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How to Pack for a Trip to California

How to Pack for a Trip to California
The lowdown on what to bring with you—and what to leave at home

California attracts more than 250 million tourists each year, many of whom are eager to swim, ski, hike, and of course, sample local wines. Others map out memorable road trips that lead them from ocean breezes in the morning to snowy trails by nightfall. “California is such a varied state, with many different climates,” says Los Angeles stylist Morgan Simonds of Better Off Dressed, “so it’s important to pack one key item to address each: everything from a fleece to a bikini, hiking shoes to stilettos.”

Whether you’re visiting from Florida or France, you’ll want to be strategic about what you bring with you. “As a New Yorker who visits California four times a year, I am always struck by how unexpectedly cold I get,” says Lori Bergamotto, Style Director for Good Housekeeping. “I learned quickly that layering is the only solution if you desire comfort at any temperature. Denim jackets, lightweight knit cardigans, capes, ponchos—even a swingy trench—can all be dressed up or dressed down and will prepare you for whatever the weather may be.”

Of course, no one wants to traverse the state weighed down by gigantic suitcases. The trick is to pack smart—whether you’re visiting a big city or tasting Pinots—and to wear more than one layer when you travel. Before you pack your bags, review our recommendations below.

Channel California cool 

“You often hear that California style is laid-back,’” says Bay Area blogger Stephanie Nguyen of Sunkissed Steph, “and that's because it’s true! 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.” Plus, California style is highly individual. “You can totally wear a blazer and jeans here,” says Simonds, “but we would pair it with a rocker tee and a cool pair of sneakers to give the look more of an edge.”

Pick versatile pieces 

“Stick with neutral colors—a white tee, or a white button-down shirt if you need to look polished, along with dark denim jeans, black or navy pants, etc.,” says Bergamotto. “You can get so much more mileage out of simple styles. That said, know your agenda,” she advises. “Let your itinerary determine if you go more practical and polished, or more bohemian and beachy.”

If setting sail in San Diego, you’ll want a scarf for when the wind picks up. When visiting a vineyard in Napa Valley or Santa Ynez Valley, be sure to pack a pair of dark-colored flats that can absorb spills and grass stains. Headed to the desert? Pack tank tops and plenty of sunscreen. In San Francisco, where rain is more frequent, an umbrella is a good idea. And if you’re going out to nice dinners in L.A., take a neutral pair of wedges you can wear again and again.

Bergamotto considers the slip dress “a traveler's best companion,” saying, “Wear it alone with sandals for a sweltering day; throw a white tee under it—or a cropped top over it—with a pair of sneakers if the temps are in the low 70s; add a denim jacket to that if the temps dip into the 60s, and for cool nights add an oversize cardigan or cape with a heeled bootie.” 

Streamline your accessories 

In terms of accessories, don’t forget essentials, like a hat and sunglasses, but try to simplify what you bring on the jewelry front. Basic studs and a stack of bracelets that can be worn day in and day out without standing out too much are ideal. “For a little sparkle, layer a colorful jeweled necklace with a charm necklace,” suggest Simonds. 

You’ll want a versatile handbag that can fit boarding passes, lip balm, and more, without putting stress on your shoulders. Both Cuyana and Everlane are San Francisco–based brands with beautiful bags that fit the bill.

For something kid-friendly, consider a classic coat tote from L.L. Bean, which can handle everything from sand toys to diapers. Bergamotto is also a firm believer in large Ziploc bags because you can see the contents while keeping things separated. “If there is a spill, such as toothpaste, sunscreen, or hand sanitizer, it will be contained,” she explains.

Don't forget your feet

Streamlining your shoes can be tricky, especially if you have a formal event, such as a wedding, in your travel plans. If that’s the case, plan to repeat the same pair of heels at the rehearsal dinner and ceremony, and then bring one (or two) other adaptable styles that can go from day to night. “The most transitional shoe in California is a flat lace-up sandal,” says Simonds. “It can get you from the beach to a fun brunch, to a casual dinner with ease.”

A functional but cool pair of sneakers or espadrilles works well while shopping, museum hopping, or taking in a ball game. If you’re planning to swim, you’ll want a water-resistant flip-flop or sandal; if you’re hiking, a sneaker or boot; and if you’re skiing, wear a warm, closed-toe style while traveling, then rent boots when you get to the mountains. Even the most basic packages include skis, poles, and boots.

Consider the kids

Versatility is just as important when packing for your children. Select items that they can wear more than once, such as shorts, pants, and leggings in colors that work with multiple tops, since shirts are harder to repeat. (Ice-cream stains, anyone?)

In terms of their footwear, try to keep it simple. “With our kids, we opt for sneakers for both, plus one actual shoe, like Mary Janes or flats for our daughter,” says Bergamotto. “If we know we’ll be spending lots of time at the beach, then skip the ‘shoe’ and opt for water shoes, which also double nicely as casual stroll-around-town shoes.”

Shop when you arrive

Lastly, if your suitcases are nearly impossible to zip, think about what you can buy once you reach your destination—and use up before you head home—such as sunscreen, snacks, and wipes. Also consider what kinds of things you’re likely to pick up along the way, such as a sweatshirt or hat, so that you don’t end up with duplicates. Got all that? Alright. Ready, set, pack!

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