case; no matter your device of choice, bring water-protective gear to keep your electronics safe.
While my beloved home state lush with greenery is a sight to behold in spring and summer months, pesky mosquitos also come with the territory.
While repellent containing deet has consistently been proven to be the most effective at keeping these guys away, I’ve also had some luck with Avon Skin So Soft products (the bubble bath smells amazing!). While they weren’t originally intended for the purposes of keeping bugs away, many people have found them to be a great, more natural-smelling alternative to harsh and sticky bug sprays!
When it comes to your actual articles of clothing, pack minimalist items that can be worn in a variety of settings — think plain or striped t-shirts, simple dark jeans or flowy pants, a comfortable pair of sandals or flats.
These are “convertible” items that can serve multiple purposes and can be worn to breakfast or dinner, shopping, around the park, or to the beach. Because the various regions of Northern California offer different attractions, the idea is to have multiple outfits that can be mixed and matched while also appropriate for anything you may end up doing on a given day — planned or not!
Getting to spend all your time outdoors is an obvious draw for this region, so whether you’re headed to the beach or the redwoods, bring along a compact towel or two. Impromptu picnics and quick dips in the lake occur often enough that I can guarantee a large (but thin) beach towel will come handy.
I’d recommend your towel be accompanied by a swimsuit, but to each his own!
Large Purse or Backpack
I’ve found I can’t carry anything smaller than a big hobo-style bag/purse, given my various daily necessities — including nothing short of sunscreen, moisturizer, lip balm, hair ties, wallet, phone, reading glasses, sunglasses and often a granola bar or water bottle.
If you’re visiting from out of the area, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to take home handcrafted goods from the many talented local artists too. Not a purse-person? You won’t be out of place wearing a backpack.
I also tie a scarf to the handle of my bag — for practical purposes that also serves as a fashionable accessory — which you could do with a backpack as well.
Additional Packing Tips for California
Buy a AAA membership
If Northern California is your chosen travel destination, you’ll probably be exploring via car as public transportation is sparse and Uber/Lyft is only popular in actual cities. Not only is a AAA membership a great value if you run out of gas, pop a tire or lock the keys in the car, but it’ll also provide significant discounts on a ton of hotels and attractions too. The insurance alone is a great bang for your buck.
Consider where in the region you’ll be traveling
Packing for Yosemite or Lake Tahoe will obviously differ significantly from packing for the city or the coasts. The tips above are useful for any of these locations, though if you’re only visiting one particular spot you may want to consider adjusting your packing list.
Campsites can get crowded and noisy, especially during the summer; bring earplugs. Whale-watching is a popular day activity in Monterey and Santa Cruz, but it can get very cold so bring a heavy insulated and waterproof jacket!
The Bay Area, the foothills west of Tahoe, and waterfall region north of Redding and Chico are an awesome spots for gorgeous hikes, but can get exceptionally hot — and lack nearby places to get water, especially the latter. Be sure to carry a reusable water bottle!
This is not an exhaustive list, but the point here is that weather, altitude and activity type are varied and may require packing a few unique items!